One of my good friends often chides me on my preferences saying that I somehow always manage to find the only black and white film being broadcast on television at any given moment. He even gives me a hard time on some of my musical choices saying that I prefer “black and white music” to “color” or current offerings. While I try not to fall behind culturally I do find myself reaching for the best not necessarily the most current.
The other night I was lucky enough to catch the 1950’s sci-fi movie Them! on television. It’s one of those classic Sci-Fi films that easily hits its marks and satisfies despite the fact that it is almost minimal in its use of visual effects. Most of the giant ant effects were achieved through the use of cables and armatures before that art was designated “animatronics.” The costuming, largely military garb was spot-on primarily because there was a lot of cheap war surplus lying around after World War II. Men wore hats then and they wore them as caps to their conformity. They wore them to blend in and be fashionable. Today hats are worn to set their wearers apart from the crowd establishing their wearers claim to uniqueness. John F. Kennedy is credited with causing the demise of the men’s hat industry simply because he didn’t wear one. Dress today more closely mimics the current fashion world. Fantasies made flesh.
Another pleasure for me when viewing the old films is to glimpse the cities that I am most familiar with. San Francisco and Los Angeles often show up as the background for these films and their charms remain unhidden by forests of high rises. These black and white films constitute irreplaceable documents of period San Francisco and Los Angeles. They conjure up the times of Jack Kerouac and Raymond Chandler, Chaplin and Keaton. These films record a time prior to the age of the City Strip where cities are no longer constrained to their limits but extend one to the other - seamlessly stitched together suburban neighborhood by suburban neighborhood. Only the signs tell us where one city ends and where another begins.
There’s a great sequence in Them! where information about the giant ants is transmitted to the populace by means of televisions beaming their message into homes, department store windows and bars. At the time the film was produced most people obtained their news from newspapers but the film correctly predicted that in the future (today) most would receive their truths from the tube. Instead of reading a progressive or conservative paper we tune into either CNN or Fox for our news. We also seek to find information that supports our views rather than to dispute them. We want to hear that what we already believe remains true.
District 9 comes to mind as a worthy successor to Them! The story is taut and fulfills many of the original goals of science fiction. It is both commentary and predictive. The central performance by Sharlto Copley channeled Peter Sellers and the visual effects were used to great affect to support the story without visual gluttony.
The mindset in the use of visual effects in many current films is a drowning of the eye. There’s not a still pixel in frame and subtlety is lost as the eye is overfed bits of dust and detritus. This has the same effect as adding multiple spoonfuls of sugar to a cup of coffee. The thinking being that if one spoonful of sugar makes it good “just imagine how good ten spoonfuls will taste.” The most popular film is often the one that plants the largest fist in the eye. The images are full of “sound and fury” and signify little. Our art has evolved from tricking the eye to accurately duplicating the real world in the computer and merging the imagery with captured footage. The computer is Aladdin’s lamp made real.
Admittedly the tent-pole films of today are not aimed at my demographic and seem either well tailored to their audience or conversely are leading the audience in a direction where they are at least compliant with the studios choices. As our eyes take over as the target for the majority of the input of our world’s information, the words in many films evaporate to short, re-memorable lines. Great storytelling has been replaced by great battles. I can only imagine that Lewis Carroll would be spinning like a lathe in his grave if he got wind of the battle sequence in Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps he would just lie there.
At some future date this period of filmmaking like all others will be assessed as to its qualities and intents. Despite my preferences I think these times will be heralded as a golden age of fantasy films. As with any period of art some films will be marked as great. Others will be noted for a great sequence, performance, line or moment. Some will fade and become hard to obtain. All will pass into a condensed view of the times much as we perceive the centuries that have preceded this one. Someday in the distant future when the world outpaces entertainment in wonders these films will be someone else’s black and white films. As windows to other times they will be loved for their all their good qualities, their patinas and their quaintness. I can’t wait to see what comes next.