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2 new movies could make black-and-white cinematography popular again

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 2:25 p.m. MDT

Joss Whedon gives direction to Amy Acker on the set of his updated adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," scheduled to arrive in theaters next month.

Lionsgate

THERE’S SOMETHING QUITE evocative about a black-and-white movie, especially one that makes good use of its monochrome look to evoke a gritty, hardscrabble resonance.

These days, it may be hard for young people to understand that before the 1970s, black-and-white movies were the standard; color was the exception. And in the hands of a talented director and cinematographer, black and white can still be quite artful.

In recent years, younger audiences have hardly had an opportunity to see black-and-white movies in a theater, unless they stumbled upon such retro efforts as “Frankenweenie” (2012), “The Artist” (2011), “The Good German” (2006) or a handful of others, along with the occasional low-budget art-house experiment that few people see.

But there appears to be a black-and-white resurgence just over the ridge as a couple of highly touted, heavily publicized art films prepare to open locally.

On May 31, “Francis Ha” comes to Salt Lake City, a character study with Greta Gerwig as a New York woman trying to find herself, co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, who also directed (“The Squid and the Whale”).

And on June 21, the Shakespeare comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” arrives in modern dress, adapted and directed by Joss Whedon, whose rabid cult following after TV’s “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” increased mightily thanks to last year’s monster hit “The Avengers.” (Whedon could single-handedly bring a large youth audience to both Shakespeare and monochrome movies this summer.)

Black and white has long been marginalized in cinema, which is too bad since it’s just another choice on the palette that can still work well under the right circumstances, used by the right film artist.

There are many examples of classic films that use black-and-white cinematography in ways that make a well-scripted, directed and performed film even better. Perhaps the most prominent example is the film noir genre, which benefits from the lack of color, as with the wonderful use of shadow and light in “Out of the Past” (1947), “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) and too many other great old thrillers to list here.

Not that vivid color choices can’t also enhance this kind of movie, especially as a contrast to the darkness within a character whose exterior belies real intent, as with Gene Tierney, at her best playing against type as the ultimate femme fatale in “Leave Her to Heaven,” which won the 1945 Oscar for its stunning Technicolor cinematography and has just been released in a sharp Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time.

Distinctive classical Technicolor provides a lot of eye candy, especially in the old musicals of the ’50s and ’60s, or earlier, in such colorful films as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), whose reds, greens and yellows fairly pop off the screen. But while the process works well in these films, in the end, old-style Technicolor is simply too fanciful, as if shouting to the audience: THIS IS A MOVIE.

On the other hand, natural color can be a bit too realistic. Which is to say it works fine with what used to be the average movie, that is, a drawing-room comedy or an outdoor drama that focuses on the characters and allows the backgrounds to offer an ambience that speaks to the story, especially in outdoor adventures such as westerns.

But to evoke a background (or foreground) that speaks for a certain kind of movie, black and white can say much more and in much subtler terms.

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