Nobody shoots in black and white today without a very conscious artistic reason for doing so. B&W film has been pricier to process than color for years now so, rest assured, filmmakers have to go out of their way to make movies this way. The Artist is intended to specifically recreate the movie-going experience of the pre-sound, pre-color era and, since we’ve been discussing B&W flicks in celebration of that, a little analysis of some other notable usages of B&W cinematography (either to evoke older films or symbolically interplay with color) in the modern era seems in order.
If you ever want to listen to a commentary track that goes far deeper than simply describing what’s happening on screen, you’d do well to check out the one Oliver Stone recorded for Natural Born Killers. The flick audaciously employs a wild range of film stocks and video formats to artistic effect, and Mr. Stone breaks down his intentions behind each and very stylistic choice. Notably, he describes his use of B&W for a narrative technique he dubbed “vertical cutting” where he'd play a scene twice -- first in color to show the exterior reality, then in B&W to show the interior reality. That is, a character would say one thing in color, but then say what they were actually thinking in B&W.
The chromatic dance of vertical editing perhaps isn't as intriguing as the other visual conceits Stone uses throughout the movie, with specific portions shot to resemble classic Westerns, insipid sitcoms and madcap cartoons. However, those portions are all in color, so they aren't as germane to this discussion. The use of B&W to consciously evoke other film genres was used to great effect in the following two flicks, though...
Sin City was the most successful B&W flick in recent years, intended obviously to recreate the look of the film noir (literally “black film” in French) of the 30s and 40s that Frank Miller’s comics were a pastiche of. Actually, the choice for B&W had an additional set of reasons in the comics. Miller was keen on producing the books as a “one man band,” writing, penciling, inking and lettering them himself so his claim of authorship wouldn’t be diluted by collaboration. As such, the choice for B&W is somewhat akin to a musician performing “unplugged”--it’s an effort to strip down the material into its most direct and visceral form.
The reasoning translates into the film a bit, as Robert Rodriguez notably cranked the image contrast up to make it “pure black and white” and minimize as much gray tonality as he could. The effect makes the fervid narrative seem even more extreme, stripping it down to its rawest elements to create a constantly-heightened state of intensity that allows for no mediation of feelings.
Sin City also has notable usages of “spot color” where certain, specific items--eyes, faces, blood, bottles, headlights--have color that sticks out prominently from the monochrome scenery. There’s no great symbolism to this, other than to draw even greater attention to very precise elements in a scene--and to also simply look cool.
1998’s Pleasantville used these visual conceits of spot color and the replication of older shows' looks, but with a very clear metaphoric purpose. The movie sees modern day teenagers getting sucked into reruns of a fictional TV show, Pleasantville, that’s very much in the mold of classic 50s sitcoms like Leave It To Beaver and the Dick Van Dyke Show. Such shows presented a safe, idealized vision of suburban nuclear family life that was often in absurd contrast to basic realities (even to go as far as presenting married couples sleeping in separate beds.)
The movie recreates these programs' look to satirize how America wished to present or censor itself in the 50s, and it overtly equates B&W with repression (both personal and societal) and color with liberation. When the teens introduce modern mores to Pleasantville's citizenry, characters and specific Items (apples, cars, paintings and so on) take on color to evidence the change in thinking.
Who knows if the grainy, pixelated look of streaming online video will carry as much symbolic or stylistic baggage 50 years from now. Since we've taken this brief look at some memorable uses of black & white and its contrast with color here, how about you Screened Pups share some other instances of this that have particularly struck you?