It was announced this week that Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which was released theatrically in black-and-white, would have its ‘colour version’ broadcast on US cable channel Epix. Thompson on Hollywood quotes producer Albert Berger as having noted that “their contract with Paramount — which financed and released the film — precluded most major showings, including theatrical and DVD/Blu-Ray – from being anything other than the black-and-white original version”. Legal issues aside, the broadcast of Nebraska, a film that gets a lot of its almost timeless charm from its colour palette, in this new format could be read as disrespectful to the wishes of the creative team behind the film but could also be read as a continuation of studio-led “colourization”.1
Colour versions of classic cinema, like Keaton’s The General, have found their way to DVD, in some effort at attracting an audience-base that is averse to ‘old films’. Ted Turner’s attempts to re-release Citizen Kane in colour in the 80s is routinely referred to in conversations on this topic as a truly absurd proposition. The Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There was released in black-and-white yet shot on colour film stock, though the set and production design, filled with physical sepia tones, were crafted to ensure the right shades of black post-editing.2 A colour version exists (see below) and you can see a huge collection of stills, courtesy of Evan Richards, here.
In recent years, though, there has been a focus on taking existing colour films and watching them in black and white, a practice both Roger Ebert and Steven Soderbergh have dabbled in.3 Ebert preferred seeing the film as it was originally intended but did say in an Answer Man column that “Of course you can easily watch a color film in b&w simply by adjusting a television, and I did that once as an experiment with “L.A. Confidential,” a film whose noir qualities have me the notion. It actually looked quite good.” Soderbergh keeps a list of his viewing habits for each year and publishes it online; his 2010 list included viewings of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark with brackets following to make clear that it was viewed in black-and-white.4 This prompted Flavorwire editor Jason Bailey to hunt down other films in recent memory that could work when viewed in black and white. These included Fargo, The Silence of the Lambs and Soderbergh’s own Out of Sight. Soderbergh’s recent “Psychos” experiment also saw him play with the difference between black-and-white and colour, alternating between shots of Hitchcock’s original Psycho and Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake to create differing temporal realities or personas.
These viewer-led experiments in black-and-white cinema viewing should be distinct from those in which studios are involved, with regard to technical control and also the intention of each. Frank Darabont’s The Mist comes to mind as an instance of when a studio prevented a filmmaker from releasing their preferred cut of a film in part because it was in black-and-white. The Mist was warmly received in its theatrical release but included on the collector’s special edition DVD of the film is the full black-and-white version.5 Part of Darabont’s affinity for this cut could be put down to his childhood, as he says “my very first memories are of watching television as a four-year-old: Frankenstein and the Wolfman and Dracula and all the old Universal monster movies were my first love”. That notion of nostalgia is also interwoven in the act of watching Raiders in black-and-white, the film itself a throwback to ’40s serials.
We can look to South Korea for a few more examples of alternate black-and-white cuts of films released theatrically in colour. Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance exists in an intriguing alernate cut on home video. Called the ‘fade to white’ cut, over the course of the film the colour slowly drains out until it is entirely in grayscale. The original cut played with contrast and juxtaposition in its treatment of colour on screen, moving from bleak hallways to absurdly colourful sequences (most notably in Australia). The grayscale shift isn’t just a gimmick, though. The last half-hour of the film is where it becomes something shocking and powerful, channelling Fritz Lang’s M, so the shift would make this allusion even clearer.
Bong Joon-ho has also dabbled in taking one of his films and re-releasing it in a new visual form, his masterwork Mother played at the 2013 Mar Del Plata International Film Festival “in a new black & white version especially prepared by him and his cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo.” It was later released on home video, only in South Korea. There are concerns about Lady Vengeance, Mother and even watching Raiders in black-and-white, that being that the film was not shot with that colour scheme in mind and so the lighting and set design are unlikely to work as a cohesive whole in such an alternate version.
The results of the colour Nebraska are yet to be seen but, if anything, it should act to clarify and enhance decisions made with regards to cinematography in the original version. This seems to have been the results of the alternate cuts of The Mist, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Mother, that they provide an outlet for visual curiosity and an incidental comment on the evolution of cinema with regards to how viewers interact with black-and-white.