Noir: Black and Chrome. Alternate Black and White Versions of New Movies.
This month I dive into a trio of recent movies that all ended up releasing alternate takes of their movies in black and white. All three are available on blu ray releases of the movies, the Logan (2017) black and white version came out on the initial blu ray release, Mad Max Fury Road (2015) came out on a special edition that came out two years after the initial release, and Parasite (2019) offers its black and white version on the Criterion release of the movie that came out a year after release.
I didn’t really care for black and white movies when I was a kid, although I’ve have more recently realized that time in my childhood might have been a much shorter period of of time than it felt. I was maybe five or six when we got our first color TV and I was maybe 11 at the oldest when I saw Schindler’s List for the first time, one of my favorite movies even when I first saw it. I know, it seems like an early age to see it, but in the ‘90’s there was the sense that the educational and cultural value was so high that it was acceptable for middle school kids to see it. I still agree that it was very good for me to see it as it kind of awakened both a sense of history and cinematic appreciation. Oddly, there was a similarly short gap between the time of the very first sound film, The Jazz Singer, in 1927 and the first color film (as we know them), Becky Sharp, in 1935. There was only a period of eight years where there were only black and white movies and films with sound, and even then, there were movies with color effects in them. We very much live in a time of all of the technology of film at our fingertips, digital filmmaking has made it cheap and easy to make movies with vibrant color and crisp sound. There have even been a few feature films from great directors like Steven Soderberg and Sean Baker that were shot on smartphones and shown in theaters. Yet, there hasn’t been a year that there haven’t been movies released in black and white.
Just before the Oscars last year, Bong Joon Ho released an alternate version of Parasite, his film that would go on to win four awards, including the very first Best Picture for a foreign language film. Director Bong had his film converted frame by frame to black and white to create a very different experience of his movie to be shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival and later to be released with the theatrical version of the movie in the Criterion release of the movie. It wasn’t the first time he had done this with one of his movies, he had done the same with Mother. He loved the result so much that he had actually worked with his colorist and cinematographer on the alternate version of Parasite before the color version was even released. He didn’t just turn off the color button for fun, it was a painstakingly converted frame by frame to black and white.
Growing up, Bong Joon Ho was not allowed to go to the movie theater due to his mother’s fear of “bacteria.” As a result, the only way that he watched all of the classic movies during his formative years were watched on his family’s black and white television. The decision to make black and white versions of his movies was an act of “vanity,” as he says, because the classic movies, to him, are all black and white.
While color can convey themes throughout a movie and create an aesthetic beauty, there’s a timelessness in the focus on texture in a black and white movie. Often, movies filmed in black and white tend to age better than color movies because there are trends in coloring that put an age to those films. It could come from the coloring process, Technicolor films from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s have a completely different feel than color corrected movies from this century. Even within the Technicolor process, the brightness of the color red in movies from the ‘60’s can place a movie as coming from the UK versus Hollywood. There are also trends in the colors used that put an age to a movie, the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s saw a lot of monochromatic filmmaking, everything is green, or everything is yellow or everything is blue, for a heavy handed use of coloring as a motif. Whereas more recently there has been a rampant trend of using blue and orange in foregrounds and backgrounds as it is a pleasant combination for the eye to see in the frame.
Not only was this the second black and white alternate version of one of Bong Joon Ho’s movies, Mad Max Fury Road and Logan both had black and white versions that came out on video release. Although Fury Road came out in theaters two years before Logan, both alternate release came out in 2017 with Fury Road Chrome and Logan Noir.
Fury Road took the cinematic world by storm, creating a new appreciation of action movies for cinephiles. I have to admit that I was distracted by the grotesque imagery of Imortan Joe’s tribe of barbarians of the post-apocalyptic world. I very much missed the boat on Fury Road when it was first released and it wasn’t until the past year when I found I appreciated the theatrical version on a rewatch. It was seeing the Black and Chrome version where I placed it as a movie that holds its own among cinematic classics. We see the movie through silver tinged clarity much like a shot of spray paint to the face. The sky brings a drama of fluffy clouds on a grey background reminiscent to some striking scenes of Rashomon. Those white clouds provide plain backdrops to closeups that echoed that of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Zoe Kravicz gets plucked from the truck by the pole vaulting War Boys bring flashbacks of Ann Darrow being tied to a stake by the island people as a sacrifice for King Kong.
George Miller wanted to have black and White versions of his Mad Max movies going back to Mad Max 2 when he saw some scenes without color and noted that it gave the movie a “primal” feel. For large chunks of the movie there is so little dialogue that this could nearly be a silent film. While bright oranges are gone, the sky is black at times, Furiousa’s war paint is a shimmering gasoline black, and instead of the brightness of the flames, we get emphasis on the darkness of smoke.
Oddly, James Mangold didn't go into making Logan intending to have a black and white version of his movie. Throughout the making of the movie he and the cinematographer noticed the contrast of colors would be conducive to black and white and the alternate version was almost like a happy accident. It did have to be something in the back of his head all along because the turned over X on Logan's grave is such similar imagery to the ending of Seven Samurai, one of the greatest black and white movies ever, which highlights the X-like graves of the fallen Samurai.
Curiously, the convergence between movies made on phones and black and white movies comes in Logan Noir. The sequence in Las Vegas when the Professor is having a major episode and the camera is shaking in a strange way is achieved by filming on an iPhone and shaking it so much that it counteracts with the anti-shake technology in the phone, creating imagery unlike any other special effect. Logan Noir feels much more like an indie film that happens to have a huge budget, most notably the scene where the main characters are wrangling horses that came free of their trailer on the highway that is shot more with a gentle hand of a dramatic film than fast cuts of a super hero movie.
The use of black and white in Logan Noir is good, although it isn't as striking as the other two movies. The places where it succeeds are by showing the normally vibrant and colorful Las Vegas as it still looks illuminated and futuristic without color, and when we first see Charles's water tank. Holes in the metal of the tank create a star scape in the tank that looks like a crude planetarium and brings back memories of Cerebro from previous X-Men movie, albeit absent the great technology the world's smartest mutants had provided.
Taking the color away from Parasite bring attention to other aspects of the imagery. As the family is fleeing the house as the rain comes down they reach an outdoor stairway that takes them to the lower, poorer, part of the city. In black and white the streaks of water staining the concrete create a striking warning that they are going to a place that has been soiled, and not just that, that the water of the great storm goes somewhere, and that happens to flood their neighborhood and their subterranean apartment. The only place that remains to peak out of the water is the elevated toilet, now bubbling the overflowing storm water. The archaic lack of color also makes the several phone screens we see look more clear and the slo-mo video of the men dumping water on the public urinator is given an extra layer of artistry to the classical musical sting.
The alternate cut that made me completely change the way that I saw the movie was Mad Max Fury Road. More than any specific scene, it's that the movie feels different, that it highlights what is great about their movie in either context and that it gives direct references or senses of de ja vu of great movies of the past. Somehow, this feels like it could have been released next to other classics of the past, in a double feature with Carol Reed, Orson Welles or Akira Kurosawa films. And that's what all of these movies have done, given themselves the chance to be measured favorably with cinematic history and to be enjoyed along side those greats.
Upcoming: Next Month will be a pair of UK serial killer movies: Peeping Tom and Frenzy. Coming soon will also be Hindsight Awards for 2010 and 2015 headlined by Scott Pilgrim and Mad Max Fury Road. Hopefully soon I will have the next installment in the Interrupted Seasons Project: The 2020 Season. Coming down the pike will also be a big shared universe post The Rage of Machines: How Terminator and Inception Live in the Same World as The Matrix.