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Movies and Film

The Aesthetics of Black and White and Color

So now you know about how we got to the color you see in today's films. But how do filmmakers choose what kinds of colors to use? And how are we supposed to respond to those colors as intelligent filmgoers? In this section we will talk a little about the aesthetics of color from both sides of the spectrum.

Black and White and Technicolor in Hollywood's Golden Era

In the 1930s and 1940s cost was not the only factor determining which film stock a film project would employ. Hollywood Technicolor tended to be used to make everything pretty, so that the most serious dramas often tended to be black and white: Citizen Kane (1941), The Little Foxes (1941), the entire genre of film noir, and so on.

Black and White

Director's Cut

Silver nitrate stock, on which much silent film was shot, produced a shimmering, other-worldly quality, seeming to set the screen on fire. Unfortunately, because it was rather unstable, it could also set the projector, the booth, and the theater on fire, so that its projection is now illegal in all but a handful of theaters in the country specially equipped to contain a blaze.

It's extremely important to remember that black and white can be just as subtle as color because you can do so many things to it. First, black and white is never just that: It is also all the gradations of gray in between. And silver. And beiges. And so on. When you walk into a paint store and ask for black the clerk (after laughing at your naïveté) will hand you 50 color chips: jet black, deep-space black, Frederick's of Hollywood black, midnight blue, and so on. White has, if anything, even more variations, and gray is practically infinite.

Black and white is the color of glamour cinematography. The most glamorous icons of the screen, those actors who only require last names—Garbo, Bogart, Bacall, Gable, Dietrich—are most famously photographed in black and white.

And, as its name suggests, at least one whole film genre is defined in large part by the fact that it was shot in black and white: film noir.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Film noir was named by the French who, finding themselves culturally and nationally humbled (for a moment) after World War II, discovered a love of all things American, including American movies. The French loved the existential angst of the antihero (Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford), and the dark, gloomy atmosphere created by moody lighting. Typically, Americans only started appreciating noir films as anything other than low-budget, low-brow entertainment for 14-year-old boys after the French did.

Black and White Today

Directors still sometimes opt for black and white to make a political and/or aesthetic point. Street Scene (1989)—a film by an African American director—restages Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) in the contemporary inner city, suggesting both that inner-city denizens have at least the humanity we grant to the little tramp, and that nostalgizing poverty is cruelly absurd.

Some films are shot in black and white as a kind of homage to earlier cinema genres. Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982) pays tribute to film noir, while Movie Movie (1978) and Young Frankenstein (1974) fondly recall the 1930s backstage musical and the 1940s horror film.

Contemporary filmmakers often decide that black and white is an appropriate medium to evoke a sense of the past, as in Mel Brooks's comic homage to an earlier horror era, Young Frankenstein.

Contemporary filmmakers often decide that black and white is an appropriate medium to evoke a sense of the past, as in Mel Brooks's comic homage to an earlier horror era, Young Frankenstein.

The Golden Era: Color Classic

Especially for the Technicolor technicians, the principal job was to figure out how to make color film acceptable to an audience and an industry that was at first hesitant about the technology. Some actors, for example, did not think they photographed as glamorously in Technicolor as in black and white. Still, after the box office successes of films like 1939's Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (we wonder whether Shirley Temple is still kicking herself for not taking on the role of Dorothy), studio execs came to realize that adding color to a film would measurably increase its box-office appeal. So this expensive technology was used for high-profile prestige pictures, like the Errol Flynn vehicle, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which cost $2 million, an amazing price tag for the Great Depression years.

Second Take

Colorization—the digital coloring of classic black-and-white films—has been criticized by contemporary filmmakers and critics because it ruins the lighting and color values of those films. The somberness of Citizen Kane would disappear if Ted Turner decided to recolor it (as he wanted to do) in the irritatingly synthetic colors offered by this technology.

Black and Blue: Using All the Crayons in the Box

Some directors have been thinking outside the Crayola box, mixing panchromatic and color stock in the same film. Early on the decision was in part economic: Technicolor was incredibly expensive. But even early on the decision to mix it up could be motivated by plot and theme as much as by economics. The most famous example is of course The Wizard of Oz (1939). Monotonous Kansas is also monochromatic. But when, after her tornado-driven house landed in Kansas, Dorothy opened the front door and found herself in a Technicolor Oz, the 1939 audience shared her sense of wonder at their introduction to a prismatically colorful new world.

Self-Reflexivity and Other Kinds of Color

Though we shall visit the notion of self-reflexivity in some detail, it is worth noting that sometimes black-and-white clips appear in color films in order to suggest that these films have a connection to the history of film. Old horror films play on television in the background while the new horror takes place in Halloween's foreground (1978). Gilda (1946) plays on the monitor of a video store while a disturbing love relationship takes place in the foreground of The Fisher King (1991). Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters desperately dance during the Great Depression against the very ironic backdrop of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing on film, in Pennies from Heaven (1981).

Sometimes black and white is used in a color film as a way of establishing a biographical past for a principal character. This technique is used in Mishima (1985) and Zelig (1983). Sometimes it establishes a point of view, as for a gay man looking down desiringly on a group of schoolboys in If … (1969). Other older experiments with black and white and color include Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Eisenstein's great experiment with ideologically mixing it up in Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny, Russia, 1944).

Shimmering black and white: still with Marlene Dietrich from The Devil Is a Woman.

Shimmering black and white: still with Marlene Dietrich from The Devil Is a Woman.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order the e-book book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com.


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