Friday, September 24, 2010

What's Wrong With Black And White?

I often wonder about black and white films. Filming in black and white was a real art form. Some directors were masters at it. . . others weren’t. Since they didn’t have color, they had to use shades of gray and shadows to convey depth and meaning. And often the results were really impressive. Indeed, many times the images produced were much more striking than color films could achieve. But the thing about black and white is that it’s not my preferred way to watch a film, and I don’t understand why.

I like black and white films, I really do. My list of top 50 films certainly includes a good number of black and white movies. But I admit that watching a black and white film is not my first choice when it comes to picking a movie. I don’t know why this is. My first thought was that this was just because of the era from which these films came. Indeed, between the censorship boards, the more simplistic story telling techniques, and the often stage-like acting, I thought that maybe the problem was one of content?

But then I realized that I would be even less interested in a modern black and white movie. Indeed, for the one or two modern black and white movies that pulled it off, there are a dozen more where this gimmick just turned me off completely. And if you told me that you planned to make a black and white film today, I would probably lose interest in the film at that point.

So maybe the problem is in the black and white itself? Maybe it’s the fact that it’s only “half an image” when movies that include the “whole image” are readily available? But then how do we explain the draw that black and white photography has? And if it is only a problem of being half an image, then you would think that colorizing would have made these films complete. . . but that atrocity only robbed these films of their charm.

In the end, I suspect that the problem with black and white is that it’s become like literary classics: we don’t see them as “entertainment” anymore so much as historically, culturally or educationally significant. Thus, they fall into the same category as Shakespeare. And while I love every word Shakespeare wrote, he’s hardly my first choice of what to read on a lazy afternoon. For that, I look for something “entertaining.”

And that of course begs the question about 3D. Right now, 3D is a gimmick, but it’s becoming a reality. As they develop 3D televisions that don’t require glasses, look for 3D to replace 2D across the board. At that point, all the films we’ve known over the past 60 years will seem as strangely dated as black and white seems today. Will they suddenly seem less entertaining as well?

It's hard to imagine that a film like Predator 2 might one day be seen as a "classic." But then, I'm sure people felt the same thing about Invasion of the Body Snatchers or pulp noir films.

What do you think?


Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew, I suspect there may be multiple factors at play. I have been thinking about this very topic while working my way through the excellent compendium of "film noir" short stories included in "Thriller."

For starters, they didn't have color, or special effects which makes me think they had to concentrate especially hard on acting. Second, it does work really well depicting "dark" material or gritty material. Could one really imagine trying to view "The Hustler?" Oh, they did, that's right and the Color of Money was the color of inferior movie.

But, as you point out, that is all they had. Ben-Hur wouldn't have been half the movie in black and white. African Queen could have easily been shot in color. Sherlock Holmes with Basil Rathbone was perfect in b&w, but Jeremy Brett's Sherlock was great in color.

I go around and around, but mostly, I think it is like watching a period movie which wasn't a period movie at the time it was shot. Perhaps we have become spoiled.

Anonymous said...

I think at the end of the day, a good movie is a good movie regardless of how it was shot. There are black and white dramas that bore me but color is no stranger to boring either. And lest we forget, I still enjoy the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, etc. Funny is funny.

And while it might've been a challenge to shoot in black and white (just as it was no doubt a challenge to record sound in the early days), it's no easier to shoot in color, to say nothing of all the various gimmicks and formats Hollywood has dabbled in over the years (Cinerama, Vistavision, etc.).

Besides, I don't see anyone complaining about old movies and their mono soundtracks, as opposed to today's films in Dolby 7.1. After all, you're only getting 1/7th the sound! :-)

I do think you're onto something about seeing these old films as "literary classics." But we remember the good films. There are probably hundreds of films that came and went that no one knows about. And people 60 years from now will remember the good movies from today.

But it's safe to say that today's A-list blockbuster was yesterday's B-movie matinee. Of course, Jaws and Star Wars helped change that dynamic forever.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Great comment! I especially liked your summation -- "it's like watching a period movie that wasn't a period movie when it was shot."

I'm actually getting a similar feel off a lot of 1980s films these days. . . they just seem strangely dated and odd, like a period piece -- like we're looking back on a very different time.

Maybe it is a matter of being spoiled? Maybe seeing everything in color with more realistic effects is easier on the imagination? And that might explain why seeing a black and white film seems "harder" somehow -- which is NOT to say "less enjoyable."

Nice answer!

Tam said...

I feel like I'm becoming a grouchy old person regarding technology. I don't especially like 3D movies, and things like the xbox natal (have you seen that thing???!!!?) and the i-pad make me want to cling to my regular old HD flatscreen 2D tv the way my Dad clung to his 3 fuzzy channels from the antenna. I can hear my kid mocking me already... "Mom, nobody watches 2D anymore." (said with that mocking teenage voice we all know.) I don't know what's wrong with black and white though, I like B&W movies, but I don't necessarily choose them either.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I would think that shooting well in black and white was probably harder than shooting in color today. I see a lot more point and click films today than I've seen from the black and white era. But, I admit that I am not technically trained or anything, so I could be wrong.

But that could actually be related to your point about us tending to remember (keep) only the better films. The same thing is happening with more modern films already. Of the hundreds of films released each year, I'll bet that less than half will make it television, and half of those won't be on television in 2 years, and so on. I know a lot of BIGGEST FILM OF ALL TIME films from the 1980s that have vanished into history by this point.

In terms of sound, I actually have a huge complaint about modern sound. It's awful. It works great if you're in a theater where they blast you with 10 million decibels, but it's horrid at home, where you can barely hear the actors talking between the glass shattering explosions.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, I do my best to keep up with technology, but I agree with you entirely. There is a point where convenience and newness just turns into ridiculous and pointless. To me, it's a matter of: does it improve my life or is it just a toy that eats my time with pointless garbage.

I don't see 3D as a good or necessary step, I like 2D -- 3D seems like a gimmick. I also don't like iPads or other tablets or the Kindle or whatever. I like my laptop with the real keyboard, and when I read I want an actual touchable book. I don't Twitter, it's pointless, and I don't text and I don't want to, but I do e-mail all the time and I found I like Skype a lot.

I have not seen the xbox natal, but I have become disillusioned with the Playstation. It's all the same game, over and over, they just add different graphics. I honestly believe that the Atari 2600 had more creativity in terms of game play than anything they're doing today.

Anonymous said...

I can only speak as a geek but I agree re: films just vanishing into the ether. When I temped at MGM, we had to organize a thousand or so DVDs for the CEO and I was amazed: so many movies are released and then disappear.

I think part of it is the technology. Today we have the Internet where anyone can start a blog or tribute website dedicated to the most obscure film, TV show, or song. And some of this stuff (for one reason or another) is seen as "hip" or "ironic" by certain audiences.

If Napoleon Dynamite had come out in the 70s, very few people would remember it and today it would play in art house theaters like Rocky Horror Picture Show. But today, you have hundreds of channels on which to promote and air the film, countless websites, and merchandising since the studios see the value in it.

I could've articulated this better but I think we're touching on a few different issues. And unfortunately, the next generation that grows up won't think movies are special; they will simply consider them another activity, like videogames, online this and that, etc.

As for the 80s, well, I just watched Road House for the first time... and I loved it! (Don't laugh.)

Tennessee Jed said...

I actually agree and disagree with you simultaneously regarding sound, Andrew. Like films themselves, soundtracks can be good and bad, but they don't always havee to be blasted.

As a retirement present, I treated myself to a state of the art 8 seat two tiered front projection home movie theater with 7.1 sound. Over half the sum went into accoustical treatment of the room itself. It makes all the difference in the world to hear these soundtracks in a room specifically designed for movie watching. The three front speakers are actually behind a Stewart Micro-perf screen which makes dialog literally come out of the mouths of the people on screen. While I can crank up the volume without suffering listener fatigue from distortion, I find the soundtracks work great even when dialed back. One of the keys is that you are completely isolated from all extraneous sound such as telephones, ambulances etc. So I don't think soundtracks are inferior, but they are more complex and demand a reasonable environment (which may get to your complaint.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Road House is very enjoyable (guilty pleasure), but it's also one of those films that survived and keeps appearing on television today.

I think what happens is that no matter how many awards a film gets, what really decides longevity is how many people are willing to watch the film 3, 5, and 10 years later. If the audience doesn't respond, then it doesn't get much air time and fewer and fewer people remember the film. Soon it vanishes.

And this can happen to crappy movies or even to movies that were huge when they opened. Indeed, I've been thinking of trying to put together a Top 25 for films that were declared instant classics, but which have all but vanished -- although that's proving to be a very difficult list.

I would suspect this is a natural process that has already happened with black and white films, so what's left probably only are the ones that got an audience. It's happening now with 1980s and 1990s films.

I would add two exceptions to the above, however. First, I think some films simply have poor timing. Like your example, Napoleon Dynamite, if it had been issues at any other time than the beginning of the "geek hero" phase we're in right now, then I think it would have vanished on the first weekend and never been heard of again. Second, I can't explain cult hits. . . I'm not sure anyone can. In other words, I have no idea why people suddenly want to do the TimeWarp?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm jealous! And if we ever have a Commentarama Movie Night, I now know where we're having it! :-)

I use a regular television and modern movie soundtracks are horrible on it. I've had to turn off the subwoofer and crank down the bass just so I can hear the dialog without blowing out my windows on the explosions -- a problem I don't have on older films. Maybe they should add a "television sound" setting? That could solve this problem?

Writer X said...

I not only like black and white films, but I love them! And I think it's because less is more. My imagination gets more of a workout when I watch black and white films.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I'm not saying I don't like them, I really do. I'm just saying that I don't reach for a black and white film as easily as I reach for a color film. I'm just not sure why that is. And maybe the idea that it takes more effort to watch, i.e. it does leave more for the imagination, may be part of the reason?

Writer X said...

Andrew, that is a very interesting thought. I don't know. But you've got a pretty good imagination, so I don't think that's it. I wonder if maybe you require more realism in your films? Whereas I like things more subtle? Just a thought.

P.S. If you haven't seen THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (1963 version), you must see it. It's black and white and it's by far the scariest film I've ever seen. Gives me chills just thinking about it. No blood, guts, or car chase scenes. Just pure horror and mystery (and great writing). It's what you don't see that scares you the most. Black and white films are great for that.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, That's another possible explanation. It is an interesting issue that I admit I don't fully grasp. I just know that I prefer color to black and white, and I wonder if one day I will prefer 3D to 2D?

I have seen the 1963 Hill House -- excellent movie! In fact, I think it's inspired a lot of later films (including having a sequel or two). I love a lot of the old horror movies because they had to rely on good writing rather than effects, and that one is one of those films! Ditto on slightly later films like The Omen and The Exorcist. . . solid story telling, limited effects.

Ponderosa said...

Modern usage of B&W allows the viewer to focus on the story and the acting by dampening the surface or (raw if you will) emotions.

Just what every studio wants!

Besides who [rhetorical] would be capable of actually writing, acting, directing or producing them?

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, You ain't kiddin'! The last thing they need with the latest crop of films would be to focus on the acting or the story.

I don't doubt that it could be used to good effect. Two examples that come to mind are Schindler's List, where it gave the movie a much more serious tone than I think it would have had in color, and Sin City, where it was used to create stark contrasts. But other than those examples, I don't think it's been used well since color became standard.

Like I say above, I do like black and white films, I have just discovered that I don't like them as much as color films.

Ed said...

This is off topic, but what do you think about the claim that Steve Colbert was supposed to be a distraction from the Justice Department guy who admitted they ignore crimes against whites?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think that's a little too conspiratorial. That would mean that they coordinated with him to come and embarrass them so badly that people like Fox News would blow off the DOJ hearings -- because the only people they need to worry about are the conservative media, you know that CNN etc. won't cover that story.

JG said...

I'm so glad you touched on this. I had my own black-and-white appreciation moment a couple of weeks ago. As you know, my favorite source for movies is TCM. And when it came on, I DVR'd The Fountainhead. Never seen it before. And from the first frame, I was struck by the genuine artistry of the way they used the black and white cinematography. It wasn't just "all they had to work with." They were really making it work for them. It is one of the most visually stunning black and white movies I've ever seen. Which is why I suffered through the first half of the movie before finally giving up and turning it off. What is the big deal about Ayn Rand, again?

AndrewPrice said...

JG, LOL! I actually really like that book, though I have a love/hate relationship with it -- I love the theory in the book and I think the ideas in it are incredibly brilliant, but I hate everyone in the book. In the end, it is a book that I thought elicited some of the strongest emotions I've felt about a book, so I rate it very highly.

As for the movie, I agree entirely. The director clearly didn't just plop his camera down and yell "roll 'em." He clearly set out to make the movie visually striking, probably to fit the rather stark subject matter. It really is the kind of film where you know that there isn't a shadow in the frame that isn't intentional and well thought out. I get similar feelings from Orsen Wells films and Hitchcock's black and white films.

I think that people who won't see old black and white films for whatever reason (I often hear: "it's old."), really are missing out.

El Gordo said...

I love black and white if done well. Just look at these images:

A good recent one was Anton Corbijn´s movie "Control" about the singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis.

"Blade Runner" is a gorgeous black and white movie. Try watching it without color.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, Nice images! I like the way he uses shade to hide the faces -- something that is really rare/hard in color films.

I haven't tries watching Blade Runner in black and white, but now I'm intrigued. I'll give that a try!

Anonymous said...

In case you're still reading:

A couple brief behind the scenes moments from The Fountainhead, for JG, courtesy of former Star Trek designer Doug Drexler:

Here and here.

And The Exorcist had one timeless special effect: make-up genius Dick Smith convinced a generation of people that Max von Sydow was always old! He was only in his mid-40s!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, What do you mean Max von Sydow wasn't always old? I don't believe you. ;-)

Actually, I've seen him in "The Seventh Seal" (1957), and he was relatively young in that one.

tryanmax said...

Very intriguing. I think the issue simply boils down to the fact that a movie doesn't have to be filmed in B&W anymore, so if one is, then it better have a darn good reason. Some examples:
- Young Frankenstein was a parody/homage to vintage monster movies
- Clerks was famously shot on a shoestring
- Schindler's List dealt graphically with disturbing subject matter and needed a means to tone it down
- Sin City attempted to capture Frank Miller's comic style

And, of course, any movie filmed before the advent of color has a good reason. Otherwise, without a good reason, the B&W becomes distracting. Coming to my mind are The Man Who Wasn't There and Angel-A, both of which are good movies, but the B&W contributed nothing that I could discern, and I am left forever conscious of their palette.

A couple films of note: I am not one bothered by the sight of blood, but for some reason Reservoir Dogs, which I love, does me in with its copious bloodshed. I can only watch that movie with the TV set to B&W. The 1979 version of Dracula starring Frank Langella makes an interesting use of very light saturation to give the color film a near B&W feel. Supposedly, it was released into theaters in a vibrant, bold palette, but was reacted to so negatively that all subsequent releases have been of the desaturated version. I have no way to be certain of this, however.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I love Reservoir Dogs, and I too find the blood disturbing. I suspect what you and I are seeing is that the blood in that film actually seems real. This isn't Hollywood blood that gets splattered everywhere and looks like a paint bomb. This looks and acts like genuine blood coming from real people. And thus, it seems starker than something like Saw where the blood is almost cartoony.

On the question of the B&W, I suspect it's several factors that affect us, as noted above. I think the biggest factor is probably that it feels like a gimmick and it probably requires more attention to watch a B&W film because you get fewer "obvious visual clues." So your mind has to work harder to follow the film.

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