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How ‘Grey Gardens’ Was Restored to Its Squalid Glory (and Why You Need to See It)

How 'Grey Gardens' Was Restored to Its Squalid Glory (and Why You Need to See It)

It’s ironic that a documentary about faded glamour should be restored to its spiffy former self. But in honor of its upcoming 40th anniversary, the Maysles Brothers’ “Grey Gardens” has gotten a new 2K digital restoration courtesy of The Criterion Collection, in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

READ MORE: Why the History of 16mm Film Matters

The iconic film, which was released to mixed reviews in 1976, developed a cult following over the years. In verite style, the film casts a nonjudgmental eye on former socialites Big and Little Edie Beale, cousins of Jackie Kennedy, a reclusive mother and daughter living in a ramshackle old East Hampton, New York mansion amid raccoons, cats, fleas and other vermin.

But, the restored version maintains the original’s glorious grain and grime. “We didn’t remove any of the racoon stuff. We left the smells so you can still use your imagination as to what that home was like,” Lee Kline, the Technical Director at The Criterion Collection, told Indiewire.

Kline agreed that it’s “ironic that you would clean things up in a film like ‘Grey Gardens,'” but he said the film’s grainy 16mm look remains. “What’s nostalgic about the grain is that it lends itself to what that house is about, the grittiness of the house. When you have film grain, it adds an other-worldliness that  because it’s got a texture to it that video doesn’t necessarily have. It takes you into the film.”

The original 16 mm A/B camera negative, held in the Academy’s collections, was used to create two separate 2K scans, of the A and B rolls, on a Lasergraphics film scanner. 

Lee said the restoration, luckily, “wasn’t incredibly challenging” because the negative was in decent shape. The Academy of Motion Pictures Sciences had taken care of it over the years and cleaned it up so it was ready for a high quality scan.

The 2K scans were then assembled into a final master using the existing 35 mm
blowup color reversal internegative (CRI) as a reference. A handful of shots in the final
master were replaced from the CRI. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices and warps had to be manually removed.

Kline said the team used the 35mm blow-up as “our road map.” After they began the color correction process, they had Albert Maysles look at what they had done. “We made changes based on Al’s notes and feelings about color,” said Kline. “Sometimes he wanted things darker. Sometimes he wanted things lighter. Sometimes he wanted things more vibrant or less vibrant. Sometimes he wanted things a little less grainy so we did grain-reduction.”

Having Maysles around to provide guidance was a boon to the restoration process. “It’s always good to have the filmmaker with you when you’re doing this kind of work. There are things they remember that you couldn’t know. With the filmmaker there, you have the guarantee that you’re getting it the way they remember it, how dark the film was, what Little Edie’s skin tones looked like. Al remembered.”

Kline said that Maysles approved of the restoration job. “Al was thrilled. When he left, he said that Little Edie would have been proud.”

The restored version of “Grey Gardens” opens in select theaters, beginning March 6th, starting at Film Forum in NY.

Update: After this story was published, the Criterion Collection announced the sad news that Albert Maysles has died: “Our dear friend Albert Maysles passed away last night at the age of 88. We saw things through his lens that we will never forget. He was a filmmaker up until the end. We loved him and will miss him terribly.”

READ MORE: Help Save Cinema History with Film Preservation Kickstarter Campaigns

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