Black and White Films of the Modern Era

I was born in 1995, so by the time I was watching films they were all in color. Of course, I started out with the vibrant Disney Pictures with their cartoons full of a rainbow assortment of hues. But as I got older and my parents saw my interest in film evolve they decided to bring out the classics. They got me a dvd collection of Alfred Hitchcock films. I don’t think I was too thrilled with the present at first. In my mind black and white films were made in the past and meant to stay there.

Then I put on “The Lady Vanishes”, a 1938 murder mystery about a woman on a train who strikes up a conversation with a fellow passenger only to find them missing after she awakens. I was drawn to the story, the characters, the mystery of it all, and by the end I had barely noticed the films lack of saturation. Sitting down to enjoy a black and white film has a certain potential that other films lack, that focus to detail and a nostalgic feel of an era passed. So, to decide to make a film in that way during the age of technicolor that we have all grown so accustomed to you have to have guts, a good story, and a damn good cast and crew.

 

Nebraska (2013)
Nebraska (2013)

Nebraska is a 2013 film about Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, who is an alcoholic 77-year-old on a mission to collect his supposed million-dollar sweepstake prize that he received in his junk mail. This stubborn old man is determined to make the 900-mile-long journey to the prize collections office. His son David, played by Will Forte, sees it as a chance for him to spend more time with his father and after some pestering decides to take him. The story is full of memorable mid-western characters that tell it like it is. The wide shots of the rural countryside and the small towns frozen in time pair beautifully with the black and white format. Although the biggest reason for the film’s lack of color was to pull the focus more toward the characters. Director of Photography, Phedon Papamichael, commented on the subject saying Black and white eliminates the distraction of having colors, although it’s more stylized. In a way it gives the story its own world of reality that allows you to focus in on these characters and on the mood of this particular place.

 

Sin City (2005)
Sin City (2005)

Sin City is a film based off of the comic book series of the same name. A collection of stories from the books’ universe, it feels like a few short films tied into one, which really is how it all began.  Robert Rodriguez, one of the directors and the cinematographer of the film, shot the first scene, “The Customer is Always Right”, as a proof of concept short film. He did so to convince Frank Miller, the creator of the comic, to hand over the film rights. He had even invited Miller to Texas to see it being filmed. In the same day of filming, Rodriguez got to editing and showed him a finished draft. The comic writer was heartily impressed and a deal was made quickly with Miller on as a co-director. The film stars a line up of famous actors such as Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Josh Hartnett, and many others. The film is mostly B&W with hints of color to highlight certain characters or moments. Minus the color additions, the film follows true to the dark black and white neo-noir nature of the source material, even using the comics in the storyboard during production.

 

The Artist (2011)
The Artist (2011)

Michel Hazanavicius is the writer and director of the Oscar winning film The Artist. The story is set in the 1920’s with French actor Jean Dujardin as the lead character, George Valentin. The film is not only lacking of color but spoken dialogue as well to match with the productions that the main character stars in. His love interest and costar Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo, begins her career and takes off as George and his silent films fade from popularity with the innovation of sound in films.  In an interview with Collider.com, the director talked about the difference in casting a silent film. ” It’s not a question of the person. I’m not an expert at that, but it’s about the codes of acting. Robert DeNiro, who may be the greatest living actor, usually acts in a way which is very stone-faced…You see, John Goodman or Jean Dujardin or Berenice Bejo, they are very expressive, and when they talk, you can feel what it’s about without forcing it.”

 

Blue Jay (2016)
Blue Jay (2016)

My personal favorite black and white film of the past 20 years has to go to Blue Jay. A character study of two exes who meet by chance in the supermarket and decide to catch up. They go from getting coffee, to getting beers, to spending the whole night together. The two are in very different places, one married with step children and the other moving back home after his mother’s death.  The couple is played by Emmy Winner Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass, who had also written the screenplay. With a smaller crew and a simpler dialogue-driven story, the actors were encouraged to improvise and focus most on the emotional punch of the film. Although the lack of color goes well with the nostalgic vibe of the storyline, the main reason for the decision was to focus on the story, the characters, and the dialogue. The director and cinematographer Alex Lehmann spoke on the subject.  It felt like it highlights a really simple story, like those simple classics where you get to listen to the characters more. It’s more about who they are and what they are talking about, and all the other distractions go away. We wanted to strip the distractions away, so that included stripping the color out.

 

Frances Ha (2012)
Frances Ha (2012)

The writer and star of the film, Greta Gertwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old dancer living in New York City.  An adult still clutching to the dreams of being a modern dancer as her mentor pushes her towards choreography. Overall, the main plot of the film is the fading of her relationship with her best friend Sophie. A romance film about female friendship, the strain adulthood can have on relationships, and growing up when it seems you should already be grown.  The dialogue is quick and natural, with an almost improvised feel to it, showing us the talent that would soon get Gertwig her first Oscar nomination for her own writer/director debut ‘Lady Bird’. Although the film’s missing colors can be a great tool for many reasons, the director and cowriter Noah Baumbach was just itching to do a black and white film. The material felt black-and-white to me. I’m not 27 anymore, but there’s something both old and new about the film, almost an instant nostalgia. At the same time, because you aren’t distracted by color, there’s more immediacy to it, but that’s somewhat retrospective. I really just wanted to make a movie in black-and-white.”

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