This week in 70-millimeter: Sweating the small stuff

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Crepe, silk, cotton, and a couple of actors in West Side Story.
  • Crepe, silk, cotton, and a couple of actors in West Side Story.
Though it was surely designed with the purpose of capturing landscapes and towering sets, I'm most impressed with 70-millimeter film when it's used to magnify the very small. Some of my favorite images of the Music Box Theatre's 70-millimeter festival (which continues through Thursday) have been close-ups or medium shots of relatively banal textures: the unmatted split ends of Dick Van Dyke's hair in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; grains of sand in The Master; chipped paint on brick walls in West Side Story, as well as the hanging fabrics in the dress shop of that film; bone, rock, and fur in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The high-resolution film renders these things with such specificity that even minute details appear to have been prearranged. Nothing seems like the product of chance.

Of all the films playing in the festival, only The Master, 2001, and Playtime consciously exploit this metaphysical aspect of the format. Each one ponders whether everything may reflect some mysterious cosmic order, and the question so reverberates in each image that it doesn't need to be stated in the dialogue. Paul Thomas Anderson's film complicates this metaphysical style by employing it ironically: the title character is a phony mystic, and the filmmaking brings a genuine grandeur to his smoke-and-mirrors operation. (This is similar to how Anderson's Boogie Nights recreated the bravura filmmaking of classics like Nashville and Raging Bull to depict inept filmmakers with delusions of grandeur.) Or is the awesome scale of the 70-millimeter image invulnerable to irony? This might account for the slipperiness of Anderson's design and why audiences seem unsure of when to laugh at the film. Seeing how The Master prompts such uncertainty and second-guessing in audiences, it's no wonder that it was neglected by the Oscars, which tend to reward more straightforward filmmaking.

If you watch any movie enough times, seemingly random details take on a deliberate quality, suggesting the immaculate design of a godhead rather than an artist. Anyway, that's the vibe I get from superfans of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones series who claim to have seen their favorite movies dozens, if not hundreds of times, and refer to specificities of the filmmaking as though quoting scripture. I've never burrowed inside a movie so obsessively; my cinephilia is too polyamorous. A great film makes me want to discover more great films, and I grow restless if I spend too much time with the same one. I'd hate to stop being surprised by a work of art I truly admired; I'm afraid it would seem drained of its vitality and I'd lose sight of what drew me to it in the first place. (Mission of Burma has described this disappointment in just seven words: "All the mystery is taken as fact.")

After seeing The Master for a fourth time at the Music Box on Friday, I passed up an invitation to see it yet again on Saturday. I don't know when I'll get another chance to see the film on 70-millimeter; I was tempted to hoard as many of these rare experiences as I could in hopes that they'd occupy a larger plot of my memory. But when I felt myself anticipating some of Anderson's sneaky camera movements or certain lines of dialogue, I sensed the film and I needed time apart. How special it will be when someone revives The Master several years from now and I can go into it refreshed.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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