Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why I love color (but not colorization)

Somebody recently created an online version of Raiders of the Lost Ark divided into fourteen chapters and made to resemble those old serials that were a big influence on the film. I'm unsurprised how good it looks in black-and-white. The movie's visual style has always struck me as owing a great debt to black-and-white movies. I think of that moment when a man's shadow appears behind Marion in the bar, and we know it's Indy because of the outline of the fedora.

I thought back to the 1980s when Ted Turner began colorizing numerous classics, causing an uproar among filmmakers and critics alike--including Siskel and Ebert, who described the process as "cultural butchery." Though the technical aspects of colorization improved over time, I agree that the process inherently detracts from a film. But Ebert went further and argued in an essay (titled "Why I Love Black and White" in his Movie Home Companion) that there was something special about black-and-white that color films could never capture.
Black and white movies present the deliberate absence of color. This makes them less realistic than color movies (for the real world is in color). They are more dreamlike, more pure, composed of shapes and forms and movements and light and shadow. Color films can simply be illuminated. Black and white films have to be lighted. With color, you can throw light in everywhere, and the colors will help the viewer determine one shape from another, and the foreground from the background. With black and white, everything would tend toward a shapeless blur if it were not for meticulous attention to light and shadow, which can actually create a world in which the lighting indicates a hierarchy of moral values.
Ebert stopped short of arguing that black-and-white was intrinsically superior. As he put it, "On a properly controlled palate, a color movie can be a thing of wonder." I think his point was simply that black-and-white pays special attention to elements that color ignores, and hence colorization inevitably mars a picture. But he never paused to ask why some viewers prefer color, other than force of habit.

Unlike Ebert, I grew up in the color era, though I watched many black-and-white movies as a kid. I appreciate black-and-white cinematography for all the reasons he mentions, and I agree that black-and-white films ideally should stay black-and-white. Yet on some level I find color more pleasing to the eye.

I know I'm not alone in this. For most people, I think, the beauty of the world involves the many colors our eyes can perceive. Think of flowers in a garden, or a deep blue sky on a sunny day, or a spectacular display of fireworks at night. Black-and-white objects can also have a simple beauty to them, but I thank God I am not colorblind.

I like color for much the same reason I prefer light over darkness, day over night. In fact, one of the striking things about the black-and-white Raiders was the difficulty in distinguishing night from day. A blue sky would end up looking overcast, and everything just seemed a lot darker than it did in the original film. Granted, it was an amateur's transformation of a color film, but black-and-white movies always make me feel like I'm entering a darker world than the one I inhabit. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it begins to explain why many viewers today are turned off by black-and-white movies, thus stimulating the need for colorization.

It's a little like the dubbing of foreign films: it does hurt their quality, but it also makes them accessible to people who would otherwise not be inclined to watch them. I personally cringe at both dubbing and colorization, but I understand why others feel differently. It's the alteration that ruins it for me; I do not object to the fact that most films since the late 1960s have been shot in color. What the shift signifies, in my view, is not so much technological advancement as social change that has made the symbolism of color resonate more strongly than it did in the past.

Most black-and-white films in the modern period fall into one of the following categories: (1) experimental indie flicks, like Darren Aronofsky's Pi (2) period pieces, like The Man Who Wasn't There (3) films seeking to evoke older cinema, like Young Frankenstein.

Mixing black-and-white with color usually comes off as pretentious, though a few films through the ages have made great use of this effect. The most famous is, of course, Wizard of Oz. A recent example is the ultra-violent, noirish Sin City, where the black-and-white and color blend together so seamlessly you truly feel you've entered a bizarre alternate universe.

The convention of filming flashbacks in black-and-white was put to great use in 1998's American History X, where the protagonist's days as a racist skinhead are shown in black-and-white, and his life after he reforms is shown in color. The symbolism here is relevant, because the film suggests not only that he stops seeing the world in black and white, but even more that he stops seeing the world as divided into blacks and whites.

Earlier that same year, Pleasantville also used black-and-white to suggest both simplicity and racism. The film depicts two teens from the 1990s who get magically transported into a 1950s sitcom, and their modern behavior gradually causes other characters to acquire color. The town is scandalized by this development, and pretty soon we see a shop with the sign "No coloreds allowed." Color here represents all the aspects of modernity that '50s television tried to suppress, from racial integration to sexual liberation.

Despite Ebert's praise of the "dreamlike" qualities of black-and-white, it cannot show the full range of our dreams. A skilled filmmaker can exploit this limitation to great effect, but it's still a limitation, one that can never quite contain the nuances of our modern age. Black-and-white movies will always have their place, but for the most part they are the mark of an earlier, simpler era.

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