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Traditions

Jason Gurley
Jason Gurley
2 min read

Paul Thomas Anderson is possibly my favorite filmmaker. I saw Boogie Nights when I was in college, then Magnolia a couple of years later, and then backtracked to catch Sydney/Hard Eight. But while I love those early movies, the ones that mean the most to me have come much later in his career: The Master, There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread.  

That's a still from Anderson's Phantom Thread, a dark and lovely movie about perfection and possession. In the movie, we follow a fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock as he simultaneously creates excruciatingly perfect dresses for wealthy London women and falls in love with Alma, a distinctly non-wealthy waitress.

The scene above takes place in Woodcock's workshop, as he takes Alma's measurements. Alma stands, rather exposed, in the middle of the room while Woodcock buzzes around her with a measuring tape. As he moves, he calls out numbers to Cyril, who sits quite businesslike in a chair across the room. The operation is a machine that does not care who Alma is, something which she seems to notice.

Cyril jots down measurements as Woodcock rattles them off. Her pencil, with the lightest touch, creates rich, dark lines. (The sound effect of her writing sounds much more severe to my ears, but then, I know that's likely the product of the Foley artists, not the actor's own writing.) When Felicia and I first saw this movie, I was thoroughly distracted by this moment; I turned to her and gasped about how marvelous that pencil was. I did not realize it at the time, but my pencil obsession of the last few years had sparked.

Felicia did some research, and concluded that the pencil used in the scene was probably a Staedtler Tradition. She ordered me an artist's set of contemporary Traditions—they're still made!—with ten or twelve different grades, and I was off to the races. Since then, of course, I have collected all sorts of pencils from many eras.

Here are two Traditions that I have in my collection:

The modern one is capped, while the older one, from around the era in which Phantom Thread is set, has none. The older pencil's typefaces are more evocative and interesting; its reds are a little dulled; its lacquer is a bit thinner. The vintage Tradition I have is a harder graphite than the one in the movie by many degrees, but it is still quite a pleasure to write with.  

The bookshelves in my office now are heavily populated with jars and cups, all filled with pencils. Vintage ones, modern ones, eraser-tipped ones, eraserless ones, ones with firm graphite, others with soft. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. All because of three seconds of film in a movie.

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