Black and White Cinematography

Okay, let's recap a bit here. Over the past couple of weeks I've been looking at black and white cinematography. But what's at the center of what I've talked about here? I'll look at what I've talked about as straightforwardly as possible:

In essence there is an ontological divide around which black and white films can be roughly sorted when it comes to understanding how they approach an essential conundrum of the medium, namely, preserving some kind of clarity. The categories are such that, either black and white films use more in front of camera objects to create clarity, or black and white films use more in-camera techniques to the same end but not the same effect.

So these two approaches are typified by The Apartment (1960) and Schindler's List (1993). Both have spectacular visuals but they distinguish themselves around an interpretation of the nature of film. Indeed The Apartment and Schindler's List need to take some kind of stand on this point of what film is like precisely to have as crisp visuals as they do. They differ in their answers about what film is.

Furthermore, in the case of these two movies, there are implications as a result of their respective approaches toward shooting black and white for the audience. These implications for the audience are thematic differences, what the films are about and how it's shown and how an audience might understand the film as a result. And there are implications for the kinds of things that can be photographed.

My goal is not to compare and contrast the approaches toward shooting black and white The Apartment and Schindler's List have in favor of pointing out that a difference exists. This is a difference around which filmmakers can shape their cinematography. Nor is it my intention to place some kind of value on one approach or another. Both films represent remarkable achievements in the medium of black and white movies. This is a choice, really, that filmmakers should have available to them as they find it necessary.

Finally, and this is the important piece, the distinction between these two films is that The Apartment uses physical objects which are in front of the camera to make a clear image; Schindler's List works rather differently by using techniques in the camera to make a clear image. Above I explained more generally these approaches, here I've just attached it to these films as tokens of these different types of approach.

Now here's where I think the matter of black and white cinematography is most interesting. The Apartment and Schindler's List differ in what they think film itself--literally film in it's broadest definition, film as an aesthetic object--does. The filmmaking in The Apartment suggests a belief, fairly tacit and implicit but it's a sort of assumption that's present nonetheless, that film is essentially representative of the objects in front of the camera. Schindler's List hold's a contrary point of view as a film or as a document made by it's filmmakers. Schindler's List proposes, perhaps more correctly, that in fact what film does is preserve light that is reflected off the objects in front of the camera on a photosensitive medium which can be played back.

So on the one hand what the camera does is capture the things in the world in front of it. Nevertheless, how a camera works is by recording the light reflecting off the objects in front of it onto film. That's not really up for much debate.

But there is certainly room to debate about what is the essential nature of film along these lines. Question, what is the nature of film? One might answer, film really does capture the objects in front of the camera in some profound, even literal or one-to-one way. Another might answer, film preserves the light that is reflected on the photosensitive medium so that it can be reproduced.

What does this do for individual films? Well, films that take the answer that the nature of film is to be hard representative, they have to use the sort of macroscopic things you and I could paint or stub a toe on to create an image. If however a film takes up this other notion, one that the nature of film is essentially it's light reproductive method and has little or nothing to do with what's in front of the camera at all, that filmmaker is open to create images which rely on none of the things that are essential to the hard representational filmmaker like, say, a plaid bathrobe.

Instead, by using reproduced light captured in-camera rather than representations of objects in front of the camera, a filmmaker is open to use more focus, aperture, and lighting design, they're more able to use camera movement, less character movement and gain subtlety that way. This is what Schindler's List is doing.

But don't count The Apartment out. What it has to do is also very difficult. Such films, to make an image that's nuanced and deep and textured, these films have to build a lot of real things which are going to work in concert together. Frequently the artistry in art direction is staggering in The Apartment because it's servicing the clarity of this purely representative image.

Take this reasoning a step further and it becomes clear that these different approaches are perfect for these two films. The Apartment is very specific about these characters in these places at this time. That is where the power of the film comes from. What The Apartment is about is Baxter and Kubelik trapped by the office society in this apartment, and so forth. Schindler's List is about the holocaust, but over and above that it's about humanity and good and evil in these horrendous circumstances. That's not vague here either, that's really at the heart of the matter.

But, again, capturing these things cinematically from the point of view of theme is no simple matter. But it helps The Apartment that it is rooted in the specific ideas of a representative nature of film, it helps Schindler's List to take on notion that there's no specific inherence of object in any frame of film. How these films use the camera is important to creating theme, therefor meaning, and additionally the feel of the narrative, and thus audience experience of these films.

So, in as many words, that is what I have been trying to explain about using black and white as cinematography over the past few weeks.