Thursday, March 5, 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Black-and-White Movies made since 1970


There are just so many to choose from...

That said, I've decided to break the rule of three for this edition of Wandering through the Shelves' Thursday Movie Picks Meme. That's right, since we have five decades to choose from, I'm choosing my favorite from each decade.

I love black-and-white cinematography, and, with these picks, I'm going full-on black-and-white. Many movies since 1970 have integrated bits of black-and-white into a color movie or vice versa. One of my favorites of all-time, Gary Ross' "Pleasantville" (1998), even beautifully splashes color into its black-and-white frames. But, no, I'm going black-and-white with a full on purpose with these picks. Movies in which their makers chose to depict worlds bereft of color.

Black-and-white cinematography gets down to the essence of what makes movies movies. It even reminds us that we're watching a movie, as if we need to be reminded. What I mean by that is that it triggers the escape effect we movie lovers crave.


Here are my picks in the category of Black-and-White Movies made since 1970:

"The Last Picture Show" (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)


This title always stood out to me long before I ever saw the film. It is a remarkable coming-of-age story starring young and beautiful versions of Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, and Timothy Bottoms as high school students in a small West Texas ghost town in the early 1950s. Apart from the high school coming-of-age aspect, it speaks to the boredom of youth, the discovery of sex and its spoils, and the decline of the American West. The title refers to the closing of the town movie theater, the last bit of culture in an already boring, sleepy town. The black-and-white is in tribute to the time period, the landscape (physically and culturally), and Bogdanovich's own love of classic movies.

"Raging Bull" (Martin Scorsese, 1980)


I shudder to imagine this movie in color. There would be way too much red, even for a boxing movie. Scorsese's "Raging Bull" is the finest American movie made in the 1980s. Like "The Last Picture Show," the black-and-white also works here to pay tribute to an earlier era of movies and also to highlight the period setting of the 1940s. Scorsese was pretty much pulled up out of the pits of cocaine hell by DeNiro to make this thing. I thank Mr. DeNiro for that. Scorsese was about to give it up, and then this, one of the most glorious of sports movies, black-and-white movies, hell, movies, in general.

"Clerks" (Kevin Smith, 1994)


I believe I recall Kevin Smith saying he shot "Clerks" in black-and-white simply because he was so inexperienced in making movies. He found that it was easier to light and was a bit cheaper. Even so, the use of black-and-white in "Clerks" is what makes it so pleasing and unique. It is so NOT a black-and-white type of movie. I don't think anyone had seen this much before this: a modern, raunchy comedy in the age of color shot in black-and-white. It's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, spawning some of my favorite movie quotes of all time. Kevin Smith truly had no ability to direct a movie at this point in his career, but he was saved by his genius screenwriting and the decision to use black-and-white, which, undoubtedly, aided in covering up some of his deficiencies in directing at the time.

"Werckmeister Harmonies" (Béla Tarr, 2000)


What an astounding piece of genius this movie is! It is still the only film I've seen by Hungary's finest filmmaker, Béla Tarr. It is beautiful. The black-and-white works so well with Tarr's patented slowly building, super-long takes and the lovely, haunting score by Mihály Vig. I've only seen this movie once, which isn't nearly enough to even begin to comprehend its never-ending thematic depths and philosophies. But, much like, "The Last Picture Show," (with which it shares no other similarity) it uses black-and-white to depict a desolate land in cultural despair as people of a small Hungarian village flock to a new attraction in town...a circus tent housing a decaying whale.

"Nebraska" (Alexander Payne, 2013)


As I type this, I have this just astounding tune running through my mind. It is a piece from the original score to Alexander Payne's comedy/drama masterpiece, 2013's "Nebraska." Composed by Mark Orton, it is one of the best things I've ever heard. A catchy, fun, yet somehow somber blend of plucks, strums, and mutes on an acoustic guitar with a brilliant melody sounded by dueling trumpet and strings. It is perfect and one of the many things I love about this movie, which, after a recent second viewing, is in the running for one of my favorite movies of all-time.

Payne's choice to shoot in black-and-white is genius and the execution by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael...equally so. I get the sense that this being the only feature directed by Payne where he doesn't also get a screenwriting credit only strengthened his directorial work here. The hero of the film, Woody Grant (Best Actor nominee Bruce Dern), we sense, is, at once, a demented old man who thinks he's won the junk mail sweepstakes and also simply a man who wants one last taste of freedom. The contrasts obtained by shooting in black-and-white almost mimic the simultaneous simplicities and eccentricities of the characters, including Woody's son, David (Will Forte), his wife, Kate (Best Supporting Actress nominee June Squibb), and his many brothers and nephews and cousins and old town friends, most notably, Ed Pegram (the great Stacy Keach), the man who ripped off his beloved air compressor.

*Note: This has to be the only time in movie blog history that a Kevin Smith movie is in the same discussion as a Béla Tarr movie. Just saying...

26 comments:

  1. Am I the only one who found Raging Bull to be nothing more than a needlessly incoherent mess? Now The Elephant Man, there was a brilliant black and white period piece from 1980. Also, from what I recall I think there were some moments where they used colour footage of the boxer it was based on.

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    1. If by "needlessly incoherent mess" you mean "endlessly entertaining masterpiece," then I'm with you. Otherwise, we'll just have to agree to disagree.

      As far as The Elephant Man is concerned...I haven't seen it in a very long time. I should certainly see it again.

      I think there is some color home movie type stuff, but, its negligible. The sweat and blood and flashbulbs are shrouded in black and white and it's incredible to me. There has never been, nor will there ever be, boxing scenes that unique and intense. I sure haven't seen any. And I'm a huge fan of the sport and the movies about it.

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  2. I haven't watch any of these but have heard of all except for the Hungarian one...which is why I just had to go with the ones that had splashes of colour for my picks this week.
    As for Raging Bull it almost made my BlindSpot list this year.

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    1. I'd say definitely check these out. The Last Picture show is where I would start with this list. Raging Bull is incredible. Werckmeister Harmonies is extremely slow and deliberate but also so memorable.

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  3. I've only seen Nebraska from your picks (though The Last Picture Show has been on my watch list for some time) and it made me feel nostalgic because Bruce Dern's character reminded me of my grandfather. Great picks!

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    1. I love Nebraska. I've seen it three times now, and it just gets better every time. The Last Picture Show is essential viewing. Do it soon! Thanks.

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  4. Clerks! I have that on my list too. I contemplated Nebraska, I liked that film a lot more than I expected too. I've seen bits and pieces of Last Picture Show, I feel like I really need to sit down and watch the whole thing at once. Great picks!

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    1. Definitely sit down and watch The Last Picture Show. I love it so much! Thanks.

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    1. Thanks so much. No way I could stop at three

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  6. OMG, Raging Bull is great...but The Last Picture Show is one of my favorite movies EVER!!! How the hell did I forget to mention that one!?!?!? I almost want to amend my list now to include it. Great, great list! I haven't seen Clerks or Nebraska, but I feel the need to fix that now.

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    1. The Last Picture Show is maybe the second or third movie I thought of when I sat down to make this list that I couldn't seem to limit to three. It is so GREAT! Clerks is one of the best comedies ever written. It doesn't look great, even with the black and white, but the writing is the most witty, clever, dirty hour and a half of awesome in my movie memory. I love Kevin Smith. He has a lot of haters, but he's a great writer. Nebraska is killer, man. It was the "Best Picture" of 2013 without a doubt for me.

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    1. Have you seen any of Smith's comedies? That's what he's good for...writing. I love him!

      The Last Picture Show and Nebraska are essential. I highly recommend.

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  8. Terrific concept of picking one film from each decade. Picture Show is a wonderful film loaded with great work and Bogdanovich made the absolutely right decision to shot it in B&W, it fits the melancholy mood of the piece ideally. I'm not crazy about Raging Bull, it's loaded with fine acting but one viewing was plenty for me. Haven't seen Clerks nor Nebraska though the second is close to the top of my Netflix queue so soon. Have never heard of Werckmeister Harmonies, it sounds challenging but I've been trying to expand my foreign film viewing so I'll put it on that list.

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    1. Thanks so much. You're so right about Bogdanovich shooting in black and white on that one. It's so perfect. Raging Bull is a tough one to watch repeatedly, but I revisit it every few years and it always works. Clerks and Nebraska are two great (totally different) black and white comedies. Werckmeister Harmonies is a touch challenge. It is slow and long, but it has some incredible visuals. The opening scene is one of the best scenes I've seen in any movie. It's a 10+ minute long shot of a guy in a bar with a bunch of drunks at closing time doing this poetic dance routine. It's unforgettable.

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  9. Im totally with you on Raging Bull. I love it. I'm not so big on Clerks, but i know everyone else is so I've no beef with that pick. Nebraska is wonderful. Haven't seen the others, but The Last Picture Show has been on my to-watch list forever. Great post.

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    1. Raging Bull is so memorable. The fight scenes are the most badass thing ever. I love Clerks. It's just so funny. I love the way Kevin Smith characters talk. Clerks might as well be a small town stage play. See The Last Picture Show for sure. It's awesome!

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  10. Great super-sized list!

    The only one I've seen in full is Nebraska. I've seen parts of all the others and they all interest me (although I have issues with Tarr). Last Picture Show almost made my Blind Spot list this year.

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    1. Thanks, man!

      Nebraska is awesome. I love it! The Last Picture Show is the one I would truly recommend the most from this list. It is essential. I have never seen anything else by Tarr, though I plan to. His movies are notorious for being long and slow. This one is no different. But there are several scenes that are just mind-blowing, specifically the opening scene detailed in my response to Joel up there.

      Clerks is hilarious! Raging Bull is brutal and badass!

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  11. Great list! I really love Nebraska. Though I didn't like it as well as the novel, The Last Picture show was quote good too, with a terrific cast.

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    1. Thanks. Nebraska is a delight! I'm a huge fan of Alexander Payne. He really can do no wrong for me. I've never read The Last Picture Show. Maybe I should pick it up. It's been a long while since I watched the movie.

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  12. Clerks is my favorite film. I live, breathe, & quote that film constantly.

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    1. It's genius! I am the exact same way. "37. In a row!?"

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  13. I have only seen Clerks and Nebraska, and you know how I feel about those! I am smiling just thinking about them now. I do think Francis Ha deserves an honorable mention!

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