Preliminary Notes on the Monochrome Universe
By Wheeler Winston Dixon.
Lately I’ve been thinking about black and white movies, and how they’ve almost completely disappeared from the current cinematic landscape. There are occasional projects shot in black and white, but with cinema rapidly becoming an all-digital medium, and black and white film stock almost impossible to purchase, color has taken over completely, either glossy and popped-out, or desaturated for a more dramatic effect, but always using some palette of color. Furthermore, while there have been numerous books on the use of color in the cinema, there has been no book-length study on the black and white film, and yet black and white cinema dominated the industry internationally for nearly seven decades, until the late 1960s.
Certainly, numerous cameramen and directors have weighed in on the use of black and white in their works, most notably John Alton in Painting With Light (see the bibliography below), but in each case, these works were created when black and white was still a commercially viable medium. Most of the texts I’ve encountered, with the exception of Alton’s book, and to a lesser extent Edward Dmytryk’s Cinema: Concept and Practice, written after the director had long since retired, treat black and white filmmaking as a part of everyday life, the main production medium for most movies, which at the time, it certainly was.
In these necessarily practical books, it’s about f-stops, filters and cookies, but very little about the aesthetics of the medium. Indeed, when Alton published his landmark study, he was famously excoriated by his colleagues as being a pretentious self-promoter; what cameramen did was work, nothing more, and any notions of artistic ambition were inherently suspect. In most of the books cited below, color is dealt with as a special case, which again, it was; but now, in the all color, all digital world of images we currently inhabit, black and white has become the anomaly. (I should parenthetically note here that if any reader of this article has any further suggestions for texts I’ve overlooked, I would be more than happy to receive them in the comments section after this essay).
Thus, I wanted to set down some preliminary notes on my new project here, before they elude me; the title is Black and White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, the term used by British filmmakers until the medium’s demise in the mid 1960s. And yet shooting in black and white is inherently a transformative act. As the filmmaker and opera director Jonathan Miller – whose beautiful film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) was elegantly photographed in black and white by the gifted Dick Bush – once observed in a conversation with me, the very act of making a black and white film transmutes the original source material, for life, as we know, takes place in color. Therefore, there is an intrinsic level of stylization and re-interpretation of reality when one makes a black and white film, leading to an entirely different way of cinematography. Indeed, it’s an entirely different world altogether, one that is rapidly slipping away from us as it recedes in the mists of the past.
Black and white was the originary medium of the cinema from the invention of paper roll film, and then celluloid roll film, and yet the industry, and viewing audiences, always yearned for color. This was first accomplished through the use of both hand tinting the images frame by frame, as well as running entire lengths of film through baths of colored dye. By the 1920s two-strip Technicolor was well- established with such films as The Toll of the Sea (1922). In 1935, the first three-strip Technicolor feature film, Becky Sharp, caused an industry sensation, and soon Technicolor, as a company, had a lock on color cinematography in Hollywood, leading the watershed year of 1939, when Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and a few other “A” level films were produced in color. Black and white, however, remained the standard form of film production, simply because Technicolor cost so much more than black and white, and color films were thus an “event,” while black and white films were the “norm” for filmgoers.
From the 1900s to 1960, cinematographers such as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, Stanley Cortez, Nicholas Musuraca, Robert Krasker, John Alton, Boris Kaufman, Gunnar Fischer, John L. Russell, Sven Nykvist, Karl Freund, Fritz Arno Wagner, John Seitz, Robert Burks and many others created an alluring and phantasmal world out of nothing more than light and shadow, transforming the real world into a cinematic trompe-l’œil which was so seductive and all-encompassing that it became an entirely new, and hermetically sealed, universe. Certain films lent themselves to black and white more than others; film noir, for example, is both a style and a genre, and from its early days in such films as Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) depended on large patches of darkness splashed with a single light source from the left or right of the screen; as noir director Edward Dymtryk and cinematographer John Alton both noted, this sort of high-key lighting was both effective and economical in creating the bleak, unforgiving world of the noir.
In Europe, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, François Truffaut, and many others embraced the black and white image as being both removed from reality, and yet containing it; for Bergman, it allowed him to create a cold, dark world of eternal pain and suffering, for Renoir a humanist universe rendered in shades of grey in such classics as Rules of The Game (1939), and for Truffaut, his childhood memoir, The 400 Blows (1959), which further enmeshed the audience by virtue of the fact it was shot in CinemaScope, to completely engulf the viewer. By contrast, in such films as Rome, Open City (1945), black and white is used for a “newsreel” effect, which once again, going back to Jonathan Miller’s observation, is unfaithful to the vicissitudes of real life, in which disasters, coronations, scenes of political turmoil and the like all take place in color, but were presented on a weekly basis in theaters in black and white as an accepted practice, an act of visual translation that was almost never commented upon.
Black and white was cheap, utilitarian, and all cinematographers knew how to use it as the norm for film production. It was the medium of choice not only for everyday film production, but also for the films of the most cost-conscious producers, such as Roger Corman’s early work in the 1950s. Color took extra time and effort, but black and white was second nature to Hollywood cameramen. But as the 1960s dawned, and with it the advent color television as a day-to-day medium, producers and audiences demanded an almost total shift to color production. Color was no longer an “event,” it was the new standard of presentation, and black and white cinematography vanished almost overnight.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences regularly awarded two Oscars for Best Cinematography each year, one for color, and one for black and white. That practice ended in 1966, when Haskell Wexler won for Best Black and White Cinematography for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – by the next year, the black and white category had vanished. Indeed, 1965 is the watershed year for the end of black and white as a regularized production medium; in that year, Universal Pictures mandated that henceforth, all production of both television and theatrical features would be in color. Three-strip Technicolor’s lock on film production ended with the adoption of single-strip Eastman color film, and suddenly, color was as easy to shoot, perhaps even easier to shoot, as I will argue, than black and white.
Audiences embraced the all-color world of cinema without question; no one seemed to notice that the end of black and white cinematography was the end of an art form, and the end of a choice to make a film in black and white. Those few directors with real clout, such as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Alexander Payne, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg and others could still use black and white technology to make a feature film, but these black and white films were now seen as an event, just as color films once had been, and cinematographers had to retrain themselves to create a black and white universe.
Even a film such as The Artist (2011), which was presented in theaters in black and white to great acclaim, was actually shot digitally in color, and merely projected in black and white. As 35mm film ends its reign as the dominant production medium, to be replaced by digital cinema, black and white filmmaking has become an aberration, an effect, used to enhance dream sequences from the straightforward thrust of a film’s narrative, or to highlight flashbacks within a film. What I intend to highlight in this project are the aesthetics and the stylistic decisions formulated by the cinematographers and directors who embraced black and white cinema, and those films that used black and white as an integral part of their creation – films that couldn’t be made now, simply because of economics.
A recent study noted that when a viewer is flipping around the TV dial and sees a black and white image, 50 percent of the audience will instinctively move on to a color image, any color image. This volume thus wants to celebrate, and examine black and white cinema as the medium of choice for more than two-thirds of international cinema history, and then trace its decline due purely to audience demand and production economics, which consigned an art form to the scrapheap of the past, no matter how much we might wish it were otherwise.
The statistics for black and white silent films are particularly shocking. Indeed, a recent report released by film preservationist David Pierce, The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929, sponsored by The Council on Library and Information Resources and The Library of Congress Washington, D.C., tells a grim tale of just how much black and white films have been neglected. Though most film historians and archivists have known that the news wouldn’t be good for a long time, we now know how bad it really is. As the report’s introduction by James Billington notes,
Pierce’s findings tell us that only 14% of the feature films produced in the United States during the period 1912–1929 survive in the format in which they were originally produced and distributed, i.e., as complete works on 35mm film. Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality such as 16mm and other smaller gauge formats. The Library of Congress can now authoritatively report that the loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record. Even if we could preserve all the silent-era films known to exist today in the U.S. and in foreign film archives – something not yet accomplished – it is certain that we and future generations have already lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the twentieth century.
This is the result of a number of factors: the death of the silent film as a commercial art form, and the resultant neglect of the film negatives by the Hollywood studios; nitrate film decomposition, which plagues all films made prior to 1950; but mostly, it’s a ringing indictment of the fact that we simply don’t value our cinematic heritage as much as we should, and now, it’s gone forever. We can’t get it back, no matter what we do. Unless some long forgotten print or dupe negative turns up in a vault somewhere, these films have been consigned by neglect and indifference to perpetual oblivion, and even if such materials do turn up, they will probably be in very poor shape.
A few years ago, in 2008, 25 minutes of lost scenes from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis surfaced in the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine, in 16mm dupe negative format, footage that had been cut shortly after the film’s initial premiere in Berlin. However, the footage was so scratched and damaged that even after extremely aggressive digital restoration, it was still of such inferior quality that it could only serve as an aide-mémoire for the images in their original form. The resultant “complete” version was thus so intensely compromised that it was of archival value only, and bore only the most distant relationship to the film’s initial creation.
But it’s better than nothing, and for 75 percent of the silent era, that’s exactly what we get: nothing. For George Fitzmaurice’s The Dark Angel (1925), named by the New York Times as one of the ten best films of the year, nothing. For Herbert Brenon’s 1926 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, we have only tantalizing glimpses from the film’s trailer, and a few stills, but nothing else. For Tod Browning’s 1927 London After Midnight, we again have a few stills, but the last surviving print was destroyed in a fire in the MGM vaults in 1967. And the depressing list goes on and on.
The old saying “nitrate won’t wait,” means that the decomposition of nitrate film negatives and prints is inevitable. Movies created in this medium must be transferred to either safety film or some sort of digital master – this last option being the most ephemeral and unreliable, as I outline in my recent book Streaming: Movies, Media and Digital Access (2013) – or they will cease to exist. Film is a deeply fragile medium, and making a film is, as the 1940s producer Val Lewton observed, echoing Keats’s famous epitaph, like “writing on water.” If just one copy of a book survives, no matter how badly damaged it is, if the text is decipherable, it can be reset in new type and reprinted, and thus live anew for succeeding generations, with no damage at all – the words have been reclaimed from the ashes. Not so with film. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever; it’s the death of every film that no longer survives that we mourn here, something for which there is no remedy.
For those films that no longer exist, all we can do is memorialize them, and try to keep what artifacts we can from their production to remind us that once upon a time, literally thousands of people labored on thousands of films in a variety of capacities, to bring their vision to life on the screen. But since they are gone, we should also look towards the future, and aggressively seek to save every film, silent or sound, foreign or domestic, commercial or experimental that we possibly can.
Pierce’s report is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in both the past and the future of cinema. But then again, silent films are only part of the picture. As Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation notes, “half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever.” The 90 percent figure is a bit higher than Pierce’s number, but it’s in the same ballpark. But the 50 percent of all films before 1950 figure also sticks in my mind; indeed, I can actually remember seeing films in my early years that now simply no longer exist, as a result of nitrate decomposition – all films before 1950 were shot on eagerly inflammable cellulose nitrate film – vault fires, such as the infamous MGM vault fire of May 13, 1967, poor storage, or simple neglect. And most of those films, of course, are in black and white.
So it’s a whole universe that has gone missing here; missing because contemporary viewers feel that black and white cinema isn’t dazzling or spectacular enough, shunned because it requires, apparently, more concentration to become invested in the film one is watching. And yet the black and white cinema offers a seductive world of fabrics and fleshtones rendered in sinuous images of shaded power; a world in which everything exists in gradations of black, grey, and white, constituting an entirely different way of looking at the movies. Color has been celebrated in numerous studies, but black and white cinema seems to have been passed over as some talisman of the past.
Black and white beckons to us, luring us into a world of romance, treachery, deceit, fantasy, encompassing the work of literally hundreds of thousands of artists and technicians throughout the world. Just as 35mm prints are now being routinely junked by studios that simply don’t want them around as an alternative to Digital Cinema Packages – increasingly, you don’t have a choice of film or digital, it’s just digital alone – so black and white films are seen as having limited commercial value, and thus only archives preserve these precious images, while studios farm out a few better known titles for a desultory DVD release. When one considers that the world of black and white was once the only world of the cinema, it’s astounding that it has been so thoroughly abandoned, an art form now seen as ancient as stone lithography.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema for Anthem Press, London. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); A History of Horror (2010), and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; the book is a required text in universities throughout the world. He is currently at work on a new book, Black and White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, for Rutgers University Press.
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 Portions of this essay originally appeared in Cinespect (December 4, 2013).