Friday, October 1, 2010

Can SIN CITY Overcome Black & White Bias?

Director Robert Rodriguez took a lot of daring chances in adapting Frank Miller’s brutally noir “Sin City” to the big screen, but perhaps the biggest was keeping the graphic novel series’ color scheme. By making the movie black and white with simple splashes of color, the filmmakers (Rodriguez graciously invited Miller to sit in the director’s chair with him) risk alienating a young audience that, for the most part, and sadly... hates black and white movies.

There’s a puzzling resistance to black and white by many nacho-munching mainstream audience members. If the argument against the two tone scheme is that real life is in full color, then shouldn’t they also rebel against any element that’s not realistic? Hey, you can’t find a parking space in front of your building in New York! Waitaminnit, Tom Cruise isn’t that tall! Hold on, nuclear physicists don’t look like Denise Richards! Whoa, vampires don’t exist! I want my money back!

To that end, the color in movies is almost never realistic. Whether through use of filters, lighting, special films or (most of the time these days) computer enhancement in post-production, filmmakers almost always play with color to achieve a dramatic effect. The entirety of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was computer enhanced to give the film its coppered brown tint, mimicking an old photograph.

Many can’t disassociate black and white from an anachronistic aesthetic. The thought is, “They CAN do color, so why do black and white?” as if the latter is better, rather than just different. What many color-saturated filmgoers don’t realize is that black and white movies remained commonplace for decades after color film technology became the standard. Sometimes it was because of budgetary restraints, but it was also often an artistic choice.

Sometimes it was a happy marriage of both, as a lack of money forced the filmmakers to use the cheaper black and white film, but it ended up being the best choice cinematically. George Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 zombie movie, “Night of the Living Dead” wouldn’t have had the same visceral impact had it been in color. The same can be said of the only horror film from that decade that was more influential: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Hitch made the 1960 film using the crew from his TV show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to prove to Hollywood that low budget didn’t have to mean low quality. So affecting was the film that many viewers swore the movie went to color during the shower sequence (it didn’t).

Many classic black and white movies have indelibly stamped images upon us that would be impossible to imagine in color: The bare-bulb-lit depravity of Stanley and Stella Kowalski’s run down New Orleans hovel in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951); The rain-soaked tarmac at the end of “Casablanca” (1941); The chess game with Death in “The Seventh Seal” (1958); Robert Mitchum’s malevolent preacher chasing the children in “Night of the Hunter” (1955); The Beatles at the outset of their world reign being chased by screaming fans in “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964).

Some of the most visually memorable films of the past three decades have been crafted in black and white by directors often dubbed “visionary.” The black and white of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” (1977) is maybe the most important aspect of that film’s surreal identity. Sometimes B&W is used to evoke an era in addition to mood, as in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980), Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” (1980) or Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994). Sometimes it’s used to create a timeless quality, ironically making Woody Allen’s very ‘70s film “Manhattan” feel both classic and contemporary 26 years later (too bad the same can’t be said of his 1998 B&W stinker, “Celebrity”). The black and white of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” (1971) creates the stark, cold, depressed feel of being trapped in a dying 1950s Texas town. Darien Aronofsky used the scheme to amplify the absolutism of numbers as well as the single minded obsessiveness and paranoia of mathematician Max Cohen in 1998’s “Pi.”

Although sometimes black and white does feel like a hollow pretension, a grab at respectability. Steven Spielberg filmed his first “serious” movie, 1993’s Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” in black and white (which only makes sense, as that seems to be how he views the world). Of course, the impact of the tone was completely negated by the Prince of Popcorn Movie’s pandering use of color on the little girl’s red coat, insulting the intelligence of the audience and adding to that film’s loooong list of grievances (call me a heretic, but I don’t think Spielberg’s made a great movie since “Jaws”... but that’s another column).

It’s strange that the failure of Film Colorization didn’t make more people realize the beauty of black and white. For those of you who missed it, back in the late 80’s, as computer technology was beginning its growth spurt, some geniuses (Ted Turner chief among them) decided that maybe old movies would be accepted by the masses if they were shown in color. To that end, tons of classic films, including “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Maltese Falcon” were “updated” from black and white to a color that was NOT lifelike, but rather flat and uniform, lacking gradation and subtlety. The original cinematography was for all intent and purpose rendered moot. Cineasts rebelled. Vocally. And, amazingly enough, most of the general public agreed; Colorization didn’t make old black and white movies feel modern, it just made them confusingly out of place. The effect was not unlike seeing the Grandma clad in Sean John. And while the technology has improved, the demand for colorized films today is almost nonexistent.

Still, most people seem to side with the metaphor of the black and white to color transitions in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “Pleasantville” (1998). Those movies insinuate that black and white is dull and lifeless; Color is exciting and vibrant. Well, that’s a subjective opinion, but Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams, Helmut Newton and Berenice Abbott would have to disagree. Disliking black and white displays a lack of vision on the part of the viewer rather than the artist.

Maybe impressionistic films like “Sin City” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” will open some minds as well as some windows for more movies with a daring visual palette. Who knows, maybe someday Ted Turner will feel the need to have some computer nerds make a black and white version of “Gone With the Wind!”

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