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The Holy Grain

New home video technology provides film-like experience--including the flaws.

12:00 AM, Jan 29, 2010 • By SONNY BUNCH
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It’s likely that those of you lucky enough to receive a high definition television or Blu-ray player for Christmas – or happened to pick one up in the after-Christmas sales – have spent much of your time viewing modern releases in all their glory. Don’t get me wrong, the Blu-ray versions of Star TrekThe Dark Knight, and Iron Man can’t be topped for their sheen, shine, and digitally enhanced special effects.

The Holy Grain

But if you’re looking for a different filmic experience, one steeped in the history of the cinema, mosey over to the Criterion Collection and check out their Blu-ray releases of classic films. From classics out of the French cinema like The 400 Blows or Wages of Fear to Carol Reed’s noir The Third Man to the Maysles brothers concert film Gimme Shelter to Nicolas Roeg’s off-the-wall David Bowie vehicle, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Criterion has taken full advantage of the new medium to create an art house cinema effect right in your own home.

You can also weigh in on a debate raging in the cinephile portion of the blogosphere over the future of film grain. For the uninitiated, film grain is the visual texture of a film after it has been processed; the tiny imperfections are literally part of the film stock.

Due to the incredibly intricate way the Criterion Collection handles its digital transfers – first running the cleanest prints of the film they can find through the most high-tech digital film reader that exists, then cleaning those digital prints up frame by frame to remove smudges, dirt, and pops in the soundtrack – the audiovisual quality of their Blu-ray discs can’t be beat. An interesting wrinkle has arisen over the last year, however: When is perfect too perfect?

Consider the complaints of one Jeffrey Wells, the proprietor of Hollywood Elsewhere. Upon receiving his copy of The Third Man, Wells was almost livid. “It's fine by regular DVD standards,” he wrote, “but my God...the grain! A sandstorm! Grain purists are like mad monks living in a secluded abbey in the French mountains.” He would go on to coin the term “grainstorm” to denote any transfer that allowed what he deemed as too much grain to remain.

Lee Kline, the technical director of Criterion, countered that reducing the grain – which is feasible through digital manipulation of the prints – softens the image, rendering it almost static. He and others, like Glenn Kenny, the proprietor of the blog Some Came Running, contend that the tradeoff is too great.

For my part, I fall somewhere between the two camps. What’s the point of purchasing an HDTV and a Blu-ray player if the studio is just going to soften the image in order to tone down the grain? Isn’t part of the attraction of these setups being able to see a film in the most filmic way possible?

Still, it makes little sense to sentimentalize those tiny little imperfections just because it reminds of us sitting in an art house. Omnipresent grain was not an effect that many of these directors intended; indeed, as the director of Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles, told me last year, he has asked Criterion to “tune down” the grain on that feature as well as Salesman. And as Martin Scorsese recently noted, “I think in certain films in certain sections, [filmmakers] would've liked it better if the grain was less … They had to settle. And I think to a certain extent, they would've liked it cleaner.”

You can judge for yourself by picking up any of the titles above and throwing them into your Blu-ray player. Are you put off by the grain in The Third Man, or do you feel as though you’ve been magically transported to a long-gone art house? Does the introduction of color into the equation in The Man Who Fell to Earth mitigate some of the problems presented by monochromatic grain in black and white features like The 400 Blows?

When do you think perfect is too perfect? 

Sonny Bunch blogs about politics and culture at Conventional Folly.

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