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|Written by April Yorke|
|Sunday, 02 December 2007 19:00|
Black and white film put up a lot more of a fight against colour than silent film ever did against the talkies. From 1939 on, films could be nominated for a best cinematography award from the Academy in either black and white or colour. Black and white held out nearly another 30 years, until 1967. It had a notable comeback at the 1994 awards when Janusz Kaminski picked up the statuette for Schindler’s List, a modern film in good ol’ black and white.
Black and white may not hold the position it once did, but it’s hardly forgotten. Even in the modern era, it still holds sway over some our most influential filmmakers.
Last year, director Steven Soderbergh went all out in an attempt to make his own personal Casablanca, The Good German. Soderbergh didn’t just use black and white film stock to invoke the time period for his noir set in Berlin at the tail end of WWII; he also worked with period equipment, encouraged a more stagey style of acting from his performers, and included a Bernard Herrmann-inspired score from Thomas Newman. The film got mixed reviews and middling box office receipts, but it’s an enjoyable diversion and a tightly paced noir. Aside from the more realistic instances of violence, Soderbergh achieved his goal in making a picture that could have just as easily premiered when it was set as it did in 2006.
The year prior, German star George Clooney co-wrote, directed, and co-starred in his own would-have-been-if-it-had-been-made-then black and white picture, Good Night, and Good Luck. Modern technology prevents the film from ever looking like it could have been made in the smoky backrooms where it is set, but it does successfully invoke nostalgia for a time when journalists had the conviction necessary to take on the government, even though it would have surely meant the end of their careers, and maybe even a jail sentence. Clooney uses the past to lob a grenade at the embedded quality of modern day reporting, and his jazzy black and white feature underscores how far removed current journalism feels from the courage of Murrow, et al.
Gary Ross’ directorial debut, Pleasantville, is a hybrid between Soderbergh/Clooney period black and white and storyline black and white. A story of two ‘90s teens transported into a ‘50s sitcom via a magical remote (please suspend your disbelief at the comma), the film moves into black and white as soon as its protagonists do. As the brother and sister begin, however unwittingly, to challenge the town’s pleasant existence, colour slowly creeps into their lives and into the picture. Soon Pleasantville is a black and white/colour fusion, and Ross (who also wrote the screenplay) employs this combination to comment on the racial tension and burgeoning civil rights movement in America in the 1950s. Both uses of black and white come together to make a powerful picture.
American History X and Memento also use black and white film stock to separate a storyline. In each case, the black and white storyline occurs previous to the one in colour. X’s black and white gives us not only the terrifying events that brought Derek (Edward Norton) down, but also probes what brought him to such rage in the first place. Memento does much the same thing travelling forward in black and white, as it works backwards in colour to bring us to the moment when the fate of the man killed in the film’s first sequence was sealed. While X shows us one man’s nigh impossible quest for redemption, Memento reveals what happens when redemption doesn’t take. The black and white sequences in both films add to their tension as the viewers put the pieces together.
Perhaps the finest use of contemporary black and white is also its simplest: effect. While director Christopher Nolan spliced black and white into Memento, he used it in its entirety for his previous film, Following. Possibly more of a budgetary concern than anything else, all three of the film’s disjointed timelines occur in black and white, making them slightly more difficult to sort out than those in Memento. It also works as visual shorthand for the movie’s genre, as film noir had its heyday in the silver screen era.
While it is equally a noir, Sin City exploits black and white for entirely different reasons. Animated into the film after the principal photography, directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller heighten the contrast not only between the darkest of blacks and the brightest of whites, but also between those two and the occasional splash of colour, from the green glow of the Customer’s eyes to the splat of Junior’s yellow blood. The colour startles the viewer and catches the eye amidst a thousand other competitors. The citizens of Sin City exist in a hyper-reality quite apart from our own, and the black and white emphasizes the disjunction and adds a great deal of style.
Between the stylized ultra-violence of Frank Miller’s graphic novels on screen and the highbrow atmosphere of a noir, contemporary filmmakers just can’t seem to let black and white go. And why should they? From the curling smoke of a cigarette to the shadow falling across a villain’s face, some things just look better in black and white.