Jack Walton comments on the resurfacing of monochrome colours in film.
It’s easy to sneer at black and white films. They fall into two camps, right? The pretentious and the prehistoric. Modern Black and White, the sort of thing film buffs watch – sadistically arty to the point of being unwatchable and Original Black and White, the sort of thing your nan watches – an ancient relic filmed on a piece of flint in the mid-1400s. In a world of colour and life and jazz, you can leave your dreary grey.
To many, it would almost seem, the invention and popularisation of colour filmmaking is more a significant leap forward in the story of human evolution than the discovery of fire, the wheel, or space travel. The day that film stepped out of its Monochrome shell, the day Technicolour breathed life into Dorothy and the gang – an enlightenment event for the greater good of all mankind.
And yet, it seems a black and white mist is descending once again.
Sam Levinson’s Malcolm and Marie, released last month on Netflix, is the latest film in a growing trend towards monochrome revival. David Fincher’s Mank, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, even reissues of blockbusters like Logan and Mad Max: Fury Road have all joined the bandwagon and found critical acclaim in doing so. In spite of the jeering and the accusations of snobbery, there are several reasons a filmmaker might choose this artistic direction, and why it might enhance their project.
Zendaya, one of the stars of Levinson’s film, claimed the decision to film in black and white was a tribute to an era in Hollywood when “black actors weren’t as present”. This notion of removing colour as a nostalgic trope, attempting to recapture the magic of a time when it wasn’t even an option seems to be one of the principal reasons modern directors opt for black and white. Whether this is films that pine for a bygone era of Cinema, such as Mank, or those that strive for a sense of historical datedness by recreating the feel of old documentary footage, say Schindler’s List – black and white is an effective technique for pulling an audience back in time.
Another one of the benefits of monochrome is that it is inherently filmic. As technological developments increasingly pull filmmaking further and further towards a state of hyper-realism, an all-encompassing immersiveness that distorts the boundaries between the Cinema and the real, the exclusively cinematic world of Black and White can almost be comforting. Films like The Artist or Frances Ha use their lack of colour in a dream-like way, emphasising their status as a creation of art, wearing their filmy-ness on their sleeve.
In essence – the world is in colour, only the movies can be in black and white.
Of course, black and white isn’t always equal to ‘comfort’. Indeed, few who came out of the cinema in 2019 having watched Robert Eggers hallucinatory Wickie psychodrama, The Lighthouse, would’ve reached for ‘comforting’ as an obvious descriptor. The nightmarish aesthetic the film aptly deploys harkens back to the 1920’s German Expression movement, where the absence of colour in films prompted visionary directors such as Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis) and Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) to experiment with light and shape. This resulted in strange, unreal manifestations of mise-en-scene, wherein greyscale shots with decanted angels were visually codified to reflect the twisted realms of the unconscious mind.
In America, Film Noir borrowed heavily from the darkness of German Expressionism, both in terms of colour(lessness) and moral ambiguity. And it worked – just look at the likes of Sin City or The Man Who Wasn’t There. It remains true that when applied for a specific reason, whether that be to reflect an aged-ness, a dream-state or a nihilistic moral slant, not used at carte-blanche or for its own sake, black and white can be a powerful tool within a filmmaker’s repertoire. And with an increasing number of directors exploring this artistic avenue, it might be time for us all to park our apprehensions and embrace the darkness.