In the days before DVDs, when my sister and I were kids, our parents would often stage movie nights, a post-homework foray during which we’d all watch a film of their choice on VHS in their bedroom. On one such occasion – and much to our dismay – they picked North by Northwest (1959), leading sis and me to protest vociferously.
“It’s in black-and-white,” we complained, unaware of the flick’s full-colour truth. “It’ll be boring.”
“Just watch five minutes of it,” said our parents. “If you don’t like it after that, you can leave.”
We didn’t leave. We were hypnotised. And I’d never been happier to be so wrong.
These days, I don’t have the aversion to black-and-white movies that I once had. In fact, I think there should be more. There’s a certain starkness that contemporary films have when lensed in this manner, and directors and cinematographers don’t take advantage of it as much as they should.
The problem is, many people want to see movies in colour, rejecting black-and-white films as arty, unrealistic or hard to watch. And pictures such as Frances Ha (2012) don’t help by providing no good reason as to why they’re shot in monochrome.
That’s why we need more flicks like Nebraska (2013) that back the relevance of the medium.
I didn’t think Nebraska was a perfect picture. But it was generally involving, and that partly had to do with the bleakness of the cinematography, which complemented the movie well. In this context, black-and-white film worked perfectly, as it accentuated the sad life of the protagonist, a failing, alcoholic senior (played magnificently by Bruce Dern) who insists on collecting a prize suggested by a dubious mailing. Colour wouldn’t have made sense. This story was made for monochrome.
Frances Ha wasn’t. It backs the notion that black-and-white films made today can be pretentious. There wasn’t anything about the script, story or characters that made me feel colour wouldn’t have fit it better, despite any potential, concomitant financial considerations. It didn’t work, and the fact that it looked washed-out called attention to this issue.
So that’s a problem. When a black-and-white film falls flat, it falls really flat. It doesn’t get up. It’s bad and self-conscious at the same time. Colour-free flicks can’t afford to take this risk. They need to be of high quality to jump this hurdle.
They don’t need to be relegated to one genre, however … and I think that’s a strength of this kind of filmmaking.
We’ve had black-and-white adventure movies in the past. Why not have some more? We’ve had thrillers, westerns … let’s see more of the likes of Pi (1998) and Dead Man (1995). Maybe mainstream comedies can get into the act, too – they need not be Mumblecore or indie to make a colourless impact. They do have to have a good reason for their cinematographic statement, like The Artist (2011) did, though I don’t think they all need to reflect the films of the Silent Era or nod to any movies in particular. As long as they prove they make more sense in black-and-white than in colour, they’ll succeed.
I don’t think it’s trendy nowadays to go this route, nor should it be. The decision should be based either on quality or necessity. It can affect a viewer’s entire perception of a movie, and that’s not small potatoes. Directors and cinematographers need to be careful how they use it.
When they use it right, however, it can be glorious. It can make a movie. And it can help change the idea that films shot this way can be inaccessible. Black-and-white movies made right are always accessible. They just need the path cleared for them.
My parents a long time ago cleared that path for my sister and me by showing us many kinds of movies, both in colour and in black-and-white. I hope everyone who hasn’t followed similar routes can do so, because there are joys to be found at the end. I hope Hollywood will recognise this, too. After all, the potential benefits are myriad.
And who doesn’t benefit by watching a good black-and-white movie?