In Glorious Black And White: Monochromatic Modern Films

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The news that James Mangold’s Logan would have special screenings in black-and-white on May 16th brought to my mind many movies of the “modern” era which have purposely chosen to go that route from conception.

Surely, it would have been a hard sell for the Logan filmmakers to pitch a B&W superhero movie from the get-go. With such an emphasis on “event” movies—movies presented in 3D, on gigantic screens, etc.—a black-and-white film might feel too “small.” But there are a number of cult films that possibly wouldn’t have had half the impact if they were shot in color.

The first one that comes to mind is David Lynch’s 1977 masterpiece Eraserhead. It is inconceivable for me to imagine a color version of Eraserhead; the murky, stark palette was so much an essential element of the narrative and meaning and mood of that particular work. Described by Lynch himself as his most spiritual film, there is something about black-and-white that is evocative of this liminal, dream-like world.

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“Eraserhead”

We can jump all the way ahead to 1994’s Ed Wood by Tim Burton. Burton’s decision to shoot this movie in B&W had a lot to do with the time period director Wood himself made his own films in, the 1950s. But black-and-white also evokes the idea of the past in general—the idea of memories (in my very earliest memories I remember watching TV on a B&W TV set, for example).

You can then carry the idea about black-and-white film representing “memories” to the very concept of doing a bio-pic like Ed Wood itself—by its very nature, Burton had to present a version of Wood’s life that simply could not be the unvarnished truth. Aspects about Wood’s story were altered, or removed, or added-to, or romanticized (for a more gritty version of his life, read the biography Nightmare of Ecstasy). The film is not a documentary…it’s just selective memory, a “dream” of what actually happened.

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“Ed Wood”

The last “purposeful” black-and-white movie I’m going to mention is a bit more on the obscure side—Raging Bull & Young Frankenstein fans, sorry!—but it’s a favorite of mine. Abel Ferrara’s vampire movie The Addiction, from 1995, paradoxically uses the film palette to make it seem almost…more “real.” There is a blunt, almost flat quality to the way the film is shot that speaks to more realism rather than less. At the same time, the B&W makes one immediately think of those old Universal horror movies of the 30s and 40s (and certainly, The Addiction has several aspects that remind one of Dracula’s Daughter in particular).

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“The Addiction”

It seems clear to me that the way Mangold shot/envisioned Logan lent itself easily to the black-and-white treatment (an official clip in that format was released in February). Further, in a tweet the director explained that rendering the movie in that format is not as easy as adding a “filter”—there are a lot of adjustments that have to be made along the way.

Will the B&W version of Logan be remembered as more memorable than the original? Will more movie studios decide to release their films first-run in black-and-white? It could be the start of a very interesting trend!

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