by Drew Hunt
Last night, Paul Thomas Anderson's new film The Master screened before a packed house at the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview. Although the film is highly anticipated and has yet to have its proper theatrical release, last night's screening was no mere "sneak preview." In fact, it was a rare opportunity—likely the only one Chicagoans will have had for a while—to see the film as it was meant to be seen: on 70-millimeter film stock, presented on a massive screen.
How did this happen? It all started with a blog post by Time Out Chicago film critic Ben Kenigsberg, who was curious as to whether The Master, which Anderson shot using 65-millimeter film, would screen as such when it was released in theaters this September. (If you're wondering where the extra five millimeters went, 65-millimeter film stock requires an additional five millimeters of magnetic stripping to hold four of the film's six audio tracks, thus bumping it up to 70-millimeter). After some research, he learned that the Music Box, one of Chicago's most popular art-house theaters, had a projector that was capable of running 70-millimeter and was more than willing to screen the film in this format. To make a long story short, one thing led to another and the Music Box, with the help of the Film Foundation (more on them later), was able to procure a 70-millimeter print of the film.
I won't go into the nuts and bolts of the film itself, since J.R. Jones has covered that in his blog post. Rather, I'd like to express my gratitude and admiration for Kenigsberg, the Music Box, and the Film Foundation for making last night possible. As film manufacturers like Kodak switch their focus to digital photography and theaters across the country convert to digital-only projectors, opportunities to see a film, in the literal sense of the word, are dwindling by the day. This transition has been heralded as a miraculous step forward for cinema, but any cinephile worth his or her salt knows that there's no substitute for celluloid. Digital methods of production and projection may ultimately prove less cumbersome than those of film, but as for the quality of the image, film will always be the best option.
Proof of this was spilled all over the Music Box's 35-foot screen last night: every detail of the image was stark, vivid, and even lifelike. If films are meant to provide gateways to other worlds, then the cinematic world of The Master was more tangible than anything I've ever seen projected in digital format. As Music Box general manager Dave Jennings noted when he introduced the film, "If you can't see a difference [in 70-millimeter], you're not looking at the screen."
Considering the chances of seeing The Master in 70-millimeter again are slim to none—Jennings did mention that the Music Box is hoping to bring it back for a proper theatrical run, but as of now nothing is confirmed—last night's screening was nothing short of monumental, a testament to those who still value celluloid and are striving to maintain its relevance.
That's where the Film Foundation comes into play: director Martin Scorsese started the nonprofit organization in 1990 as a means to conserve and restore classic films. Since its inception, the Film Foundation has preserved—and in some cases outright saved—important work from the likes of Hollis Frampton, Max Ophuls, Orson Welles, and Satyajit Ray, to name a mere fraction of their accomplishments. The work they do is nothing short of vital, and all of last night's proceeds went directly to them.
Anderson himself sits on the Film Foundation's board of directors, which also includes such major directors as Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson. Their efforts last night made for one of the most important film events of the year—their efforts year-round ensure the preservation of an art.