Film Talk // Back to black

There's a noticeable trend happening in the movies lately. Ever since The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar back in 2012 it reminded audiences around the world how exciting and beautifully cinematic it is to shoot films in black and white.

There were two great movies I saw from the recent Sydney Film Festival that were shot in black and white: Baumbach's Frances Ha and Jan Ole Gerster's debut feature Oh Boy. Both are quite similar in subject matter as they follow twenty-somethings trying to figure out their place in the world. One is set predominantly in New York and the other is a single day spent in Berlin. There's definitely a hipster vibe but it's never irritating since the characters are so funny and endearing. I would say the black and white works in both films. In Frances Ha, New York hasn't looked this beautiful since Woody Allen's Manhattan, a film Ha most people will compare it to. In Ha it feels like we're looking back at something that has already happened. It's not happening right now, it's timeless and the themes of being an independent adult is something that everyone faces and can relate to. 

This sense of timelessness is also the reasoning behind Gerster's choice to shoot his film in black and white. After the screening I attended there was a Q&A with the director and he talked about wanting to create this sense of timelessness and a classic feel but at the same time he wanted to put on screen the Berlin that he remembers, which he says is evolving into something new. There isn't as much raw creative forces circulating around as much as before. In fact, there's a section of the film that is set in an underground theatre, where experimental productions are given the limelight. Gerster announces with a tinge of sadness that the theatre has been purchased and is being turned into a block of apartments. Therefore what we see on the film may be vastly different to what it is now. 

See that's the thing about black and white. It implies two opposing things: that it's not affected by the passage of time while simultaneously capturing a specific moment in time. In both Frances Ha and Oh Boy the films encapsulate the moment when both protagonists bloom from being aimless young adults into  self-sufficient adults. It's a slice from their own, particular life but thematically it's also every one else's. Whenever we see a film stripped of colour we get the sense that this is a memory. Film is at its most cinematic when it feels like a memory. 

The other thing about black and white is just how beautiful it is on screen. That fact is undeniable. The composition and framing are put into focus. Lighting is crucial and can help set the best atmosphere for the story. Actors look beautiful in black and white, places and sets look gorgeous as well. It all just feels...right.

That's not to say that every film should be shot in black and white. It's all relative to genre. I can't imagine seeing Evil Dead or The Exorcist in black and white. How can we tell what's blood and what's pea soup? Horror relies in colour for how it impacts it audience. The same can be said for sci-fi pictures. It should't look timeless nor should it look like it's from the past because sci-fi is very much about it being set in the future. If our present is colour then it will be jarring to see future worlds in monochrome. But maybe I can be proved wrong. Maybe these genres can work for a horror film, I can only think of Psycho or Vampyr as examples of how black and white can work for this genre but maybe someone will come up with a truly frightening contemporary horror movie that is enhanced because it was not shot in colour. With numerous films coming out in black and white and directors shooting in shades of grey once again, I'm hoping to see someone really innovate with it. Anything that will steer filmmakers away from black and white's obnoxious younger cousin: 3D.

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