I’ve spoken before about how many of my criticism foundations preceding my collegiate film studies came from my dad, and an objective remark that I’ve come to adopt from him is, “That would have been better in black and white.” When I was younger, I could never understand why anyone would prefer a de-saturated film look when the vibrancy and liveliness of color represented our own visual interpretation of life. Thankfully, my dad sat me down and had me examine the oldies, which all utilized crisp black and white 35mm film stock, captured in such an authentic, theatrical, and totally classical nature. The lack of color didn’t leave the films flat or take away any of the realism that many of them yearned to display. Instead, it made them oddly more lived-in, even more picturesque and realistic.
With the rise of digital photography, all it takes is the drag and drop of a rendering effect in an editing program to suck a colorful frame dry, and when directors decide to pass up the opportunity to give his or her film that nostalgic look it earns them my dad’s famous critical remark. This won’t be the case when I drag him to see Alexander Payne’s Nebraska over the upcoming Thanksgiving break. Payne thoughtfully converted his feature to wonderful black and white, giving it a bleak and tired aesthetic, perfect given the film’s setting and its magnification on character. The black and white in Nebraska is used to develop a focus and quasi-mock a lifestyle and landscape. It’s an inspired directorial choice on Payne’s part, especially given the fact that he had the film shot digitally and then urged his visual change afterward. Payne’s recent work got me thinking about other films that decided to reroute themselves to classical directions and utilize black and white photography since the color boom. This isn’t a list but rather an extended thought on how black and white filmmaking went from the only show in town to a creative filmmaking rarity that, when incorporated appropriately, can be wildly effective.
The growth of shiny Technicolor and then color film stock raged from the 1930s through the 1960s, totally changing the cinesphere and encouraging directors to go for broke with color composition and vast epic location shoots. Where would the epic films of David Lean, Michael Cimino, and even Terrence Malick be without color film? But in the 1970s, amidst the New Hollywood explosion and the emergence of underground exploitation films piggybacking on movements like film noir and French New Wave, everyone was moving toward riskier filmmaking, and while risky in one regard could be pushing boundaries with content and stylized photography, one could argue that taking steps back instead of forward is equally as bold.
Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show, famous for giving Jeff Bridges his breakthrough, and the biographical Lenny were lauded for their intelligent uses of black and white. The atmosphere and time period are created mostly by Bogdonavich and Lenny director Bob Fosse’s visual intuitiveness, presenting early examples of how black and white wonderfully capitalizes on characters. Woody Allen would follow suit at the end of the decade with Manhattan, an ensemble city symphony inspired by George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ Allen wanted New York City to possess a “great look” and found that using black and white photography would present it in an undeniably gorgeous capacity. Black and white was also used reflexively in Mel Brooks’ classic Young Frankenstein, a spoof looking to parody early monster classics like Frankenstein and The Wolfman. The 1970s segued into the 1980s with David Lynch, first with Eraserhead and then with the period adaptation The Elephant Man, both photographed in black and white. Lynch’s debut was brought to life by whatever funds Lynch could provide, thus not allowing Eraserhead anything but the now-iconic shadowy and slightly sadistic color-less aesthetic, while The Elephant Man used black and white to remind audiences of the film’s literary roots and classical inspirations.
The 1980s feature a surprisingly low amount of consciously black and white colored films. A post-Godfather and Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola found himself on an S.E. Hinton kick in the early 1980s, bringing both The Outsiders and Rumble Fish to the big screen, the latter of which was in black and white. Like Lynch, Coppola’s black and white usage in Rumble Fish reminds viewers of the source novel, but it also is appropriate with the rugged and greasy nature of Hinton’s novel. The Outsiders, a present day middle school classic, lends itself far more to color thanks to Hinton’s vivid depictions, while Rumble Fish is much darker tonally, so much so that it doesn’t even register on the ROYGBIV filmic spectrum. However, there is one specific black and white 1980’s film that, had it been filmed in color, would have been totally eradicated of purpose and impact. This film is also one of the exemplary films that my dad used to show me as to why black and white filmmaking can still work wonders in the present day, and needless to say it was just as affecting as my dad could have hoped. Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is an Americana classic chronicling the career of boxer Jake LaMotta, played by Robert De Niro. The milky black and white is scratched and dark, mutilated and ‘affected’ by Scorsese’s involving directorial style, his time warping manipulations, and the brutal, albeit clever, visual elements used to accentuate the film’s domestic and ringside violence. Raging Bull is a classic through and through, but Scorsese’s choice for black and white over color, even after having used color so wisely in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, shows the power of culturally creative cinema and, of course, of director Martin Scorsese.
The 1990s serve as a turning point in cinema for so many reasons that exposé on exposé could be written about the influence of 1990’s cinema. However, in terms of black and white filmmaking, there are famous entries on both end of the spectrum. Of course, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List goes without saying much. The three-plus hour holocaust drama ignited the now clichéd idea of colorizing just one piece of an otherwise totally de-saturated image. In Schindler’s List, the little Jewish girl’s red jacket and the yellow of a burning candle symbolize hope, death, and repentance beautifully, even if a little too overtly. The Best Picture winning benchmark of epic filmmaking is counterbalanced by Kevin Smith’s foray into filmmaking, the Slacker-inspired Clerks. Filmed for under $30,000, Clerks’ famous black and white appearance is due to Smith’s inability to afford color film stock. Simple as that. Lucky for Smith, Clerks practically leans on Smith’s low-fi visuality, again zeroing in on Smith’s whacky assortment of characters and his one-of-a-kind dialogue structure. Similarly, starting-up director Darren Aronofsky did what he could to fund his strange debut, Pi, including shaky, unnerving black and white. The quirky voices of Tim Burton and Jim Jarmusch used black and white respectively in Ed Wood – Burton’s most sophisticated film – and Dead Man – bringing alive its metaphorical, alone-in-the-woods presentation. Ed Wood greatly uses black and white to mirror and to somewhat make fun of the infamous features directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr., the ‘worst’ director to ever roam the lots of Hollywood. The 1990s concluded with two visually experimental features which went for a doubled visual approach, conveying parts of the story with black and white, gritty in one
and picturesque in the other. American History X, Edward Norton’s tour-de-force neo-Nazi picture, showcases the brutality of white supremacy through black and white flashbacks even though its most harrowing moment is displayed in perfect color. Gary Ross’ cute Pleasantville uses the integration of color to represent change and the incremental implementation of color throughout the feature is beautiful, tragic, funny, and creative all at the same time.
As we near the present with this article’s catalyst, Nebraska, I have to mention one of my all time favorite movies, which also displayed to me, when I first saw it in the sixth grade, how great black and white photography can be when it is used intelligently. Robert Rodriguez’s highly stylized Sin City uses black and white to awesomely recreate Frank Miller’s unique graphic novel illustrations, literally having the panels leap to the screen. The explosive film captivated me on my first viewing with Rodriguez’s meticulous attention to color being both awe-inspiring and eye-popping. Brilliant, brilliant film. The Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There is one of the siblings’ most unfairly forgotten features, having been released during their downturn alongside Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, and the equally as underrated Odyssey-revamp, O, Brother Where Art Thou – bringing Roger Deakins to the cinematographic helm with sterling black and white. If for nothing else, that Coen Brothers gem is worth seeing for the cinematography, such classicism in every frame (oh, and the late James Gandolfini is phenomenal in it). Also, George Clooney’s most appreciated directorial work is his period piece Good Night, and Good Luck, beautifully bringing the smoky, congested, and contested newsrooms of the McCarthy era to life through stark B&W. Christopher Nolan’s debut, Following, didn’t reach the States until the new millennium but it too featured great black and white, like his most famous feature, Memento, which tells its forward progressing/flashback storyline through black and white photography. Also, another unfairly overlooked feature, Frank Darabont’s The Mist, has a black and white cut featured on the second disc of its double-disc DVD. While the movie is excellent on its own, the black and white cut foreshadows the ineffable dread that seeps through the picture and makes the horrifying ending even more gut-wrenching.
And now, we are here. With Nebraska following Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing as the third independent, black and white feature of 2013. I’m not here saying that black and white is making a comeback, because in actuality it isn’t, but it definitely has evolved into a stylistic choice unlike any other. The nostalgia that Nebraksa creates is heartwarming, even amidst the somewhat somber tale that Bob Nelson wrote. Never have I ever wanted to hug my dad more than after I finished watching Nebraska, and that’s how this article comes full circle.
My dad was the one who told me that if I really liked film and I wanted to go into a career dealing with film than I should learn to appreciate the rudiments of film, so he sat me down to watch the black and white classics. Now approaching the halfway mark of my junior year in college, and going to see Payne’s brilliant new feature on my own, I was able to sit back and realize where in life I, at twenty years old, stand. I’m my own person, yes, but I came from somewhere special and somewhere influential and somewhere very, very important. I can say what I can because of what my father taught me, and come the credits of Payne’s black and white sure-to-be-classic Nebraska, that’s what Will Forte understands with his dementia-stricken father, played by Bruce Dern.
That’s surely why my dad and I love The Artist – another intentionally black and white, purposefully silent feature – so much, because of how it unites us as more than family members or movie enthusiasts, but as best friends. I am my father’s son and if I could present that life progression in any visually pleasing format, you can be sure that it would be in black and white.
Will you be seeing Nebraska Thanksgiving? What are your opinions on modern day uses of black and white?
Article by Mike Murphy