On Color We had already seen Tom Sawyer in Venice two years ago; we saw it again recently, shortly after The Goldwyn Follies. There is a considerable difference between the two in terms of color. In the ﬁrst ﬁlm we’re still dealing with coloristic acrobatics; for example: the cave, the picnic, the glossy white set, etc. In the latter ﬁlm, the search for effect, while evident, is still less thinly justiﬁed. The ﬁlm’s value aside (we’ll say only that it ﬁts as usual into the Follies series, with the advantage of Hecht as scriptwriter and Gershwin as composer) the relation between color and event appears closer, with neither impudently infringing upon the other. On the contrary, we would say that the opposite is true. That sort of final “symphony in blue,” like the earlier flight, in Becky Sharp, of the soldiers in red capes, allows us to conceive of the horizons that might open up for ﬁlms in color. And from a purely technical viewpoint as well, progress is obvious: terracott a faces and oleographic landscapes are now replaced by an ensemble of tones that are paler and, in short, acceptable without too much trouble. Which leads us to consider the problem of color as the most pressing issue and as something destined to restore artistic dignity to this blessed cinema. Because, in all sincerity, little of note has been done in recent years. If you think of the old “classics” (The Golem, Kameradschaft, A nous la libertà, etc.), you have to admit that ﬁlm-making as art has not progressed much since those distant times. The art of the screen has evolved gradually, settling onto a track that, while leading undeniably to commercial success, strongly deviates from the path of artistic success. Today, it ultimately isn’t so much about making a good ﬁlm as making one that satisﬁes the public, because it is the public that pays and it is, precisely, with money (and for money) that cinema is made. With the result that one can hardly think of a producer in today’s world giving a free hand to an inspired director; instead he imposes upon him whatever restraints he deems appropriate. And the scant exceptions only conﬁrm the rule.
OCTOBER 128, Spring 2009, pp. 111–120. © 2009 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Instructed by the [precedent] of sound [in cinema]. is preparing to turn it to its own advantage. just out of bed after a bout of the ﬂu. No one is thinking that all our daily efforts will come to naught if we persist in remaining stuck in black and white. who believes in God and is optimistic. Which. But where formulas rule. independent of its speciﬁc content and its different modes of appearance. is concerned with color. where thirty percent of production is currently in color. moreover.112
Another reason for this standstill lies in the fact that when an art is no longer concerned with the representation of an inner world. apart from some sporadic experiments. it’s over. which is now beginning to walk. within a few years. it convinces. then that art is finished. We will need years and years to revive. it is counting on the war now occupying Europe and the limited possibilities of European producers to allow them to monopolize all our markets. the unusual. not always pointless nor without consequences. it senses more truth in them. We read that René Clair in Paris and Jean Painlevé in London are “up to their ears” in color. with an enrichment of expressive means. Not to mention America. “in the unity of its fundamental determinations. If the multicolored Hollywood wave reaches us before our production—including color—can thwart its advance.] Suggestions From Hegel The desire to take the art of the screen seriously can lead to patient readings and re-readings. America above all has understood this state of affairs and. “the ideal” as he puts it. beautiful. But sadder still is the thought of Italian cinema.1942. with color. and draws new pleasure from them. it is caressed by the sweetness of certain combinations.” In other words and on the whole. as always. But when will Italian producers convince themselves that they cannot ignore color and that sooner or later they will have to open the door to it? [Cinema. when anyone in cinema thinks of Hegel it’s because of that part of his philosophy that deals with the univer sal not ion and realit y of the Beautiful in nature and in art. No one. afraid of the new. color is advancing steadily and decisively. there’s a new gleam of hope for cinema’s future. who sees everything as rosy. Despite great expense and serious technical difﬁculties. Generally. Today. and when people are content to retrace already beaten paths. And so we happen to be re-reading Hegel. art cannot remain. where all the arts are
. is natural. The viewer’s eye is becoming accustomed to colors. an inner truth. And the danger is real. like a baby. December 10. What then follows is the rule of the formula. It’s impressive. ﬁlms in black and white will no longer be tolerated.
Chiaroscuro—the variable blending of br ightness and darkness—appear s as a funct ion of light and shadow. But let’s specify some basic points. he is simply stating that painting. although this foundation is of the greatest importance. chiaroscuro represents only the foundation. The masters of color push in this regard to the point of extreme contradiction between the clearest light and the deepest shadows. The philosopher is not denying the great merit of drawing. this is cinema’s most pressing problem. sensible of the living individuality and particularization of its objects. but however the spirit. in painting. externalizes “its perspicuously living quality. there is always need for color. that their inner nature is allowed to come clearly through.” In the meantime it will be a great day when we can speak of equivalent Venetian or Flemish schools. Once attained. whereby painting does not abstractly remain to the side. This. since for us. applied instead to cinema. we ﬁnd even more reasons for careful analysis. entitled The System of the Individual Arts. filmmaking. We must therefore define the precise relationship between spirit and the senses. rich in invention and fantasy. would produce a more pronounced stereoscopic direction. it determines only what remains in front of or behind. on the contrary. like painting. the outline.On Color
regarded as equal. The thought of color as indispensable to the absoluteness of ﬁgurative beauty is easily derived. the one to which the strongest aesthetic foundation for the future remains committed. The fundamental basis of color is chiaroscuro. Elsewhere. We shall refer only to passages that are concerned with color. As a fundamentally figurative art. that relationship coincides. And here too a selection is possible. One only need hold as valid the assertion that blackand-white cinema is to color cinema as drawing is to painting. with color. And he adds: We willingly stop before drawings and principally sketches. as Hegel asserts. whose passages. In effect. color that makes a painter a painter. However. differences and shadings allow for the same sort of transﬁguration. and
. giving plast icit y to forms. derives its means of formal representation from the external appearance of nature and individuals. might immediately stand out from the light transparent veil of the ﬁgure. not of materiality. generally the actual contours of the form as form: what is called modeling. pair ing the project ing and recessive. The reader is to understand by this the mode of appearance. such as those that preferably show genius. however. It is. and on the other. which is precisely where he turns to painting. when using only color. on the condition. on the one hand with the transﬁguration of the real aspect of the world into the pure illusion of art. as in the Third Book of The Aesthetics.
for example. and the artist optimally clings to the ordinary light of day. and which require a substantial and valid study for the artist as well as for the viewer. In a rich. external light is something that is necessary. that mar velous echo of light that br ings a special living sort of chiaroscuro. a dramatic vitality. and from the other extremely diverse manners of lighting. open action. even in his most
. evening—from the light of the sun or the moon. but for the fact that they often become mannered. The lighting that the painter [ read: as director or cameraman] ascertains externally or internally in his conception can only be a rapid. If these inconsistencies are lacking. However instantaneous and non-habitual ﬁxed lighting might be. and it is with appropr iate light ing that what one might call the inexpressible can be expressed. while only the difference between the lightest and the darkest make certain parts pronounced and others recede. mutable appearance. The most widely varying differences emerge in this regard from the type of daylight—morning. when painting tends more directly toward the spiritual. However. from a calm or cloudy sky. the opposite occurs. from storm light or candlelight. to place the whole ﬂuidly in harmony. and to proceed to infinitesimal gradations. where. When interiority is preponderant. if anything. and other non-ordinary forms of illumination favorable for such differences can be omitted. the case for cinematography. daring contrasts between the largest masses of light and the strongly shaded portions have an optimum effect. As for a more precise determinat ion of light and shadows. But they are granted this contradiction. In landscapes and in the insigniﬁcant circumstances of ordinary life. the artist. it becomes a necessary postulate. when not. the desired emphasis of decisive figures and groups. In landscape.114
they obtain the greatest effect with it. mid-day. play their proper role. The contrary is seen with reﬂections of light. that is since it doesn’t lack a rich play of passages and mixtures. however. This is not. this depends principally on the type of lighting employed by the artist. Consider what a master of color a Sternberg. in a lively awareness that is in itself clear. lighting loses a bit of its value. from a closed or striking light or a light that spreads equally. Hegel’s later statement remains valid. artistic and also artificial. ever sensitive to the play of light and shadow. direct light and reverberation. could be in response to the Hegelian canon. the whole becomes cold. since harshness doesn’t matter. the grandest magical effects.
green can be regarded as a similar union. she wears a blue one. but rather clear and orderly. is much lighter than blue. which takes effect through the same. calmer and rich in feeling. while light is more resistant. light acts in and of itself through a dark means. wears a red mantle. We must analyze color as such. simplest. True red is a vivid. original colors. vacillating. Above all. seen in front of something black. from painting to cinema. it becomes yellowish or reddish. All the remaining. neutral.On Color
lively actions. Consequently even in the manner and guise whereby the ancient masters employed them. in themselves opposite. Mary. as far as possible. but when she is depicted as a mother. when she is depicted enthroned as queen of heaven. In their reciprocal reaction. inﬁnitely various colors must be considered as mere modiﬁcations. and lighter as the atmosphere is less diaphanous. productive. seen through a diaphanous but dark medium. such as the air of the lower plains. regal. Blue has the sweetest air. darkness is the principal thing. Because of this symbolism. but rather through difference in color. but not as a concrete unity. more judicious. confused. on the understanding that all technical. On the contrary. Except that light and darkness are not expressed in their purity.
. one can look for a symbolic relationship. but rather as the dissolution of differences as saturated. all these colors are lighter or darker in their effect. for example. in that it begins with darkness that offers no resistance. for example. Light and shadow must be colored. and yellow even more. living. concrete color. and that whatever solely technical references are traceable shall be transferred. Smoke for example is one of those dark means. interpenetrate. dominant. In effect. it becomes bluish. at the tops of mountains it is always darker. where a shading of these primary colors must always be recognized. we can look at the interrelationships of various colors. cheerful: red is virile. particularly in the use of blue and red. impediments are to be overcome. where blue and yellow. in blue. of equal intensity. which appears as blue since it acts by means of a light but not completely diaphanous medium. must take care that the whole within such multiplicity does not remain restless. in yellow. non-aesthetic. The sky for example is dark. royal. And here are the aesthetic conclusions of this technical preamble: These colors are the purest. calm neutrality. which does not allow the light to shine through. green indifferent. it seems blue. in front of something light. Red.
and the intensity of each color. He gives a pictorial example in the work of the Italian and Flemish masters. to a scene. This perfection is the foundation of harmony. to modiﬁcations where movement will take place. because of their violent mutual opposition. or rather. In landscape painting one sees fewer such contrapositions of simple primary colors. The way of composing colors from one spectrum. If some principal color is lacking. landscape is less suited to human circumstance. brings about this power of contraposition. along with content. where the inorganic. and green can always be detected in their canvases. all colors must be represented. and must appear.
. if Hegel. the sight is good to the eye. although situations that take place outdoors. the sense of the totality would perhaps be lost. the hints of simple colors have their place. Herein. and the various shades of the landscape in their multicolored rich gradations are not appropriate. alludes to painting. Meanwhile because of this resoluteness and strength of color. that is not at all in its natural and isolated perfection. are not precisely those actions where the interior would fully stand out as something essential. Colors moreover must be put together in this way. to the series of frames. in their character. it is necessary for both the expression and the character of objects to be more decisive and simpler. taken as a whole. in their entire demeanor and mode of expression. must have more pronounced colors. red. for which only mixed colors are needed. And here is a passage that deserves close attention. to the ﬁlm frame. so that both their pictorial contradiction and their fusion please the eye. Generally. yellow. where blue. In them the scene emerges from the spiritual world. somewhat more ﬂexibly. It is difficult to use the primary colors in their purity. the circumstance of nature necessarily appears more abstract. in their simple splendor. but once harmony is achieved.116
Another fundamental point is the overall harmony of colors. on the other hand in scenes where figures remain the principal element. for example. of calm and fusion. there is a higher harmony of color. as he states this. and where garments in particular take up most of the plane. In a conceivable coloristic perfection. on the psychological function of the setting. nobler than the subsidiary ﬁgures. according to Hegel. than is a room or an architectural building. we relate it. The principal ﬁgures. Colors brought together form a whole determined by the nature of the object.
among other things. The last points on this topic to which Hegel alludes. in nature. then the eye also more easily senses harmony or discord. facilitates the formation of a pictorial mentality. Turning to issues of this nature cannot help but be proﬁtable for those intent on a close study of problems of color in cinema. and the magic of optical illusions. Clearly. No matter. but it is also and always driven by presuppositions of an aesthetic kind. others mixed. it must mean a distinct coloristic and tonal sense that is absolutely new in that it is subjected to the inﬁnite ﬂuctuations within movement. and nothing stands out. should be darkened through the use of more prominent colors. Awareness of these presuppositions. which should. Such insigniﬁcance in terms of the inner spiritual character also conveys the insigniﬁcance of color and tones of color. from now on. serene.On Color
Placing man. those of aerial perspective. and often it is very sweet and of a ﬂattering amiability. instead. however. such weak expressions. pictorialism in cinema. one can only say that the whole is not effective and is insigniﬁcant. lie outside the set boundaries. clearly when the color is strong. certainly there is a harmony of colors. insigniﬁcant. it’s very easy to apply this
. as Blasetti does. particularly graceful positions. be simple and digniﬁed. flesh tone. in affected. which govern the entire ﬁeld of natural colors no matter where employed. of course. using them in images where some are light. indeed. immobility. however. Sweet. loveable faces are not in accordance with these. a similar paleness of physiognomy. Hegel’s philosophical analysis of color is precise but subjective. it is necessary for the latter to have the value of a simple circumstance. Nor does it seem to us that we can draw any conclusions whatsoever. In those representations the most prominent colors require their appropriate place. listless faces have come more into fashion. or a search for plastic material in composition. it is technical. when the colors appear vivid. in such a way that all the colors remain suffocated. and dissent will be forthcoming. Similarly. When Hegel speaks of color as an echo. but insigniﬁcant. when. the colors become weaker. the following in an essay by Diderot on painting: It will not be said in any way that it is easier to harmonize a listless color than a strong one. Yes. one reads. Recently. broken and without power. However it is necessary to be bold and forceful in their use. others blotchy. truly nothing obscures anything else. must not signify a feeling for framing. then one can never know if he is seeing a harmonious or a disharmonious image. but together nothing stands out.
In the cinematic future. as in the outdoor shots of Stagecoach—the shadow of the passing cloud. [Corriere padano. will become normal. Samuel Goldwyn.] Color Does Not Come From America It is very easy to play the prophet. Think of the passing of a cloud over a boundless prairie.118
mentally to cinema. At the beginning of Tosca. very decent products do also come from America. The traditionalists have no illusions. And we Europeans never reﬂect enough on the errors of American cinema. especially now that it’s attempting to supplant our industry and industrialize our fantasy. If the entire range of primary colors and their combinations had been available to the director. The expressive power is entrusted to chiaroscuro. June 2. however. despite Billy Wilder’s European background. knowing that no one will take the trouble to check out your prophecies. in the end. so with color. just as with sound. if only because each one presupposes reﬂection. and abstract. we also have articles that still give black and white a few years of life. excellent but coloristically obvious. And in conclusion. having the following sort of discussion with him: “Mr. which will surely be in color. aesthetes are not averse to a deepening of research as described above. its merging with another. Now imagine that you are with Mr. black and white will have the same outcome. remain typical Hollywood fruits. It’s pointless. recently. the same color. and the like. Gasparcolor. But fundamental in this case. a whole play of colors so powerful they replace any musical correspondence. As color ﬁlms they would resemble For Whom the Bell Tolls. Mind you. while technicians worry about Technicolor. which will relegate black and white to the corner of a cellar or museum where silent film is already consigned. to continue in this vein. the expressive power would. with the same taste and color. which. Renoir’s contract was broken because he had dared group together some frames within a single one—extemporaneously modifying the script in the studio. And yet we feel we can say that color. technique will not sufﬁce for the scrupulous interpretation of the very delicate variations of tone without a purity of spirit that gives them the breath of art. Yes. I think that Greta Garbo’s voice is
. However prophecies are always of some interest. where the fading of a tone. will not come from America. fundamental to painting. America is what it is. silent ﬁlm becomes intolerable. have been greater by far. for example. Goldwyn. They are fruits from the same tree. 1940. We now have long lists of color ﬁlms that Hollywood will be launching on our screens this year. Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend. the visual parallel of the echoing gallop of horses in the silence of the street is provided by the ﬂuttering of the white capes in the darkness of night.
I am struck immediately by an idea of freedom that came to me in the arrangement of colors on the faces of actors. Color s also last but a short t ime. I think that Ingrid Bergman is a blue-pink young woman. I think that the tonality of a ﬁlm like The Tarnished Angels (supposing that you want to make a ﬁlm of Pylon). Goldwyn. I think in that sort of scene in that sort of ﬁlm. In short. For an object itself there are no set colors. for example. this time. And it’s good to understand here and now that this is being done on a
. are so visually succulent that they anticipate the joy of material possession. and perhaps go beyond it. to put cabbages under the nose of Veronica Lake and artichokes in the hair of Alan Ladd. if not right over his face. The green. where. the chocolate. Mr. Mr. Impressions last such a short t ime.On Color
violet and Barbara Stanwyck’s green. Goldwyn would very calmly ring a bell and have me shown to the door. I say yellow because ‘that special jealousy’ then and there suggests this color to me. A tapestry? A curtain? Some glints of red with a hint of violet that makes the single tone tend toward a tainted. But it will once again be up to this old Europe to lay the foundations for a cinematic aesthetic of color. No. the gold of the oranges on the label of the jar of syrup. the red and blue of the ties. It’s an impression. I have clear ideas. I am in other words a colorist director. And the tonality of L’âge de raison (again supposing etc…) is wan and dirty. And grass is not always green. spotted by someone and in shame and fear. try to hide. very vast horizons open up to a director who has understood this simple fact: that the law of beauty doesn’t lie in truth to nature. Will you let me direct a ﬁlm?” I believe that Mr. some yellow is missing around the ﬁgure of the adulteress. If you think that it’s only up to me. Yes. sky not always blue (Matisse). but those are always the only example. absurd red? It doesn’t matter. I am one of these. we might wonder if it was an accident. resembles that of three-color ads in illustrated magazines. And so who says that light vermilion corresponds to the color of ﬂesh and that the shadows in a white cloth are gray? Try to put a cabbage or a rosebush next to a white cloth and tell me if you are still convinced that the shadows of the cloth are gray (Gauguin). as Cecchi notes. and Lana Turner is brown. But if Fred moved three feet away he could feel. the director. would disappear and spread. like paintings by Rosai. and that a yellow-green atmosphere suits Gene Tierney. behind Fred. Goldwyn. then on the wall. I know: there are also the red capes in Becky Sharp. while pondering the crime. and now the green would disappear and in its place the vermilion that Gauguin speaks of. and the cream on the pudding. A poppy can be gray. What does matter is that the color is there. It may be that surprising discoveries and techniques of extreme skill will come from there. a leaf black. based on the emotion of jealousy. on one of Fred MacMurray’s cheeks as he thinks over the crime in Double Indemnity (assuming that this were in color). color will not come from America.
Meanwhile the ﬁrst sign of our prophecy’s validity (and there’s nothing unusual about it) is precisely a European ﬁlm. December 18. that of ﬁlms rather than theoretically. We know that poetics also are important a posteriori. [Film rivista. Olivier’s Henry V. Although not ﬂawless. it already indicates what cinema may be like in the years ahead.] —Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.120