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Color films can simply be illuminated. Black and white films have to be lighted.
May 24, 2011 10:00 AM   Subscribe

For the past year, director Stephen Soderbergh has been recording and sharing a list of the books that he has read, and films that he has watched. The writers at Flavorwire noted Soderbergh's decision to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark in black & white three times, and have compiled a list of color films that work better in monochrome.

More reading:
Why I Love Black & White by Roger Ebert (1989)

[via kottke]
posted by schmod (59 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
"A Christmas Story", strange... I almost remember it in black and white, and every year, I find it jarring that it's ACTUALLY in color.
posted by The Giant Squid at 10:09 AM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


What I'd love to see would be a B&W version of Blade Runner (preferably "The Final Cut"). That movie has always struck me as a bit of a film noir, so seeing it in black and white--devoid of all those kinetic colors and that cold blue--would make it fascinating.
posted by raihan_ at 10:09 AM on May 24, 2011


When I was digging up links for this FPP, the suggestion to make Blade Runner B&W came up more than a few times. I've never seen the film, so I can't comment, but it definitely seems to be a popular suggestion.
posted by schmod at 10:12 AM on May 24, 2011


Oh, neat. I'm not sure I paid attention in college to a syllbaus as closely as I would pay attention to a syllbaus drafted by Soderbergh on film.
posted by cavalier at 10:15 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Derail (my apologies). Anyone else calling bullshit on his reading list? It seems slightly ambitious for a person with even a light social schedule and occasional work. Unless your are incarcerated with access to a very comfy reading chair and good light, I'm not certain how he maintains that velocity.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:17 AM on May 24, 2011


Because Raiders was basically a remake of/homage to the 1930s adventure serial.
posted by orthogonality at 10:17 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Fargo wasn't in black and white? Of course, it had such a cold palette it might as well been.
posted by m@f at 10:18 AM on May 24, 2011


Oh wow, this is really cool. I love black and white. Now I assume this isn't just taking a color film and effectively selecting the "desaturate" filter, but rather a more considered "color grading" effort such as how good b&w photography is made?
posted by jnrussell at 10:21 AM on May 24, 2011


5/22: The Social Network, The Room, The Social Network

That sounds like the most ridiculous movie watching sequence ever
posted by DeltaZ113 at 10:22 AM on May 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


There are episodes of Doctor Who I feel this way about -- some of the Pertwee episodes that were only available in black and white when I first saw them ("The Ambassadors of Death" and "The Daemons"), and now that they have found (or been re-colored) in their original color form, I think they were better monochrome. Others from around the same time sparkle in color, however. It's so interesting -- like they were just learning how to use the medium.

Likewise, I think that color movies from the dawn of color tend to be more interesting in use of colors than the majority of movies today.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:23 AM on May 24, 2011


Of course you mean black and white and shades of grey. Unless you mean this.
posted by poe at 10:24 AM on May 24, 2011


[Not to threadsit, but can we keep this on topic please? You had the chance to discuss the Soderbergh list last month.]
posted by schmod at 10:24 AM on May 24, 2011


The Departed seems wrong in black and white. It's such a modern movie down to its slam-boom-bang editing, and the slate colors are very much a part of its look. I don't like the idea that every noir or noir-like movie has to be literally black and white - Chinatown, Body Heat, Blood Simple, and Brick all work very well in color.

You know what movie would have been good in black and white? The Hunted, by William Friedkin. Completely underrated thriller, very classically constructed. Much is made in the movie of being surrounded by Northwestern American forests, but it would've added to the menace to take all that green out. Actually, most of Friedkin's movies tend to seem pretty black and white in nature. Bug would've been just as good, maybe even better, in black and white.

Also, I wish we could have more Brian De Palma movies in black and white. He had originally wanted Femme Fatale to be in black and white - that would have been terrific.

Now I assume this isn't just taking a color film and effectively selecting the "desaturate" filter, but rather a more considered "color grading" effort such as how good b&w photography is made?

No, they're probably just desaturating it, without taking into consideration the colors and the filters and the hoo-ha and the whatnot, which would explain why some of them seem very muddy.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:28 AM on May 24, 2011


I love Netflix streaming for the number of old B&W movies available. Just caught the original Paul Muni Scarface for the first time a few weeks ago; check out the long opening shot to see how light and shadow work in the way that Ebert's talking about. (ignore the silly disclaimer at the beginning of the clip).
posted by octothorpe at 10:39 AM on May 24, 2011


I'm not really digging monochrome Fargo, if only because a) Ford Sierras just look wrong in black and white, and b) you can't tell which one's tan.

There's a surprising lack of Tim Burton on the list. Too obvious?

*goes to watch Pee-wee's Big Adventure with the colour turned down*

[Not to threadsit, but can we keep this on topic please? You had the chance to discuss the Soderbergh list last month.]

Next time, maybe don't include a topic you specifically don't want discussed as your first and second links.

posted by Sys Rq at 10:41 AM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Slightly off topic but I just have to say that my absolute favorite black and white film of all time ever is Seven Samurai. Good grief that movie is so good it isn't fair.
posted by jnrussell at 10:59 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it might be better to say many of these movies would be better had they been shot as black-and-white. Simply viewing the color film in monochrome really doesn't give you a proper black-and-white experience, for the same reasons they lay-out in the opening paragraphs. Namely, you really aren't getting the lighting right. But, as an experiment, this is cool.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:03 AM on May 24, 2011


Warning: the list of films is a 10 page clickthrough with one film on each page. So I'm going to save everyone the trouble, and spoil their advertising scam by just listing the ten films.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
A Christmas Story
The Fabulous Baker Boys
The Last Seduction
Fargo
The Departed
Out of Sight
Michael Clayton
The Silence of the Lambs
Halloween
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:06 AM on May 24, 2011 [9 favorites]


If you watch Pleasantville in black and white, it doesn't make any sense at all.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:08 AM on May 24, 2011 [10 favorites]


Same with The Wizard of Oz. What's the big deal with the Emerald City?
posted by gottabefunky at 11:12 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree with Sticherbeast. There was a bit in the clip of The Departed where it looked like DiCaprio's shirt was made of a velvety material. It wasn't much, but it did distract me from the moment, something that the film, in its original incarnation did not.

I suspect that some of these could have been made as great black and white films, but simply desaturating them doesn't add much.
posted by Hactar at 11:14 AM on May 24, 2011


gottabefunky: "Same with The Wizard of Oz. What's the big deal with the Emerald City?"

I saw the Wizard of Oz in B&W the first five or six times that I saw it since we only had a Black and White set until I was ten or eleven.
posted by octothorpe at 11:32 AM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


A sticking point for me about the use of black and white nowadays is that making a black and white film now is, explicitly, a pomo move, and not a classical move, and not even a budgetary move. There's a reason why people like De Palma, Soderbergh, Allen, and the Coens are interested in making movies in a classical style: when done right, it can be clever and interesting, especially when you're doing a tweak on noir. It puts things in quoties. It can also be used as a consciously chosen aesthetic to a purpose, as with such disparate films as Schindler's List, Pi, or The American Astronaut.

Contrast this with film noir made when almost all movies actually were black and white, or with pre-DV independent films like Clerks, which genuinely made use of the slight cost savings one could get by using black and white.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:37 AM on May 24, 2011


Sticherbeast: "It can also be used as a consciously chosen aesthetic to a purpose, as with such disparate films as Schindler's List, Pi, or The American Astronaut."

Don't forget Ed Wood.
posted by schmod at 11:44 AM on May 24, 2011


I don't see Blade Runner as a good candidate for B&W. The cityscape and the flashing neon and the frenetic advertising just lends itself to a color palette. It's noir in color.
posted by Billiken at 12:10 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There has beautiful black and white cinematography.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:13 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Francis Coppola's most recent Tetro is great looking (mostly) black and white film with only the flashbacks in color. The story is more than a little over done but it looks great.
posted by octothorpe at 12:24 PM on May 24, 2011


Having just actually viewed a desaturated Pee-wee's Big Adventure in its entirety (that's right, I actually do do the things set between asterisks), I can assure you that it actually does work better. The busy palette of the original version distracts from a lot of the Hollywood callbacks, whereas the monochrome highlights them; the colour scheme dates the whole thing firmly in the po-mo 1980s, rather than the sort of temporally ambiguous setting that Burton would later perfect with Edward Scissorhands.

Just watch the opening sequence, and you'll see what I mean.

I think I'll try some Scorsese next. Mean Streets seems like a good candidate.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:40 PM on May 24, 2011


Slightly off topic but I just have to say that my absolute favorite black and white film of all time ever is Seven Samurai. Good grief that movie is so good it isn't fair.

If I had a copy of The Magnificent Seven on hand, I might give that a try.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:46 PM on May 24, 2011


I'm going to add a couple to that list:

Jurrasic Park

Election (mainly because Reese Whitherspoon really reminds me of Cybill Shepard in The Last Picture Show)

Platoon

Starship Troopers

Even though I love Terrence Malick's work with color, I think it would be interesting to watch The Thin Red Line in black and white. Soderbergh's Solaris should have been filmed in black and white.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:56 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw the Wizard of Oz in B&W the first five or six times that I saw it since we only had a Black and White set until I was ten or eleven.

Me too, back in the 70s, when The Wizard of Oz was a yearly television "event" and a shared cultural experience. The transition from Kansas to Munchkinland was just as engaging, and the visual difference in tone and clarity between the two environments was obvious, even in black and white.

Or perhaps my memories are clouded from the exhaustion of having to walk uphill both ways from the couch to the TV to turn the channel dial and perform the gymnastic contortions required to get the antenna pointed just right.

Eventually seeing the movie in color for the first time was definitely an "Oh wow!" moment, though.
posted by amyms at 1:06 PM on May 24, 2011


For those of you with black and white sets, the stove has just turned green.

For reasons I can't completely explain, this silly gag totally creeped me out when I saw it as a kid on Nick at Nite (on a black-and-white TV).
posted by roll truck roll at 1:34 PM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm kind of disappointed he picked The Fabulous Baker Boys but did not include the on-piano scene.
posted by ersatz at 1:36 PM on May 24, 2011


Reese Whitherspoon really reminds me of Cybill Shepard

Or Cybill Shepherd, even!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:37 PM on May 24, 2011


"Transsiberian" is one that I think could've been in black and white.

I'm not sure I've seen an equivalent list for "movies that would be BETTER in IMAX 3d!!!!!!!!"
posted by milkrate at 1:40 PM on May 24, 2011


I found myself nodding along to these picks until I got to 'Silence of the Lambs' if for no other reason than the final scene loses it's impact if the rest of the movie is already monochromatic. But apart from that I feel like it just wouldn't work for me.

On preview, I have a hard time picturing 'Jurassic Park' in black and white also.
posted by TwoWordReview at 3:02 PM on May 24, 2011


Yay for the Kevin Brownlow book recommendation. He is awesome.
posted by Put the kettle on at 3:19 PM on May 24, 2011


It would be interesting to reverse the experiment, and work out which black and white movies would work better in colour. None, at a guess, but it would be mildly hilarious if it turned out Humphrey Bogart was wearing a purple suit all the way through Casablanca.
posted by hnnrs at 3:29 PM on May 24, 2011


Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala looks way better with the chroma stripped away. I presume this might be because of the muddy Soviet colour separation in the original, but maybe the story just looks better in black and white.
posted by ovvl at 3:43 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Any truth to the rumor that there has been a bootleg colorized version of Manhattan being passed around since the early 90s?
posted by squalor at 4:17 PM on May 24, 2011


A lot of this black and white nostalgia is very puzzling to me. Particularly the idiosyncratic fetishization of particular color palettes (and the dramatically different recollection that I find other people have of a film's use of color).

Take Fargo, for example. People routinely describe it as having a flat and colorless palette. Yet there are points where the color is very striking, in different ways (the interiors look lurid even in subdued lighting, and the flash of blue sky in the woodchipper scene), and that's true precisely because you've been looking at snow so damn much. So losing the color, means losing that.

Or take Michael Clayton, which has a really lovely use of color.

It's retro-fetishism, IMO. I don't see the point.

I think I know why Soderberg watches films in black and white. He loves working in black and white, and he's probably trying to see what happens when you strip the color out. It's probably a technical exercise, with a point. But why ordinary filmgoers want to see a film made for color rendered into black and white still just strikes me as a craving for novelty. (Mind you, I'd do it myself, for that, but I wouldn't claim I was seeing a "better" version of the film than a highly skilled DP & well-paid director were producing for me in color.)
posted by lodurr at 5:08 PM on May 24, 2011


ovvl,

That's an interesting argument, and one that I think I buy, even though I could not imagine other late-period Kurosawa (like Kagemusha) in anything other than color.

TwoWordReview,

Think about all the scenes in Jurassic Park that happen at night, in the rain. Part of this is when I think about these films in black and white, in my mind I add a higher level of contrast and clarity to the cinematography. The same goes for Platoon, which would need both monochrome, and something done about all the muddy outdoors shots.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:13 PM on May 24, 2011


Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala looks way better with the chroma stripped away.

I'm not sure it's possible to help that film. I've seen every single Kurosawa film, and many that he wrote or assisted on, and that is the only film I couldn't watch to the end. Really. I even managed to sit through Dodesukaden.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:59 PM on May 24, 2011


Color footage from the set of The Great Dictator.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:39 PM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


I loved Dersu Uzala, especially the scene in the windstorm.
posted by mblandi at 6:44 PM on May 24, 2011


Yeah, Dersu Uzala is one of my top 3 Kurosawa favorites.

(the other 2 being "Ikiru" and "whichever one I most recently saw and is freshest in my memory").

Frank Durabont's The Mist was re-released on DVD in b&w. Haven't seen it yet, but I'm pretty sure it's an improvement over the original. (that's not snark, I think the original is a decent flick)
posted by the bricabrac man at 7:24 PM on May 24, 2011


roll truck roll: "For those of you with black and white sets, the stove has just turned green.

For reasons I can't completely explain, this silly gag totally creeped me out when I saw it as a kid on Nick at Nite (on a black-and-white TV).
"

Can you explain this? Is there some way a program could have made a B&W set show green?
posted by meadowlark lime at 8:22 PM on May 24, 2011


It would be interesting to reverse the experiment, and work out which black and white movies would work better in colour.

They tried that in the 80s. People almost universally loathed the results.

None, at a guess, but it would be mildly hilarious if it turned out Humphrey Bogart was wearing a purple suit all the way through Casablanca.

Alas, his suit was plain old brown (at least in the scene in the top image).
posted by amyms at 9:10 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


meadowlark lime: " Can you explain this? Is there some way a program could have made a B&W set show green?"

Haha, that would be an impressive trick, but no. If I remember correctly (I saw this on TV 20+ years ago and I was just a kid when I saw it), you couldn't see any change on a black and white TV.* (You can watch the episode here; skip to the last minute for the stove gag.)

So why did it scare me? I can't really explain it, but I remember thinking about it a lot. Something about the entire last segment of the episode, with dialogue being "bleeped" by the aliens. It felt like it stopped being about fictitious characters, and became about some kind of forces tampering with the actual, real-life video of the episode. The stove just took it over the top. And somehow the fact that there weren't any people in the house made it all the creepier. The green stove wasn't a message to them, it was a message to me.

I was kind of a weird kid.

*Incidentally, I didn't know until today that Green Acres was actually filmed in color. If the show had been filmed in black and white, that would have added another layer to the stove gag.

posted by roll truck roll at 9:33 PM on May 24, 2011


The choice of B/W vs Color , especially now that we have the option to choose, has always interested me. Back in film school, I wrote a whole paper on the way Wim Wenders worked with the two in different films and then together in one, Wings of Desire.

I've always felt that color is better at communicating the emotional resonance of a scene, while black and white really brings out details. Not that B/W doesn't do emotion, but I think the performances etc have to work a little harder.

Just look at how much more detail pops out in the scene in Indy's house in the Raiders of the Lost Ark scene. I've seen this movie maybe 25 times, easy, and I've never noticed all the stuff in the bookcases. Same with the scene in Silence of the Lambs, though I'd say some the detail that's brought out is in the individual performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.

Wenders kind of takes this to the extreme in Wings of Desire, by showing the POV of the angels, who spend the movie cataloging and observing detail, in B/W, and using color to show the human POV. This is especially dramatic when Damiel chooses to become human and a world of emotion opens up to him. I'm sure this movie affected my early thinking on this, but I think the idea holds up beyond that movie.

I haven't shot B/W film in spots professionally in about 5 years. On our budgets, it's just too hard to justify the limitations it brings if you have to use the footage later, but I regret that a little. Having to make that choice makes you think much more fully about what you want out of the shoot and what it means to the subject matter. I also just miss the quality of the image. My last roll of 35mm B/W film was a really contrasty, slow, plus-x style stock and it just looked gorgeous. You can get that in HD video or 4k now, but you really have to light with that in mind right from the start.
posted by Noon Under the Trees at 10:44 PM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, Dersu Uzala is one of my top 3 Kurosawa favorites.

(the other 2 being "Ikiru" and "whichever one I most recently saw and is freshest in my memory").


Oh you're totally in the wrong decade for Kurosawa, IMHO his early B&W films set in contemporary Japan are the best. Those films were before he had an international reputation, they don't have massive budgets like the later historical dramas with massive armies of extras in battle scenes. Kurosawa worked much harder on those films, and had less to work with.

My personal favorite is "Scandal," which alas is very rarely shown and almost unheard of. Second is "Bad Men Sleep Well," but I can't watch it very often because in the ending.. well, I'm not going to spoil it for anyone. It is a later film so it doesn't have the intimate charm of his smaller movies, or else I'd probably rate that #1. "Stray Dog" is also very good. But I have a special place in my heart for "One Wonderful Sunday." It was made during the Occupation, and Kurosawa broke the censorship code and put the first kiss in any Japanese film in the postwar era (or ever, AFAIK). Warning: you will be very disappointed.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:57 PM on May 24, 2011


I also just miss the quality of the image. My last roll of 35mm B/W film was a really contrasty, slow, plus-x style stock and it just looked gorgeous. You can get that in HD video or 4k now, but you really have to light with that in mind right from the start.

Plus X was always my favorite for still photography, but I never thought it was that contrasty. If you shoot and develop it right (and that would probably require complex Zone System methods like I used) it has an extremely long tonal scale. That's really the best quality of B&W films. And that is the one thing that HD video cannot do yet, that B&W film stock can. HD is shot in color and processed digitally to B&W, its tonal range is essentially limited to what the color sensor can produce in one channel. HD can't match the long tonal scale of B&W film. Even the best color film can't match the long tonal scale of B&W film. B&W is practically HDR compared to the other media. The problem is, people are used to watching these films on TV or other non-projective media that just cannot reproduce what's on the film. And many old B&W films look contrasty and "Noir" partly because they're poorly made prints, or copies of copies that have lost their tonal range.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:08 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Scandal is outrageously good. Shimura is brilliant in that picture, and it's a side of Mifune that you rarely see as well. And Ikiru is one of my favorite films, ever. He really lost something special when he lost Shimura.

As far as 'first kiss ever', not sure what you'd mean by that. I seen a bunch of 'em.
posted by lodurr at 1:30 AM on May 25, 2011


I could have sworn that I once saw an episode of I Love Lucy in color, although Google seems to be telling me that this is impossible. Either way, it felt wrong.
posted by schmod at 6:28 AM on May 25, 2011


As far as 'first kiss ever', not sure what you'd mean by that. I seen a bunch of 'em.

I'm not so sure about prewar, there could have been kisses on film there, but I can't recall seeing any. The Occupation imposed strict censorship on films and prohibited kissing. Kurosawa got past the ban. I'll explain in the dreaded rot13 if you care, serious spoiler of the final scene here (although mostly trivial and won't affect your enjoyment that much).

Gur svany fprar fubjf gur pbhcyr tbvat va sbe gur xvff, gura fur qebcf ure cnenfby orgjrra gurz naq gur pnzren, lbh frr gur xvff va fvyubhrggr sebz n fgebat onpxyvtug pnfgvat gurve funqbj ba gur cnenfby.

Directors did all sorts of little digs at the Occupation censorship. My favorite is from Ozu (I think, I can't recall the film). There's a scene where there's a futon drying on a clothesline, a little kid peed all over it and there's a huge stain right in the center. If you look really close, the futon is striped, but the corner has a big square patch over it. It looks like a very low contrast version of an American flag. LOL.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:40 AM on May 25, 2011


schmod - are you thinking of The Lucy Show? That was in colour.
posted by mippy at 8:06 AM on May 25, 2011


charlie: OK, I thought you were talking *evar*. I'm with you.

... & it could have been the Lucy Show, or it could have been this dumbass rom-com she made with Desi -- I want to say it was called 'the long trailer' or something like that -- where they haul an Airstream into some national park in a humoresque bid to salvage their failing marriage, at which point hijinks the suits thought would pass for hilarity ensue.
posted by lodurr at 8:51 AM on May 25, 2011


maybe the story just looks better in black and white

"had he not made the crucial decision to shoot in black and white, City Of Life And Death would be unbearable"

also btw...
Indiana Jones' stunt double
posted by kliuless at 11:11 AM on May 25, 2011


Charlie Don't Surf, I think part of why the Plus X film feels more contrasty to me is because the fall off is so steep. (Or it could just be the way, I've always lit it.) It's always felt a little more limited in motion picture use because you generally don't have as much room to play with your shutter speed, so I've always ended up using it in either bright exteriors or very controlled interiors. I'm a long way away from it though, so I could be misremembering. Totally agree about the tonal range.
posted by Noon Under the Trees at 6:32 PM on May 25, 2011


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