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.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Thought-provoking quote

Reuven Firestone, in An Introduction to Islam for Jews, writes (pp. 235-6):
More than once [while living in Egypt] I heard people there criticize American culture for its innately violent nature and declare that Americans are an aggressive and brutal people who lack respect for human life. Some Egyptians who made the case pointed to the extraordinary level of violence in American film and television. Some cited the results of American studies published in the Arab press that establish the murder rate in the United States as one of the highest in the world, and off the charts when compared to nations with a similar standard of living and cultural level. As one Egyptian acquaintance told me, "You Americans start wars all over the world, but you never fight for your own soil or on your own land. You exploit the fears and pain of others in order to take over somebody else's natural resources or exploit their labor."

I was shocked the first time I encountered this view because, although I consider myself critical of many aspects of American culture, what I heard is simply not the perception that I have of myself and my fellow Americans. It also gave me pause about many Americans' opinions about Muslims and Arabs, because, in fact, it is common to hear virtually the same critique by Americans leveled against Arabs: "Arab culture (or Islam) is innately violent, and Arabs (Muslims) are an aggressive and brutal people who lack respect for human life."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A shaggy-something story

I had my very first bear experience at Swallow Falls State Park early this Tuesday morning. I doubt it will be my last. While I never camped until I grew up, I've heard plenty of bear stories from other campers before and since.

The prospect always excited as well as frightened me. I have a childlike fascination with wild animals, but being attacked by a large carnivore is not the way I would like to go. Travel guides claim that black bears are rarely dangerous unless you do something stupid like taunt them. A sign outside the park listing animals in the area described the black bear as "not aggressive" but warned people not to feed one.

I woke up four in the morning and left the tent to read a book by the light of a propane lantern. After about thirty minutes I decided to go back inside. I was getting cold and had no jacket, and I didn't want to walk all by myself to the shower room until the sky got lighter.

As I stood up and stretched my muscles, I heard movement. I looked into the forest, and about fifteen feet away was an animal walking on all fours. I registered it in my mind as a raccoon, though it seemed too big to be one.

After re-entering the tent, I peered outside and noticed that the "raccoon" had climbed on the picnic table to investigate the remains of our meal from the previous night. My friend briefly woke up, and I told him there was an animal outside. Right as I said that, it went away, probably having heard us talking.

By that time, I knew it was no raccoon. A few weeks earlier I had seen a raccoon on the road near my home, and it was no bigger than a cat. This animal took up at least half the table it was on. As far as I know, raccoons do not stalk camp sites waiting for campers to retire for the night so they can steal food. This deliberate, rather intelligent, behavior is associated chiefly with bears.

But I couldn't make out its color or markings, and its head shape though not its body did remind me of a raccoon's. I never previously thought of raccoons as resembling bears, even though I know scientists have had trouble deciding which one of the two a giant panda is. (Nowadays, they usually place it in the bear family.) Somehow I doubt a panda made its way to a western Maryland campground.

Only gradually did I realize what it was I had seen. For some reason, its flat-footed gait and round, bulky frame did not immediately register with me. It looked no bigger than a large dog, and it hardly made a sound the entire time. I think it was a relatively small bear, not fully grown, but I could have miscalculated its size in the dim light. It looked so innocuous I can understand why some campers make the mistake of trying to interact with them.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Trusting the enemy

Linked to at DovBear's blog

After hearing some of my friends repeating the rumor that Barack Obama had a Muslim upbringing which he has concealed, I checked and found it was flatly untrue. But that was several months ago. Only recently did I discover a fact that puts an ironic twist on the whole matter: the man who initiated the rumor, designed to make Obama look frightening to Jews, is himself a rabid anti-Semite.

The Washington Post traces the rumor to a 2004 article by Andy Martin, a politician who had run that year for the same Senate seat Obama ultimately won. The article wasn't as extreme as some of the later forms the rumor took--Martin didn't attempt to tie Obama to "radical" Islam, and he acknowledged that Obama was currently a practicing Christian--but it was the beginning. Nobody knows who started the anonymous chain emails, but Martin does take credit for being the first to argue publicly that Obama was raised Muslim.

As Wikipedia reveals, Martin is quite a character. (What's printed on Wikipedia is not necessarily accurate, but in this case it provides a range of credible sources, including official court transcripts.) Numerous federal and state courts have dubbed him a "vexatious litigant" due to his having filed hundreds of mostly frivolous lawsuits. He was denied a license to practice law in the state of Illinois because of his unprofessional behavior on various occasions. But I haven't gotten to the most interesting part. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune (reprinted on an Illinois Republican Party website):
In his past, Martin also has expressed anti-Semitic views. When he ran for Congress in Connecticut in 1986, the name of his congressional campaign committee included the phrase "to exterminate Jew power in America," Federal Election Commission records show.

In a 1983 personal bankruptcy case, he referred to a federal bankruptcy judge as a "crooked, slimy Jew, who has a history of lying and thieving common to members of his race." In a related court filing in the case, he also expressed sympathy to the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Though he denies having made those remarks, despite what the public records show, he is still pretty open about his views on Israel. A columnist for a Florida newspaper summed it up (the embedded links are my own, pointing to more recent articles where Martin said these or similar things):
While he touts a two-state solution for the Middle East in his "Andy Martin Peace Plan," says he's close to the peace movement in Israel, and has proposed increased compensation for Holocaust victims, the candidate also called for the Bush administration to attack Israel instead of Iraq. He has compared Ariel Sharon to Adolf Hitler and has written in defense of Hamas suicide bombers.
Here are some highlights from his rambling 1983 affidavit which makes Mel Gibson's drunken rant seem mild by comparison. (I got the text from, a legal site with thousands of court records.)
Although I was not a Jew hater when these cases began, any love for the Jews I may have had has been dissipated by barbaric tortures inflicted on me by the Jews. I can see now that anti-semitism has a real root in the ageless manipulation, chicanery and murder by the Jews.... Jews killed the son of God, and seek to deny the fact, and seek to murder and loot and steal from anyone who opposes their efforts at world domination.... I do not believe I can receive Justice from a pack of Jew thives [sic], judges and lawyers.... "Judge" Krechevsky is not neutral or detached. He is part of a Jew conspiracy to steal my property.... I am able to understand how the Holocaust took place, and with every passing day feel less and less sorry that it did, when Jew survivors are operating as a wolf pack to steal my property.
There's something sadly ironic about the fact that Jews concerned about Obama's relationship with the Jewish community have accepted the words of a real anti-Semite. It may seem strange that he would appeal to a fear of anti-Semitism. My guess is that he enjoys manipulating what he perceives as Jewish power. What's sad is how many of us have taken the bait.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Escaping the cage of language

The following is a transcript of a speech I gave at Toastmasters two days ago. I based it on my blog post "The cage of language," with strong help from Geoffrey Nunberg's article "If it's 'Orwellian,' It's Probably Not." My project assignment was to deliver a keynote address. I presented myself as the keynote speaker to the convention of the Language Guardians Party, who are nominating George Orwell, the first dead Englishman to run for president of the United States.

I am so pleased that you have handed me the opportunity to shoulder the burden of heading this convention so that we can face the issues of our day without knuckling under the pressure and mouthing empty platitudes just so we can elbow our way in to the American electorate.

No wonder politics gives people such a headache.

Language is a wonderful thing, but it is also a sneaky thing that can blind us when we aren't paying attention. Language can be used to express our deepest thoughts and insights, but it can also be used to confuse and distort and conceal. It's vital that we pay close attention to the dead metaphors and clichés that litter our language, because if we don't, they will take control of our thinking.

One person who truly understood this point was our nominee, Mr. Orwell, who explained his views most forcefully in his essay "Politics and the English Language." How many of you have read this essay? It's one of the most widely read essays of the twentieth century, and in many ways one of the least understood.

Mr. Orwell tells us that modern English is in a state of decay because the people who speak and write it have become trite, wordy, and vague. Mr. Orwell argues that this situation poses serious problems for our society.

I have noticed that people have three levels for understanding Mr. Orwell's message, with Level One being the most superficial, and Level Three being the deepest. I hope and believe that everyone in this room can progress to Level Three.

Level One is the idea that all Mr. Orwell was doing was telling us to communicate more effectively. Mr. Orwell says we communicate very poorly today, and he illustrates this by giving his own translation of a famous verse in Ecclesiastes. Here is the original version from the King James Bible:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Now, here is Mr. Orwell's translation of that verse into modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Let me ask all of you, does Mr. Orwell's translation make the verse more clear and understandable? [Audience: No!]

Does it make the verse simpler? [Audience: No!]

Does it make the verse more poetic? [Audience: No!]

Is this the kind of communication we want to encourage? [Audience: No!]

Should we aim to improve our English by making it clearer, simpler, and more elegant? [Audience: Yes!]

Then we've got a problem.

Why is it important to communicate clearly? "Well, uh, if we don't communicate clearly, then, uh, people will have trouble understanding us." Alright, why is it important for people to understand us? "Well, uh, if people don't understand us, then we won't be contributing to public understanding."

It's hardly self-evident that we should be clear. People can get very far in this country without being good communicators. In the academic world, it is often to your advantage to be as unclear as possible. Some of our most successful businessmen and entrepreneurs can barely string a sentence together unless it's written in C++.

Understanding the importance of good communication brings us to Level Two of Mr. Orwell's message. We need to be on guard against the people in power who manipulate the language to keep the masses in line. This is actually what most people think of whenever George Orwell's name is mentioned, the way that the power centers of society--the government, the media, the CEOs of major companies--use windy, confusing phrases to conceal their true intentions. I'll give some real-life examples of this Orwellian language: referring to a tax increase as a "revenue enhancement," or referring to deaths of patients in hospitals as "failure to fulfill their wellness potential." I can think of some of my own examples! Blackout: "precipitous circuit conclusion." Falling down a flight of stairs: "unpremeditated diagonal excursion." Forest fire: "vegetative borough ignition."

I've got another question for all of you. If Mr. Orwell were alive today, what would he think is the most Orwellian term of modern times? [Members of the audience give possible answers.]

I'll tell you. If he were alive today, he would say that the most Orwellian term is "Orwellian." Everyone today is always accusing someone else of being Orwellian. "My communication is clear and direct, but you, you're Orwellian." You hear this criticism from the left, from the right, all across the political spectrum. People use the term "Orwellian" so often that it has become exactly the kind of hackneyed, overused expression that Mr. Orwell was warning us against, the kind of expression that people use to mask lazy, conventional thinking.

That brings us to Level Three. You really thought all Mr. Orwell was telling us was to watch out for a bunch of silly euphemisms? If only it were that easy. All the Orwellian terms I've mentioned so far are so obviously ridiculous, most people aren't going to be fooled by them. The truly Orwellian expressions are the ones that pass unnoticed.

For example, the Republican Party officially claims to be "pro-life." Yeah, that's why they support the death penalty. The Democratic Party officially claims to be "pro-choice." Sure, that's why they support gun control. Pro-life and pro-choice are true examples of Orwellian language, yet very few people seem to realize it. That's why these expressions are so effective, because most of the time they pass beneath our radar. As a matter of fact, that very term, "beneath our radar," is itself an Orwellian expression, a vague, hackneyed metaphor that you just don't notice until I point it out to you.

Because we barely notice these expressions, they have the greatest potential to influence our minds without our realizing it. That's why we need to reflect, to look at our own language. The next time you find yourself calling someone else Orwellian, take a look at yourself and ask, "Am I really being clear? Or am I using vague slogans, clichés, and catchphrases? Because if I am, then I'm not thinking independently."

By appreciating all three levels of interpreting Mr. Orwell's message, we will learn to take control of our language before it takes control of us. We will learn to consider how we communicate, not just how others do. No one escapes the cage of language; the best we can do is be conscious of how it surrounds us.