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Through a Spectrum of Emotions

From 'The Wizard of Oz' to a slew of films today, mixing black-and-white with color has a special effect.

November 15, 1998|DAVID KRONKE | David Kronke is a regular contributor to Calendar

In 1939, audiences gasped when Dorothy Gale was hurled from her sepia-toned Kansas farm into the vividly Technicolor Oz. Nearly 60 years later, as "The Wizard of Oz" returns to theaters, filmmakers are discovering that juxtaposing color and black-and-white can still provide moviegoers a heady experience. Perhaps it's just a quixotic coincidence along the lines of multiple asteroid movies, but a number of films have come out recently using the same visual technique. Even now the startling impact of changing palettes can affect us aesthetically--and emotionally.

"Color is one of the few things that bypasses your intellect," says writer-director Gary Ross, whose film "Pleasantville" uses the black-and-white to color contrast as a central metaphor. "It's a very visceral thing--you have strong associations to black-and-white and color. And when the color is taken away, you begin to long for it, to fill in an empty coloring book, which is what the characters [in "Pleasantville"] are experiencing emotionally.

"And when people are open to that idea, they connect with it more than I thought they would." The color contrasts can be almost shocking, as in "American History X," or more subtle as in "Life Is Beautiful." But ultimately, all of these films deal with big emotions, and expanding the cinematographer's palette is a way to portray the expansive psychological terrain they cover.

"Pleasantville's" deconstruction of nostalgia and its discontents focus on two troubled '90s teenagers (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) transported to a safe-but-bland, black-and-white '50s sitcom world. When they introduce to the good citizens of "Pleasantville" ideas and passions heretofore unexplored in this sanitized land of dutiful dads and happy homemakers, the residents are rocked to their cores. As the philosophical (and metaphorical) shades of gray become increasingly pronounced, color, literally, must take over.

Nostalgia also informs the upcoming Mark Herman film "Little Voice," the story of a timid yet inspired singing mimic (Jane Horrocks) who also lives in a world of nostalgia, immersing herself in the music of the '40s, '50s and '60s. Her late father watches over her from a photo in her bedroom, and when she sings the songs they both adored, his ghost manifests itself to her--but only in black-and-white.

Tony Kaye's racially charged "American History X" examines Venice Beach skinheads. While present-day scenes are shot in grungy color, flashback sequences featuring the lead character (Ed Norton) at his most virulent and hateful are literally depicted in terms of black-and-white.

Roberto Benigni's acclaimed Holocaust fable "Life Is Beautiful" also uses a selective color scheme to comment on racial issues. Although Benigni's film doesn't technically use black-and-white, the second half of the film, set in a concentration camp, is shot with an extremely limited palette of colors and, in a strikingly disquieting sequence, the film comes to a hush of grays when Benigni's character confronts a mountain of corpses. Color, and life, have been virtually drained from the screen.

Other filmmakers have also dabbled with expanding their palettes. In DreamWorks SKG's upcoming animated epic "The Prince of Egypt," the angel of death descends upon the land during the passover in a striking monochromatic sequence, punctuated only by splashes of blood. And even "The Waterboy," a film of limited artistic ambitions, presents flashbacks of star Adam Sandler's childhood in sepia tones, which only raises the question: What's next?


Part of the reason "The Wizard of Oz" was such a dazzler in 1939 was that color was new to the film medium. In 1947, for example, 88% of the films made were still in black-and-white; seven years later, more than half would be in color.

Black-and-white would make a brief rebound for the next four years as Hollywood made movies with an eye toward airing them on television, but by 1970, fully 94% of all films were shot in color, according to "A History of Narrative Film," by David A. Cook.

Blending color and black-and-white "forces audiences to pay attention," notes Denise Mann, vice chairwoman of the Producer's Program at the UCLA Film School. "Entering an alternative reality [through the use or subtraction of color] speaks to their psychological or emotional or spiritual lives."

Mann notes that the rise of film noir in the '40s and '50s changed the way audiences thought about black-and-white films. "These black-and-white films dealt in the extremes, of dark and light, where just a portion of a character's face was lit. Black-and-white was used abstractly then, but ironically, it seemed more realistic psychologically."

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