The Year of Black and White

Why would Alexander Payne shoot Nebraska in black and white?, a reporter asked at Cannes. Payne’s reaction: “I wasn’t expecting that question at all.”

I saw three black-and-white indies in theaters over the past six months: Nebraska, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing, and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Despite the success of The Artist, it’s rare to see several major black-and-whites in one season. I didn’t even get to BlancanievesComputer Chess, or the Disney World horror show Escape from Tomorrow. Each time I left the theater, our post-viewing conversation felt inevitable: “What did you think of the black-and-white?”

Monochromatic film stock is an attention-grabber. The Artist escaped criticism for its cinematography because it evoked the pre-color silent era. But for contemporary settings, black-and-white tends to color perceptions. On a recent IMDB thread for Much Ado about Nothing, intelligent discussions of how B&W works on digital vs. film stock is tempered with comments like “you can’t spell pretentious without J-o-s-s W-h-e-d-o-n.” Kidding or not, this user hits on the Pretension Factor: You’re trying too hard, Joss Whedon.

Color is so commonplace that B&W is now a deliberate choice. A gimmick, even. The filmmakers want us to notice the absence of color. It’s an addition, not a loss. They see movies they love in their own works: Much Ado‘s sexy screwball Thin Man parties; Frances Ha‘s nod to Manhattan (and how reviewers didn’t name-check that? I sure did.) We’ll see more black-and-white movies, and we’ll hear those indictments of faux-sophistication. B&W is a director’s hallmark, something he/she wants noticed. It’s hard to imagine truly mainstream movies returning to monochrome. How will this year’s The Giver appear to family audiences, I wonder, since the trailer is bound to use B&W?

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Nebraska

Why they did it: Payne called black-and-white “modest,” lending his Nebraska streets a “visual style perhaps as austere as the lives of its people.”

Budget: $12 million

Homage to: The flat, sparse wasteland of Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show.

Pretension factor (1-5): 1. It’s like your old man telling a story of when he was a boy.

Much Ado about Nothing

Why they did it: Whedon wanted “to evoke a film noir kind of look.”

Budget: “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s less,” Whedon said.

Homage to: All those old he-said-she-said romances, from Wuthering Heights to The Awful Truth. Let’s throw in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment for its corrosive heart.

Pretension factor: 3. The B&W rides the line between artsying up for Shakespeare and disguising the eccentricities of the director’s own house.

Frances Ha

Why they did it: Greta Gerwig talked about the movie’s escapism. “I could be as big as I wanted to be and it wouldn’t read as false.”

Budget: Rumored to be around $7 million.

Homage to: If Woody Allen comes to mind (Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose), it’s largely because of New York. Then there’s François Truffaut’s free-spirited characters from The 400 Blows to Jules and Jim.

Pretension factor: 5. This is film school B&W, reminding you that Noah Baumbach’s seen more movies than you have.

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