Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Black & White, Part One

I’m a nut for black & white movies.  All things being equal, I’m liable to find a monochrome image much more fascinating than an image in color.  I’d usually rather watch a black & white movie up on the big screen than a color one.  Flipping through the channels of my TV, a black & white image will command my attention and take my finger off the remote in a way that color images seldom do.  But I also do something on occasion that confirms my enthusiasm for monochrome (and maybe confirms my slipping grip on sanity as well): there are a number of color movies that I prefer to watch on my TV in black & white.  Before you ship me off to Bellevue, I’d like to say more about that, and more about black & white in general.

What is it about black & white cinematography that I find so fascinating?  I’m sure that part of its appeal to me is nostalgic.  When I was growing up, local television stations would regularly broadcast vintage black & white movies, which is how I discovered cinema in the first place.  As a kid, I enjoyed those gentle monochromatic universes with their simpler conflicts and guaranteed happy endings — insulated from the realism of lived experience — that seemed easier for a young boy to take in than the grittier contemporary fare (only later would I learn about the Hollywood Production Code, which mandated that films of that era be family-friendly).  But even then, my young mind wondered why more recent films didn’t use the option of shooting in black & white. 

As I grew (or at least got older), I developed a taste for more unidealized views of the world and for non-Hollywood films.  Then, black & white came to mean something new to me: since many of the canonized “great” motion pictures had been shot in monochrome — The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Citizen Kane, La Strada, The 400 Blows, Through a Glass Darkly — that kind of cinematography signaled a worthwhile work of art made some time in the past.  But while my interest in black & white began with a basis in nostalgia, it didn’t stay there. 

‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1919)

Of course, with the rise of color television in the 1960s, viewers have become resistant to monochrome images.  And many audiences simply will not watch films that aren’t in color.  (I’m told that a major reason why Peter Jackson produced his 2005 color remake of King Kong was because younger movie-goers refuse to see the black & white original.)  Nowadays, a director or producer will need to have considerable clout with the studio brass in order to make a Hollywood-financed movie in monochrome: Lenny (1974), Manhattan (1979), Raging Bull (1980), Rumble Fish (1983), and Schindler’s List (1993) are all by big-name directors tackling important themes.  But even then, a director’s pull is sometimes not enough.  I understand that Martin Scorsese expressed an interest in wanting to shoot his Hustler sequel, The Color of Money (1986), in black & white (like its progenitor) but was quickly overruled by the studio (imagine how ironic the title would be if Scorsese got his way).  And I heard something similar regarding Brian De Palma and The Untouchables (1987).  Except for its use in commercials and isolated vignettes in feature films or TV shows, black & white cinematography appears to be all but extinct. 

Scorsese’s ‘The Color of Money’ (1986): colorless

So, why do I watch some color films in black & white?  Part of it is my own resistance to this vanishing of monochrome in contemporary cinema, as well as evoking another era of filmmaking, but that’s not the whole story.  The visuals of most movies are rendered more ordinary by color.  Even in those films where the color has been adjusted to make the picture somewhat non-naturalistic (such as 2000’s Tears of the Black Tiger), polychrome’s imitation of the off-screen world will still usually lead to an uncritical acceptance of the image as little more than a “window on the world.”  

By contrast, monochrome cinematography emphasizes the compositional form of the image over a naturalistic mimicking of the objects within the frame.  This is something I first noticed as a kid while watching black & white horror movies from the 1930s and ’40s on TV.  This characteristic of the monochrome image intrigued me as a youngster, and as I watched more and different kinds of black & white movies, I became more attuned to how the figures were arranged and represented on the screen than I was when watching a color image, especially one whose verisimilar depiction of the world practically pleaded to be taken for granted. 

In other words, black & white cinematography encourages greater activity on the part of the audience to create the world on the screen — to recognize the lived off-screen world, with its myriad pigments and hues, in the positionings of the various shades of black, white, and gray within the frame.  So, watching a film in black & white is comparable to the way a viewer recognizes the lived world in the blatant brushstrokes of an Impressionist painting.  This more active spectatorship also requires the viewer to infer color upon the monochrome elements when necessary.  Below is a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s black & white comedy Modern Times (1936).  Although the gag in this clip hinges on the color of an object, that object, to the viewer, is not the color it’s supposed to be.   Because the audience must “read” a different color into the object than the one it is on the screen, this makes the scene funnier, I think, than it would have been if shot in Technicolor: enlisted to “complete” the scene’s coloration, the viewers have a greater involvement in the on-screen event and thus a greater engagement with the playing-out of the gag:

Black & white can also endow a film with certain qualities more difficult to achieve with color.  A striking example is the difference between the black & white movies and the color movies directed by Yasujiro Ozu.  I’ve written elsewhere that I’m not a big a fan of Ozu’s films, but I still respect his unusual style (low-to-the-ground camera angles, eyeline mismatches, lingering shots without people in them, etc.), a style that seeks to represent a frame of mind that could be called spiritual or transcendent.  Although Ozu’s stories, taken as a whole, strike me as disagreeably reactionary, he does seem to capture a meditative atmosphere in his movies’ quieter moments.  

Ozu’s black & white ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953)
Of his postwar family dramas, the ones in black & white instill these scenes, where little overt action is taking place, with a sense of the ephemerality of human existence and (especially in his unpeopled shots) the enduringness of a world that will go on when the characters — or even all of humanity — are no more, this despite his stories themselves being decidedly human-centered.  Because people don’t perceive the world in monochrome, Ozu’s use of black & white places the audience at a remove from the world of the characters.  By rendering these relatively static, relatively mundane scenes in black & white, Ozu displaces an anthropocentric view of his characters with a potential perspective unbounded by a human lifetime, a perspective where the human-valued phenomenon of color is superfluous.  Despite their regressive qualities in other respects, Ozu’s black & white films hint at a plane of existence beyond the mortal world.  

Ozu’s color ‘An Autumn Afternoon’ (1962)
When Ozu turned to color in 1958, his films lost this atmosphere of ethereality.  His polychrome images harden their subjects into concrete material objects solidly existing in the here and now.  Because naturalistic color encourages the viewer to take the image at face value, any non-anthropocentric intimations are harder to perceive in the director’s polychrome images.  In color, Ozu’s films don’t quite capture the transcendental atmosphere of their black & white brethren, even though the director retains his unusual close-to-the-ground, jump-cutting film grammar.  As a result, his color scenes lacking in major events seem all the more uneventful. 

In trying to describe Ozu’s use of black & white, the word “timeless” comes most readily to mind.  His monochrome films have an air of “timelessness” about them — a sense that what is transpiring on the screen need not be rooted in any one era — in a way that his color films do not.  In fact, his color films look dated by comparison.  But “timeless” isn’t an especially helpful word: all things material, including film, are of a time, regardless of appearances.  Still, Ozu’s color films appear instantly located in a particular time and place while his black & white films do not. 

So, turning down the color on my TV set can bring out qualities in a film that aren’t so apparent when watching them in full hue.  Although watching a color film in monochrome doesn’t automatically endow the movie with an Ozu-like sense of the transcendent (even Ozu’s polychrome films seen in black & white have a hard time producing that effect), it can alter my approach to what is on the screen. 

Of course, merely draining a polychrome film of its color doesn’t usually create an ideal black & white image.  Color movies, to state the obvious, are made to be seen in color.  As such, these movies are shot on color film stocks, and most of them, especially today, capture a wider range of tones than most black & white film stocks can.  For an ideal black & white image, the film stock will need a certain amount of contrast to set the photographed objects apart from each other.  Most color film stocks don’t use this higher degree of contrast because color acts as its own means of object separation.  And even those color film stocks that do have a higher degree of contrast are often lit more to emphasize the hues within the image.  So, when watching a polychrome movie in black & white, the objects tend to be similar shades of gray that smear into each other, which gives the frame a muddy quality.  (For an example, see the color-siphoned frame from Notting Hill [1999] below.)  

‘Notting Hill’ (1999) with its color removed: muddy
Also, an ideal black & white image will have its main subjects within the frame “pop,” will have them stand out in relief from less important objects and the background, usually by making the central elements brighter than the others.  But because of its film stock’s broader tonal range, a color movie in monochrome will seldom make its important visual elements stand out, and those elements that do “pop” are usually the wrong ones.  

The aspects of the color motion-picture image that I have just discussed are given great consideration by cinematographers.  Most directors of photography on feature films go to significant lengths to chose film stocks, choose exposure settings, choose the color palette, and carefully fine-tune the hues within the frame for a pleasing and/or thematically informed image.  In other words, they put in a lot of work to get the “look” of the film just right.  So, if they knew that I watched their many-pigmented movies in black & white, the cinematographers would probably hunt me down and turn my TV set’s color back on. 

For the second part of my post, I will talk about a few color films that I prefer to watch in black & white and what I get from watching them that way — unless I’m interrupted by a posse of angry cameramen breaking down my door

Siskel and Ebert’s ‘Hail, Hail, Black & White’ 

1 comment:

MoonShine Glory said...

Like a good book, its better when the text (in black and white) leaves more to the imagination. Earnest Hemingway mentions

"If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."
—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

How many in Hollywood still remembers that the audience still has an imagination of their own? Most of the story is "beyond the page" where we fill in the details and make the story our own. It is is the imagination that the authors provoke.