Now They Call It Grayscale
September 15, 2008 5:42 PM   Subscribe

Black & white films to be remembered.
posted by exogenous (33 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The essay says: "After all, life is in prose, so why not books?" Um... life is in poetry.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:11 PM on September 15, 2008

I gladly can't even remember the time when I needed to be talked into giving movies of "the B&W era" a shot. That's not an "era," it's an epoch! So, it's trite, but, this argument is not good enough. No mention of Metropolis, Sunrise, Las Hurdes, The 39 Steps or Ninotchka. This is a really mediocre discussion of the role of color in cinema, but hey, I guess it suits the culture it's written for.

/me takes her movies and goes home
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 6:23 PM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I often feel lucky to be alive right now, in an age of seemingly infinite yet still accelerating vistas of representation. During my brief lifetime I have seen the advent of the WWW, Pixar, cable and then high-definition TV, digital cameras, and so many more technological marvels that enhance our ability to accurately represent the world. I own a digital camera and manipulate my pictures in photoshop. I own a 42" high definition TV and marvel at the acuity with which every face in a previously nameless sporting event crowd is rendered. I expect the special effects in the movies I see to appear natural and to seamlessly integrate with whatever live action is on the screen. I'm a child of the time when the sky is a technicolor marvel, tuned to a lively multicolor palette. I love it.

But, strangely, my most intimate moments of visceral appreciation occur not when I see something whose verisimilitude is breathtaking, though these are certainly mesmerizing in their own way. Rather, I am most transfixed when I confront a piece of representation that is limited in some way but still captures some essential property of the vitality of our aleatory existence on this planet: a scratchy old record; a well-thumbed novel; a black-and-white photo or film. Something whose ability to communicate something remarkable, despite the limitations of the medium.

This ability to communicate through limitation is something that is quickly being lost, and something for which I mourn. Our era celebrates - rightly - the possibility of unfettered communication and freedom of expression. Every one of us has more representational power at our immediate fingertips than great artists had for most of human existence. But what we gain in expansion we also lose in concentration. More choices means more possibility, but paradoxically less control.

Here's what I mean: If you create an image in black and white, you only have two basic colors to play with. So you get to know those colors really, really well: the startling sheen of the whites, the endless depths of the blacks, the immense expanse of grays in between, from drab and rainy to complex and smoky. Those golden age directors and photographers - the Fords and Hitchcocks and Adamses - they only had a limited palette to deal with, but they had it down.

Nowadays we have hundreds of colors to mess with in every aspect of our mediated existence. Right-click on your desktop and you can choose from at least 256 colors, but probably thousands more. But what guides your choice?

I don't want to return to the days of black and white only. But I do sometimes wish I - and others - had fewer choices, if only so that we could appreciate extraordinary depths in the simplest building blocks of our world.
posted by googly at 6:38 PM on September 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

I would colorize every black and white film. I really would. Even though most of my favorite films are in black and white (Sunrise, the Big Parade, 42nd Street, Dames, Goldiggers of 1933, all Hal Roach comedies, all Buster Keaton films, all the screwball comedies, all Astaire and Rogers, etc.), I never stop wishing they were in color. I love colorized movies. The colorized version of Shirley Temple's Little Colonel is not naturalistic color, but something else, some wonderful romantic tint such as you'd imagine they'd do in the 19th century. These colorized Three Stooges shorts from 2004 are the best colorization I've ever seen. You can study them frame by frame, and it really holds up. I wish this particular technique could be applied to Manhattan and other Woody Allen films. I want to see Civil War photographs by Matthew Brady's studio colorized. Color is life. Color is glorious. I never wear sunglasses in even the brightest sunshine because I don't want to lie on my deathbed thinking that I ever deprived myself of even one second of glorious color. The government should initiate a "Manhattan Project" style crash program to come up with a perfect, cheap method of colorizing black and white films and photographs, so that all this wonderful visual heritage can be bought to life, life, life...
posted by Faze at 6:46 PM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hey, I'm all for the old classics. But I can't get behind Kanfer's color ruined everything! thesis, which he supports by weighing some of the greatest comedies of the first half of the twentieth century against the lousy 1983 remake of To Be or Not to Be. He's even more disingenuous when it comes to musicals:
As for musicals, sure, you can name glorious Technicolor examples—adaptations of Broadway fare like The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and Oliver!, along with such originals as Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. Yet even these take second place to nine black-and-white Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers movies.
The hell? Sure, Top Hat's awesome, but does Kanfer really believe that Flying Down to Rio is objectively better than The Music Man? Or Once, for that matter? And it's better only because it's in black and white? He ignores all the other the stylistic shifts and historical contexts of film to split everything on the wedge of color, and he has to cherry pick outrageously to do so.
posted by Iridic at 6:50 PM on September 15, 2008

Color, youtubes, blueray: these are all fine and good. But it's a shame some folks avoid great movies just because they're in black and white.
posted by exogenous at 7:12 PM on September 15, 2008

This ability to communicate through limitation is something that is quickly being lost

But there is Theater. Stage sets and props in theater are not, as I once thought, merely cheap film sets out of practical necessity (and limited budget), but the "art of limitation" as you say, the ability to make something real through the minds eye, like how radio dramas use subtle sounds to trigger the imagination in ways HD color movie leaves nothing to the imagination, except numb shock of hyper-realism. Theater is the art of limitation, every show is one of a kind, no two shows are alike, and once its over, it's gone never to be seen again. Many of the reasons to be critical of tv/film can be redeemed through theater.
posted by stbalbach at 7:18 PM on September 15, 2008

I remember when Black Orpheus was released in NYC, and it was remarkable that a serious and wonderful film was in color. At the time, color meant 'lightweight' (but Hitchcock started using color about this time)

Some films are messed up by coloring. I do not believe the 3 stooges could be harmed by it, though.
posted by hexatron at 7:57 PM on September 15, 2008

The great thing about black and white in cinema (as well as still photography, of course), when it's done well, is that everything becomes about light, shadow and contrast, in ways that can actually heighten visual perception. B&W addresses aspects of composition and visual relationships that color is often unable to do, by a kind of honing in on essentials.

I think it's rather sad that kids today might roll their eyes and complain about B&W. It's indicative of a kind of laziness, as far as I'm concerned. The mind has to see things, not just the eyes. But, it's not their fault, this laziness. These youths don't have the ability to see B&W, because they lack early experience with the medium. There's a getting accustomed to B&W movies that probably needs to start in childhood, like it did for many of us who are now in our 40s and 50s and beyond. We saw LOTS of B&W on TV, in revival movie houses (do those even exist anymore?) and so on. That's not so much the case with young people today, is it?

But I believe early exposure to B&W really is key. Since she was a tot, my daughter has always watched a certain amount of B&W vintage cartoons, for example some really early stuff like Koko the Clown, Betty Boop, etc. And she loves those as much as she does Toy Story and Finding Nemo. Most all of her little friends wouldn't give those old B&W cartoons more than a few minutes of attention: they already don't know how to see black and white. Strange but true.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:00 PM on September 15, 2008

I wonder how many of the people bemoaning this disdain for B&W movies (and/or railing against colourisation of the 'classics') won't watch a foreign movie unless it's been dubbed? Or worse, remade in a Hollywood version?
posted by Pinback at 8:48 PM on September 15, 2008

Talkies ruined everything.
posted by mike_bling at 8:53 PM on September 15, 2008

I think it's rather sad that kids today might roll their eyes and complain about B&W.

I taught a course in screen studies to a class of Year 11 kids who were mostly all "gah, not another black and white film!" It's worth remembering that groups of kids of this age are incredibly conservative in what they'll admit to liking in front of others, and "new" is a big part of what gets in the cool club.
posted by Wolof at 8:55 PM on September 15, 2008

My appreciation for good black and white (and even silent) films is so visceral and raw... it's like when a perfect ray of light pierces a huge cloud in the sky and a tear involuntarily rolls down my cheek.

Anyone who doesn't understand the intensity and necessity of such pure pleasures in life? Man, I'm so sorry for you. That being said, it's just my gut reaction to such things.

This applies to photography as well.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:14 PM on September 15, 2008

I wonder how many of the people bemoaning this disdain for B&W movies (and/or railing against colourisation of the 'classics') won't watch a foreign movie unless it's been dubbed?

I'd say with some degree of certainty that most people who would bemoan the disdain for B&W movies are not fond of dubbing at all, but greatly prefer translation by subtitles. Dubbing is fairly well despised, I'd say. At least, among Americans. I don't know what the feeling is about dubbing in England or elsewhere.

Or worse, remade in a Hollywood version?

That's probably a case-by-case basis. There have surely been some decent Hollywood remakes of foreign films, and no small amount of disastrous ones as well.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:51 PM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Black & white films to be remembered", the front page promised.

So I clicked through, expecting a link to old guys reminiscing about the Good Old Days of trying to get Panatomic-X to dry flat, or something.

Instead, it's a link about old movies.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 11:00 PM on September 15, 2008

Did anyone else notice that the video store guy in the article cited Schindler's List as one of the 'classic' B&W movies they stock, despite viewers' waning interest? Isn't that movie, like, totally not old?
posted by shakespeherian at 11:02 PM on September 15, 2008

I don't know what the feeling is about dubbing in England or elsewhere.

If I recall correctly, Europe is quite fond of dubbed films, Italy especially. The arty foreign film crowd in Italy positively gags at the notion of subtitles, the same way that crowd in America reacts to dubbing.

(Caveat: I have not been to Italy, and am basing this on something I read.)
posted by shakespeherian at 11:05 PM on September 15, 2008

flapjax, I'm a classy enough dame, but for very old Asian films, without synchronous sound especially, I keep wishing I could try screening decent dubbed versions, at least to compare. The opacity of intonation and the vast differences between my Western cultural fluency and that of the audiences in 1931's Japan, stacked atop imperfect syncing, and the distraction of reading subtitles, really add up to a high barrier to matching words spoken and feeling. Just me. And not a very popular pony.

Dubbing has been totally acceptable at various times in other counties, polylingual India, for example, where I understand the Tamil? or was it Telegu... cuts of films are just longer than the Hindi versions, since it takes longer to speak.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:31 PM on September 15, 2008

AV, I have no doubt that you are the classiest of dames, and I don't want my above comment to serve (inaccurately) as some sort of blanket condemnation of dubbing, across the board. I think your example of old Asian films in particular is a good one, in this instance, since, after all, the "meaning in inflection" in a Chinese or Japanese actor's voice is often difficult (or impossible) for us English speakers to grasp, which is not so much the case with actors using Italian, French, etc.

So, I'm certainly not against dubbing in principle, but when dubbing is used, it's really GOT to be very, very good, or I just can't deal, personally. I'd rather read subtitles. And as far as good dubbing, I'm hard pressed to think of any specific examples, at the moment.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:23 AM on September 16, 2008

The best thing about black and white is that all the shitty movies have been forgotten & we only have the classics left. Yesterday wasn't better; rather, it's that only the best survived and so it appears better.
posted by kanewai at 1:20 AM on September 16, 2008

Eraserhead has just been reissued...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:33 AM on September 16, 2008

another one here expecting HP4 and Tri-X in the link
posted by bonaldi at 4:43 AM on September 16, 2008

Heh, bonaldi, me too.
posted by statolith at 6:21 AM on September 16, 2008

Dubbing is fairly well despised, I'd say. At least, among Americans.

You'd be surprised. Two choice quotes I've heard from co-workers regarding "foreign" films:

"If I wanted to read, I'd get a book!"

"I'm there (at the theater) to be entertained. I don't wanna think!"

posted by Dr-Baa at 7:13 AM on September 16, 2008

Some time ago, I was chatting with a comely lass in my favorite bar. I was having fun talking to her when she brought up the topics of movies and asked what my favorite movie was. I generally avoid talking up esoteric films on the first date, so I asked if she'd ever seen Casablanca. She said no, and so I told her about the film and the basic plot and the actors, when she looked kind of puzzled and asked, "Is that a black and white film? I don't like black and white films." I was appalled, "How can you not like b&w films?" "Oh," she said, "only art nerds and old people like them." Wow. She'd already gotten me pegged. Needless to say the conversation fizzled after that. So now, my litmus test for any potential conversation partner is, "How do you feel about black and white films?" I find it saves time and hurt feelings if you get this stuff out in the open sooner.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:37 AM on September 16, 2008

I was thinking about this the other day. My mom absolutely refused to watch a black and white movie, and wondered why on earth I would watch them on TV saying "When I was a little girl, movies were all in black and white. When they started to make them in color it was a step forward, and I'm not going back." I never really agreed with her.

To be absolutely fair, though, about colorization, some movies use B&W as an artistic statement and some were just shot in B&W because that was all that was available or it was just cheaper. "Babes In Toyland" with Laurel and Hardy was a movie that was immensely improved by colorization.
posted by lordrunningclam at 9:34 AM on September 16, 2008

It's so odd to me it's even an issue. I like color movies, but B&W is still a movie with characters and plot and all. Really, do you even notice after a few minutes? I don't. I just watch the movie.

Side note: When we got our first color TV I was watching it and my Dad came home. Th eTV had gone lightly off channel (this is the days if antennas and analog tuners) and was showing the channel in B&W. My Dad yelled at me as he tuned in the channel. We'd spent money for a color TV and gosh darn it we were going to watch it in color!
posted by cccorlew at 9:37 AM on September 16, 2008

I see so many movies from the 1930's and 40's that I honestly forget they are black & white. I think the same would apply to anyone after a short while. In fact, I think some of the style of acting from the golden age of Hollywood would be more difficult for young viewers to get used to than black & white cinematography.
posted by Rashomon at 2:31 PM on September 16, 2008

Re: dubbing. My Dad spent a lot of time on the continent in the sixties. Couldn't get over the fact that no one had heard Bogart's voice. They watched the movies but they never heard that voice.
posted by surfdad at 2:52 PM on September 16, 2008

Two movies who use color and monochromatic beautifully -- 'Wings of Desire' and 'Living in Oblivion', with Wings being by far a richer movie (IMO) but LIO really tasteful, the transition from monochromatic to color stunningly beautiful, and powerful, and moving. And Wings is not flat black and white and grays, it's enriched with subtle blue hues, so goddamned beautiful.

And of course Dorothy leaving black and white Kansas and on into the hallucinogenic world of Oz, but that one almost goes without saying. Though I did say it, or write it at least, so give me points, if you will, and/or send money.......
posted by dancestoblue at 1:14 AM on September 17, 2008

And I'd rather rip all my hair out than watch a dubbed movie -- how can people do this? I just don't get it. So much emotional content in the voices of the actors, emotional tones, dramatic pauses -- all wiped out in dubbing. Whatsamatter, you can't read some words on the screen?

When I went to Paris, I kept looking at peoples chest(s), expecting to see the real (English) words there, as that is what happened in all the movies I'd seen from France; I assumed it is how people understood all that goofy, guttural French moaning. But never once did I see any words, other than sometimes some French words on tshirts, and I didn't understand them, either. It was quite disappointing.

And the women of course thought I was just checking out their trim waists and chests, which of course I was, but only because the yellow words weren't there, and I figured I'd best do something with the time used while waiting, hopefully, for the words to show up.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:23 AM on September 17, 2008

And all of those 20s and 30s Swedish and Danish movies, so unbelievably emotionally rich, I can't imagine why those should be colorized, I cannot imagine that they'd gain anything and in fact I'd bet they'd lose a tremendous amount.

As noted in many comments above, it was and is an art form to create black and white movies or still images, those incredible movies will always stand tall, and if todays (American) kids won't watch them then it's their loss -- does a beautiful painting become less beautiful because hacks and slacks and morons can't appreciate the beauty that's in it?

Sorry for the three posts, came across this thread late and was and am lit up by it; last one, I promise.

posted by dancestoblue at 1:32 AM on September 17, 2008

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