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#009. Plot in Black and White

Filmmakers have a vast array of tools at their disposal to tell a story. Most resort to actors presenting a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. However, some go so far as to make color (or lack thereof) a key development of the story. You could almost think of color as another actor in the film. Another piece of the setting that changes with the progression of the story. And while color films have been around for a long time, and black and white films for even longer, very few films have used both to progress the plot of a film. This week’s movies are just two from a select group of films that have chosen to use color as a plot device.

Year: 2000
Rating: R
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

There have been many movies that were filmed in black and white, mainly for artistic effect. Of those who had the option of color, it was used sparingly to offset some important object (see Schindler’s List or Battleship Potemkin), or even to imitate an artistic style (see Sin City). However, there have been few that go so far as to evenly split up the color and black and white to distinguish between different plot lines. One such film that used black and white to represent flashback sequences was American History X. While that film did split up the current time and past events with this distinction, both story lines proceeded in a chronological order. Mainly, forwards. Memento, on the other hand, takes the color / black and white plot split and messes with the audience’s understanding of time.

Christopher Nolan is one of the few directors who gets people to pay close attention to his films. Just like trying to keep track of the dream levels in Inception, Nolan slowly reveals that the plot in Memento might not be linear. The main character of Memento, Leondard (Guy Pearce) has a mental condition that has taken away his short-term memory. While he does remember some long-term memories, he has resorted to using tattoos and Polaroid photographs to help him track down his wife’s killer. Each segment of Memento is broken up to give the audience the sensation of short-term memory loss, while also giving plenty of background until it becomes obvious that the color and black and white are on a collision course to a climactic middle.

Year: 1998
Rating: PG-13
Length:124 minutes / 2.07 hours

The film industry tends to progress and make technological advances long before television does. And while it took much longer for television to transition to color than it has to transition to a 3-D capability (which is still just an expensive gimmick, in my opinion), they have arrived none-the-less. It almost makes you wonder how much of your favorite films you were missing out on when you saw them on your TV, “formatted to fit the size of your screen”. At any rate, the distinction between black and white and color is almost a generational one. Many look at cinema and television filmed in black and white as old, and outdated. In fact, one of the most celebrated dual color / black and white movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz, used Frank L. Baum’s description of rural Kansas and matched it to a dull black and white, while creating a fantastic, colorful world of Oz to coincide with the author’s words. These two worlds were separated by their hue, just like the real world and the 50’s television sitcom presented in Pleasantville.

David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are a normal set of twins. Well, normal for the 1990’s. When they both get pulled into a television showing a “Pleasantville” marathon of the 50’s sitcom, they both have to adjust from their selfish, 90’s lifestyles and try to fit in to the naive culture they now find themselves surrounded in. As they start to adjust to their new personas (Bud and Mary Sue), they realize how little these simple town-folk really know. That’s when things start to change. Color starts to creep into this monochromatic world, and it brings the town to an uproar. With the color comes rain, fire, and knowledge: all aspects of their lives they’ve never experienced before. Slowly, the color spreads as more and more residents accept the change for the better. But there is still staunch opposition to the new way of thinking, as it rids the men of their authority. By the end of the film, everyone has had the moral of “Knowledge is Power” drilled into their heads, as they realize what they had been taking for granted.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 ways to use color as a plot device


3 responses to “#009. Plot in Black and White

  1. Pingback: #023. Purposely Black and White « Cinema Connections

  2. Pingback: #046. Christopher Nolan « Cinema Connections

  3. Pingback: End of Act One | Cinema Connections

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