I was just re-watching my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) on DVD, though I was lucky enough to see it several years ago on the big screen. I like it because it has a real sense of the hustle-bustle of the season, of a chill in the air and the feel of ducking indoors for a hot cup of coffee. It even has an impressive documentary feel during the Macy's Thanksgiving parade sequence. It feels entirely modern, with its frank discussion of psychiatry and of the crass commercialism of Christmas. Of course, I'm a sucker for all the sentimental hogwash as well. I get all choked up when Kris Kringle sings with the Dutch girl.
One thing I noticed, though. Fox has released a new DVD of the film. I don't own it; I'm perfectly happy with my old edition from 1999. The new disc comes with a colorized version of the film as well as the original black and white, but it also comes with a full-color box cover, advertising Santa (Edmund Gwenn) in his bold red and white suit and ruddy pink face. I know Santa is always supposed to look like that, but I don't miss color in Miracle on 34th Street. Certainly the producers had the choice to film in color if they'd wanted to, and certainly color was more expensive, but they chose black and white and they stuck with it, knowing that it wouldn't detract from the film experience. It didn't. It was a hit and won three Oscars.
This got me thinking. I saw three new black and white films in 2006, which is a wonderful, whopping number, all things considered (I think I saw two in 2005). Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, currently playing on 5 screens, is the latest. Géla Babluani's French/Georgian thriller 13 Tzameti (now on DVD) was the first, and Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation was the second. All three films looked amazing, and to some degree the black-and-white actually enhanced their quality. The Good German is a deliberate throwback to films like Casablanca and The Third Man, and its atmosphere partly depends on that moody film stock. 13 Tzameti is set in a lower class world, where a Georgian construction worker in France finds a way to make some quick money, although it turns into a nightmare. The black and white makes this squalor more vivid and also makes the horrifying second half more watchable. And Mutual Appreciation, about a love triangle between college grads, would be painful to watch -- its astounding dialogue is just too close to home -- if not for the remove of the black and white film.
To me, black and white makes the experience more movie-like; it becomes a more artistic realm rather than a realistic one. But black and white films are few and far between, and when they fail, studios use them as an example. When they succeed (like Schindler's List, Clerks or Sin City) studios ignore the fact that they were shot in black and white. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it's also true. Audiences tend to stay away from black-and-white; it's the easiest explanation as to why such masterworks as Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1996) and Joel and Ethan Coen's The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) flopped at the box office.
It was in 1980 -- not all that long ago, really -- that two black and white movies, David Lynch's The Elephant Man and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, were nominated for Best Picture. Many of our most beloved, living filmmakers have shot movies in black-and-white; besides Lynch, Scorsese, Spielberg, Kevin Smith, the Coens and Burton, there are Woody Allen (Broadway Danny Rose, Celebrity, etc.), Soderberg (the new The Good German as well as Kafka), Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It), Abel Ferrara (The Addiction), Christopher Nolan (Following), John Boorman (The General), Darren Aronofsky (Pi) and George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck). Likewise, many wonderful films have recently appeared in the less-than-400 screens domain (Eureka, Girl on the Bridge, Go Fish, Judy Berlin, Man of the Century, Mysterious Object at Noon and Werckmeister Harmonies).
Once, black-and-white was a cheaper alternative; even the ultra-low budget The Blair Witch Project (1999) used black-and-white film mixed with video. But when I interviewed cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Man Who Wasn't There) in 2001, he told me that black-and-white film stock just isn't available anymore. His film was shot in color, deliberately lit so that they could turn in into black-and-white with computers, which has to be more expensive than leaving it in color, wouldn't you think?
The biggest tragedy is that, those new films aside, this fear of black-and-white is keeping viewers from discovering classics of old. It's sad that some families out there are watching Miracle on 34th Street for the first time in the computer-colorized version, thereby depriving themselves of a glorious art form and denying themselves the impetus to see more. Imagine a life without Charlie Chaplin, or Stagecoach or Citizen Kane, or even Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol or Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. So this Christmas, please remember that red and green don't necessarily have to be there. It's the light within that counts.
God bless us, everyone.