Movies and Film: Draining Away and Saturating with Color

Draining Away and Saturating with Color

Filmophile's Lexicon

Saturated color refers to those color films in which the color is rich and bright.

Desaturated color refers to the tendency—most pronounced since the 1960s—to remove the richness from the usual Technicolor-style shot.

In fact, it's almost impossible to say what "natural" color looks like. That bottle of Cabernet that looked blood-red in the kitchen pantry the night before is gloriously rosy outdoors on the picnic cloth the next day.

After the Hollywood studio love affair with saturated color, cinematographers experimented with taking away the richness of color for special effects or ironically exaggerating it even more. As an example of the latter, Dick Tracy (1990) is a live-action movie with the bold coloring-book or Sunday-comics primary colors to match the grotesque makeup of its comic-book villains. The colors are rich and supersaturated.

Desaturated color can be found in Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (Deserto Rosso, Italy, 1964), whose very title suggests that the film is about thematizing color-draining as the absence of values. The title's desert is also the desert of contemporary society.

In contrast, the "Ascot Opening Day" sequence of My Fair Lady (1964), though shot in color, photographs mainly black, white, and gray objects for a paradoxically hard-edged nostalgic effect. Suits, dresses, hats, furniture: All are black and white.

Many thrillers since the 1980s have been filmed in color, but very darkly, in a style called "color noir." Films as disparate as the murder mystery Body Heat (1981), the science fiction thriller Blade Runner (1982), and the Tim Burton fantasy Batman (1989) share this style. Some critics believe that it reflects the same cultural anxiety that the original 1940s film noir style denoted: an anxiety about cultural values in the middle of an affluent but spiritually empty society.

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.

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