The first thing to say about black and white movies is that they are not black and white.
Renaissance (2006) was a black and white movie. The Third Man (1949) is what my printer would call “grayscale”.
Some think they dislike these movies because they lack color. That’s nonsense. They liked Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and didn’t like Manhattan (1979) for unrelated reasons.
To dislike black and white is to dislike a movie that is old. Being generous, this dislike stems from a lack of sympathy one feels for the performers and the manner in which the story is told. The screen can hold the landscape or a close up for ten seconds so long as there’s a purpose, but in black and white (read: old) movies the pauses are accidental. Stop! Look down on the glowing/shimmering dame and her terror! Look back at the knife! Look at the shadow of the man, the knife, and the dame! She falls to the floor. All of this over about fifteen seconds that are so contrived as to break the magic and make us acutely aware of our surroundings.
Even for those of us who like or even seek out black and white movies, the effect is not lost. The only difference is that the effect is mildly comic, like if your ballerina daughter takes a small tumble during a pirouette. In the contemporary (read: boorish) viewer, this comedy cannot be differentiated from the kind of Mystery Science Theatre: 3000 sarcasm that many (myself included) find pointless. But we, the Elect, view these scenes, like the spawn’s ballet, as a part of a larger relationship in which the imperfection is simply a quirk that is endearing because of all the other aspects we love about the creature.
As a non-drinker I am immune (and annoyed) by claims that “You just haven’t found the right one” or “It’s an acquired taste”, but black and white films are well described in those terms. However, unlike alcohol, this is true! Once you reach the ripe old age of 26, alcohol is either disgusting or palatable and no amount of saturation will aid in the acquisition, but there is no physical barrier to enjoying a black and white movie.
There are a two culprits I would point to as obstructions to black and white exposure. First, I point (j’accuse) to Citizen Kane (1941). That film is widely reported to be the best film of all time. This is utter bollocks. I literally had to pace the room to keep myself from falling asleep. “Holy cow, you mean they put a ceiling in that shot?” Who gives a damn! My theory on film (as with most media) is that there’s watching a movie in its context and watching a movie for its context. The latter is only acceptable in the case of non-fiction. The former is entirely unacceptable. A story should stand on its own whether its author was gay, straight, brilliant, a woman, a beginner, a veteran, blacklisted, a Catholic, or a Rotarian. The moment you contextualize the film in the viewing of it (rather than the discussing of it), you’ve intruded on that world. You would never say to your friend, “Well, you’re just the Jesus figure, obviously”. Not unless you were a special kind of Richard.
The second culprit is expectation. If I read a book from the 19th century, I expect that book to be pretty good (for someone). For the book to survive the bonfires and general decay of time, it must have some value. Film, however, suffers from the wonders of technology. Although BluRay may finish the job DVD has started in separating the wheat from the chaff, at the moment you can get all kinds of old movies at the library or online. While you may wheel past the 21st century dreck available on Netflix Instant without judging the epoch, if you happen upon an older film, with the avatar of the title superimposed on a screen frame, you do roll your eyes and think “Did they make anything of value?”
Then you say, one slow night, “Oh, why don’t we try this one?” Or perhaps you happen upon TCM and think, “Let’s see what happens”. The pacing will be so dreadful that you’d prefer Brannagh’s Hamlet (1996) to this junk. But then you project the weakness on the era. How unfair! You wouldn’t watch Blitz (2011) and think that Drive (2011) must suck as well. Movies rarely are all good or all bad.
To say that not all old movies are equally bad does not necessarily entail that they are worth seeing. So, what makes a black and white movie worth watching? One of the reason characters acted with what we might term less “realism” is in part the fact that they inhabited a different reality and in part the style of writing. One should approach the movie accepting this fact. You don’t go to a Shakespeare play the same as you would an Oscar Wilde play. Similarly, you don’t go to watch Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) with the same mental state as Inception (2010).
Therefore, to sit down to watch All About Eve (1950)–which shares nothing in common with All About Steve (2009), by the way–you have to put on your Wilde ears. If you want to enjoy From Here to Eternity (1953), you need to prepare for some serious angst. For none of them should you put on your high octane, Modern Warfare 3 glasses because they just didn’t (and couldn’t) make them like that.
It is the prig that says swearing shows a lack of vocabulary and its cousin says that things are made better when one has to do without. And I was on the cusp of saying that before special effects and action, movies were just better because they didn’t have to resort. In that way, if one removes all the temptations and leaves only sound judgement, the product should be better. But that’s rot, isn’t it. Special effects can enhance the world and take us somewhere that cannot even be reconstructed in the physical realm–or, as Hugo (2011) churned into the sharpest cheddar, “capture our dreams”. Old films had to make due (to do well) with capturing our lives and flaws in our extraordinary behaviors. When you have lemons make lemonade, but if you don’t have any sugar (special effects) it might seem a little tart. You may just find that refreshing, as I do.
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
-William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra