Monday, October 10, 2005

In Glorious Black & White...

Last night, I went to see George Clooney latest directorial effort, Good Night, and Good Luck. The film is set during the politically volatile era of the early 1950’s, and tells the story of CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow and his quest to inspire debate about Senator Joseph McCarthy and his HUAC (House Un-American Activites Committee) trials.

Good Night, and Good Luck., was entirely in black and white. I always find it interesting when directors, in this day and age, choose to forgo the world of color, for the nostalgic shades of grey. Shot by cinematographer, Robert Elswit who has worked under directors ranging from Joel Schumacher to Paul Thomas Anderson, Good Night, and Good Luck. has a glorious feel of cinematic days gone by.
Black and White film has the unique ability to both heighten the realism of a film, while lending it certain surreal abstract qualities as well. Because the events of the film took place in the early 50’s when TV and film were predominantly all shown in black and white, Good Night, and Good Luck seems historically legitimized because it is in the format of the times. When I was a child I used to believe that the world operated in black and white up until the 60’s when color film began to gain wide spread popularity. I thought that even when the cameras were shut off, people would leave set and live their lives in a smoky hazy world, where the sky alternated from gray to black, and women’s lipstick shone like obsidian. It’s an odd truth that films set in the 50’s seem more believable when they are in black and white. Particularly since it is such a narrowly catagorized era. Not all period films are thought of in this way. Though Hollywood produced black and white films in the 20’s and 30’s, filmmakers don’t seem to graviate as much towards portraying these eras in the black and white format.

Color is such a marvelous tool of the filmaker, it can be lush and vibrant, or dull and dreary; either way playing a large part in setting the tone for the entire film. I can’t imagine watching Martin Scorceses’ The Aviator or Speilberg’s Raiders of the Lost Arc in Black and White (despite the fact they span the 30’s and 40’s). The color in these films add such a richness and a personality, not only to the overall looks of the film, but to the stories as well.

The thematic elements of Good Night, and Good Luck., and the 50’s in general, resonate particularly strongly in the black and white format, for this was a time when things existed in world of extremes. The era of The Cold War and McCarthyism did not allow much room for gradients within the poltical spectrum. You were either a commonist sympathizer or you were a loyal American; one was right, and the other wrong. The starkness of the political landscape during that time period coincides with the austere images of a world that is literally painted in strokes of black and white.

Black and white film was also particularly fitting for Good Night and Good Luck because of the large amount of archival footage that was woven into the film. Instead of casting an actor to play the role of Senator McCarthy, Clooney chose to strictly use film of McCarthy in the HUAC trials, as well as the actual rebuttal to Murrow that was aired on CBS. Clooney also used segments from various episodes of “See it Now” to further create a sense of realism. The fuzzy and and old film stock did much better when viewed in the black and white world, then I imagine it would have if surrounded by color (which I think would have made it feel more dated). There were moments in the film when Clooney cut completely to archival films and they filled the screen entirely. This all worked more smoothly because the whole film was shot in black and white.

The scenary of a black and white film has an almost ghostly, unearthly feel to it. There is an unavoidable darkness in tone and visual cues that spark mystery about what may lurk in the hidden shadows behind a desk. Clooney used cigarette smoke a great deal in this film. I don’t think there were more than a handful of scenes where at least one character on screen wasn’t lighting up. Murrow himself smoked even while giving his weekly telecast. Smoke wafted in delicate tendrils up to the ceilings of the CBS offices, it unfurled out of nostrils in foggy puffs. It was everywhere, and the thin veils of smoke that hovered around the characters intensified their urgency. Like the black and white film stock, the constant presence of smoke thoughout the film served to make the film both hyperrealized and dreamlike. The characters were some how more organic – more of their times, demolishing those sticks of tobacco before our very eyes. Inhaling and exhaling breath that we could actually see. But the hovering clouds of smoke that floated in and out of the shadows also created a sense that these characters were living in a dream, a nightmare, where at any moment their livlihoods could be snatched away in the witchunt.

Like Ed Wood, and The Man Who Wasn’t There, Good Night, and Good Luck did not just use its black and white film stock as a gimmick, but used it to its fullest pontial in exploring the moments in history that it showcased. It married a sense of journalistic historical realism, with glamorous, artistic flourishes. An utmost example of a film where “style over substance” is not the case, GNAGL is a gorgeous looking film that creates a perfect dreamy realism in which to tell its story. It is style and substance working together in perfect harmony.


Blogger phinney said...

i liked

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

I once asked my mom about the "world in black and white before color film" concept. We were watching some newly discovered color film of Hitler and it was fairly shocking to see Hitler trouncing around in full, normal looking color. You always visualize him, and the whole world of yesteryear, in black and white.
I commented on how even in the color films from the past, things seem very faded and dull.

So we were discussing memory, and she said that her memory of things in the 60s and 70s more or less matched that faded out home 8mm film coloring that you see from that era. (Think about the opening of the Wonder Years.) Logically, she said, things had to be in the some color scheme as they are now, but her memory matched the old videos.

My guess is that our memory isn't actually as good as we think it is, and often we're remembering our memory of the event more than the event itself... and unfortunately remembering our memory of the event can apparently be pretty easily swayed.

This isn't at all relevent to your discussion of the movie.

I have a roommate from LA who always calls movies "flicks." I find it extremely aggravating.

4:18 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

It is somewhat relevant in that it deals with the issue of the world as black and white, instead of the world of color we see now. What I find particularly strange about it, is that if I'm imagining something like the revolutionary war, or the french revolution, I don't ever imagine it in black and white, --i imagine it in full rich colors. Its that mid century period in particular...very odd.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous doorframe said...

TV and movies distort our memories more than we'd like to think.

11:45 AM  

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