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.
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.