Black and White

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Cultural associations

There seems to be a sort of retro resonance that happens with modern movies shot (or, rather, released) in black and white. "Raging Bull" was a shocking one. Just a year after that low-budget movie "Rocky" took over the box office and took home some Oscars, Scorsese's dark tale of a boxer somehow gains some real grit in its b/w look that, by memory now, makes "Rocky" a lurid cartoon by comparison. (Seeing "Rocky" again recently, I was reminded how unglamorous and harsh the movie was.)

Somehow the fights of Jake LaMotta, already so brutal, gained horrific impact with the black blood and skin textured with sweat and cuts. (I heard Scorsese speak once about how, with "Taxi Driver," the distributor wanted to shift the reds to "tone down" the blood, and the result was dark, almost purplish blood, which, in its abstraction, made it almost worse.) Of course, "Raging Bull" is a period piece, and so when we see a b/w movie set in the 40s and 50s, we're taken back. It almost adds to the movie's credibility.

I think there also there's something about the audience's being removed just a bit from the immediacy and realistic texture of the screen world. For a movie like "Schindler's List," it was almost necessary to give the audience a chance of getting through the subject matter. (The b/w also gives it the war movie look, which doesn't hurt.)

There's something else -- and maybe I'm just running too far with this -- but it almost seems that b/w movies invite attention to the moral conflict of the story. Perhaps this is because the most enduring films from the days of yore dealt with moral conflict, and so we associate b/w movies with that. "Pleasantville" certainly played with that.

"Pleasantville" also used color very effectively, and in this film color represented individual passion. Color paints the personal journey. I think it's a wonderful film. And it's of a rare class of films that use very effectively both b/w and color. The classic in this regard is, of course, "The Wizard of Oz," a phantasmagorical journey.

In the end, though, I think it comes down to what works. If it works, it works. A good story, good performances well directed and well edited are all that's needed -- and those are hard enough it themselves. Witness how often movies just fail.

But when a movie clicks, it becomes its own thing. I cannot imagine enjoying a colorized "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Casablanca." And there's no way a movie like "Apocalypse Now" or "Moulin Rouge" would be the same in b/w. Marginal movies may gain by crossing the film color line, but not the classics. Color may dominate the cinema these days, but let's let "It Happened One Night" and "Dr. Strangelove" live in shades of gray.

-mediagirl

media girl's picture
Posted by media girl on 22 November 2004 - 12:21am
Black and White and going On Location

I did not catch "Pleasantville," but now I know I shall have to. And "Raging Bull" is a modern B&W; how could I forget it! Maybe because I suppressed it because of the brutality and subject matter.

Phantasmagorical trip into Oz and the trip 75 clicks above the Do Lung bridge - both acid trips - one mixed, the other bad, both ending "there's no place like home" and both characters going back to "Kansas" after killing the wicked witch and finding out who the powerful Oz really was.

In Oz, the "yellow brick road," and into Vietnam and Cambodia, "a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable," two color prints painting a dreamlike state.

I don't want to go all silly with the comparisons both based on the hero's quest. Just to say color here conveys unreality and in both cases the music is central and in Apocalypse downright frightening.

One can look at a film like "Days of Heaven" which I love to watch; and as much as I can, I try to ignore the plot. Here the color is dreamlike and captures an era. Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," post-processed to create sepia tones of old tin-type photographs, hits the mark. But I would like to go back to discussing the fact that color can actually get in the way of the plot.

And yes, mediagirl, I agree about the blood in "Schindler's List" and how interesting about "purple blood" in "Taxi." Indeed in "Schindler's List," as I suggest, the black blood tells the story with more power than does color. The impact of seeing "The Bride" in "Kill Bill" who mutters "it's your baby" is more terrifying than if she's been smeared with colorized fluid.

For me, the sharp edges of black and white work to draw my eye to the contrast of things. My current stab at a screenplay almost immediately opens with the action, but not before taking us to the Nuremberg Tribunal where the war crime, which the script centers on, is first brought before the audience - as it was once brought before the world - to judge. We hear it "recreated" in the form of charges stated in lofty words in a courtroom - all after the fact. Only then, in color, are we invited into the action, now vividly, to judge for ourselves. But opening in the black and white world takes us into another age and also suggest how sharp the lines are drawn.

As I said, for Dorothy, Kansas was grainy. So, too, was Rick's Casablanca.

I just shut off the light. Dawn has broken and it is bright. Snow covers the ground. The sun is still just out of sight. The light floods the room from below, the widows look onto the panorama of the Rockies, snow caps shining pinkish orange. The colors hover between those of the world and those of the tin-type. The whiteness of the snow adds to the feeling of the black and white film, the black and white of the computer screen. The black and mint beige of the keyboard and electronics.

Modern black and white filming is sometimes grainy, or more accurately, lower contrast. Yet Bergmanesque light is something people want. Is that because it tells the story better than good old Los Angeles light?

As I said, I did not mind the colorized version of "Casablanca" as it had an Indiana Jones look. "It's a Wonderful Life" lost something, obscuring the plot. I don't want to go through a laundry list of colorized hits and misses, but I do want to poke a little to see what works rather than getting so incensed, as some do, to the point that staying black-and-white becomes an article of near religious faith and fervor. The "let's not colorize" crowd may well be right about color detracting 99-percent of the time, but that is not instructive. If I can discover instances where colorization does not detract, am I learning something?

Is it the colorization itself? The colors really do not measure up. If some super processing powers, such as we are verging on in "Sky Captain" allow "It's a Wonderful Life" to have the colors of "Days of Heaven," or some other, better example, pick your poison, will that make a difference? My hunch is, it won't.

I think of the scene in "It's a Wonderful Life" where George Bailey, as a boy, saves his younger brother who falls through the ice. It is clearly a Hollywood set and, having lived in New England, I don't for one minute believe this is anything but a sound stage. Colorizing it only draws our eye and attention to it and makes it look like a sitcom. (cf. "Natural Born Killers" when Mickey delivers the meat to Mallory's house.)

Later as an adult when George Bailey contemplates taking his own life, he trudges through the snow to the bridge. In the colorized version, its dark magic is lost for this hell he finds himself trapped in really has no light and the snow does not look as cold when warmed by color.

Color calls on the director and film makers to pay attention to a lot of details that they might otherwise let go.

Here's a thought. I was thinking of how talkies replaced silent film. What if instead of just colorizing silent films, we dub them, as well, and create "dubbies." The problem is, the dialogue is just plain odd and out of place. It is there to telegraph emotion, not carry the story and that's because the earlier films were largely photoplays, as in the old magazine that went by that name. Forcing dialogue into the mouths of silent film stars turns the films into exceedingly odd ducks.

On location.

I think that was the big shift, although not all at once. Certainly "Gone with the Wind" is obviously filmed in California or on a sound stage and apart from a riverboat, or so I am told, has no footage from the South. But slowly the standard shifted.

It leads me then to think on plays like Hamlet. The play really does not work on film. They've come close a few times, but not really and far more often than not, a screenwriter treats Shakespeare's words as a "screen treatment" that needs some judicious editing - which in turn underscores the force fit of stage play into going on location.

On location, the location becomes a character and since it really speaks no lines, save perhaps in a Zen Buddhist sense, the colors and sounds must speak the location's "lines."

There is a cusp where it might go either way. Location might not be as important. It might be where many collective images are black and white. Certainly World War Two is a mix of those. "Saving Private Ryan" might have been filmed in black and white as was "The Longest Day." It would have had a very different feel.

But let me go back a notch to the American Civil War and the film "Glory" whose trailer, really sucked me in. "Glory" was about the Massachusetts 54th, a Union company of soldiers comprised entirely of black enlisted men. It was filmed in color and color allowed the director to take some shortcuts in the battle scenes. "Location" filled in that they hardly had any troops (extras) at all. And yet, with a different sort of emphasis, this film might have worked in black and white, been more gritty, and the performance that Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher, would have had to have been modified and rewritten, or otherwise they would have been lost and perhaps some of the best moments in the film lost as well.

The night scenes and the scenes inside the enlisted men's tents would have been too intense and the understated comedy would have come off too sharply. Many crowd scene, such as the troops on parade in Boston, would have simply not worked as they were staged and if the film were "B and double-you-ed," even with excellent redigitization to make contrasts eye-popping and/or subtle as needed, I doubt it would have worked as shot.

And yet, that film in black and white might have been a box office smash.

I wonder if a black and white remake of "The Caine Mutiny" would not work better than the bleeding color version with Boggy.

Hmmm.

Matsu's picture
Posted by Matsu on 22 November 2004 - 8:50am