Why I cringe at “It’s in Black and White … I don’t wanna watch it.”

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Buzzfeed has one of those silly list articles today that is heavy on photographs and one liner insight on “31 Black-And-White Movies Every Twentysomething Needs To See;” it is the kind of list I hate, but invariably love if I agree with most of the choices.

I admire this particular Buzzfeed entry if only for the inclusion of Carol Reed’s 1949 production of “The Third Man” – you can’t have too many cuckoo clocks and Tums antacid pills around, I told Harry once. You remember Harry Lime. Fine fellow back before the war, let me tell you about the time … well anyway I am talking about the Black and White art medium.

When somebody complains about black and white entertainment it makes me wince and cringe and just generally inwardly groan. I also groan at the use of “twentysomething,” but that is a story best left for Holly Martins to write.

The ostrich effect … the shallowness … the lack of appreciation for content – that is why I cringe when somebody (probably a woman I am torturing with my film choices – yeah I know, ladies, but she asked) complains about a film or television show being in Black and White. Everything cannot be in living color and visually assaulting, even NBC.

Generally, and for the past couple of generations of youthquake culture this is never more true, Black and White means “old.” So much so, that, now, websites run a photo from the 1980s in monochrome color to indicate this is from “a time capsule beamed back from the past.” meaning they changed it from the color shot I know it was as an original print.

Notice I described it as monochrome – a person can tell the difference between single color and black and white. Black and White has natural shadows, monochrome gives off this flatness to it. Pretty much any photo after 1960 was taken in color for major newspaper publications or magazines. It may have been digitally stored in an archive as a Black and White shot to save on time and expense in the scanning process, but odds on it started live in glorious color.

To me, Black and White means artful communication, especially in film. There was an art in using shadows as a way to communicate emotion. Horror films seem spookier in black and white. And all due respect to Christopher Lee and Hammer productions, those Dracula and Frankenstein movies of the 1950s and 1960s had more to do with sex and less to do with fright.

I mentioned the “The Third Man,” it is about Harry Lime, who is just a criminal in post World War II Vienna that literally lives in the shadows. I could never imagine this film in color. The city of Vienna was a collapsed shell – like most of Europe in the late 40s – when this picture was shot. Even filming in color would have meant a basic two tone color palette of slate gray and black for there is no splashy primary. Harry moved in between and through those black, white and gray shadows, and met his end in a filthy sewer. In color, the symbolism would have been lost.

Television shows are the same as those old movies; the photography directors and crews of the 1950s and 1960s grew up learning their craft in the movies studios of the 30s and 40s. There are some excellent black and white television shows, and I am not just talking about “The Andy Griffith Show.”

The mood of “The Twilight Zone” would have been shattered if color photography had been used like so many splashed paints. Rod Serling, Zone creator, tried it in the early 70s with “Night Gallery,” and that show lasted less than three years and now resides in obscure trivia and history.

A cop show called “The Naked City,” very popular for its time but again pretty much regulated to off beat broadcast channels today, was shot in black and white. Excellent scripts and acting that showed the plight of many a likeable crook and cop were the meat of the show, but the filling part is the black and white photography of the New York streets of the time period.

It is as ignorant to ignore art that is older as it is to brand a generation “twentysomethings.” Give the old shows a chance – everybody not just young people. Sit on your hands for about 10 minutes, put down the phone and pay attention. You might like it.

If you don’t, then get the hell off my black and white grass ya bums.

 

The Colonel

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