Although the vast majority of the population prefers color movies over black and white, few actually notice the use of color. Because the human eye sees in color, itâ€™s taken as mundane truth. It is apparently believed that color is â€˜realâ€™ and represents the tangible world instead of realizing it can represent the unseen or completely obscure the truth.
There are certain filmmakers who seem to have a particular skill with the use of color. Steven Soderbergh is a popular director whose emotional use of color in his movies goes almost completely unrecognized (except for Pleasantville). Solaris and Traffic especially come to my mind. Erin Brockovich was as obviously manipulated, but he used color to tell her story as opposed to just setting the mood or indicating emotions. He uses more techniques than just color, but itâ€™s an element of his skill that usually seems ignored.
I presented a paper in my film history class on the use of color in Peter Greenawayâ€™s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Itâ€™s a strange film and not for the faint-hearted. Greenawayâ€™s films are more theatrical than most audiences want. However, this particular movie is a study in color because he obviously uses it to manipulate the viewer’s feelings about the film and its characters. From one part of the scene to the next you can watch the charactersâ€™ clothes and accessories change color. Once you believe this reality, bending your emotions through color during the rest of the film is easy.
And then we have the recent import, Hero. Iâ€™d known a little about the film and was so happy when it finally made it over to the US. I was not prepared for what I saw since I had never seen any of Yimou Zhangâ€™s films and was blown away by the lavish spectacle of story and beauty. One reviewer remarked that every frame was so perfectly composed it could stand alone in an art gallery. (Itâ€™s true.) Another remarked it is probably the most beautiful movie ever made. (I also think thatâ€™s true.) And then there was an amateur Internet reviewer, (like me), who commented that the obvious use of color in the movie must be a â€œChinese thingâ€.
There are cultural rules that I assume artists are following when they make obvious use of color. And then there is the individual interpretation. I can make educated guesses as to what the filmmaker was trying to portray with their use of color but I cannot know exactly how they respond to their palette; I only know how I respond. My color associations come from my photo education, my natural biases, my cultural learning and my life experiences. Your color associations will differ.
As you can imagine, one thing I cannot tolerate is a murky movie. While thatâ€™s normally the province of horror movies, I can remember being frustrated as a child at attempting to see what was going on in Where the Red Fern Grows. I think one of the reasons I read the book was to know what really happened. I get that same frustration with filmographers today who donâ€™t use the tools they have; obscuring story, emotion, and action. Thoughtless lighting can happen in black and white films, but most often seems to occur in color films. Why? Color allows the filmmaker to be lazy because they know the audience will accept the scene as truth. They see no reason to use color. There is nothing more going on than simply recording the scene that is presented.
I would love a mainstream resurgence of black and white films. Before color became widespread in movies, filmographers really knew how to use black and white. Watch some B&W classics; especially Hitchcock. The true absence of color, as opposed to half-assed dim lighting; illustrates where light and dark really lay. It opens the eyes. It is a revelation.
Too many times, color obscures the shadows.