Black and White is Better
I once convinced a friend to join me in watching The Seven Samurai, the 1950s Akira Kurosawa epic. It’s a mammoth work that inspired a range of modern film-makers, including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone and George Lucas. It’s the product of a master storyteller at the top of his game, with a perfectly paced narrative and likeable characters. What could my friend have to say about this obvious masterpiece?
“When was this made?”
“Wasn’t colour out at that point?”
“Erm. Yes, I think so”
“Then, why is it in black and white?”
“Why is it in black and white?”
“Because . . . I don’t know. Kurosawa just liked it I suppose”
We carried on watching, and I tried to concentrate on the editing style and political implications. But this was clearly stewing in his mind. He piped up 5 minutes later:
“But if you know colour is out, why would you film it in black and white?”
I felt like hitting him.
I don’t necessarily mind the occasional question or comment when you’re watching a film with your friends. After all, you are supposed to be socialising. But I found the content of his questions . . . no just this ONE question, just infuriating.
Of all the things to bring up when you’re watching a seminal work, why make such a fuss over the fact that it’s not in colour? Kurosawa didn’t make a colour film until the 1970s, which suggests to me that either colour film did not become affordable in Japan until then or that he just preferred black and white. Is that a problem?
Apparently it was unacceptable that a film-maker would choose to use a certain piece of technology when a clearly superior version was available. That was the thing that was on his mind rather than the privilege of seeing a great film.
*Breathes out slowly*
What I really wanted to say to him was: “The reason it was filmed in black and white is because it’s better, OK?”
Yup. Although some or even most of my favourite movies are in colour, black and white is on the whole a better way of seeing movies, and would improve most of them.
People look better in black and white, and it automatically adds drama and seriousness to characters. Watch how Humprey Bogart’s face crags are accentuated by the bouncing light against dark, and keep your eye out for the background search light in this clip from Casablanca:
Scenes are more focussed, more in the moment and altogether makes the image more serious.
Compare the black and white and colourised versions of It’s A Wonderful Life:
Isn’t the colour version, ironically, duller than the black and white version? Colour serves more as a distraction from Jimmy Stewart’s focussed face. The colours blend into a big mush that is not pleasing to the eye.
Without the distraction of colour, monochrome draws attention to shape and movement. Check out this edited clip of the Japanese horror Onibaba, that utilises the swaying of reeds to creepy effect:
Black and white simultaneously provides the film with a supernatural quality whilst emphasising the darkness. As far as horror films go, you can do no wrong with Nosferatu and the original The Haunting. The scariest part of Ringu and it’s American remake The Ring was the haunted video that is, you guessed it, in black and white.
(Caution: do not watch unless you want to die a horrific death)
Technicolor only caught on in a big way from the late 50s and 60s onwards, when the Hollywood studios intentionally sought to distance itself from television by pimping the technology. The screen was splashed with colour and widened into CinemaScope, depicting vast beautiful landscapes in long historical epics starring Charlton Heston.
The advent of technicolour was only a technological progression in the sense that it provided film-makers one more method of portraying stories on screen. Colour has brought us the sepia-hues of The Godfather, the piercing red blood in The Shining and the deep blue of Life of Pi. But are those films objectively better than Citizen Kane, The Passion of Joan of Arc or Double Indemnity?
Don’t get me wrong – I love colour (I’m a colour-grader), but colour is not an inevitable advancement that makes the former obsolete, like the emergence of pocket mobile phone devices that have made the brick-phones antiques. It is a style among many.
Unfortunately for film-makers that appreciate the joys of monochrome, they often get accused of arty-fartiness or pretentiousness. The average viewer that sees black and white as an inferior format of a bygone era akin to gas lighting doesn’t see the purpose of it. Directors that persist in the ‘old’ technology are hipsters with no sense of practicality trying to win arty points for the critics.
That may be so. There are also some listeners of vinyl music that do so precisely because it is retro and cool. But just as there are those that can genuinely tell the difference in sound quality between the analog records and digital downloads, there are those that genuinely love black and white and what it can provide cinema.
For that reason, directors should not be shamed into shooting colour for the sake of it. The question should be in every pre-production meeting: which is the best way to tell this story, black or white or in colour? It shouldn’t be assumed that colour is the ‘default’ simply because it’s a more modern technology.
The world is ready for a resurgence of black and white cinema, and a wave of films that utilise the medium in a big and bombastic way. Cinema is black and white; let’s remember that its moment has not yet passed.
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