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February 24, 2004

TV Alert -- Black and White Special Edition

Dear Friedrich --

It's only week two of my TV Alert feature and already I'm running late. Blogging's fun, but there are moments when I miss editor-enforced deadlines.

Still. As ever, TV Alert focuses on movie history -- specifically movies made prior to 1990, and on the TV programs that enhance our enjoyment of them. This week I've even got a theme: the pleasures of black and white movies.

I'm told by profs and video clerks that most young people these days -- even many movie-crazy young people -- won't look at black and white movies. Bizarre, no? Back when you and I were learning our way around the film-history world, we took it for granted that much of what we'd encounter would be in black and white, and that it was up to us to develop a taste for it. But these kids these days seem so overwhelmed by the contempo cornucopia of pushy, shiney, whirling electronic-media thingees that they can't see the point of extending their interests or their tastes.

Yet what to make of the fact that, at the same time, black and white photography isn't in short supply? It's in ads, it's in rock videos ... What I come up with is that it's being used as a signifier (used like flashcards to indicate "old," "classy," "subdued," "gritty," "nostalgic") , or simply as rhythmic punctuation. Like so much these days, it's about impact and nothing but impact. You might choose b&w from your Mac's (and your brain's) Menu of Infinite Effects, or you might not.

I suppose that you and I, having grown up with b&w TV -- and at a time when the general media problem was Too Little rather than Too Much -- had an easier time of learning to enjoy b&w than today's kids do. For us, b&w movies were a new world -- a wonderland called Film History -- and we were delighted to discover it. Much of today's energy seems to go into filtering or dodging what's unrelentingly comin-at-ya. And I suppose it's also possible that these kids these days, being in the habit of having their nervous systems crammed, find that black and white movies simply leave them feeling starved for stimulation.

A brief, and just-between-you-and-me aside: does it seem to you, as it does to me, that the media diet most Americans feed themselves on is the equivalent of a food diet of Big Gulps and bags of crunchiness, trans-fats, salts, and chemicals? It's a punch-pow, knock-yourself-out, whack-yourself-around, pig-out-now, whee-burp experience, or it's nothing at all. A fair number of people seem to have awakened to the fact that eating that kind of food isn't a great idea; I wonder why more don't wake up to the fact that feeding a brain on an equivalent media diet isn't a good idea either.

Anyway, in the hopes that a few people might appreciate a few tips, here's Michael Blowhard's Quick Introduction to Enjoying Black and White Movies. And done with bullet points -- how can anyone resist?

  • First thing to be understood: just as silent films aren't "sound films with no sound," black and white movies aren't "color movies with no color." They're their own marvelous thing, and not a failure to be something else.

  • It's fun to develop a taste for the many different qualities black and white movie imagery can have. But it's classy, grownup fun -- like leaving behind sodapop and developing a taste for wine. (Or, to be a little more blunt, like leaving behind masturbation and learning how to enjoy lovemaking with a partner.) At first all wines seem strange, murky, and hard to make out -- what's the big deal? But then something clicks and a whole new universe opens up before you. The good news is that you don't have to become a fussy snob in order to enjoy the fabulousness of wine. Once you're past the idea that wines aren't grape juice with alcohol, you learn to linger over them a bit. You learn to open up your senses and your mind ...

    That's what learning to enjoy black and white movies can be like too. Once it clicks, you enter a whole new universe. B&w can be ghostly; it can be sparkling; it can be journalistic and gritty; it can lend itself to fantasy and glamor. (There's nothing quite like the b&w of Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise.") The visual texture of black and white can range from harsh to satin-y to crystalline. The textures can contribute to the kind of film being made -- you'd use a different approach and style for a comedy (clean and crisp, perhaps) than you would for a horror film, for example, where orchestrating the frame in terms of shadows and highlights might make more sense. Black and white can also be expressive of the era in which it was used: the very slow stocks that were used in the early silent days have a different quality than do the glossy stocks of the Hollywood '30s, or the scraps of newsreel-type film used by Rossellini in his neorealist period.

  • Back at the origins of photography, no one expected (to the extent anyone can be said to have "expected" photography at all) that photography would arrive as a black and white medium. If you were dreaming up a something like photography, you'd automatically assume it would arrive in color, right? But it didn't. People didn't know quite what to make of this black and white thing. They scratched their heads over it. It was rare in Western art-history for monochrome imagery to be considered worthy of intense interest. Though etchings and prints were there to be enjoyed, drawings were largely viewed as preparatory works; finished things, particularly finished big-scale things, generally had color. Yet here was this amazing, brand-new medium, and its products (some early experimental processes aside) were in black and white.

    As you'd expect, artists, producers, entertainers and audiences got fascinated by the qualities of black and white in ways they never had before. What did they find themselves wrestling with? In simple terms, b&w imposes a certain degree of stylization on an image; what's up there onscreen is familiar yet ... different. How? Well, it's ghostly. It's like us, yet it also seems to come from another world. Where color imagery suggests a mirror, b&w imagery is more like a shadow.

    Hmmmm: shadows, shadows ... Plato's Cave ... Expressionism ... Horror ... Poe ... Mystery ... Dreams and nightmares ... It seems that the mind, confronted with black and white imagery, tends to wander off in these directions. Movies often did too.

  • The automatic stylization of b&w allowed filmmakers to take wild chances. (Color, by the way, tends to scream "realism." It ain't a coincidence that the sweaty, hyper-real school of acting known as the Method started making its appearance in movies at about the same time color film began to be more widely used.) Onscreen, b&w imagery can easily take on mythic, dreamlike, symbolic qualities. It's all so familiar yet so otherworldly too. And people on a black and white screen can seem both like us but also like icons; they can even seem to be godlike.

    One consequence: black and white imagery promoted the development and exploration of certain genres (romantic comedy, horror, film noir), as well as of certain styles of writing and performance.

  • On this blog we've often wondered about why many contempo movies seem -- despite the production values, the Dolby and the effects -- imaginatively flat and sensuously impoverished. Is it a consequence of how movies are made these days? A function, in other words, of economic and technical arrangements? Or perhaps the new digital devices and processing have something to do with it. Maybe it's all of the above. Whatever the answer, the Dolby effects-assault movie, while viciously effective at giving your nervous system a slammin', often leaves your imagination and your senses cowering in the corner, feeling abandoned and alone. Black and white isn't intrusive or overwhelming in the same way. Instead, it's inviting; it invites you to complete what it gives you. B&w engages you in seduction, flirtation, and romance. There's something about watching black and white movies that suggests the dance of the erotic imagination. Spells get cast; the imagination and the senses get tickled and stroked.

  • Incidentally, what I'm saying here isn't just the wild rhapsodizing of one cranky old film buff. These kinds of properties were noticed -- and these kinds of experiences were reported -- by many early filmviewers. The phrase "movie magic" isn't some empty p-r jingle; movies were recognized from the outset as having the power to throw audiences into unexpectedly pleasurable trance states. These days, as the industry converts to digital technology, there's concern in the business about whether the new processes can be made to cast that same spell. Can the magic be analyzed, taken apart, and recreated by means of digital technology? It's not a dead cert.

  • Kids: you may well fall asleep during your first few b&w movies. That's OK! You're kicking the overstuffed-electronic-media habit, and your system doesn't recognize the new signals it's getting. You're flailing, but that's to be expected. It takes a while to find the beauty and sexiness of the better-quality stuff. Being an up-to-date person, you have up-to-date habits and expectations; you've got "getting rattled and agitated" all mixed up with "being entertained." Movies from the b&w era are a different ballgame. They aren't maulings, they're waking dreams. And ain't it terrific that learning how to experience a waking dream is a knack that can be developed?

But hey, when someone else says what you're trying to say and says it better, why not just quote him? Here are some passages from the English critic Paul Coates's book The Story of the Lost Reflection.

There is a sense in which the film actor is a living corpse. As we sit in the darkness, we follow the patterns of the stars that stand for dead heroes. The star actor differs from the traditional actor of theatre inasmuch as he or she appears to be at home in a world of the dead, to be able to live without access to the mirror of an audience. As we stare at film actors through a two-way mirror, ourselves unobserved, their breathing somehow fails to cloud the glass ...

The doubling of reality in film is essentially uncanny. Even colour film cannot quench the resultant sense of mystery ... The two types of film [black and white and color] are the night-time and day-time aspects of the world of the double ...

Colour images lack the ghostly poignancy of black-and-white. The monochrome film spontaneously peels off interesting images from the world; it sees things we do not see, and thus insists on the existence of a phantom presence within reality, a world we cannot perceive.

People photographed in black-and-white are resigned to their own future ghostliness ... Black-and-white photographs can be found on gravestones, where colour ones would be tasteless ... Horror films in colour are disasters, for the colour denies the founding fact of the universe of terror, which is death ...

Colour assumes the form of an advertisement for reality [while] the tantalizing romance with another world is reserved for monochrome film, which comes from Utopia: a no-place, like the grave. Utopias are negatives of this world .. and black-and-white films resemble negatives: like them, they have to be developed in the imagination to appear real.

Coates' book is full of this kind of terrific writing and thinking; though it's out of print, it can sometimes be bought here. Consumer alert: it's only for uber-movie-buffs, those with a high tolerance for academic-lefty (Marcuse, etc) film theorizing. But for the hyper-intellectual thing it is, it's hard to beat.

Typing out Coates' words reminds me to ask you about light levels in movie theaters. Has the standard lightness level in LA movie theaters gotten a little higher in the last decade? I mean the light level while the movie is playing. It has in NYC, which annoys me no end. I'm often horrified by how washed-out dark scenes in movies look. I once made some inquiries about this and was told -- don't take me too seriously here, I didn't do a thorough followup -- that Giuliani's administration passed ordinances telling theaters to raise their light level during the projection of movies, the goal being to reduce misbehavior. I'm glad that some of the indie and the art houses seem to be defying these orders. But most of the chain theaters are toeing the ludicrous line; when I'm watching a movie at the nearby twelve[lex, for instance, the light in the house is often so bright that I can almost read a newspaper by it. Sigh: imagine watching "The Godfather" or "The Conformist" under such circumstances. Talk about movies being stripped of their magic.

On to this week's Recommended Blowhard Three, all of them of course in black and white.

  • Morocco. (TCM, Thursday morning at 2:45 a.m.) An exotic French Foreign Legion Marlene Dietrich/Gary Cooper melodrama, directed by Josef von Sternberg from a script by Jules Furthman, and every bit as dated and absurd as that sounds. Yet ... the movie has a fascinating and rather grand absurdity, like that of opera: if you give in to the fatalism, the pacing and the glamor, and to its love of the big gesture -- if you can submit and surrender to all this -- you may find yourself in a universe of the mythic and the archetypal. (In a trash-romantic way, of course.) That hazy, twinkling light? The sexy curlicues of cigarette smoke? The enraptured lingering on the cheekbones of the stars? Corny and overfamiliar, sure. Yet credit where credit's due: it's effective. And isn't it remarkable how this package of glamor tropes is still with us? Von Sternberg was one of the artists who helped put over this particular style.

  • The Seven Samurai. (IFC, Saturday 2-28 at 8 a.m.) Akira Kurosawa's 1954 samurai action classic is of course essential film-buff viewing. The film is often discussed in terms of its immediacy, and for good reason. Kurosawa uses long lenses, fast cutting and (if I remember right, anyway) a more-grainy-than-usual film stock to bring us into the action -- rare for a Japanese director of that era, and harsh and exciting still. What isn't mentioned as often is another of the film's dimensions: there's something stately and mythic up on there onscreen. Something that has grandeur and nobility -- and something that the black and white helps bring out. What is it? Well, these samurai are ghosts of themselves. Enacting ancient, doomed roles and rituals as they confront the present, they're already dead even as they're at their most alive; they're memorials of themselves even as they realize themselves most fully. Behind the heart-pounding action-adventure stuff -- haunting it, in fact -- is the same Japanese spirit world that we encounter in something like the recent Miyazaki animated film "Spirited Away."

  • It Happened One Night. (TCM, Saturday 2-28 at 1 pm.) This lighthearted 1934 Frank Capra film stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and is generally credited with kicking off the genre of '30s "screwball" romantic comedies, one of the glories (IMHO, of course) of 20th century art. Along with jazz, the screwball comedy is one of the ways by which Americans taught the rest of the world how to have fun, and the form introduced a new kind of breezy, good-humored, mutually-amused equality between women and men; nothing like it had ever been seen before. It's startling in this era of target-marketed chickflicks and guyflicks to realize that there was once a time when both sexes were assumed to be capable of enjoying adventure, romance, flirtation, seduction, and laughs, and when both sexes might well enjoy watching such spectacles together. From our b&w angle? Note how b&w makes it easier to accept the conventions of romantic comedy -- the coincidences, the banter, the crises ... It's enough to make you feel sorry for present-day makers of romantic comedy -- the brightness and realism of color too often seem at war with the romance. Watching the best of the classic '30s screwballs can be like going on the best dates you ever had. It's as if those powdered, mischievous, flirty partygoers in a Watteau painting arrived on their mythical island and discovered Duke Ellington's orchestra in full swing.

O, the film-history riches I had to exclude from this week's list of recommendations: Purple Noon, sexy-sinister suspense-on-a-boat from Rene Clement (IFC, Saturday 2-28 at 12:15 -- ie., noon-fifteen); De Sica's gorgeous last-days-of-the-Italian-Jews drama Garden of the Finzi-Continis, starring the '70s icon Dominique Sanda (IFC, Friday 2-27 at 8 a.m. and 2 pm); an episode of A&E Biography about Clint Eastwood (Wednesday at 8 pm) and another about Natalie Wood (Thursday at 8 pm) ...

Got any tips for people who want to get into b&w movies?



posted by Michael at February 24, 2004


A friend of mine once told me about a B&W film series she went to at some revival house or another -- back in the late 80's or early 90's. They were showing new prints of old films, but they were also using older-style projectors that employed a light source no longer used in modern theaters. Apparently the light spectrum emitted by the older projector bulbs differs somewhat from those used today, which are more suited to color film. She reported that the B&W seemed much richer and more detailed than she was used to seeing it. She admitted that the new prints might have accounted for this, but she insisted that the quality of light was just different than what she was used to, and that it really seemed to make a difference.

Any film buffs out there got the low-down on this?

Posted by: Twn on February 24, 2004 01:36 AM

You know, it's odd -- but there are a lot of color movies nowadays (the Matrix series comes to mind) that try to be B&W and fail.

I wonder if the kids today really dislike B/W movies, or if they dislike the studio-bound, Production Code mentality that those movies seem to represent. Raging Bull would be a good test.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 24, 2004 01:45 AM

The color in films has never satisfied me as the b&w does. The film stocks for a while did make people look like meat. Visually, still, today's colors don't compel me.

Posted by: rex on February 24, 2004 03:14 AM

Do kids not like b/w or do they not like old films in general? Remember, what constitutes "old" these days is a lot closer to us chronologically than it used to be...

Posted by: James Russell on February 24, 2004 03:24 AM

As a kid (in the sixties), b&w signified newsreel/documentary for me. Sometime in the seventies, b&w shifted from being a cheaper alternative to color to a conscious artistic choice.

Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, where each venue had a different tint, made me aware of how much filmmakers are using color filters to shift mood nowadays. Besides being a device to help the audience keep track of where they are, this strikes me (layman, film outsider) as an attempt to take back some of the expressive abstraction and strangeness of b&w. I thought Traffic really worked - albeit I saw it on tv; the filter device might have felt more labored on the big screen.

Tangential to Twn's observation about light sources, as a child and young adult, I used to see a lot of films at the Brattle in Cambridge. They had (maybe still have - I haven't lived in Boston for a couple decades now) a rear projection system that changed the quality of the light. B&w films always struck me as more liquid and alive there. I suppose back projection created a glow like a computer screen has.

Posted by: Robert on February 24, 2004 05:12 AM

I think it would be worth pointing out to some of these youngsters that there is nothing that compares with black and white films like "It Happened One Night" and "Notorious" when it comes to engendering instant romance in a date scenario.

Also they're missing out on a high number of the absolute coollest screen stars ever. I don't think Walter Huston made too many colour movies, and Robert Mitchum certainly looked better in B/W.

It is sad but true though; the film school I went to here in NZ was populated with kids who would talk about black and white films as though it were a genre, like action or comedy.

Posted by: Adrian Hyland on February 24, 2004 08:09 AM

Twn -- That's fascinating, I wonder if there's anything to it. Makes sense -- certainly the kinds of lights that are used when filming have an impact on the look of a movie. Why wouldn't the kind of light used in projection have an impact too? Those ferocious silent-movie-era arc lamps must have had their own character. But I know nothing about it. Eager to learn more.

Tim, James -- "Raging Bull" would be a good test. I hear that the kids find b&w itself a turnoff, apparently: video clerks tell me that when they suggest an old movie, kids might well reject it and explain that they don't watch b&w. Might as well take 'em at their word, I figure. "Old" too I'm sure is a turnoff to some of them, but apparently b&w per se is too. Not that I've made a systematic study of it, of course. But it's odd too the way that the allure of "old movies" and movie history has evaporated. For a few decades it really had a romance -- it was hip, happenin' and sexy. These days young people seem to consider anything prior to "Pulp Fiction" dead.

Rex -- Color is a problem, er, challenge, isn't it? How to stylize it sufficiently yet still use what it offers? I've got a list of people who've wrestled with it in ways I've found profitable but it's a pretty standard one: Sirk, Hitchcock in the '50s, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Altman, blah blah. I don't have much to add to the usual filmbuff line here. Who have you found manages to wrestle it into behaving and contributing some?

Robert -- I didn't know the Brattle was set up for rear projection. Interesting to learn that it works well. The Theater 80 here in NY used rear-projection and it generally looked pretty bad. But I suppose there are many variables .... The point you and Tim make about how filmmakers are playing with stocks and filters these days is true -- I'd add that a lot of this these days is done in digital post-production, which makes it easy and relatively cheap: it's one of the reasons it's so common. I should enjoy it more often than I do, but I'm a grump. I thought it worked awfully well in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." Have you seen that picture? Very interesting in many ways.

Adrian -- Old movies have lost their sexiness in the eyes of youngsters. I'm not sure why. Any ideas? I wonder if it's a factor that American youngsters apparently don't date these days. Maybe it's just another symptom of something. My working theory is that digital tech and approaches demystify everything they touch -- by turning material into information they strip it of romance (which is hard to quantify). Seems to me -- FWIW, of course -- that the biggest challenge for the arts these days is to develop ways of getting art values (romance among them) back into the equation. Seems to be no stopping the advance of digi-tech, so why not accept it and get on with re-establishing art values in the midst of it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2004 11:16 AM

I, too, grew up with B&W television. However, I can remember mentally adding my own color; when I saw the reruns in color it was confusing, because in my mind's eye, a dress was a different color, etc. I will turn off any "colorized" version of older B&W movies now. My children were exposed (pun unintended!) to several good old movies that were in B&W, so they are not as jaded towards them. They love "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" with Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, and cried in "On Borrowed Time". Shirley Temple was a big favorite as well. Can you imagine "Laura" in a color version? Nope.

Remakes of old B&W's never do them justice. The Invisible Man, Dial M for Murder, to name a few. The original Wolf Man, Frankenstein, the Mummy and Dracula were far better than any version in color.

Color can be too much of a distraction. Fills in too many of the blanks that are better left to the individual imagination. Just my opinion.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on February 24, 2004 01:45 PM

Two additions for your list:

White Heat - Glenn Ford vehicle.

My Darling Clementine - Amazing film using film noire cinematic techniques to film a western. Very effective.

Posted by: Steve K on February 24, 2004 02:05 PM

It's facing an army on horseback racing toward you vs. being ambushed. It's Georgia O'Keefe vs. Ansel Adams. It's the whole picture vs. the minute details of the composition. It's watching the play vs. reading the book. Each are elements that are skillfully used to produce a different response. Black and white film, like physical books, will never become completely obsolete.

Posted by: susan on February 24, 2004 02:17 PM

Two additions: "People Will Talk", which was recently released on DVD, starring Cary Grant, Jeanne Crain, Finley Currie, Hume Cronyn, Walter Slezak & Sidney Blackmer, produced by Darryl Zanuck & "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" starring Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains & Edward Everett Horton. The latter is always well-received by teens.

Posted by: Sheri Harris on February 24, 2004 02:41 PM

Film, by its very nature, is manneristic (as opposed to realistic): the cave in which you view it, the huge magnification, the necessarily "unnatural" lighting, the score, etc. The artificiality of B&W fits right in with all that.

All of the above is pretty obvious. But there's another factor. Color is quite simply, in many instances, a distraction. Do we really need to know, that even on a drab city street, there are ochres, browns, siennas, steel blues in the background; while we try to focus in on a conversation in the foreground?

Posted by: ricpic on February 24, 2004 04:14 PM

twn: old b&w projectors can definitely be different. The Paramount Theater in Oakland has a special projector which can throw silver-gelatine prints onto the screen. These old prints have a wonderful wonderful silver three-dimensional quality. Supposedly this is how the term "silver screen" arose. I'd speculate that you could use a different colored bulb for different kinds of film, just as you have "Tungsten" and "Daylight" film that are sensitive to different colored lights (artificial and natural, respectively). But I don't know that much about projection, alas.

Something to keep in mind is that independent of the technology of the projector the quality of the print is VERY IMPORTANT. Contrast just disappears on older prints and watching a new print of a film can be a revelation. This is kindof a no brainer, but seeing it in action can be a huge surprise. I year or so ago I caught Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress in a brand new print. It's not the same movie.

As far as color goes, it's worth noting that you can shoot positive and negative film, these having different charactaristics. The first feature movie to use reverse (slide) film was Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66, (it's been used a couple times since), and the colors feel very interesting.

B&W has an interesting history, of course. It's no coincidence that the French New Wave springs up right after the introduction of Kodak's high-speed (and very grainy) Tri-X stock.

This brings up another point: color is not the only thing new to modern film. We have film speeds (e.g., ISO800) today that just didn't exist before. The really graceful "strobing" motion of Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan are new effects for sure. The new film speeds also allow for greater depth-of-field (especially indoors) without super-intense lighting.

Perhaps my personal favorite cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, does stuff with film-speeds that couldn't be done before. His work with color is also, well, perhaps a bit self-indulgent but I think it's the best in the business. Go see Wong Kar Wai's "Happy Together", some of which is in b&w, some is monochrome (blue&w) and some is in color (mostly desaturated, though). It's a gorgeous film.

I don't share The Honorable Mr. Blowhard's romanticization of B&W film. I love it but I find it not superior to color; they're just different mediums. Perhaps one of the greatest things to happen to photography is the recognition that an art-photograph doesn't have to be in b&w to be artsy.

A problem these days as far as color goes (imo) is that digital post-production allows you to make color images so saturated... Technology has advanced our power but not our talent or taste. Take a look at the recent City of God or Amelie to see films that have obvious and ostentatious digital post-production, just kicking up saturation for its own sake.

Posted by: nick kallen on February 24, 2004 04:38 PM

I find that I enjoy black and white more, at least in terms of how it conveys visual detail. Perhaps this is because, as ricpic points out, mostly it's extraneous visual information.

Posted by: . on February 24, 2004 04:40 PM

'Dead Man' (1995) with Johnny Depp is in B & W and is quite lovely throughout. Starts slow, but stick with it.

Posted by: Paul on February 24, 2004 05:57 PM

I would be interested in knowing how y'all feel about old b/w films on DVD, particularly the Criterion series. They have what are commonly referred to as the highest quality transfers of any DVD manufacturer, and they pride themselves on 'cleaning up' the original so it's visually and sonically pristine. However I wonder if any of you are like me and have problems with the following:

- digital compression can't deal with detail, eg slow pans and zooms, which judder (try watching 70s Altman on DVD; perhaps it was just bad manufacturing but I was completely distracted whilst watching 'Nashville'. I had the same problem with Criterion's 'La Grande Illusion' DVD).

-it also can't deal with detail in colour, if my experience watching 'Taxi Driver' is anything to go by. If you remember the last twenty minutes or so, or more accurately from the beginning of the scene in which De Niro gets out of the cab and walks in and shoots everyone, there is a shift in texture in these scenes, something to do with film stock I believe. Watching the film at a theatre, or even on VHS you don't notice it consciously, but rather you feel the film shift gears. On DVD it's as though someone has suddenly walked into the projector (I got the DVD out to show to people at filmschool) and buggered the colour setup.

-lastly, I'm sure you all remember that crackle on the soundtrack that old movies possess? Well Criterion get rid of that, which in theory is a good idea I suppose, the only problem for me being that I LIKE THAT SOUND!! It's just a beautiful sound and contributes to the rhythm of a film.

I admire what people like Criterion are doing and certainly their products are superior to those of the people that made DVDs of Nashville, Taxi Driver etc, but don't you get the feeling that there's something a bit anal about all this tidying up?

Posted by: Adrian Hyland on February 24, 2004 07:55 PM

While I wouldn't go as far as Michael regarding the qualities of b&w movies, I do love them, partly for their "time-capsule" or "alternate world" aspects. Lots of kids go to movies to see "something new," but if they're typical kids I'll bet they've *never* seen anything as strange as Shanghai Express or Gabriel Over the White House, films that could never be made today.

Posted by: PapayaSF on February 24, 2004 08:47 PM

Just a few random observations...

* The marble quarry scenes in THE FOUNTAINHEAD. There are shots of Patricia Neal against the lighter sky and the white marble that took my breath away. The effect was living sculpture. I can't imagine the effect being the same in color.

* I recall reading that Disney made THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR (1961 version) and its sequel, SON OF FLUBBER, in black and white because the effects (like a flying car in the sky) would be easier to do and more believable. The same effects done in color at the time would have had obvious matte lines, as seen in more or less contemporary color fantasy films (like the somewhat later CHITTY CHITTY BANG-BANG, also with a flying car). For as cheaply made as THE THREE STOOGES IN ORBIT probably was in 1962, the back-projection shots of the Stooges presumably flying a sort of airborne tank over Los Angeles are surprisingly credible in black and white, and I don't think would have been in color. I've seen obvious effects shots done in the '20s (like miniature people such as fairies) that look quite believable even today. On the other hand, color films made until relatively recently had problems with back projection and matte shots.

* I once saw a scene in a '30s musical that must have had a hundred chorus girls all dressed in white, and in their midst was the leading lady, also dressed in a similar white gown. Yet you never had any problem picking out the leading lady -- she never got lost in the white blur of dancing chorines. Clever camera angles and composing each shot to emphasize the star could go only so far, I thought. Puzzled as to how it was done, I went back and took another look at the scene. At least one thing was clear when I was looking for it: the star's dress was mildly reflective and shone just enough in the light to stand out without being blatantly conspicuous. The chorus girls' dresses were duller and didn't reflect. Back in the days of black and white films, there must have been all kinds of tricks like this.

* One trick I've wondered about is whether sets and props in the B&W days still had to be composed for natural color because different colors would photograph differently in gray tones. I think I've heard chocolate syrup was used for blood rather than something naturally red because it simply looked better in black and white, but I'm not sure about anything else...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 24, 2004 10:08 PM

Something I've noticed about B&W films (and TV shows): the way scenes are lit is very different from the way scenes in color productions are lit. (Maybe I'm saying something obvious here, but I never thought about it until recently.) There's much more emphasis on shadows and contrast, which gives B&W movies (at their best) an almost 3D quality. There must be a whole different lighting technique employed for B&W productions. This is one reason why colorized films look so bad, I suppose -- the lighting is wrong.

Posted by: MG on February 25, 2004 12:06 AM

This is one reason why colorized films look so bad, I suppose -- the lighting is wrong.

Check out Lumet's The Verdict.

BTW, sometimes Altman's 1970s films can be jittery even on a big screen.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 25, 2004 04:12 AM

MG's remark about lighting reminds me of another absolutely terrific b&w film, Sunset Boulevard. The expressive lighting of sets and characters was a revelation to me when I first saw it.

Last night I watched Jules et Jim, which is a counterexample: a b&w film that, aside from some short expressionistic set pieces (the Eiffel Tower, the gamboling in the hilly fields early in the film), seems to me essentially naturalistic. Manhattan is another example. Again there are exceptions to its naturalism (the planetscape scene, the Gershwin-backed cityscapes, some of the interiors), but a lot of it seems like straightforward storytelling that just happens to be in b&w, as matter-of-fact as an episode of Charlie's Angels.

Posted by: Robert on February 25, 2004 05:51 AM

I used to own a 1972 Philips TV, that had two cathode ray tubes; one for colour and one for B&W. It is a pity old technology can die. New solutions aren't always better.

That said, the only B&W I'm realy fond off, are French nouvelle vague flicks. But, that's also because of the music.

Posted by: ijsbrand on February 25, 2004 05:53 AM


I don't think too many film buffs would consider Woody Allen to be the most visually sophisticated director that ever walked the earth. While a wildly talented man in many ways, as a visual stylist he largely illustrates the old Hollywood adage:

With a good cinematographer, a chimpanzee could 'direct' a Hollywood feature.

And even the chimpanzees have been going downhill lately.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 25, 2004 10:10 AM

Perhaps, Friedrich, but some chimps like Kevin Smith have trouble with basic blocking and dialogue. These are also part of a director's duty.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 25, 2004 11:24 AM

Night of the Hunter (R. Mitchum)
The Innocents (Deborah Kerr)

Posted by: Amy from Texas on February 25, 2004 11:51 AM

Pattie -- I like being allowed to fill in some blanks myself when I look at/read/whatever some art or entertainment. Aeons ago, when I first started getting intrigued by movies, my main problem with them was that they seemed so literal. Books let you imagine so much; everything in most movies seemed overly spelled-out. I didn't "get" movies until I stumbled across some films that worked more elliptically than most do.

Steve -- Excellent choices, thanks. And I'd never thought of "Clementine" in that way, but I can see what you mean.

Susan -- Hear, hear. It'll be interesting to see how often people choose to use b&w in the future. As well as how they'll use it. As mere effect? As something with a tradition?

Sheri -- Thanks for the recommendations. To show you how decrepit my brain has gotten, I first looked at your suggestion "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and thought, isn't that in color? Only after I poked around Amazon did I realize I'd been thinking about the Lubitsch "Heaven Can Wait." Sigh -- and I used to have such a good brain...

Ricpic, "." -- Couldn't agree more. Who needs all that extra info? On the other hand, when someone manages to make the color-info as important and thought-through an element as anything else in a film, it can be a treat. But it seems like a lot to manage, doesn't it? Yet another element that can run out of control in a medium that's all too rich to begin with.

Nick -- I've seen a few silent b&w movies projected superbeautifully -- really shiney and crystalline, with that 3-D-ish quality you write about. I'd love to know more about what goes into that too. The film-speed thing's interesting too. Very early film was apparently super-slow -- I've read stories about how the lights were so bright they melted makeup and how the actors lived in terror of literally getting burnt by the heat and light.

Paul -- Thanks, I'll give "Dead Man" a try. Jarmusch is a perfect director for contempo black and white -- he likes to minimize everything.

Adrian -- Thanks for the report about Criterion. To be honest I've looked at few of their DVDs, having seen nearly everything they've released in theaters, or at least on 16 mm. I'm thrilled they're bringing out classy editions of great movies, but it's distressing if they aren't doing a great job of it. I've talked to some people about putting together DVDs, and have read about it some too, and it's fascinating to learn how many decisions go into the process -- tons of opportunities for dumb or smart choices. Do you brighten up a scene that looks dark? Or was that director's intention? And although we think of DVDs as containing vast amounts of information, it's actually quite finite. You have to choose how to spend your bytes and bits wisely -- you're apparently trading off lots of detail in one scene for precision in another. Coppola was once quoted as saying something (as he was putting together a DVD of one of his films) like "You have only so many digital pennies, and you make little piles of them, and it's up to you to choose how to spend them." We think of them as this archival medium, and it's pretty clear that most movies will be experienced by most people in digital form. But it's a flukier medium than we tend to imagine. I wonder if in ten years or so, some super-DVD format with five times the info will be brouight out, and then the whole process of turning movies into digital mega-files will have to be gone through all over again.

PapayaSF -- The "strangeness," as you write, of b&w is certainly part of its charm. I confess I've never watched "Gabriel." Worth searching out?

Dwight -- That marble-quarrying scene really is something, isn't it? But I love the whole film -- hard to beat for pure over-the-topness in so many ways. Hard to imagine it being done in color, too. Although I remember that some years ago Michael Cimino was threatening to do a color "Fountainhead." I was looking forward to it myself. Cool film lore, thanks. I've been told (or have read) that you/we'd be surprised if we were on a Hwood b&w movie set. Lipsticks, makeup, paint -- all were often unexpected colors, chosen entirely because they worked well on b&w film. Makes sense: blue and red, for instance, are big contrasts in color terms, but can be rather close where darkness/lightness is concerned. A friend of FvB's worked, years ago, as a flunky on "Raging Bull," or at least on the tests that Scorsese and Michael Chapman made for the film. And I remember him saying that it was fascinating to watch the guys work, learning from test to test to test how to light and compose for b&w. Evidently they started out doing it as though for color, and it looked godawful. But, being talented guys, they learned fast. It'd be fun to watch a process like that.

MG -- That's a good point about lighting and colorization. Never thought about it myself, but it's got to be yet another reason why colorizing looks so bad and unconvincing -- the lighting's all wrong.

Robert -- "Sunset Boulevard" and "Jules and Jim" -- hard to beat those two movies, and hard to beat them as a contrasting pair too. How did "J&J" look when you watched it recently? I loved it as a kid, but it seems like one of those movies that probably hasn't dated well, or is maybe just best viewed when you're a college kid.

IJSbrand -- I never heard of a TV with two tubes. Seems like kind of a brilliant idea. I love much of the nouvelle vague music too, though I'm a little apprehensive about going back to those films, which I suspect would look precious to me today. But maybe I'm wrong about that.

Tim -- Kevin Smith's a funny case, isn't he? Not bad with performers, certainly has flair as a writer, seems to be entirely lacking in every other filmmaking skill and talent, yet somehow occasionally the whole thing is almost enough.

Amy -- Two of the best! I'm a huuuuge "Night of the Hunter" fan. Once had the awful experience of sitting in a theater watching it (well-projected, by the way), and the downtown hipsters around me were laughing at the film, which seemed to be (I'm guessing) too solemn and pretentious for them. Screw 'em, says I.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 25, 2004 11:56 AM


This is a side note, to the issue of contrast, lightness/darkness, etc. It's all part of the interdisciplinary color theory, which could be illustrated by basic Muncell system. Forgive me for a long citation to follow, they don't seem to have links:
...One of the well-known colour system is the Munsell Colour Space, which was devised by an American graphic artist Albert Munsell in 1905. (Munsell, 1969) (see Appendix A) It is based on steps of equal visual perception with any colour being defined as a point within the three-dimensional colour space. Kuehui (1997, p.63) stated that "investigations have shown that the three color attributes on which the Muncell system is based (hue, value, chroma) have real perceptual meaning once they are explained to observers, even to observers untrained in visual scaling. These attributes are easily visualized and comprehended, a major reason for the popularity of the system."

However, the Munsell system has the disadvantage that the perceptual scale steps for hue, value, and chroma are not identical. Colors of equal hue but at differing chroma levels may be perceived as actually having different hues....

'Lightness/darkness' you are talking about is defined as "value" in Muncell terms and determines contrast by - roughly- amount of grey in the chroma, or pigment. So 2 different chroma-wise colors (as green and purple) could be on the same step value-wise; if taken Xerox B&W copy of the combination, will look same intensity grey.

Another aspect - colors changing under different light source - also well-known to designers (interior in general and lighting in particular) phenomenon. There is a special characteristic, given to the lamps (balbs) - CRI, or color rendering index. Lighting source renders more of the warm part of the spectre (closer to the "day", or "white" light) if this index closer to 100, and more of the cool part (closer to blue/green palette) if goes down to about 60.

Narrow practical application of this theory is that I choose fabrics for the sofas in the office environment, f.ex. with more of the Blue/Purple and Green tones, because they will be lit by fluorescent, CRI of 78-80 and if I choose golds, in that light they will look washed down.

So, I would assume, in movie production environment lighting designers do the same things

Posted by: Tatyana on February 25, 2004 01:34 PM

Cinematographers generally try to create "depth" in the frame by creating contrast between foreground and background elements. (The best way I ever heard it put is that the "frame" should be thought of not as a 2D square, but as a 3D box that starts at the camera and extends back to infinity.) In B&W, all you have to work with is two tones - something is either "lit", or "not lit" - so you use light levels for separation. This generally translates into "hard" light - that is, a source that is small compared to what is being lit. This allows you to pick and choose what you want to light without spilling anything anyplace you don't want it. Back in the day, they used honking big fresnels (focusable lights that can give a "soft", flattering light in a small area, like a face) with gobs and gobs of power (that's what single-digit ISO numbers get you...). A good reference for c classic B&W lighting techniques is John Alton's "Painting With Light".

Posted by: jimbo on February 25, 2004 02:04 PM

Michael, here's the Maltin description (minus most of cast list), which should whet your appetite:
Gabriel Over the White House (1933), 87 min. *** D.: Gregory La Cava. Walter Huston, Karen Morley. Dizzying Depression fantasy of crooked Huston elected President, experiencing mysterious change that turns him into Superpresident, determined to eliminate racketeers, find world peace. Bizarre, fascinating.

Another bit of b&w film lore. For the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, cinematographer Karl Struss used an interesting technique for the transformation. He used colored makeup that looked normal under a light with one color of filter, then slowly faded that light while bringing up one with another color filter that showed the very different Mr. Hyde appearance. An impressive way to show the the transformation with no cuts or dissolves.

Posted by: PapayaSF on February 25, 2004 06:37 PM

"A Touch of Evil" (which i somestimes consider the most beautiful movie ever made); someone should write an essay on how this movie influenced "Eraserhead".

"Last Year at Marienbad".

i, too, am a fan of "Morocco"...

Posted by: graywyvern on March 1, 2004 07:58 PM

The best black and white films I think are the film noirs. They started during World War 2 and had their heyday right after the war.
The things to look for are the doomed heroes, the femme fatales, the night scenes, the dark. Look for the shadows on the walls and the ground, claustrophobia is a key here. Notice weird camera angles and an overall sense of paranoia.
I would suggest, Lady from Shanghai, The Big Sleep,with the great Humphrey Bogart, Dark Passage, also with Bogart, DOA, Out of the Past, Detour, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity for starters.

Posted by: William Clough on March 8, 2004 02:37 AM

The old projectors did not have lamps. That accounts for the difference you may notice in the color of the light projecting to the screen. Old projectors used carbon arc to provide the light. The projectionists had to stay right with the projectors so he could keep the distance between the two carbon "pencils" just right by turning a little wheel.Also, two projectors were used as the film for a movie came in 4-10 reels and when one can of film ran out the next can had to be coordinated to start on the second projector while the projectionist rewound the first reel and got the next one ready to go. There were on screen markers that indicated when to switch projectors. If the projectionist went to sleep and the film ran out, the screen went white and all the audience booed and hissed.

Posted by: Crenny on April 4, 2004 02:59 PM

I once saw a short film between movies on either TCM or AMC (maybe a "One Reel Wonder") and it showed how black and white films would use only the two basic colors blue and red in their makeup use. The result was quite uncommon: blue cheeks and lips, red eyelids and nose. I am now doing a project on this very topic and can't find any resources on the subject. If anyone knows where I could find information or simply knows a little about the subject, it would be very much appreciated.

Posted by: Hallie on April 20, 2004 08:23 PM

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