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The Mad Max effect: why cinema is having a monochrome moment

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5 days ago Ryan Gilbey
In Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s gimmick was powerful in isolation and disastrous to the film as a whole. © Universal In Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s gimmick was powerful in isolation and disastrous to the film as a whole.

Take a look at the latest Mad Max movie and you will notice that it isn’t, in fact, a new Mad Max at all. That’s still Tom Hardy strapped to the front of a speeding jalopy, while shaven-headed kamikaze drivers zigzag around one another bellowing their war cries. And they’re still in hot pursuit of Charlize Theron, as she ploughs her juggernaut across the post-apocalyptic desert. But the fireballs and flame-throwing guitars look subtly different now; subdued, even classical. It’s the faces and the landscapes, both equally craggy, that have a surprising new texture and prominence in George Miller’s colourless version of Mad Max: Fury Road (subtitled “black and chrome edition”), which reaches cinemas this month, two years after the success of the eye-popping original. It had been Miller’s wish all along to make the picture in this form, but major studios don’t generally pour $150m into black-and-white action movies. After six Oscars and a worldwide gross of $358m, however, he is finally being indulged.

The relationship of colour to black-and-white cinema used to be analogous in some respects to the one between talkies and their silent predecessors. Black and white represented the drab, superannuated past. Colour, intended to supersede it, was the vibrant present and the limitless future. But the ubiquity of colour eventually lent the senior format greater cachet – or at least made shooting in black and white a statement, like using a typewriter instead of a laptop. To choose black and white at any point since the 1960s is to advertise your film as either historically evocative (The Elephant Man) or experimental (Pi), an homage (The Last Picture Show) or a spit-and-glue indie (Clerks). “Something about black and white, the way it distills it, makes it a little bit more abstract,” Miller has said. “Losing some of the information of colour makes it somehow more iconic.”

His monochrome Mad Max comes at an interesting time for the relationship between colour and black and white. Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel Wonderstruck will premiere at the Cannes film festival next month, with half set in the 1920s and reportedly shot as a black-and-white silent movie. If anyone can pull that off, it will be this director, who moved confidently between colour and black and white, as well as different modes of pastiche, in Poison and I’m Not There. Before Wonderstruck, there is the mysterious love story Frantz, set just after the first world war, which shows the distinctive flavours that arise from the commingling of the two styles. François Ozon’s film is rendered predominantly in black and white but contains colour elements, sometimes in the space of the same shot. The opening image, for instance, shows a black-and-white landscape with a sprig of pink blossom yoo-hooing in the foreground.

In Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s gimmick was powerful in isolation and disastrous to the film as a whole. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Universal

This is not unprecedented – think of the red and blue fish that are the primary coloured guest stars of Coppola’s otherwise black-and-white Rumble Fish, or the young red-coated girl optically differentiated from the rest of Schindler’s List. Spielberg’s gimmick was powerful in isolation and disastrous to the film as a whole. Coppola could plausibly be suggesting that the fish symbolised exoticism in his characters’ urban lives, but no such excuse was available to Spielberg. The trick in Frantz of fading up the colour in a monochrome scene so that it appears to be blooming magically into life is borrowed from the 1998 fable Pleasantville, which in turn had its own stack of influences – Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, perhaps, where a matinee idol steps straight out of a black-and-white movie playing on a cinema screen and into the seamy warmth of Depression-era New York, or A Matter of Life and Death, where the distinction between colour and monochrome is made in unusual ways. When the cinematographer Jack Cardiff read that film’s screenplay, about a nosediving second world war pilot who slips through heaven’s net and makes it back to earth to continue living, he assumed that the afterlife sections would be filmed in colour and the mortal ones in monochrome. “On the contrary,” said the director, Michael Powell. “People expect that. I want to give them something they don’t expect.”

Frantz employs a similar tactic. “Shooting in black and white is like starting a story ‘Once upon a time,’” explains the film’s cinematographer, Pascal Marti. “It places you immediately in the context for the story you want to tell. But anything that is a flashback or a fantasy we wanted to show in colour. Generally it is the reverse, with black and white representing the past. We went in the opposite direction.” The effect destabilises the idea of memory and reality, but it also makes the past seem warmer and more vivid than the present, just as A Matter of Life and Death and its later spiritual cousin, Wings of Desire, insisted on the vitality of the corporeal over the spiritual. This has not been a consistently fashionable approach. Colour is used to represent escape and imagination in The Wizard of Oz, while every instance of jubilant choreographed spectacle during In Bed with Madonna takes place in colour. Black and white is reserved for messy off-stage reality where at any moment a pop superstar might find herself rebuffed by Antonio Banderas or patronised by Kevin Costner.

Though the latest version of Mad Max: Fury Road contains no colour sections, those audiences devoted enough to see it are likely to still have the original images fresh in their memories. This should with any luck create a ready-made game of compare-and-contrast as they watch the new iteration, not unlike seeing Gus Van Sant’s colour Psycho through the memory of the Hitchcock one, only in reverse. Van Sant’s interpretation felt eerie, like watching the dead come back to life, but the new Mad Max seems — well, not so new at all. A model fresh off the production line now looks prematurely aged, the way primary school children are taught to make ancient scrolls by painting sheets of paper with tea bags. It could almost be seen as a belated revenge against colourisation, that sacrilegious 1980s phenomenon whereby old movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca were retrospectively tinted to make them palatable to modern audiences.(And as colour was added so it drained simultaneously from the faces of all self-respecting cineastes).

Paula Beer in Frantz. Photograph: Toronto film festival

The cinematographer John Seale, who shot Mad Max Fury Road, wasn’t involved in producing the black-and-chrome version, but finds the idea enticing. “It’s beautifully dramatic when you take away the colour of wardrobe and make up and so on,” he tells me. “You’re stripping everything back and bringing the actors to the fore. It may be a great action movie but George also got some wonderful performances, which I think the new version will emphasise.” Seale and Miller previously discussed combining colour and black and white on the 1992 drama Lorenzo’s Oil, about a couple searching for a cure for their son’s rare illness. “George had the brilliant idea that as the boy’s condition worsened, we could desaturate the film all the way down to black and white, 5% at a time, over the last hour. He hoped the drama was so nerve-racking that the audience wouldn’t even realise the colour was draining away.” The technique had already been used in the flashy 1988 remake of the film noir D.O.A. but the level of technological nuance required for Miller’s approach ruled it out at the time. “I often say to George, ‘Why don’t you stick it on the computer and do it now?’ It would take about 10 minutes.”

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That’s no exaggeration. The director Steven Soderbergh has been playing with the relationship between colour and black and white for some time on his website, Extension 765. There he has posted a colourless Raiders of the Lost Ark to demonstrate the clarity of the storytelling and composition in that movie, as well as a new cut of Psycho, which intersperses and overlays scenes from both versions to create a largely black-and-white amalgamation. These are fascinating experiments that owe as much to art installation as cinema – but there are also such things as happy accidents. Marti tells me Frantz was never intended to be shot in black and white. “When we reached our location in Germany, we discovered the modernity of the city, the colour of the walls and so on, would be a nightmare for the art department. Black and white became a solution to that, as well as a more interesting way to tell the story.”

The picture is in good company. The use of black and white in the 1968 public school satire If … also originated in a practical response to difficulty – the cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček found it impossible to light wide shots in the chapel, so the director Lindsay Anderson changed tack. Not only were those scenes switched from colour, Anderson also chose to “shoot a few other scenes in black and white when I feel like it.” This only blurred even further the film’s line between fantasy and reality, leaving many reviewers of the day (“distracting”; “I can’t see much point in switching back and forth”), bewildered by the spectacle of apparently rivalrous formats transformed into strange bedfellows. But as viewers of Frantz and the new Mad Max Fury Road will soon be able to attest, the rejection of colour, or the mingling of it with monochrome, can introduce a variety of different meanings and effects. It’s never just black and white.

• Mad Max Fury Road Black and Chrome Edition is in cinemas on 30 April and on Blu-ray from 15 May. Frantz is released 12 May.

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