- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

The high-definition era has seen some surprising quandaries. One of the most interesting, and a topic of some debate among movie bloggers, is what to do with film grain.

Film grain is the visible texture of film that remains after it has been processed; as film stock has evolved over the years, those natural imperfections have become less obtrusive. But with older films, the blemishes are far more pronounced. As resolutions on HDTVs continue to improve and grain in older movies becomes more visible, the question of what to do with it gets tricky.

“The first picture that really kind of kicked up debate was ‘Sunset Boulevard,’” says Glenn Kenny, a film writer and proprietor of the movie blog Some Came Running. “It was sort of given a look like it was polished to a very, very high sheen that many purists — or, as I like to call them, originalists — felt was really not representative of the way the film looked.”

That shinier look, however, was championed by others, including Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells. “His argument, more often than not, is that grain is not really an integral part of a film’s picture,” Mr. Kenny explains. “It was a necessary evil that filmmakers put up with, and if filmmakers could come back and have their films restored without grain, they’d do it in a minute.

Adds Mr. Kenny: “The debates get very lively. If you go over to Wells’ site, he gets very agitated over the Criterion Blu-ray of ‘The Third Man,’ and he coined the very clever phrase ‘grainstorm.’”

After seeing the cover for Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of “The Wages of Fear,” Mr. Wells wrote that “grain has been sentimentalized out of all proportion by the monks. And Criterion, to go by its ‘Third Man’ Blu-ray disc, is one of the monk institutions that worships grain as something that bestows authenticity upon classic film restorations.”

The Criterion Collection — a DVD distributor dedicated to classic and seldom-seen movies — certainly respects the role that grain plays in a film’s overall look. “When grain was there, we didn’t really remove it because it was part of the original film,” says Lee Kline, Criterion’s technical director. He means that literally: Grain resides within the film itself, and removing it electronically can soften the picture’s resolution.

Mr. Kline points to the recent Warner Bros. Blu-ray release of “Being There” as an example of a film that has been so scrubbed of grain that something got lost. “They had reduced the grain so much it’s just lifeless,” he says. “They tried to do some electronic noise reduction on the grain, which actually starts to calm things down. … You can do that, but you can’t push it too far, or else you start to get a static image.”

For his part, Mr. Kline says the vast majority of filmmakers with whom he has dealt have had no problem with maintaining a film’s natural graininess, and most have praised the filmic look of Criterion’s new Blu-ray collection. However, he also recognizes that this isn’t a debate likely to subside soon.

“As long as we keep talking about it and having this open discussion about it, people become more attuned to why it’s there,” Mr. Kline says.

Sonny Bunch

French connection

“I was not interested in just making a tribute,” Christophe Barratier says of his latest film, “Paris 36.”

The lively French period piece follows a down-on-its-luck music hall and the unlikely group of bumbling artists who try to resurrect it in 1936 Paris.

Mr. Barratier, whose 2004 film, “Les choristes,” was nominated for a best-foreign-film Oscar, says the project came about when composer Reinhardt Wagner brought him a “series of songs with the perfume of the ‘30s.”

“Movies of this period have been so powerful in the consciousness of the French,” he says on a recent visit to the District, citing the films of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne. “For me, it was a very good opportunity to revisit those magnificent sets, those visions, but with a modern way of filming.”

It also was a chance for Mr. Barratier to make another film about his first love, music. He studied classical guitar and singing at the Conservatoire de Paris before he finally decided, in his mid-20s, to get into the family business of film. (His mother is actress Eva Simonet, and his uncle is legendary actor Jacques Perrin.)

“I figured out that I was so attracted by the actors, the sets, the shooting, the cinema, that it was actually impossible for me to escape,” Mr. Barratier says.

He’s made his films a family affair, too. Mr. Perrin produced “Paris 36” and “Les choristes,” and Mr. Perrin’s young son Maxence plays important roles in both.

“Paris 36” is light in tone, but with a dark background.

“It was impossible to make a movie about the social background of the ‘30s without references to what was going on for the Jews at the time,” the director says. He was shocked to see how they were written about in daily newspapers — which, through everything from political stories to restaurant advertisements, taught him what Parisian daily life was like at the time.

The artists are so desperate to save their music hall partly because there’s nowhere else for them to work.

“That’s why I think the story is universal,” Mr. Barratier says. “There is one thing we share, everyone in the world, to have a steady job and to restore dignity.”

After that period of unemployment, though, things started to look sunny. “Suddenly, they elected a prime minister who represented a huge wave of hope because he set new laws for the workers to have two days of paid vacation, a revolution,” Mr. Barratier says. “Everyone thought it was blue sky. Then, ironically, was the war.”

Nora Arnezeder, who stars in “Paris 36” as a mysterious and beautiful young woman who just might be the theater’s savior, mostly listens quietly as the director discusses his film. She becomes more animated when talk turns to cinema in general.

Mr. Barratier talks about the working methods of Claude Chabrol, who has been shooting nearly a film a year since the late 1950s. “He says that a masterpiece is impossible, so let’s do films, films, films, and at the end, the whole thing will maybe be a work, a piece of art,” Mr. Barratier explains.

“He’s right,” Miss Arnezeder says decisively. She’s a fan of an American director who does the same thing — Woody Allen.

She notes that although he makes a lot of films, they’re always very good. In fact, this young actress says she’s already set her sights on working with him.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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