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

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

Still, its usage has largely fallen out of favor today. Even Steven Spielberg, who used stark black-and-white cinematography so effectively in “Schindler’s List” (1993) that it won an Oscar, went for a different look in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), which also won an Oscar for its washed-out colors, an atmospheric design that was sort-of-color, not-quite-black-and-white.

Which may explain why so many filmmakers today go off-color, that is, they often choose between extremes that wash out the natural glaze to give us either a faint hint of color or a glaring specific color choice (often vivid blues and greens in an otherwise dark or pale cityscape). Used well, they can be not only satisfying but also cleverly evocative. Used wrong, which is more often the case, they merely wear out their welcome before the end of the two-hours-plus running time.

The two most common 21st century cinematographic styles seem to be a bleached-out yellowish hue that is dreary and off-putting or a dingy gray, almost metallic, appearance that has become especially popular for apocalyptic landscapes. (Sadly, it appears from the trailers that Johnny Depp’s “The Lone Ranger” will be infected with the latter, eschewing the natural bright, sunny hues of the southern Utah desert landscape.)

Seeing films using the latter device has often made me wonder why they don’t simply make those movies in black and white. They seem to be attempting to evoke a black-and-white feel, so why not go all the way?

This may be a studio mandate, of course. Contemporary studio chiefs don’t believe black-and-white movies will be successful, so even when a filmmaker desires to use it, he’s often overruled. Perhaps using washed-out colors is the filmmakers’ subversive way of saying to their bosses, “OK, it’s in color, happy now?” But it’s actually not.

In the late 1970s, Woody Allen, despite having just come off a big Oscar win with “Annie Hall” (1977), had to fight to make “Manhattan” (1979) in black and white. It was a hit, though his later black-and-white efforts were less so. And, of course, “Schindler’s List” was a huge success but was considered by the industry to be an anomaly.

If their movies make money, maybe Baumbach and especially Whedon will legitimize black and white to such a degree that it will be considered a viable option for moviemakers of all stripes.

But if Cameron or Scorsese or Tarantino or Nolan or Abrams or some other big-name, box-office-assured filmmakers were to join them by jumping onboard and finding success, it would definitely become an acceptable option.

E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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