Sunday, March 22, 2009

People of The Grain

I love film grain. I love its naked, organic architecture.

To me, seeing grain is like seeing the cells of your lover's body. It shimmers. It pulses. It's alive!

As you can see in these images from Adrian Lyne's Lolita ('97), a magnificent film I like much more than Kubrick's stab at Vladimir Nabokov's novel, grain can create a brittle, aching timelessness to a an image; and a penetrating, almost painterly reality.

Grain is honest. Grain possesses a truth.

Does that explain the current movement against it?

I am confounded by many reviewers of movies on DVD who pepper their critiques with bizarre statements such as "Grain is noticeable", "There is some grain", and "Grain levels are acceptable".

"Some grain"? "Grain levels are acceptable"?

Excuse me, but grain is part and parcel of the film's emotional conveyor belt. It is the film's texture. Texture is a crucial component of the work.

In painted art, texture is achieved with the paint, the brush, the amounts of paint applied to the canvas, and the "finish" the painter chooses. The painting may be impressionistic rather than naturalistic, or it may be photo-realistic.

The artist makes choices. The result of those individual choices is what makes up the character of the piece.

The mental process of shooting on film is no different. The choice of film stock is not just a technical one; it is an artistic one. Stock makes a statement. It communicates an emotion.

DVD reviewers who are bothered by grain, and insist that it be expunged from the work, are ignorant. They are also dangerous. They are a special interest group petitioning for a cinema in which everything looks the same, and they won't be satisfied until it does.

These blockheads are part of a pathetic, wrong-headed movement that equates gloss (no grain) with acceptability and professionalism. The image is acceptable only if grain is not apparent. The image is acceptable if the look of the film is brought into line with the look of today's average studio picture, despite the fact that the film may have been filmed ten or fifty years ago.

It's gross revisionism, and it stinks.

What's behind the dislike of grain is the same thought cancer that's behind genre movie trailers. I call it Universal Templating. Take a million different horror movies and jam them into the template. Bingo! You have polished, suspicious smelling shit with an identical structure. Even if the movie has unique merits, you will not see them in the trailer.

This is a disease that has infected studio-produced movies. Although these expensive motion pictures are shot by different cinematographers, incredibly talented cinematographers, they all possess the same generic studio gloss. No grain. No evidence of an organic process. No damn truth.

Network TV is worse. With exceptions such as The Shield (which is cable, actually)... is a medium that is terrified of grain, fearful of looking different, shaking in its boots when it comes to the "final look".

It has embraced wobbly, unjustified camera movement, of course, because everybody's doing it.

But to assuage its fear of alienating Joe Below Average, who wouldn't know his ass from a hole in the ground, let alone film grain from a wet pixel, it has managed to narrow his concept of entertainment imagery.

Fear of anything closes the door on opportunity. It rationalizes limitations. Stomps on possibilities. It argues for rules. It resents alternatives because it finds comfort in its own closed world.

Hollywood imagery has become the monster child of this fear.

The look of Hollywood movies is being redrawn. It is ironic that with such amazing technology in hand, it is being used to homogenize appearances.

Instead of accepting grain as a natural part of a film's make-up, reviewers are exhibiting serious grain aversion, a contagious disease that is like a scream insisting on being heard in a monastery.

Few artists employ grain as emotional provocateur as brilliantly (and professionally) as David Hamilton, the British photographer who is perhaps more well known for his nudes.

These exceptional images possess a verisimilitude that tattoos the psyche.

His color work appropriates the visual dynamics of oil painting with its use of exposure and grain.

French photographer Jean-Francois Jonvelle captures the timelessness of beauty in these images of women. The presence of grain lends the subjects a sense of fragility.

Grain is a crucial component of his work.

For the open-minded, it is never too late to get back to the grain of the matter.

In fact, this is one of precious few situations where not going against the grain may pay greater dividends.


  1. Hear fucking hear! I've seen some great films made over the past 10 years, the thing is most of them look so glossy, so samey--studio pics or not. Piss on the punters who equate "grainy" with "looks like shit." To me, this polished, professional aesthetic seems soulless.

  2. d -- So I'm not alone in my revulsion for this trend towards "polish", it seems.

    "soulless" is right!

  3. Holy SHIT some of those pictures are hot. (No offense, but the Asian chicks don't do it for me.)

    I'm with you on the grain thing. I never want anyone teling me what to do.


  4. Jared -- Jonvelle's work is excellent. David Hamilton's collections are well worth tracking down.

    No offence taken on your not being into Asian chicks. I'm not a chubby chaser, but I respect any man's path to heaven.

  5. I don't like fat chicks either. I guess I'm just more into white girls.


  6. Easy fellahs! A little white supremacy goes a long way, even in the land of pulp!

    I never met a girl I didn't dig in some way, regardless of race, colour, creed or slip size! Although I violently disapprove of the misigynistic, borderline psychotic religious rationale behind it, I even dig the ones in the 'birkas' (did I spell that right?) Because, like the old thing about 'is 'anything worn under the kilt', it arouses my desire to see/know more!

    Speaking of Scottish, and back on 'grain', I refer to one of my faves- "Local Hero"- which I probably wouldn't watch without the grain. Hell, Scotland is a grainy place!

    Same goes for "Atlantic City". And what would "Pretty Baby" be without the grain?? Just another film. Or any Malle film, for that matter?

    "McCabe and Mrs Miller"?? Indeed, almost everything from my fave decade the 70's, which subsisted on a steady diet of grain- much like cattle, really. Grain is the staple diet of my 'sacred cows', let's just say.

    And the list goes on.

    Well done on another excellent blog, Phantom; the topics just keep getting better and better. Your blog is like a drug; like the substance I thought you were going to talk about when I read the topic heading- 'grain', I assumed you meant 'alcohol', and I was primed for an exploration of alcohol abuse in cinema!! Imagine my pleasant surprise, when I discovered the true substance of choice!

    Your blog is my substance of choice; I hop on the net for 'just an hour', I say, I'll leave the Phantom for a few days, and I won't comment this time, but then...

    Aah, 'the best laid plans'...

    I simply can't resist.

    Thank you thank you thank you Phantom!

    The new guard will never know the trials we had to face as young arthurians seeking the holy grail of our passions, when they can access your site- which has done all the legwork for them- with the push of a button!

    Equal parts 'anguish' and 'joy' I guess; just like life...

  7. I love Taxi Driver because of the grain.

    I have trouble with later Scorsese because of the polished and slick look.

    The best Scorsese is the grainy Scorsese.