Movies and the Mind

A front row ticket to human drama as seen through popular film

'Nebraska' and the Power of Black & White

The magic of cinematic perception


Bruce Dern and Will Forte in 'Nebraska'
                       

What is it about the state of Nebraska that inspires visual artists to reach for black and white film when trying to capture the landscape? I have associated the Great Plains with black and white images ever since seeing the cover photo of Bruce Springsteen’s bleak acoustic masterpiece Nebraska—a seemingly endless road receding into a cloudy horizon as seen through a busted car window. It makes intuitive sense then that director Alexander Payne would choose black and white film to capture that same territory in his Oscar-nominated film, Nebraska.

My best answer to why black and white suits Nebraska is that it has something to do with the vastness of the Great Plains. Sometimes people describe this country as ‘empty’ but that is not true. The Plains are filled with stuff—grass, crops, wildlife, small-towns, etc. It is just that none of these things have the sheer mass needed to challenge the immenseness of the flat, solid earth and endless sky. It is almost as if black and white film is a demonstration of humility in the face those dominating features—no splashes of color to distract our attention from what is most real.

Despite how much film buffs such as myself like to gush about the beauty of black and white images, the mass film audience obviously prefers color. In the past 50 years, only Spielberg’s Schindler’s List has been able to turn black and white into mainstream blockbuster success. During that time, a number of ambitious, artistically successful films (e.g., The Last Picture Show, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Pi, and The Artist) have been shot in black and white, but the financial achievement of these movies has been modest.

The audience preference for color is probably related to the fact that film is among the most realistic of art forms. By utilizing both our visual and auditory systems to capture moving images and sound, film (and close relatives like television, DVDs and on-line streaming) comes closer to reproducing the perceptual aspects of everyday life than any other medium (except perhaps video games that add an interactive dimension). This makes movies inherently compelling because they feel almost real.

From this perspective it makes sense that the earliest movies were simple shorts of everyday activities such as a train pulling into a station; audiences were amazed that their eyes could trick them into making it seem like something was actually happening when they knew it was “just a movie.” Later movies added sound, color, CGI and a host of other technological innovations to continue to give audiences that same thrill. It appears that once audiences have been exposed to these innovations, they are reluctant to do without them. For example, many of the college students I teach are unable to enjoy classics of the 1940s like Casablanca and some are even alienated by the passé special effects of Star Wars.

If audience members can let go of the quest for complete perceptual realism however, then the pleasures of black and white images can be appreciated. When we give up the capacity to see the color spectrum, our capacity to see the contrasts in the brightness of light comes to the fore. Black, white, and mostly shades of gray provide the necessary information to identify shape and movement. Watching a black and white movie is like being temporarily colorblind. With our emotions not so easily swayed by splashes of bright color, our attention to subtle movement and contrasts becomes intensified.

This “addition by subtraction” is a silver (not ‘golden’) opportunity of a black and white film such as Nebraska. A family drama with some comedic undertones, the movie represents a genre that is extremely common in movies and television. Despite this ordinariness, the black and white photography immediately sets the film apart and makes it extra-ordinary. To begin with, the stark appearance of the film mirrors the stark landscape of the Plains. The combination creates the perfect setting for a dreary road trip from Montana to Nebraska undertaken by a middle-aged son, David (Will Forte), and his aging father, Woody (Bruce Dern) on a futile mission to claim a million dollars in a bogus sweepstakes scam.

Bruce Dern masterfully plays Woody, a lovable loser who is struggling with alcoholism and advancing Alzheimer’s. His loss of cognitive capacities is metaphorically captured in the audience’s loss of perceptual capacities. Buried inside Woody however is still the capacity to experience longing, shame and triumph; the photography forces the viewer’s attention on these subtleties whereas color might have made Woody appear simply vacant.

Overall, the photography does an exquisite job of capturing the quiet despair of a swath of mid-American life rarely given much attention in the movies. Without color to cheer things up, shots of decaying small town main streets, broken down cars, and lonely bars are that much more poignant. Similarly, when the film gives us glimpses of resiliency, steely determination and even love between its difficult characters, it has earned these moments of hope.

When it comes to cinematic perception, sometimes less is more. 

(Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770 )

Skip Dine Young, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Hanover College in Indiana and a licensed clinical psychologist.

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