Monday, August 11, 2014

A Look at "Nebraska" (in Color) and Why Black and White Matters

Left to right: Bruce Dern and Will Forte
Like a strong portion of film critics, I loved director Alexander Payne's Nebraska. From its story to the wondrous scenery, there was plenty of charm in it that eventually lead to six Academy Award nominations. When it was decided that it would be airing on Epix in color, I was immediately torn between admiration for Payne's intended cut and the original format that was created for countries that preferred colorized editions. It either feels like an exclusive or the biggest attention-grabbing scheme in Epix's short history. Nonetheless, I watched it with enthusiasm and I am here to report on the film's quality and if it changes (note: this is not a review of the film but a comparison to the alternative versions. Read my original review here).

What is there to gain from Nebraska in color? To start off this conversation, I suggest looking back at why Nebraska worked in its original format. For a large reason, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael gave the film a rustic vibe. While the film was shot in color, it was digitally converted and the results were excellent. With the film detailing the life of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) as he deals with the issues of being old and forgotten, the cinematography feels like an informed choice. As Roger Ebert claimed, the appeal of black and white is that it provides a timeless appeal. It also hearkens back to when Grant was a younger man, serving in Korea and never being able to say no to an offer. The black and white served as a lens into his life, even if Grant never said it directly.

It also helped to provide a beautiful portrait of the Midwest. As he travels from Billings to Lincoln, there are countless shots of open fields and cloudy skies set to Mark Orton's violin-heavy score. There's a romanticism to the tone and everything seems so wonderfully simple and timeless. The shots are capable of hiding any problematic color patches. Most of all, it almost feels intentional that Payne's view of this film largely comes from Great Depression photographer Georgia O'Keefe, who famously shot the turmoil of the economy and the people stuck in it. Those photos are works of art with intricate detail packed into the black-and-white. While Grant hardly seems like a depressing character, his introverted past recalls an economic struggle and desire to be liked. Nobody respects him or believes what he says as fact. With the goal of getting to Lincoln, Nebraska being the equivalent of solving his "Great Depression" so that he can buy a new truck and air compressor, this all makes perfect sense.

So what exactly can come from releasing the film in color? For starters, there isn't much that is taken away from the story. It's still the same performances and story. What is removed is the informed shot. With color, it manages to feel more contemporary and brings a mixture of pale colors with brown, earthy backdrops. It still feels rustic and the aerial views are gorgeous, though they don't feel as timeless. We have seen better shots of landscapes in 2013 (12 Years a Slave) that feel more integral. This simply feels like an upscale independent road trip movie. Basically, it shifts the drama more to the acting and doesn't compliment the nostalgia at all. Grant's journey doesn't quite hold the same impact because what color does is create a sense of understatement.

It also hurts because the cinematography in color clearly has a vibe that it was meant for black and white. In the colorized version, there is an abundance of brown in interior shots that consumes a lot of the scenery. The pale colors of the characters' jackets and wardrobe also feel insignificant. There's a definite interesting analysis in how it excellent chooses colors for conversion, but it does have a faded out quality that while could be applied to Grant's feeling of insignificance, definitely doesn't hearken back to O'Keefe or even Grant's experience in the Korean War. It is simply a decent looking movie in which the sky is always pale and overcast and the ground is profoundly brown. It is fine, but the film feels indistinguishable without it.

Take this scene for instance in which Grant visits the cemetery in Hawthorne and Kate Grant (June Squibb) is being candid about their private lives. The moment is hilarious, but look at the scenery around them. Maybe it comes from being from the west coast, but there were so many small details that I improperly interpreted. It wasn't the color of clothes or the car. It was the landscape. I assumed that the sky was blue and the ground was green. Both details are far from accurate. As stated prior, the sky is almost translucent and the ground is brown. There is a sense of life that is sucked out of the scene. While it is very much about Grant's "Great Depression," there is a sense that Hawthorne is booming with color and life. Neither felt present in this particular scene, which given that it's at a cemetery, feels a little strange. Maybe this is a fault of my own, but I do enjoy being able to interpret the fields of the Midwest as being something more exotic and wondrous.

I do not advocate against watching the colorized version if it draws your attention. However, I do feel like it doesn't do the film as much justice. Beyond the fact that it is the version that Payne doesn't want getting out there, it simply isn't interesting and as distinct. Papamichael's cinematography was clearly done with intent for the absence of color. With color, it looks a little muddied and dull. Even the addition of Orton's score feels a little odd in this new format, as the initially rural area feels a little more lived in with these aspects. Also, it doesn't quite feel like a tale of a forgotten era in quite the same way. In fact, the Midwest feels kind of flat. It doesn't take away from the story, but it doesn't elevate the visceral reaction to it, either.

It would be like watching a classic film from the 30's in color. For instance, It's a Wonderful Life. Like many other films, it received the colorized treatment when cinema began to transition. Unlike Nebraska and more contemporary films, it wasn't done via a previous print. Instead, it was done meticulously through inserting other colors. With exception to later scenes involving falling snow in the background, the work is actually very impressive. Depending on your level of love for cinema, it won't be a problem at all. While colorizing does feel like a pandering notion to get more money, when done right, it doesn't actually influence much difference at all. If you have some opposition to black and white, it may actually help you. However, it does feel like it takes away from the cinematography and causes it to feel a little false. The only issue is that It's a Wonderful Life is one of the better examples. Often, you get something like this scene from A Trip to the Moon:

The original print is not nearly this cartoonish and actually is a little less surreal. Given, this film is over 100 years old, but the beauty of A Trip to the Moon and why it remains integral to film studies is because of how it shot everything and how the black and white complimented the scenery. Watching many of the scenes in color look a little creepy and often shoddy. The original, lacking color, manages to convey a timeless feel and makes the journey feel more serious and important. Most of all, it is the print that director Georges Melies initially wanted seen. Nobody lost any enjoyment out of a film by not knowing what color the moon was. It all had a layered quality that given its era, is actually really impressive.

So what does this all have to do with Nebraska? It is mostly to prove that colorization isn't all that blasphemous. It has been done before and it only is a big deal because of how little it is done nowadays. In fact, the absence of color nowadays adds a timeless feel and makes the films distinct in ways that can overshadow their lower budgets or serve as a reference to an older feeling (Frances Ha to French New Wave or The Artist to silent films). Americana has a rich history and its association with Great Depression is ripe for visual cues in Nebraska. To remove them makes it lose some identity. This is not specifically because of scenery, but because of how it helps us to perceive Woody Grant. He seems more tragic without color: like a sore thumb in a rich tapestry of characters. It is in many ways romanticized far more effectively. 

*Note: I want to apologize for being unable to provide visual accompaniment for the colorized version, as the materials aren't readily available.

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