It's been a long time coming, but the highly acclaimed French film "The Artist" finally opens locally today. And if you don't know already, it's silent. And in that squareish screen ratio that was used through the 1940s (and for TV shows until the late 1990s).
And — wait for it — it's in black and white!
To some of you, that may seem like a warning: Uh, oh. Look out. This one uses music instead of audio dialogue and it isn't widescreen and it's not in color! Oh, the horror.
But actually, all of this is meant to be encouraging. A silent movie in the old image format and it's in black and white? I'm there.
Silent movies are almost non-existent today, although every once in awhile someone experiments with the pantomime/intertitles style, usually a director from foreign soil, as with Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki's "Juha" (1999) and Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer's "Dr. Plonk" (2007).
But before "The Artist," American audiences hadn't seen a widely released homage to this antiquated style of moviemaking since Mel Brooks' all-star "Silent Movie" in 1976. And even that one wasn't 100 percent dialogue-free. Like "The Artist," "Silent Movie" has one spoken line (from, of all people, the world's most famous mime, Marcel Marceau).
And that old-fashioned, not-quite-square, big-screen image is almost never used for theatrical movies today — although we did have a wide-release film in the format last year, the artsy, low-key pioneer western, "Meek's Cutoff."
Black-and-white cinematography has occasionally been used since color took over some 50 years ago but less and less with each decade. Partly because it became more expensive for major studios than color and partly because distributors began to believe it would keep the audience away.
Today, of course, it would be easy peasy; the push of a button, the toggle of a mouse — voila! Monochrome!
Personally, I love black and white but it seems to be universally vilified today. Some modern teen and 20something moviegoers often express the opinion that musicals are ridiculous and westerns are boring (nothing like a broad generalization to start an argument) — but with few exceptions, they all seem to hate black and white.
I really don't understand that prejudice, especially since the almost-but-not-quite black-and-white substitutes — those ugly, washed-out dirty browns or mucky oranges or dingy metallic grays — seem to be so widely accepted in modern movies.
A couple of friends have tried to justify that strange lack of color in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" by suggesting that the air in 1890s London really wasn't clean, giving it a kind of dark and dirty and smoky look. Maybe so, but had they not yet invented colors by the end of the 19th century? Were there no blues or yellows or greens? Even indoors?
Same goes for the equally dusty-gray ambience of futuristic and fantasy films such as "The Book of Eli" or "Death Race" or "Season of the Witch." Just because you can wash out colors with digital manipulation doesn't mean you always should.
If you want a cinematic look without color, why not just film it in black and white?
Back when it was used because it had to be, filmmakers with talent began highlighting shadows and light in creative ways and it was quite helpful in evoking a feeling, a time, a place, a sense of dread and also a sense of joy through the first 60 years of filmmaking.
Beginning in the 1940s it became especially effective for film noir, those brooding murder thrillers with a femme fatale manipulating some poor sap before he got wise to her — from famous mainstream examples such as "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) to cult favorites like "Detour" (1945).
Since the late 1960s, when color became the rule instead of the exception, black-and-white movies have occasionally resurfaced for a variety of aesthetic reasons — perhaps most often to create some immediate sense of nostalgia for an era gone by, as with Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show" (1971) and "Paper Moon" (1973), or David Lynch's "The Elephant Man" (1980), or even Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1993).
Black and white can also add a level of eccentricity to an already surreal film, as with Francis Ford Coppola's "Rumble Fish" (1983), Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" (1988) (which does eventually switch to color), Prince's "Under the Cherry Moon" (1986) and the flashback sequences of "Dead Again" (1991).
And, of course, it's an obvious choice when spoofing an era of film that was largely in black and white, Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" (1974) and Carl Reiner's "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" (1982) being prime examples. (Although for some reason Brooks' "Silent Movie" is in color!)
The Coen Brothers even revived black and white in the 21st century for their homage to film noir, "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001).
But in a category all his own is Woody Allen, who has no fewer than six black-and-white movies to his credit, although his last was 14 years ago: "Manhattan" (1979), "Stardust Memories" (1980), "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984), "Shadows and Fog" (1991), "Zelig" (1983) and "Celebrity" (1998). (C'mon Woody, it's time for another.)
I'm not so naive as to think that a new French movie, no matter how popular, is going to bring back silent movies or old-fashioned imagery — or even black-and-white pictures.
But since "The Artist" is a hit, making money and garnering awards, perhaps filmmakers won't be quite so timid about using some of these techniques — to include actual film stock instead of pixels — in an era when everything is digitized to look the same.
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