The Vintage Aesthetic: The Function of Contemporary Black & White Cinema
With advances in technology propelling contemporary cinema towards high definition, higher frame rates, and 3D, it’s endearing to see that black and white films can still have a great amount of success. In 2013, Frances Ha, Nebraska, and A Field in England proved that cinema still has a place for black and white, even if it now has closer ties with art films than Hollywood. This raises an interesting question – why do some filmmakers still choose the black and white aesthetic and what effect does this have on their work?
Béla Tarr and Jim Jarmusch, have both made frequent use of black and white in their films. Having never been an avid fan of either, I cannot help but wonder if their almost unquestioned praise comes from their aesthetic decisions. I think a lot of cinephiles would admit to taking pleasure from the pastiche of the black and white aesthetic; part of the success of films like The Artist centres around this reference to Classical Hollywood. This suggests that black and white has close ties with postmodernism in its appeal.
This postmodern aspect is the key element in many of these films; particularly films like Pleasantville, Young Frankenstein, and Zelig, as their appeal is centred on their mimicry of Classical Hollywood. Noah Baumbach revealed that one of the main reasons he chose black and white for Frances Ha was that it brings a form of ‘instant nostalgia’ with it, suggesting something more than simple mimicry. I think this is key to a film like The Last Picture Show as it borrows a conventionally ‘old-school’ aesthetic to present a traditional American town collapsing under the weight of modernism. The fact that this has a direct effect on the cinema in the town also ties in with the film’s aesthetic, as it seems fitting to reference Classical Hollywood through the image of the film itself.
Black and white isn’t necessarily used to create feelings of nostalgia or to reference Classical Hollywood. It can also have a profound, otherworldly effect. Eraserhead and Pi are clear examples of this. They are both set in bizarre, black and white worlds, acting as visual representations of a protagonist’s troubled mind; this is also tied to feelings of confusion and the uncanny. Lynch makes use of this in The Elephant Man. Its black and white aesthetic is justified by the fact that it is set in the past but it also suggests something uncomfortable and extremely negative. As a disfigured man, John Merrick lives in a world surrounded by fear, a world where he is in constant danger. Black and white is a way of creating something insular and immersive in its otherworldliness, thus helping the audience to relate to Merrick’s point of view.
Themes of suppression and threat were later filtered through black and white by Michael Haneke in his bleak study of pre-war Germany – The White Ribbon. The film is set in a town plagued by a number of freak ‘accidents’, and there is a sense that many of the characters are unable to escape the control of the townspeople. It is difficult to even imagine many of these films in colour as their meaning is so heavily tied to their lack of this. It would be wrong to suggest that black and white only has negative connotations. Wim Wenders utilised the style in his tranquil masterpiece, Wings of Desire, as a way of presenting the heavenly world of the angel at the film’s core, perhaps inspired by the heaven sequences in A Matter of Life and Death. This is also an example of black and white being used to convey the world of a specific character, suggesting it often functions subjectively.
Many filmmakers are notable for using black and white in their early work. Christopher Nolan, for example, shot his debut films Doodlebug and Following in this style, as did Kevin Smith with Clerks. This student film aesthetic is possibly used less for practical purposes and more as a way of celebrating a stripped-back, low-budget type of filmmaking. There could also be a number of other reasons. Elements of nostalgia and references to Classical Hollywood seem to still be very much at the foundation of such decisions. Practical reasons is another plausible explanation. A famous example of black and white being used to solve a problem is in Psycho where Hitchcock successfully masked the fact he had used chocolate syrup instead of fake blood. This was not the only reason for his decision and the ‘B-movie’ look of the black and white film was also imperative to its creepiness at the time. It is possible that filmmakers working today have a similar mind-set when it comes to choosing whether or not the shoot in colour.
In the digital age changing from colour to black and white can be done with the flick of a switch and has little to no financial ties. Back in the 1990s many student filmmakers were still shooting on celluloid and thus had a bigger decision to make. When Lynch shot Eraserhead in the 1970s, for example, he was filming on a specific type of film stock and thus his decision to shoot in black and white would have to have been made during pre-production. Now, it is much more likely for a filmmaker to shoot an entire film in colour and then decide post-production to switch to black and white. Frank Darabont’s The Mist is even available in both colour and black and white, showing that the decision requires no real effort anymore.
To refer back to Eraserhead, it is important to note the relationship black and white cinema has with so-called ‘Midnight Movies’ and gritty, niche films. Some notable examples include French shocker Man Bites Dog and the crazy Japanese film Tetsuo: The Iron Man with its fetishistic focus on metal, superbly reflected through its black and white aesthetic. This link with grittiness is not just tied to midnight movies, La Haine also depicts an underground world of crime that is well-suited to a bleak, black and white image. This can all be related back to films like The Elephant Man and its suggestion of something negative through its lack of colour.
One final element that is key to contemporary black and white films ties in with technological advancement. High definition has given filmmakers options that simply weren’t available to those working in the Classical era. Béla Tarr’s work is particularly notable in relation to this. The Turin Horse and The Werckmeister Harmonies display such aesthetic beauty that they go above and beyond anything from the Classical Hollywood era. These films are literally black and white whereas Classical Hollywood is actually more of a grey colour, underscoring this as a limitation more than a choice. A Field in England displays a similar amount of aesthetic beauty, creating a whole new meaning for the black and white image. This has the potential to shake off any negative connotations tied to black and white (suggestions that it is old-fashioned and no longer needed) because high definition adds a sense of modernity to the image. Although, as briefly mentioned above, there is most definitely a lack of black and white in mainstream cinema, perhaps because of these well-known negative connotations.
Now that choice is a factor in the production of black and white films, they take on a whole new meaning. The homage to the Classical era is often plain to see, particularly as contemporary filmmakers attempt to capture something encapsulated within a lost era – could you imagine Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Rebecca, or any Film Noir in colour? As well as this, some choose to extend their films beyond the grey of Classical Hollywood and into a new era of glossy black and white that shines in high definition. I hope this style continues to be chosen by filmmakers. Ironically, it seems to be mainstream Hollywood that are the most likely to reject the use black and white but hopefully this will change in the near future.
Some other notable contemporary black and white films include: Ed Wood, Control, Sin City, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Manhattan, Killer of Sheep, Raging Bull, and Schindler’s List.
What do you think? Leave a comment.