August 17, 2012

The Master, and 70mm.

Last night I had the chance to see Paul Thomas Anderson's newest, THE MASTER, several months ahead of it's scheduled release. It was presented by The Music Box in Chicago from a 70mm film print, all as a charitable benefit for The Film Foundation.

First, the print: It was beyond gorgeous. I've not seen anything like it before, and that saddens me, because it made me want to see everything in 70mm. Unlike IMAX, 3D, and possibly even the new 48 FPS technology (all of which are turning film exhibition into a bit of an arms race), this "enhancement" over standard 35mm or digital projection was subtle enough to help the visual language of the story without reading like a gimmick. It added clarity, texture, and detail to every composition, and this film warranted the added scrutiny.

It's really a damn shame that the Music Box is one of the few places in the country capable of showing this film, or any film for that matter, in 70mm. In the short term, there's potential for a followup screening this coming winter in Chicago, but I don't know where the issue goes from here. I typically embrace a forward-facing, march-of-progress kind of attitude about film as a medium, but I have to admit this screening converted me. Color me a preservationist, after all. I've just never seen something digital, not even in a 4k color correction suite, match what I saw in that theatre. Not by a long shot.

Second, the film: It was really quite special, and I loved it. There, I'm glad I got that out of the way.

But really: THE MASTER is a hugely ambitious, emotional inquisition. Anderson's choice to use a post-war America (coupled with a quasi-Scientology-based religion) as a backdrop is incredibly effective. I loved the questions it raised (motherhood, authority, self control, religion, sexuality....lots of heady subjects), and I loved that for every scene spent revealing something new about the characters, it managed to raise even more questions about who they are and where they were going. It felt larger-than-life, but in a way that was very true to life.

I suspect audiences will be turned off by a number of things, not the least of which is the episodic nature of the plot. It's more of a journey through time, as opposed to the more traditional, Joseph Campbell-style "hero's quest." I can't see how the film would work any other way, though. As strange as it sounds: I wouldn't trade the confusion I felt at the end of this film for anything.

Also, the characters are exceptionally intense, for lack of a better word, in a manner that should be familiar to anyone that's already seen THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Having said that, the film is also hilarious. While these characters do feel like real people, they yell, lie, scheme, and make mistakes at a rapid clip.

There's a pervading sense of violence and animalistic sexuality that travels wherever Freddie Sutton (Joaquin Phoenix) goes, and watching Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) try to understand and contain him is just utterly fascinating.

Finally,  I don't think the impact of this film will be encapsulated by a Rotten Tomatoe's score, a weekend box office draw, or a batch of Academy nominations. There's something timeless and powerful at work in THE MASTER, and while it doesn't have a signature "I Drink Your Milkshake!" scene, I think it'll manage to get under a lot of our skins in the long run.

I hope it does, anyway. It certainly got under mine.

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