“Why the resistance? This industry is going to be turned upside down soon enough.” — Floyd Gondolli
“I’m a filmmaker. That’s why I’ll never make a movie on videotape.” — Jack Horner
Most of the pre-release buzz around Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “The Master” has focused on the director’s decision to shoot it in 70mm, the nearly extinct widescreen celluloid format that gives you larger, higher resolution images than standard 35mm film stock. I’ve seen Anderson talk about that choice in interviews, like this lengthy one by Scott Foundas in The Village Voice, but never so eloquently or as effectively as he did in a movie he made fifteen years ago.
That movie is “Boogie Nights,” Anderson’s ode to the glory days of the pornography business. In the film, Anderson attributes porn’s slow downward spiral into misogyny and mediocrity to the introduction of videotape, the less expensive and, more importantly, less expressive medium that came to dominate the industry in the 1980s. In doing so, Anderson essentially makes the case not just for film in porno, but in all of cinema — predicting our modern film versus digital debate and foreshadowing his own determination to make “The Master” in 70mm while the rest of the film industry converts to digital.
The key scene comes, ominously, on the last night of the 1970s, at a New Year’s Eve party thrown by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). Jack isn’t just a smut peddler — he’s an artist, at least in his own mind. His goal is to make pornography with such fully realized stories and characters that audiences care more about them than the sex scenes. At a coffee shop in Southern California, Jack explains his ambitions to the newest, um, member of his repertory company, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). “It is my dream,” he tells Eddie, “to make a film that the story just sucks ’em in. And when they spurt out that joy juice they just gotta set in it. They can’t move until they find out how the story ends. I want to make a film like that.”
With Eddie’s help — and the help of Eddie’s enormous wang — Jack does. Together, they develop a series of action pornos about a cop named Brock Landers. Editing the first film in the series, “Angels Live in My Town,” Jack gazes at his Moviola and proudly declares “This is the best work we’ve ever done.” “It’s a real film, Jack,” his editor (Ricky Jay), replies. Not a movie. A film.
The “Brock Landers” series is a success, for a while. Then comes the fateful New Year’s party when Jack is visited by his financier, The Colonel (Robert Ridgely), and a new potential investor named Floyd Gondolli (Phillip Baker Hall). Gondolli comes with a proposition about “the future.” Here is the scene which, I will warn you, has some NSFW language.
In his DVD commentary for this sequence, Anderson discusses what he calls the “romantic notions” driving its film versus digital debate:
“There’s a major difference and first and foremost it’s a technical difference. When you’re shooting on film it’s more expensive. You really have to concentrate, you have to focus, you have to think ‘Okay: where am I going to put the camera to tell this story well?’…When video came along, it ruined that. It created this assembly line mentality… not to mention that if you’re a director you’re making your movie for an audience, and the market is what? The market is a VCR. The market is a guy at home who has a fast-forward button. You do not have time for a plot, he has a fast-forward button. It just stripped away any version of diginty that might have been in the business.”
So it’s a romantic notion, but it’s also a practical one. Here Anderson tells you why film — actual film — is good for all directors, not just pornographers. The freedom of digital moviemaking has been a boon to the world of cinema but, as the old expression goes, freedom isn’t free. Sometimes the throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mentality yields good results. Many times, it doesn’t. Anderson would counterintuitively argue that the difficulties celluloid presents logistically and financially are its greatest strengths. Those are the things that separate the amateur from the professional.
Anderson’s DVD commentary also reveals another benefit of 70mm in a digital age: if you make something on film, and you try your hardest to project it on film, that becomes your audience. Otherwise, what’s your market? The market is a DVD or Blu-ray player. The market is a computer stream that can be fast-forwarded or, even worse, paused at will. For some directors, that’s fine. But for Anderson, who works on grand scale with heady themes and big ideas, the theater is where he needs to be. He wants to take that fast-forward button — or that iPhone email app — out of the equation. He wants to have time for a plot. He wants to keep the dignity in the business.
Which is why “The Master” is Anderson’s Jack Horner moment, sticking it to Floyd Gondolli and all the money men of the world who care more about profit margins than the art up on the screen. Gondolli warns Jack he’s “holding on too tight.” “It doesn’t have to look good.” he insists. 70mm is Anderson’s forceful statement that it does.
For a current list of “The Master”‘s 70mm playdates, go to Cigarettes & Red Vines.