The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Everything looks better in black and white

with 12 comments

“Everything looks better in black and white”.

Paul Simon sang those words in Central Park in 1981, and he’s sang them to me during more car journeys than I’ve kept track on.

If I only was allowed to pick one record to keep me company during my travels for the rest of my life, this would be the one. I smile at the casual smalltalk in front of an audience of mindboggling 500 000 people, a “neighbourhood concert” as they call it. I get goose bumps when they play up Sound of silence, “making their own fireworks” as the authorities wouldn’t allow them to have a real one. And as I listen to Kodachrome, from which the quote is taken, I can’t help pushing the gas pedal a little bit firmer, because it’s so up-beat that the energy has to get out somewhere.

It’s one of the best pop concerts that ever has been held and my only complaint about it is that I wasn’t there to experience it on spot. It must have been quite something.

And yes, I know that this has very little to do with the film I’m just going to write about, but please remain patient; I’ll get there, I just needed to wander about a bit first for this one. You see, the quote in the beginning is a little bit odd. I only learned today that it has changed over the years.

Kodachrome first appeared on a solo record by Paul Simon eight years earlier. And at that point he put the words exactly the opposite way. Originally the song read: “Everything looks WORSE in black and white”. But something along the way made him change his mind.

Perhaps he’d grown old and nostalgic. Perhaps it was intended as some kind of jab at the Kodachrome brand to demonstrate his independency. Or perhaps it just sounded better. There’s something about the rhythm that makes it feel more natural to sing “better” than “worse”.

Whatever the reason was, I actually think he got it right in his second version. Everything does look better in black and white, and it’s particularly true about older movies (yes, we’re getting closer to the movie topic now!).

The ones that were made without colour generally age much more beautifully than movies from the same period that were made with colour, which now look like bad quality t-shirts that have been washed too many times.

I came to think of this as I recently watched Gaslight from 1944, which is a US remake of a British film from a few years earlier, which in turn was a movie adaptation of a stage play.

This is considered one of the classics as far as I understand it, but in case you didn’t know it’s the story about the young woman Paula who is recovering from the terrible death of her dear aunt. As the movie goes along she gets increasingly worried about her own mental health as she’s starting to forget and mix up things. What she doesn’t know, but what the viewer knows is that this is the result of an evil plot by no less than her husband, who systematically wants to break her down while keeping her locked up in their house.

This may sound as a mighty spoiler, but it isn’t really, since it’s pretty obvious what’s going on from very early in the movie. When we finally get the “mystery” explained to us, we’ve known the solution for quite some while already and it feels a bit flat and unsatisfying. I would have loved to see some more interesting reason why the guy wants his wife to go insane, but I suppose it’s too much to ask for since it comes with the original play.

The only one who doesn’t know what’s going on is Paula, who is portrayed as quite helpless, lost and miserable, to the extent that I couldn’t help grinding my teeth a little.

It’s not that I think this movie is particularly misogynist (even though of course Paula doesn’t start to seriously question her predicament until a man tells her to do so). But it made me think about and appreciate the fact that I live in a time when the screenwriter at least would consider reversing the roles, making a male victim and a female villain. Of course we’re still stuck with many old and tired stereotypes and tropes in movies, but nowadays they’re at least questioned and shaken up once in a while.

Ingrid Bergman
The acting is a bit old-style too, leaning towards the theatrical rather than the natural. However my heart swelled with national pride watching the performance of Ingrid Bergman in the role of Paula. There was one scene in particular where she got the opportunity to shine and she grabbed in such a manner that I all but stood up from my sofa cheering and waving my Swedish flag as if she’d just scored in an Important National Football Match. Way to go!

This brings us to the end, which once again will be the same as the beginning. (Don’t bloggers always go in circles?) If you want to create the atmosphere of a Victorian Foggy London you can’t go wrong if you skip the colours, focusing on the dark and the bright, good and evil and the shadows luring in the staircase and sometimes even in your husband.

Everything looks better in black and white.

Gaslight (George Cukor, US, 1944) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

November 8, 2011 at 1:00 am

Posted in Gaslight

12 Responses

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  1. Does it? Yes it probably does.

    I am the first to admit though I am not the best person looking back. I rarely watch films that were made pre 1980. I don’t know why, and yes I know I am missing out on a lot of great films, I just find it hard to fit it all in!!

    Maybe I should try and fix this problem!

    Scott Lawlor

    November 8, 2011 at 11:11 am

    • I have to admit that I watch very few older movies as well. It’s hard enough to keep up with the new movies that come as well as patching some essential holes I’ve got from more recent years. But every time I get around to watch one, this time as a result of an impulse from the Filmspotting forum, I feel that I should watch more of them.


      November 9, 2011 at 9:14 pm

  2. Have you seen Brief Encounter? I think it’s probably one of my favourite B&W films ever.


    November 9, 2011 at 12:51 am

  3. I remember Gaslight, I’ve seen it, and recognised the image with a pang of nostalgia and a yearning to watch it again. This time being older and wiser. However, I don’t want to write off colour either! Some of the most beautiful films I’ve seen have used colours to such an effect – Hero being one of them – that I’d feel uncomfortable saying colour or monochrome is better. So, instead I’ll sit on the fence with my coffee!


    November 9, 2011 at 1:10 am

    • Hehe… Nah I guess I wouldn’t want all movies to be in black and white. Then we have the in-between thing as well, where colour is used for decoration. Thinking about Rumblefish, where only the gold fish was coloured as far as I recall. Very pretty.


      November 9, 2011 at 9:16 pm

  4. I am willing to go as far as to say that it b/w usually gives the movie a distinctly different feel (which I usually like very much) compared to colour. Which makes sense of course, since it’s a different visual method.

    Also, since I’m the nitpicking kind, wouldn’t it be more correct to state that the Central Park Concert is one of the best pop concerts that ever has been held and been recorded? 😉 As such, I wholeheartedly agree that it is one heck of a good concert. It was one of the few pop records that my parents owned so I grew up with it.


    November 9, 2011 at 11:09 am

    • Hehe, of course you’re perfectly right about the nitpicking! Cheers. 😉


      November 9, 2011 at 9:16 pm

  5. Ugh. I LOVE this movie. Bergman is brilliant. Fantastic analysis of a psychological breakdown. An esteemed classic!


    November 13, 2011 at 4:17 am

    • Glad to meet a fan! It’s not on my top 100 list, but it’s a great old flick for sure.


      November 13, 2011 at 10:56 am

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