Friday, September 30, 2011

Black & White, Part Two

In my last post, I talked about my weird habit of watching the DVDs of some color films in black & white on my TV.  I also tried to articulate some of the aesthetic rewards I get from watching black & white movies in general, giving some indication, I hope, of why I would resort to such a peculiar way of viewing these films.  Now, I don’t watch all of my DVDs in black & white, and there are many color films that I like a lot (I particularly like westerns to be shot in color).  But black & white cinematography is a vanishing art form that deserves special attention.  For this post, I’d like to talk a bit about the color movies that I do like watching in monochrome.  When I’m done, I hope that my pigment expunctions won’t seem so strange to you. 

For starters, you might wonder how I got into this habit of watching color films in black & white.  It all started with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (花樣年華 , 2000).  Watching Wong’s story of an early-1960s extra-marital affair on the big screen reminded me of the films of the great Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni.  Where Wong’s earlier films had been photographed (in color by the amazing Christopher Doyle) in a kinetic cinéma-vérité style, the director rendered In the Mood for Love, inspired by the black & white Chinese-language melodramas of earlier decades, in a more stately manner.  Instead of fast-paced, hand-held cinematography, Wong slowed down his camera to float serenely and capture the subtle, unspoken emotions of his socially repressed characters, like Antonioni had done in his best films.  Given all this, I wondered from my first viewing what In the Mood for Love would look like in an era-evoking, Antonioni-esque black & white.  I wondered this even though the film beautifully uses a broad color palette in very intricate and deliberate ways, especially in lead actress Maggie Cheung’s parade of ornately patterned and pigmented cheongsams (her form-fitting Chinese dresses). 

After I bought In the Mood for Love on DVD a few years ago, the question continued to haunt me: How would this majestic movie look in black & white?  I didn’t know where my TV remote’s color control was at the time, but I decided to find it after a couple viewings of the film.  I located the button and turned the color all the way down.  I was delighted by what I saw.  Although the image was muddy in places (see Part One), the overall look of the film shimmered in silver.  Not only did the image remind me of the Antonioni of L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962), but black & white also did a better job of replicating In the Mood for Love’s dilapidated atmosphere of Hong Kong (actually filmed in Thailand) before the island became a chrome-covered economic powerhouse.  In addition, the absence of color did more to suggest the lead characters’ absence of emotional freedom, and Maggie Cheung’s face looked absolutely luminescent emoting in monochrome.  Even her colorful cheongsams still looked good in black & white.  I’ve viewed my DVD of In the Mood for Love a number of times since then, but in all that time, I’ve never watched it in color. 

The “juvenile delinquent” genre started with a handful of B exploitation movies like Jail Bait (1954), Female Jungle (1955), and Hot-Rod Girl (1956), films seemingly designed more to make a quick buck with a sensationalistic subject than serious dramatic meditations on the topic.  But Rebel Without a Cause (1955), directed by Nicholas Ray, marked an interest in the genre by one of the major studios, Warner Brothers.  I understand that the movie was originally intended to be shot in black & white, but the studio switched to color and a bigger budget to take advantage of lead actor James Dean’s burgeoning stardom.  I don’t know if that story is true.  It’s just as likely that Warner Brothers had always intended a prestige production to lift the juvenile-delinquent genre beyond the exploitation market.  But it’s always seemed to me that a “prestige” production of a juvie movie is about as incongruent as Lawrence Welk playing death metal.  

While most juvenile-delinquent exploitation pictures of the studio era ended with an obligatory denunciation of youth led astray, the messy, rough-hewn atmosphere of those low-budget, black & white toss-offs captured and inadvertently affirmed the rebellious spirit of the kids on the screen (a good quality to distract from the “kids” being played by actors in their 30s).  To me, watching Rebel Without a Cause in monochrome replicates that low-budget atmosphere and better conveys the paroxysmal cinema stylings of director Ray, a bit of a rebel himself.  Also, the first time I watched Rebel Without a Cause was as a young kid on a black & white TV, and I was struck by the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting of the opening scene.  But when I saw the movie in color on a big screen for the first time, the scene looked much less compelling.  Now, when I watch Dean’s iconic movie, I do so — you guessed it — with my TV’s color turned down.  Yep, I wish that Rebel Without a Cause had been filmed in black & white.  However, if it had, I’m certain that post-1950s, more monochrome-averse audiences would regard it as dated; they would not have embraced it in black & white the way they have embraced it in color.  And the film — and maybe even James Dean himself — would not be the iconic avatar of discontented youth that has endured for decades.  

Lou Ye’s underrated Chinese film Suzhou River (州河, 2000) takes place in two narrative realms.  One is the ostensibly “objective” Shanghai of the unseen Narrator (Hua Zhongkai) and his disenchanted girlfriend Meimei (Zhou Xun).  The other is the Narrator’s more subjective imagining of the backstory of ex-con Mardar (Jia Hongshen) and his lost love Moudan (also Zhou Xun).  The Narrator imagines this strand of the film’s story because of Meimei’s growing friendship with Mardar.  The film’s story of Mardar and Moudan is a heartbreaking tale of love betrayed.  But we never know if what the Narrator imagines actually happened — it’s all in his head.  Even when Mardar and Moudan meet again at the end of the film, it’s all envisioned by the Narrator: we don’t know if the event transpired this way or how it led to the young couple’s fate.  I’ve always wanted to see Suzhou River draw a greater visual distinction between the two narrative worlds, so when I watch the film on DVD, I watch the “objective” portion in all its exuberant color, but I watch the story of Moudan and Mardar in black & white.  Monochrome endows this portion of the film with the frenetic energy of the 1960s New Wave, as it captures the ethereality of a fantasy world.  And it’s easy to assume that the Narrator’s daydreams would be in black & white: he is, after all, a videographer by profession, so he would likely have a cinematic imagination.  Another advantage, for me, of watching Suzhou River in monochrome is that it’s shot on a high-contrast color film stock that looks good in black & white.  A single film cutting between color and monochrome may seem like a shopworn device to some cinephiles, but in the case of Suzhou River, it enhances the complex and chimerical story. 

I don’t like all of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003), Quentin Tarantino’s tributary pastiche of Asian and occidental action movies (which, as its title suggests, was followed by a sequel), but I do like the episode in the film titled “Showdown in the House of Blue Leaves.”  In this lengthy segment, the lead character, a former assassin known as the Bride (Uma Thurman), seeks bloody revenge on yakuza donna and erstwhile colleague O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).  The world of the film makes no pretense to be the world of the audience: actions and ambiance are hightened to mimic a hyperbolic, over-the-top actioner.  In this spirit, Kill Bill appropriately exaggerates its color scheme with bold saturated hues, in most sequences, that would seem more at home in a comic book than in the off-screen world.  The “Showdown” sequence has slightly more muted colors, but not by much.  This may be to evoke the female assassin of the color Japanese action movie Lady Snowblood (修羅雪姫, 1973), whose hairstyle and white kimono are the model for O-Ren’s appearance in her sword-fight scene. 

However, at one point during the Bride’s battle with O-Ren’s henchmen, Kill Bill suddenly switches to black & white for only three and a half minutes.  I can’t see anything in the story that would motivate this fleeting use of monochrome (the Bride pulls out a henchman’s eyeball, but so what?), so I’m sure it’s partly a salute to Japan’s black & white action movies.  Examples of the genre as late as Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末) and Samurai Wolf II (牙狼之介2:地狱斩) in 1967 and Kill! (キル) in 1968 were still being made in black & white, when most other Japanese features had long ago adopted color.  In fact, I think that in Kill Bill, Tarantino’s fondness for Japanese action movies from the 1960s explains the sequence’s early-’60s atmosphere, especially in the women’s clothing and hairstyles.  I like all kinds of black & white cinematography, but the look of Japanese monochrome movies from the early-’60s is my favorite: there must have been something about monochrome film stock in that place and time that gave it such intriguing high contrasts between the blacks and the whites and gave it such silvery grays.  I can’t reproduce this kind of monochrome by turning down the color on my TV screen, but because I like the Japanese films of the early 1960s so much, and because the “Showdown” sequence’s costuming conjures up that era, I like to watch that section of Kill Bill in black & white. 

There’s something very elemental about the German play Woyzeck, the drama about a lower-class soldier (the title character) whose humiliation and cuckolding by his superiors cause his already delicate sanity to snap, leading him to murder his common-law wife.  For one thing, it has a strange history.  While regarded by several historians and critics as the first “modern” drama, Woyzeck was never completed before its young author’s death in 1837; it existed only in manuscript fragments until put together by another hand; it wasn’t published until 1879; and it wasn’t staged until 1913.  Given this precarious history, one must wonder to what degree its incompleteness has allowed for its champions to read elements into the text that wouldn’t be there had the writer finished his manuscript.  That writer was Georg Büchner, who is often lauded as the father of the modern drama — a real achievement for someone of such a young age.  To paraphrase Tom Lehrer’s comparison of himself to Mozart, it’s a very sobering thought that when this father of the modern drama was my age, he had been dead for almost three decades.  (Büchner died of typhoid at the tender age of 23.)  This unlikely backstory of Woyzeck’s incomplete nascency, its lying dormant for so many years, and its eventual resurrection as an important work of world theatre lends the play a somewhat mythological aura, especially to German audiences. 

Woyzeck has been adapted to several mediums.  Perhaps the best-known cinematic rendering is Werner Herzog’s 1979 film.  Most of the director’s movies have been shot in color, an element that helpfully heightens Herzog’s fascination for the world around him and that is more conducive to presenting the minute details of his often off-kilter images.  But the use of color in Herzog’s Woyzeck endows the costume drama with a warmth and picturesque nostalgia that clashes with the story’s very unsentimental examination of a man losing his sanity.  While Woyzeck’s production values aren’t lavish enough to endow it with the grandiloquent atmosphere of a Merchant-Ivory costume picture, Herzog’s naturalistic depiction of life in a 19th-century German town still does more to solace the viewer with period-piece prettiness than to make us critically examine Woyzeck’s descent into madness (and in particular, his lashing out at a person just as disadvantaged by society as he is).  Watching Herzog’s Woyzeck in black & white recalls the more critical Eastern European costume films of the 1960s, whose monochrome reflections on history stripped the past of any wistful admiration for a more innocent era. 

Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) is a bit different.  Like a lot of other viewers, I suppose, when I first saw this movie, I was overwhelmed by its opulent japonaiserie and its rarity as a Hollywood production with Asian lead characters.  It only gradually dawned on me that this Dickensian rags-to-riches story, with its plucky Japanese heroine who struggles against patriarchal oppression the only way she can — with her beauty — ultimately condones the patriarchy that oppresses her.  If lead character Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) can overcome her cruel circumstances with grace, determination, and talent, the film seems to say, then those (very picturesque) circumstances couldn’t have been all that bad.  The constraints that Sayuri’s domineering society place on her come across as her necessary, character-building means for growth and self-realization — a relatively positive stepping stone toward female empowerment — a bit like the difficult steps in a Shaolin monk’s martial-arts training.  Instead of giving a broader glimpse into why her hierarchical society forces her into very circumscribed roles, the story reduces its conflicts to a soap-operatic rivalry between Sayuri and her nemesis Hatsumomo (Gong Li).  Moreover, Sayuri polishes her beauty by tormenting her body before selling it to the highest bidder, this in order to achieve her desired social status.  And Sayuri’s ultimate triumph is complete when she becomes — don’t you envy her? — the mistress of a married and much older man, which the movie portrays in a favorable light. While the film does cast an occasional critical eye on Sayuri’s circumstances, the criticism never intimates a means of female empowerment outside of catering to the expectations of men. 

Compared to the similar-themed films of the late Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, who spent a lot of celluloid criticizing the plight of women in both old and new Japan, Memoirs of a Geisha does more to soothe the audience than awaken it to injustice.  Granted, Mizoguchi often relied on downbeat endings to drive home his critical points, endings that are anathema to today’s Hollywood and presumably not an option for Marshall’s movie.  So, perhaps the comparison is a little unfair.  Still, when I watch Memoirs of a Geisha, I like to imagine the Mizoguchian movie that might have been, that might have done less to dazzle the eye and more to challenge the mind.  Therefore, when I watch my DVD of Memoirs of a Geisha, not only do I turn the color all the way down, but I also turn on the disc’s English subtitles and French soundtrack.  (If the DVD had a Japanese soundtrack, I’d listen to that instead.)  Through the monochrome and between the lines, I can catch glimpses of that phantom feminist film that Hollywood will never make.  

No comments: