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And the Winner Is... Black and White
February 27, 2012  | By Eric Gould
 
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The Best Picture Oscar Sunday night, awarded to The Artist, was a bold nod to Hollywood's past, and to its half-century of work in black and white. Amazingly, it was the first silent-film win since the first Oscar awards in 1929 -- and was the first black-and-white movie to win since Schindler's List in 1993.

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Television left black and white behind in the mid-'60s and has never gone back -- but TV has an equally honored foundation and history. And maybe, one day, someone will also pay television the homage it deserves.

Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List actually used limited color to great dramatic effect. Before that, Billy Wilder's The Apartment was the last completely black-and-white film to win the Best Picture award, in 1960, over fifty years ago.

There's something endearing about the Academy voters' commitment to its visual past, awarding a silent film for the first time in 80 years -- roughly the same amount of time it took Christopher Plummer to win Best Supporting Actor for Beginners. But it's also a little head-scratching, since The Artist was on the same ballot next to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life -- an enigmatic, time-tripping meditation on the nature of life and existence.

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Having Malick's work next to The Artist is sort of like listening to Philip Glass just after hearing an accordion solo. How could you not choose the more challenging, forward-looking work? But in the end, both films demonstrated the artistry of their particular craft. Choosing one over the other is, in the end, a sort of empty exercise.

Hollywood has revived the medium regularly, often when telling stories of the past, when black and white was the medium of the day. Perhaps none did it better than George Clooney's 2003 tale of Edward R. Murrow's live investigative CBS broadcasts in Good Night and Good Luck (above).

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For pure stylization of technique, there may have been none better than the Coen Brothers' 2001 film The Man Who Wasn't There (right). There are many others, including the psycho-thriller Pi in 1998, and Tim Burton's beautiful look at the oddball world of cheap '50s moviemaking in 1994's Ed Wood.

Television left black-and-white behind in the '60s, a decade after developing a compatible color broadcasting system, and has never returned -- probably because no one would watch. The knock against black and white, especially on television, is that the desaturation is too emotionally distant, too big of a draining disconnect from reality for casual viewers.

And it's also of a time -- now 50 years away -- and a culture now gone, and largely (though wrongly) deemed irrelevant.

But television has its own revered legacy in black and white, and someone ought to make us take a similar look back sometime soon. The directors and TV cinematographers of the day were artists in their own right, even though they were stuck in a low-res format often no wider than 20 inches, and hamstrung by low budgets and one-week shooting schedules.

Despite those handicaps, the photographers and lighting designers of the day gave us amazing, provocative worlds in compelling chiaroscuro -- light and dark.

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One triumph, early on, early on, was Blake Edwards' tongue-in-cheek Peter Gunn (on DVD here; also Sunday nights 2-3 a.m. ET on Me-TV), a 1958-61 private detective series that had its star, Craig Stevens, walking in and out of the noir TV shadows each week to hipster themes of surf guitars and knocking bongos. You will not find much better black-and-white photography anywhere on television.

Me-TV and RetroTV still run the show alongside other beautiful black-and-white series, including the 1958-63 detective drama Naked City (on DVD here; also on Me-TV Sunday night at 1 a.m. ET) and the Jack Kerouac-inspired 1960-64 road series Route 66 (complete series DVD set coming soon; also Sunday night at 3 a.m. on Me-TV).

But perhaps the best noir photography ever broadcast was ABC's The Fugitive. Embellished with moody orchestrations of the day, and somber voiceovers, the show followed the alienated trek of Dr. Richard Kimble, a man wrongly accused of murdering his wife, who escaped from custody and spent each week on the run.

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Star David Janssen played a man concealing himself from others in plain sight, and portrayed him with amazing complexity and nuance. But maybe the real star of the show was its imagery: stark, slanting architectural exteriors, and lurking pools of interior darkness that at times threatened to swallow its characters.

Like no other series, the photographic contrast in The Fugitive (on DVD here; also Sunday night at midnight ET on Me-TV) was artistically linked to its themes of interior and exterior selves, the flaws of assumed facts, and all the shades of gray in between.

The Fugitive aired from 1963 to 1967 -- but, like much of TV at the time, had to give in and surrender to color in its final year.

Not even the elusive Dr. Kimble could escape from the tide of color washing over the medium, changing it forever.

Or at least until television, inspired by nostalgia and pride, mounts its own equivalent of The Artist.

 
 
 
 
 
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