Concerning black and white

2022-01-09 @Arts

Abstract: an appeal to color conscientiousness in still and moving photography (film).

My thoughts generally align with Tarkovsky with regard to color usage in film: we don’t consciously notice color in most of everyday existence. Color tends to distract from the subtler aspects.

I’ll even generalize that to photography. Used effectively, colors serve as a stratagem to emphasize particular modalities and emotions, be such elements wanting. Otherwise they distract in the sense of any distraction to the visual camp: a source of noise and disruption to focused energy.

Tarkovsky also argued for the color form vainly embellishing a mostly otherwise bland [my word choice] everyday life, thus not proportionally representative. A valid point. Bravo.

And beyond cinema, most still photography I view evinces little wanting of the color spectrum. Most doesn’t transcended everyday existence. And come the exceptional case, less frequently is color the objectifying vehicle.

And thus color taxes energy and attention. Then most photography I find superfluous, boring, if not downright useless. But certainly undeserving of color.

To look at it another way: most B&W photography viewing I ever recall didn’t strike as lacking. Likewise can’t recall the same across B&W cinema. Yet the inverse scenario, the color abuse in both types of media overwhelmingly emanates.

Many will cater to B&W as means to emphasize the antique. I don’t entirely subscribe. The color/B&W dichotomy can and should extend to far broader and more universal elements.

Perhaps little of this reflection will resonate. For whatever points I enumerate, I simply prefer black and white as the superior representation of aesthetic. My preference bears irredeemable conceit, firstly, secondly and tenthly.

Keeping that in view …

Tarkovsky has always fascinated me in consistently varying the color spectra within a single feature across all save for the first two entirely B&W films. (I don’t consider the culminating spectacle of Andrey Rublev substantial enough after three hours of viewing the most challenging to endure of all the seven films).

Tarkovsky even experiments with limited-color palettes, something I always presumed to reflect shifting emotions on a finer scale. But I suspect the dichotomy to vary from film to film just as Shakespeare’s catered shifts between verse and prose served variable ends across plays.

I often appeal to Tarkovsky as a case for exemplary photography. That is, much of the shots throughout each film convey an independently beautiful photographic moment, diligently conceptualized, organic, nothing frivolous on the eye. My personal favourites are Зеркало/Mirror, Stalker and Nostalgia.

But as a heuristic, I seek quality B&W photography in film to justify the time over reading a book.

Take my other favourite filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. In contrast to Tarkovsky’s seven feature films, Kurosawa filmed something over thirty, of which I’ve viewed maybe half, if even.

Prior to the seventies, Kurosawa filmed in B&W. And aside from Dersu Uzala, I’ve not reconciled the transition to color in the subsequent decades. Notwithstanding, the greater part of each film strikes me with exceptional polyphony of composition, solid photography and, like Tarkovsky, abundant organics. Personally I prefer the contemporary, post-war Japan series to the feudal/samurai, though both lend to phenomenal viewing. Ex: Stray Dog, Drunken Angel, Ikiru, High and Low.

As we recede in time through cinema history we arrive at Noir, then the earlier sound cinema and finally the silent era. Thus more black and white. More emphasis on composition and impactful photography, in view of which I don’t always care enough to follow the narration cards. The ravishing exposition suffices.

These kinds of pictures constitute more than mind-suppressing entertainment, but an art exhibit revered at multiple dimensions of aesthetic: enduring time, fostering repeat value and attaining posterity. Though surely not all laudable directors emphasize the visual. For some it’s the narrative, the symbolism, the surrealism, the psychology, the sheer theatrics.

Yet I’m most drawn to the visual. And black and white, even next to a gloriously framed color feature feels less exorbitant, less energy taxing, more authentic. Such anyway is my viewing paradigm for some years now.

For more cases of admirable photography, I’m thinking of Fritz Lang’s combination of silent, sound, German and American cinema, say Destiny, M, Metropolis (although not without issues), Das Testament des Dr Mabuse, The Woman in the Window, Scarlett Letter, The Big Heat.

Or Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, The 39 steps, Notorious, Jamaica Inn, Foreign Correspondent, focusing on the select B&W features.

Or Welles' The Stranger, Touch of Evil, The Third Man, among the handful I’ve seen, though for whatever reason never a strong appreciator of Citizen Kane.

Or Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep, if you can follow the detective plot. Or if you’re into the source material, I’m led to believe Raymond Chandler’s novel is fine reading in itself and may clarify confusion.

Far back I viewed Victor Sjöström’s swedish silent feature The Phantom Carriage, another case of beautiful photography and an engaging fantasy atmosphere. Along with the sound score, I felt the spirit of a modern Japanese anime.

Among the comedy and tragicomedy silent era, I’m more of a fan of Buster Keaton than Chaplin if we’re to consider the breadth and versatility of material. Though focusing on photography, take Chaplin’s City Lights, The Kid, Gold Rush The Immigrant, Dog’s Life, or Keaton’s The Haunted House, The Playhouse, Cops, Seven Chances, Our hospitality, and swarms upon swarms of others. Perhaps some viewer is distracted by the slapstick or the acrobatic prowess, but there’s inexhaustible photography worth admiration.

But what about that cinema I genuinely construe color worthy? Genuinely, not too much that doesn’t deliver heavy emphasis on nature. I’m thinking Werner Herzog (the Peruvian Amazon landscapes of Aguirre, the Wrath of God), the meadows of Mallick’s Tree of Life, the river deltas of Apocalypse Now, the desert fractals of Lawrence of Arabia, Kieślowski’s color trilogy, Sukurov’s Russian Ark - that Hermitage meta-exposition filmed in one legendary take. Sukurov’s Дни Затмения (Days of the Eclipse) also famously juxtaposes scenes of varying hues of monochrome and color in spirit of Tarkovsky (and is one of my most esteemed avant-garde films).

Kubrick deserves a special category. Color choice in just about every scene of every color film appears painstakingly premeditated around symbology and photographic impact. 2001 I cannot imagine B&W. Neither Clockwork Orange. And however nauseating I find the viewing of that picture, the low-budget photography looks gorgeous. Concerning Barry Lyndon, every scene resembles a romanticism painting. Not one spurious color choice. The Shining? Not terribly spurious. Eyes Wide Shot, upon a retrospective analysis, though also an extravaganza of color, I can’t claim universally laudable: the post-production liberties occasionally cause me to wonder.

Among the modern directors, Guillermo del Toro demonstrates color mastery, however particular I am of but select films of his and justify much as not strictly worthy of time expenditure.

Next to 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Stalker: my other favourite sci-fi Blade Runner’s dystopian color methodology I’d likewise struggle to divorce from the dazzling picture I know. (Photography wise, the same can be said of the more recent sequel.)

What more … Westerns, as much as I admire their cinematic impact across a slew of dimensions, I could care less for the color for anything I’ve viewed anyway. There’s rawness there which B&W sufficiently transmits.

My favourite surrealist director David Lynch’s first two (B&W) films offer hypnotic impact: Eraserhead especially, as post-expressionist as I can imagine across the contemporary. And hopelessly esoteric. Now as for the (still sensational) color filmography, the Neo-Noir in my mind doesn’t make a case for color. Most of those moments in most of those films could have selectively contemplated monochrome.

But this can go on indefinitely. Thus I’ll fade out upon this final flimsy note.

Умывался ночью на дворе —
Твердь сияла грубыми звездами.
Звездный луч – как соль на топоре,
Стынет бочка с полными краями.
На замок закрыты ворота,
И земля по совести сурова.
Чище правды свежего холста
Вряд ли где отыщется основа.
Тает в бочке, словно соль, звезда,
И вода студеная чернее,
Чище смерть, солёнее беда,
И земля правдивей и страшнее.

Осип Мандельштам - 1921

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