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Size matters to P.T. Anderson, Christopher Nolan: Howell


Dark Knight IMAX

Julio Cortez/AP The Dark Knight Rises was largely shot with IMAX film, projected on a massive screen.

To read some of the early reviews for The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s TIFF-bound film of primal emotions, you’d almost think a love affair had erupted.

The most ardent raves aren’t necessarily for Anderson, although he has his legions of admirers, or for his epic film, which stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in roles that reportedly beckon awards attention.

The valentines are for Anderson’s provocative use of honest-to-gosh celluloid film, blown up to 70mm frame size instead of the standard 35mm.

“The effect is cumulative, and ultimately shattering,” writes Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director, in the festival’s program book. (The Master is scheduled to make its official North American debut at the fest, Sept. 7 at Toronto’s Princess of Wales theatre.)

Michael Phillips, movie critic for the Chicago Tribune, caught a sneak preview of The Master last week, and wrote that the 70mm film experience was better than “the latest in digital filmmaking or digital projection or digital anything. This was celluloid, the good old stuff.”

These reactions are typical, recalling the affection rock fans hold for the warmer sound of vinyl LPs over digital CDs. But the mad love just seems to have come out of the blue.

Anderson is choosing 70mm and celluloid at a time when the movie industry is going the other way, shooting and exhibiting digitally and showing films on screens that run as small as iPhones. Celluloid is expected to vanish from North American multiplexes as early as next year, making old-style film extinct for all but the most ardent of cinephiles and specialty theatres like Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Whether intended or not, California’s Anderson is helping to lead the charge back to embrace film, and in as big a format as possible. He has an ally in Britain’s Christopher Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight Rises, who shot nearly half of his new Batman movie on IMAX film, a variant of 70mm.

Is it genuine affection by Anderson for a fading medium, or a raised digit towards the digital revolution?

It’s probably a bit of both — Anderson hasn’t really said — but affection would seem the more likely motivator. Anderson loves the visual freedoms of cinema, and he’s an unabashed enthusiast for such big-screen visionaries as Terrence Malick and the late Stanley Kubrick.

“Paul is one of the last directors still shooting on film,” says Cory Everett, who along with friend C.J. Wallis runs an authoritative Anderson fan blog called Cigarettes & Red Vines.

“He loves film, he’s passionate about it and he doesn’t appear willing to sacrifice the quality of the image for the convenience of shooting digitally. And there is no better quality filmed image than 70mm. It’s truly breathtaking and that has nothing to do with the size of the screen. The image is just noticeably sharper than 35mm.”

Jesse Wente, the head of film programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox, thinks the 70mm revival is part of an effort by filmmakers, studios and exhibitors to keep the theatrical experience special.

“I think it’s much in the same way as we’ve seen a revived interest in 3D, although on a somewhat lesser scale,” Wente says.

“There’s such pressure on the theatrical experience, the in-cinema experience, just from all the different formats that are out there. One way to distinguish it is to have a format that cannot be replicated on any other medium. And one cannot have 70mm at home.”

The Lightbox has been able to surf the wave, since it is equipped to handle almost any movie format in existence, including 70mm. Since the Lightbox opened in the fall of 2010, programmers have found strong audience appeal for 70mm presentations of such classics as Kubrick’s Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Jacques Tati’s Playtime. The Lightbox will finish its summer season with 70mm screenings Aug. 31-Sept. 2 of Playtime. The fall will bring 70mm screenings of Ron Fricke’s visual voyage Samsara at the venue, planned for October.

Toronto is becoming a stronghold of 70mm cinema, Wente says, both by accident and design. The old York Cinemas on Eglinton Ave. used to feature many 70mm screenings, and the prints ended up in the hands of TIFF.

“Many of those prints stuck around, and all of them are in surprisingly good shape. So when we did Spartacus, that was the same print that closed the York Cinemas back then. Because we have a real theatrical 70mm venue, it has helped sustain 70mm as a practical current theatrical medium.”

There’s real demand out there for a 70mm film, and a growing belief that large-format celluloid is superior to large-format digital productions, even digital projections shown on giant IMAX screens or in 3D.

There’s also a sense with 70mm of continuing a big-screen tradition that actually dates back to early experiments in the 1890s, the dawn of film.

“People want to see it and I love programming it,” Wente said.

“We try to do it a couple times a year. Because of the technical requirements it takes some planning, and you always want to pick the right movie. There are only so many of them out there, and maybe that’s part of the attraction.”

A 70mm primer on Cigarettes & Red Vines notes that the last feature film to be shot entirely on 70mm celluloid, prior to The Master, was Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996.

That’s 16 years ago. It’s hard to say whether any movies will be shot in 70mm 16 years from now, or even if celluloid motion pictures will still exist outside of museums or a handful of arthouses.

The future will bring what it does, as it always does. But for the moment, movie lovers are reveling big-time in connecting with the past.

Follow on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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