Cinema’s Gray Scale Age – Article

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Black and white films were originally made due to the lack of technology and the absence of color film. Thus, in the early years of cinema, there was no choice, and at the same time an aesthetic reason was created for this absence of color. Moving on through the years, and with the evolution of cinema, color came to the film (after 1960, the films became voluminous mainly for advertising reasons ), and the image is made from analog, digital. In the last few years, however, we have noticed the return of the black and white element in its digital form/ with some refinements/ as it mostly marks the cinephile side of the films, making some of them pieces of fine art.

Essentially, a black and white image means the range of the gray scale, with exclusively white and black pixels, something that theoretically gives neutrality, but really the management of contrasts, of how faint or not an image is, of whether it is film or digital, make an image not at all neutral but very sharp and strong in some cases. And of course at the same time it brings exactly that aesthetic that has been created all these years during which color is missing from the cinema.

In contemporary cinema, we often see black-and-white films praising the beginnings of this aesthetic, oftentimes not only for self-referential reasons but also for budget reasons. Specifically, the reasoning behind black-and-white films references a time when colour was not an option or even an aesthetic approach. In the following text we will take a journey through a selection of such films, bringing examples from all these categories and giving a tribute to the beginning of cinema. A time when filming was not accessible. So let’s make a list!

Some of these films use the black-and-white effect for budgeting reasons. Such examples are Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) and Clerks (1994). Other films use black- and-white as a reference to other older films of that era. Such examples are Pleasantville (1998), where it refers to a television series of the 50s, Good Night and Good Luck (2005), where it refers to the television news of that period. The Artist (2011) tells the story of Hollywood from the era of silent films to those with sound. Many times also the use of this appears simply for visual reasons, to set the mood or to comment on the good-and-bad moral universe of the film. A good example for that is the movie A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014). Sin City (2005) is also a good example, using black-and-white as a reference to comics, with strong contrasts and touches of colour. It would not be the same film in any case without the lack of colours and monochromes.

In other cases we witness the mixing of the black-and-white effect with some colours in Schindler’s List (1993) and Rumble Fish (1983). Roma (2018) is the last black-and-white film, and in a way it combines all of the above, as it is a relatively inexpensive production. However, the use of the black-and-white effect mainly serves the aesthetics of the film and the removal of colour from the seemingly colourful world of the film.

What we gather from the above films and in general from the approach that cinema wants to return to its black-and-white roots, the reduced effects in some cases and the foregrounded text, is the creators’ desire to explore the essence of the seventh art with the fewest possible interventions. Nonetheless, cinema cannot help but merge with technology for the medium’s growth, but the black-and-white approach has at its core the honouring of the what came before.

Other black and white films with the above characteristics that strengthen the reasoning about the origins of this cinema are the ones below. 

The wings of desire are an emblematic example of the use of the absence of the colour element as an underlining of the metaphysical element and of course the maximum sensitivity that exists in this particular film, the Human centipede ‘lacks’ colour and becomes even more cruel and inhuman with the black and white elements and the strong contrast making us feel uncomfortable and repulsive, and Ida takes us on a journey to a world that is almost mystical, distant and at the same time psychoanalytic. The list is long and important.

Therefore, what we observe is that there is not exactly a return to the roots of cinema, but more freedom in relation to the material that is now available, since cinema itself is to a large extent the technology of the time and the access that artists have to it. Parallel to available money, production, place and time. Today, when many of these are offered, at least on a large scale, the creators have the choice to choose how they want their image to be and to give the aesthetic that concerns them.

Written by Nefeli Papanastasopoulou

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