Editorial: The Virtues of Black and White Film


George Miller’s ferociously savage and visionary post-apocalyptic film Mad Max: Fury Road has been recently re-released in black and white. The new version entitled the “Black and Chrome Edition” is the director’s preferred cut of the film. With this in mind, there is no better time to reflect on the virtues of the cinematic style, and in turn, assess the effectiveness of its use in Miller’s third sequel of the Mad Max franchise.

Primarily, black and white film creates a deep-seated sense of unreality that illustrates the inherent dreamlike quality that has been part of the cinema since its inception. Many early films of the medium employed the technique, and the result was instant cinematic immortality.

The Universal Monster Movies of the 1930s and 1940s had a majestic sense of terror and atmosphere that would have been undisputedly absent if they were in colour. Film Noirs would have lost their murky morality, high contrast potency and shadowy silhouetted shots.

And the projectionist’s vivid dreams of being the title character and winning the girl of his dreams in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. would have lost its charming romanticism; as he imagines himself as the famous detective on the movie screen that he sees every day. Black and White’s photography has a specificity and immediacy that makes it intrinsically cinematic. Perhaps the most striking examples of its power are in Orson Welles’ 1941 film- Citizen Kane. Two sequences, particularly linger in my mind when reflecting on the venerated picture.

The first is the opening scene. It starts with a series of upward panning shots as the camera travels up multiple outside areas of Charles Foster Kane’s empty and ghostly Florida mansion- Xanadu. In between shots of the metal fences and steel gate bars, we see clear glimpses of the foggy grey sky. They evoke a sense of Gothic tragedy as we look upon the dying moments of a man’s entire empire through the shots of the abandoned house. The opening is excellent in the context of the next scene which is a newsreel montage of Kane’s illustrious career and endeavours; including the building of Xanadu that conveys a sense of optimism.

The second is a scene in the tail end of the film. At this point, Kane is in his twilight years, and in the aftermath, of his second wife leaving him, he walks around his house in an emotionally frozen and dazed state. One of the rooms he walks into is a corridor filled with a seemingly infinite series of mirrors. The quick shot shows an endless amount of reflections of the deeply despaired and still Kane.

At this moment, the use of the format illustrates the sheer surreality of his descent into loneliness and despair; with the use of black at the very end of the row of mirrors in the room. At the same time, it also conveys how the character has now regressed, illustrating a larger point of how Kane has always sought to recapture a youth that has always eluded him.

In the introduction to the “Black and Chrome Edition,” Miller cites two reasons for the appeal of the form. Crucially, the monochromatic flourish makes the picture abstract due to the style still being able to extract the essential qualities of a scene with an atmospheric finesse. Moreover, Miller states that “Something about losing some of the information of colour makes it somehow more iconic.” Despite these virtues, the Australian director acknowledges that “There’s some information that we got from the colour [version] that’s missing.”

The most vital element that is lost in the alternative version is the acute sense that fresh greenery and nature have been lost as a result of a nuclear holocaust scorching the land. Consequently, the plot point of Furosia desperately trying to get to the mythical “Green Place” loses some of its potency and narrative significance. Moreover, in the third act, the oldest member of the Many Mothers tribe bonds with one of the five wives of Immortan Joe over the seeds and plants that she has collected over the years. Their vivid descriptions and preservation in the face of the old woman’s death lose something in black and white.

In fact, the majority of Mad Max Fury Road does not work in black and white. The primary reason is that the main uses of gravely brown and bright orange that permeate the colour palette of the original version clash with the stark colours. One could argue that bright colours have been used before in the format. For example, in an interview with Robert Altman, he claims that the Japanese Filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa was the first person to point the camera at the sun in his 1950 film Rashomon.

From this crucial declaration, one would guess that the visual look of Rashomon was filled with an over reliance of natural light. However, Kurosawa offsets this with how he shot the forest scenes. As the characters walk through them, they are seemingly endless, and the background looks like its sublimely changing form, which is achieved through the use of soft focus.

Another film that uses daylight within the context of black and white photography is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries. Most of the sequences have an idyllic quality that comes from the film being shot on location. Therefore, many of the sequences in the picture have a natural radiance. The film still engages in black and white due to the form seamlessly harmonising with the narrative, which depicts an ageing professor recalling his past experiences on a long car ride to Lund.

In considering the ascetics of Mad Max: Fury Road, it seems to owe an enormous debt to the exuberant use of colour in John Ford’s 1956 Western picture- The Searchers. For example, some of the most impressive uses of colour in the film, which occur in the opening Citadel scenes amaze the eye as much as the sequences where Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) rode through Monument Valley. At which point, one starts to see the problem with the picture in black and white due to its colour scheme not translating well in the form. Moreover, Miller demonstrably crafted in the movie in the vein of classic Westerns, which typically were in colour.

(John Ford did make a black and white Western with the 1962 film- “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance.” Critics cite it as “A fundamental reimagining [by Ford] of his mythic West” – a grittier, less romantic, more realistic portrayal of frontier life.” The point illustrates that the format served the narrative, themes and new portrait of Ford’s West.)

Despite this central problem, a few aspects of Fury Road work remarkably well in black and white. The storm sequence gets elevated to a masterfully constructed action sequence that has a feverish intensity and a nightmarish edge. Moreover, the nighttime scenes, which already had a sense of foreboding and tension rise to new heights of surreality. In particular, the sequence involving the blind Bullet Farmer, when he ravenously fires off a set of machine guns while shouting out passionate declarations seems like it has come out of a German Expressionist silent picture.

Finally, Charlize Theron’s performance as Imperator Furiosa is accentuated in black and white. The photography makes her come across as a character that could have existed in the annals of early cinema rather than a modern icon of hard-edged femininity. In particular, the intensity of her eyes reminded me of the shot in Metropolis when Maria’s Maschinenmensch double wakes up, which evoked a fierce purpose in a manner akin to Theron’s character.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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