Have you ever really thought about film grain? The alleged superiority of photochemical film was a huge topic of discussion throughout my undergrad film degree, as it was and is gradually being phased out in favor of digital. This is true across all forms of photography. My school was lucky enough to have a working darkroom that gave me the experience of working with photochemical film and working in there until all hours of the night is something I wouldn’t want to forget.
I bring this up because in his most recent video, Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, goes into depth on the aesthetic and look of film grain as it is used in Mandy (2018).
Puschak offers arguments from both himself and Panos Cosmatos, director of Mandy, in quantifying and qualifying his argument for what makes a “film grain aesthetic,” but the thing that sticks with me the most is the following quote from Cosmatos:
“In the present, time has no meaning anymore. And so, I feel like now choosing an era for your film is almost like choosing a color.”
Pretty cynical, but it’s kind of a postmodern sentiment about film that makes a lot of sense to me. It’s classic Baudrillard; The cinema has become a simulation of itself, so much so that even the medium has been removed from the equation.
Like the smell of books, another ephemeral quality that Puschak notes in the opening seconds of his video, film grain is half of a duality that didn’t exist for most of cinema’s history. The idea of experimenting with the look of the grain itself, which Puschak advocates, is something that you couldn’t even do before digital. As such, I don’t think you can make the argument from this video that physical film is somehow superior. In fact, the video seems to promote the opposite. You can’t really control the grain in physical film when you’re developing it. You can get experimental with the medium, sure; scratch animation, drawn directly on film stock, exists based on this premise. But experimenting with the look in the way Cosmatos does is a lot closer to simulacrum than the simulated.
And I want to note that this is not necessarily a bad thing. While I acknowledge the faults of digital and the value of film preservation, I’m still very much a proponent of digital. The deadness of a solid 4K image can have just as much of a story effect as the ephemeral, constant movement of film grain in Mandy. Ultimately, digital can achieve everything photochemical film can faster and cheaper. Puschak’s right about experimentation with this element of the medium, but the reason that experimentation is possible is that there is an alternative. If your film can benefit from the “living aesthetic” of film grain, by all means, shoot on photochemical and experiment away. But if you’re just doing it because you’re a hipster or want to emulate Tarantino, remember that every take you mess up is 35mm that you paid for and can’t use in your final cut.