Thursday Ten - Black and White Films of the 21st Century

Moviegoers of course have the right to dislike black and white, but it is not something they should be proud of. It reveals them, frankly, as cinematically illiterate” - Roger Ebert

In an era of blockbuster filmmaking that emphasizes nonsensical visual bombast, it’s nice to see that Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida has become a box office sensation over the past few months. While I have problems with the film, it’s heartening that Pawlikowski’s rich and densely composed imagery is reaching a wider audience. Meanwhile, another foreign art-house film, Philippi Garrel’s excellent Jealousy is making the rounds. It’s currently slated for release at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center and has played in select theaters over the past month - it’s also available for streaming on iTunes. The film is another brilliant visual exercise anchored by a very intimate relationship narrative that benefits from Garrel’s naturalistic approach. The black and white cinematography only reinforces that intimacy.

I hesitate to say there is any sort of resurgence in black and white filmmaking, but perhaps there might be. At the turn of the decade, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist surged to critical acclaim and secured several Academy Awards. And just last year Alexander Payne’s Nebraska saw many nominations with a great deal of emphasis placed on Phedon Papamichael’s visual construction. The century has yielded many incredible efforts in black and white. Unfortunately, many of these films are still prefaced by the fact that they are black and white films - delineating these pictures to novelty status. Regardless, the following ten films utilize black and white photography to realize an artistic vision that engrosses the viewer and perhaps even reshapes their worldview.

Coffee and Cigarettes
(Jim Jarmusch, 2003)

Coffee and Cigarettes.jpg

We think and our thoughts enter a sphere outside our consciousness, waiting for others to gravitate and pull upon them. That’s the gist of Jim Jarmusch’s amusing anthology, where actors and celebrities sit over coffee and cigarettes. Their interactions and methods of communication are often hilarious and as the picture proceeds at the usual Jarmusch pace, similarities emerge, perhaps unintentionally, between subjects. It’s a beautifully constructed film, one that utilizes its black and white photography to highlight its smoky environ while stripping away any sense of opulence between his celebrity subjects.

The White Ribbon
(Michael Haneke, 2009)

Michael Haneke’s penchant for oppression has never been quite as vivid as the black and white imagery of The White Ribbon. Originally shot in color only for Haneke to revert his footage to black and white, the film is another one of Haneke’s exercises in the study of cruelty. Set on the eve of World War I, Haneke carefully constructs his film around the increasingly cruel gestures exchanged in a small German village. Haneke’s films are notoriously grim, though The White Ribbonmight be his most intrinsically difficult. Whereas there’s a level of surreal detachment associated with so many of his films (Funny Games and the remote, Benny’s Video and its vicarious voyeurism), The White Ribbon is Haneke’s most impactful - there’s a sense of historical truth that pervades and haunts throughout the picture.

(Philippe Garrel, 2013)

The latest black and white release, and the film to prompt this Thursday Ten, is Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy. The film’s austere visual design is complemented by a certain kind of warmth that’s not usually found in contemporary black and white films. That might be because the technique is used to reinforce a sense of nostalgia, or perhaps more accurately, to capture a period of reflection. This autobiographical work traces the end of one relationship and the beginning of another, most of which is observed through the eyes of a young child. This beautiful film is a small wonder that never gives into to predisposed genre convention and instead opts for something more natural and graceful.

(Miguel Gomes, 2012)

I’m months removed from my initial screening of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, yet its images have left a permanent imprint on my memory. However, I’m still unsure of Gomes’ approach. The film opens with an elderly woman’s mundane living, only to eventually unfold as a love story. That first half, to put it bluntly, is a slog. But that does not necessarily impede on the stunning second act that takes many risks in conveying the whimsy and wispiness of falling in love. The black and white photography offers a two-prong effect: the first is to emphasize the life (and color) drained out of a woman’s life while the second portion of the film is a celebration of the power of memory and our capacities to choose how we remember.

(Alexander Payne, 2013)

Nebraska is Alexander Payne’s most formidable accomplishment and a compelling companion piece to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Whereas Lynch’s film may be construed as the study and fear of fatherhood, Payne’s aims elsewhere, focusing on the last glimmers of fatherhood and the onset of senility. The picture’s stunning black and white photography maintains the same sort of eeriness associated with Lynch’s work, stripping its American landscape of any semblance of warmth. But rather than compounding that with Lynch’s usual brand of weirdness, Payne and Bob Nelson’s screenplay is more attuned to the comic sensibility of their subjects. Payne’s approach works and it’s satisfying to see a director see his ambition realized and for it to reach a broader audience - of all the films on this list, Nebraska saw the great commercial success.

Frances Ha
(Noah Baumbach, 2012)

When the plights of white adolescents and their arrested development is the topic for every other film, novel, or television show, it’s kind of a wonder that Frances Ha manages to stick out at all. Thankfully, Noah Baumbach’s film is riddled with tiny delights that amount to something truly substantial. From the joy of getting your tax return to the anguish of taking a job out of necessity, the film’s charms steadily amass itself. The stark photography aids in that growth, with Baumbach careful to capture his rueful lead character at her most intimate and lonely by expanding and contracting the canvass of the frame.

(Francis Ford Coppola, 2009)

This may be a cheat, as Francis Ford Coppola utilizes some color photography sparingly throughout Tetro. Accents aside, Tetro is a beautifully composed (mostly) black and white film from a master filmmaker. It’s easy to make disparaging remarks about the director (and following Jack, it’s not hard to see why) but Coppola does some remarkably subversive things throughout Tetro that warrant critical reassessment. This is a director who understands the friction between color and black and white photography. He views living in the present as representative of a clear and precise worldview whereas the shimmer of the past is highlighted in a loud sorbet of colors. The story tells what I consider to be a necessary narrative: an artist in friction with family and his artistic capacities. Coppola may have had some rocky films over the past few years (decades, really) but Tetro aligns itself with The Godfather and Apocalypse Now as a significant piece of filmmaking in Coppola’s oeuvre.  

The Day He Arrives
(Hong Sang-soo, 2012)

I’ve become increasingly interested in films that tinker with structural repetition. Okay, that’s a little vague. Let me explain: in The Day He Arrives, the film presents a series of events in a linear way. But in its use of repetition, realized through its editing patterns and delegation of visual space, the film makes subtle suggestions against its perceived linearity. Are these events actually occurring on the same day? Is this an alternate reality? Hong Sang-soo offers no simple answers. Rather, the picture’s perpetual sense of déjà vu ends up producing something of a dizzying effect. With such precise black and white photography, the formal rigor of The Day He Arrives may leave you with more questions than answers. To be honest though, it’s perhaps better left that way.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
(Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001)

The chain-smoking barber in his bright white smock simply would not look quite as gloomy if the Coens had not shot The Man Who Wasn’t Therein black and white. And it’s critical to see Billy Bob Thornton’s character inhabit this dreary reality. The Coens’ are rigid formalists and have a unique gift to offer a close-up of their actors without a sense of glamour. With Thornton, his carved and oppressive features dominate the frame as a voiceover mumbles words. Some may accuse the film for being lethargic, but it’s all in the design: this shadow of a character lumbers through life, simply trying to make sense of the lunacy of those around him.

(Anton Corbijn, 2007)

I knew little of Ian Curtis and Joy Division prior to Anton Corbijn’s film. After Control, I deeply ingrained myself within the history of the band to the point that I’m confident in calling them one my biggest artistic influences. Their rise to prominence was a steady progression, the band being fully conscious of the fact that they’ll need to pay their dues. And Curtis, contending with depression and epilepsy, took his life like so many other great artists. So there’s obviously a tragic, albeit wasteful, observation on his death.

Corbijn understood this. The black and white photography is deeply rooted in this understanding. The grit of each frame and the attuned messiness of his compositions aren’t readily apparent from the onset, but the slow decay in Curtis’ mind creeps its way onto the film in a very subtle and impactful way that by the end of the film we’re witnessing a very different picture from where we began. Control can be limited in description as a biopic. And it is. But the film also expands the language of what constitutes a biopic. This is a film of great poetic resonance, one where its photography and narrative inclinations coalesce to form a weird hybrid. Curtis was never alive to see the band reach commercial success. One of their final recordings, the now iconic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was their first track to reach a broader audience - a rare example where good music and commercial success were not mutually exclusive. And in that same way, Control proves that a film can possess the fundamental narrative core of a Hollywood biopic production while eyeing its subject in a beautiful and lyrical way.