Hey guys. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on here, and for that I am sorry. I have missed an awful lot of reading of everyone else’s reviews and other stuff on here and in our community that I absolutely need to catch up on. It has been a hellacious school semester for me this time around. However, I’ve decided to end the drought here by using a short essay I originally wrote for school that I wound up liking enough to re-post here. The subject of this essay is my love of black and white movies, and desire to see the form more often returned to by modern movie makers. I’ll try not to be so much of a stranger around these parts in the weeks to come, but with finals coming up I’m no position to be making any promises. Anyway, here’s the essay.
I’m a bit odd when it comes to my movies, or so I’m told anyway. I grew up watching the classics, many of which were in black and white, in front of my parent’s old-fashioned console television set. It was the kind of TV that also functioned as an improvised stepladder for my dad or as a side table if mom draped a long curtain or a sheet over it. I watched most of these classics on that television seated in the floor on the cable channel called Turner Classic Movies, or TCM for short, as well as on AMC, which at the time stood for American Movie Classics, and was not, as it is now, just another generic channel featuring a random ensemble of made for TV dramas (Although to be fair, some pretty damn good ones at least.). I also was blessed to grow up in what was to be the last bastion of the traditional video rental store era. This was a decade or so before such places were to be consumed by those grotesque looking movie dispensing vending machines and mail by order movie services. As a child, those movie galleries seemed to me some of the most wondrous places in the world, containing aisle after aisle and row upon row of endless entertainment options. Those dusty shelves full of old VHS tapes were to me long forgotten treasure troves concealed inside an endless catacomb of cinematic enlightenment.
So I suppose the case could be made that I have more than a little fondness for the way things used to be. My only regret is that I was not born in an even earlier time when I could have experienced many of the classic black and white films I watched in the grand old movie theaters of yesterday with hundreds of others who were also seeing them new for the first time. I make no secret of the fact that I love black and white movies the most out of all movies. This is an odd statement in this day and age, and one that is sure to draw a lot of puzzled looks and weird questions if stated out loud. People today view black and white as merely the absence of color. It is seen as a technical shortcoming, and is pretty much all but shunned by popular movies today. I heartily wish that it were not so. Many of the best films ever made are black and white pictures. They are not lacking anything because they are black and white, and to colorize them, as was the fad a short time ago, is in my opinion, tantamount to vandalism, and also cheapening to the overall experience. It’s kind of like rendering the Mona Lisa in glow in the dark 3D silly putty.
The people who love black and white movies do not just do so out of a sense of nostalgia though. There are good defendable and practical reasons for preferring this genre, if it may be called a genre that is. For starters the black and white format is simply more elegant than the color format. Picture Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart in full color and they lose some of the charm and mystery that made them such triumphant stars of their era. A movie in black and white gets a viewer’s attention quicker than one in color because it stands out more. There is a reason the cinema is often referred to as the Silver Screen. It is a term of endearment to a form of art that allowed people a chance to escape reality for a few hours at a time. Black and white movies are better vessels of this kind of escapism precisely because they are less realistic than movies shot in full color. This is a difficult thought to process because when people think of real life in the early part of the 20th century they see it through the lens of old black and white newsreel footage, but, and I’ve asked my father to confirm this for me, the outside world was still actually seen in full color back then as well.
Black and white is more elemental than color. It is more vivid as well. Dark shadows are more menacing. Alfred Hitchcock had already directed a number of color films by the time he got around to making his classic film Psycho but he chose black and white for that movie precisely because it conveyed the horror of that story more viscerally. Imagine the famous Janet Leigh shower scene in color and it becomes less chilling and more simply gruesome and appalling. Color is more distracting. It draws too much attention to itself rather than the story. Modern movies sometimes feel more like travelogues because the cinematography while certainly awe inspiring and beautiful in many cases takes the focus away from the story being told and puts it on the scenery and other non-essential elements. A colorful vase in the far off corner of the screen can grab a viewer’s attention right in the middle of an important piece of dialogue between two main characters. Black and white takes away such distractions and pulls the viewer right into the story being told.
Out of the movies that would constitute a list of my all time top ten favorites over half of them are black and white movies such as The Third Man, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Strangelove, The Last Picture Show, and The Hustler. The last of those movies was later remade in the 1980s in a full color sequel co-starring Tom Cruise and appropriately titled The Color of Money. That movie is a perfect example of why some movies should remain in the black and white universe. As in this sequel to the 1960 Paul Newman classic the story and emotion are all buried under the multi-color explosion of billiard balls bouncing all over the screen. The Hustler as said is one of my all time favorites and a gut-wrenching emotional drama. The Color of Money is mostly a fascinating period piece and a vehicle to showcase the young Tom Cruise alongside the aging legend Paul Newman. Even though The Hustler is twenty years older than its sequel it still holds up remarkably well as a must see piece of film history, while The Color of Money already feels like an outdated piece of 1980’s pop culture.
Why is this so? Maybe it is partly because black and white enables a more effective mood setting than color. Take the movie Casablanca for example. The mood of the movie is tense and desperate and gray. Shot in color it becomes a lively romp full of bizarre scenery and is thus rife with diversion that undermines the purpose and theme of the entire movie. Another part of the reason for the above examples is that black and white has greater emphasis on shape, form and movement, which are the essential elements of moving pictures.
Color is more interested in surface area. It is merely skin deep and in a sense, shallow. Maybe this is why certain movies age better in black and white than they do in color. Movies shot in color from past eras often stand out in all the wrong ways, such as their out of date fashion, hair styles, and other aesthetic formalities. Black and white films do not accentuate these negative and distracting elements so much. For a quick example of this same point the late film critic Roger Ebert suggested one should just go and look at a picture of his or her grandparents from when they were much younger, one shot in black and white. After doing this that person should then go and look at a picture of his or her parents, shot in color. After doing so that person would find that their grandparents looked classy and timeless, while their parents mostly looked like dorks.
Many of my favorite movies of all time were also made in color. I am just depressed that movie studios no longer seem to find black and white an acceptable form of artistic expression, even though two movies that have won Best Picture in the Academy Awards in the last two decades were black and white films, and one of them was even—gasp!—a silent movie. Both of those movies, Schindler’s List being the first, and The Artist being the second, were perfect examples of how to use black and white and still make a movie that resonates with modern audiences. It is still a rarity though because major studios think audiences will feel cheated when something is not shown in color, much like they also feel that everything now has to be shown in “glorious 3D” as well, which is a rant for another time and place.
Movies shot in black and white are better at conveying a sense of mystery, of other-worldliness, and that dreamlike sense that the medium of film aspires to showcase. To others the old Silver Screen may seem tired and outdated, but to me it is still the best way to experience movies, and one that I hope will somehow continue on so that my children and future generations can continue to experience and enjoy them just as much or, hopefully more than they will doubtless enjoy those overbearing and obnoxious over the top 3D action epics like the Transformers saga and other highly touted and expensively marketed pieces of mindless banging and clanging Hollywood fare. It would be nice to imagine in any event.