Black & White, at The Movies

A little while back I had the flu (yes, that flu) so I set up camp on the couch, and took the opportunity to revisit a couple of my favorite films, La Jetée by Chris Marker and Don’t Look Back by D. A. Pennebaker. The two films haven’t much in common save for that both of them offer pleasures to fans of classic black and white.

Most of my earlier childhood memories can be described as foggy at best, but I distinctly remember seeing La Jetée in elementary school. To the short film’s credit, I not only recalled the story’s content but also its French title well over 30 years later. To the discredit of 1960’s public school curriculum, however, this strangely dark and disturbing movie hardly seems an appropriate choice for screening in a suburban Indiana elementary school class.

I found La Jetée as compelling as I had remembered it to be. Set in a post-nuclear-apocalypse future, La Jetée is a scifi account, in equal parts dreamy and nightmarish, of scientists who send a man back into the past in an attempt to straighten out their present. If the premise sounds familiar, that’s because La Jetée inspired director Terry Gilliam to make the film Twelve Monkeys.

The movie has always stood out for me because director Chris Marker crafted nearly all its 28 minutes of narrative from still photographs.

Making a compelling half hour film entirely from stills would challenge a 21st century filmmaker using cutting-edge digital technology, but this film was produced in 1962. I can’t watch the film now without imagining that I smell Kodak RapidFix, as I picture Marker first processing hundreds of rolls of film and then standing for days in the dark, painstakingly hand printing the hundreds of grainy, high-contrast black and white prints he would later stitch together to make this film. The thought renders me awestruck.


The verité documentary, Don’t Look Back, follows Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. If you like – or have ever liked – The Bob, you really must see this film.

Its director and cinematographer, D. A. Pennebaker, (who was born in Evanston by the way) came to filmmaking by way of his then profession, engineering. Don’t Look Back broke new ground in part because Pennebaker re-engineered his 16mm movie cameras to expand their battery life and increase their portability, and also recorded sound separately.

I first saw this film around 1980 at the Fox Venice, at the time a popular revival house in Venice Beach, California. I’d been a Bob Dylan fan since I was nine years old but had rarely (if ever) seen a recording of him speaking. Pennebaker captured many hours of the young Dylan sparring with reporters, clowning with friends and singing to packed auditoria and theaters. Soon after this film was made, gaining access to Dylan became nearly impossible, so Don’t Look Back provides a rare, insiders’ glimpse into his daily life during this important tour.

I remember a lot of hoopla surrounding this showing – the release of a brand new print struck from the original negative. The commotion was well deserved. Shot on high-speed black and white film, the movie had a glistening quality. It literally sparkled, and I finally understood why.

If you’ve seen black and white photographs made from a high-speed film (such as the venerable Tri-X), then you know what I mean by grain. You can actually see the structure of the silver halide crystals that make up the image. This documentary was shot with high-speed, 16mm, black-and-white film (grainy to begin with), which was probably then push-processed, further increasing its graininess. Then the 16mm negative had been blown up to a 35mm print for theatrical release. The final projected image magnified each projected frame hundreds of times, making the grain pattern even more evident.

Imagine viewing a beautiful black and white print in which you can discern the distinct texture of the grain. Now imagine that pattern or texture changing 24 times every second! The grain pattern shifts frame to frame, making the image on the screen seem to glisten and sparkle.

Although I can’t recommend the flu, it did provide a silver (silver halide?) lining of uninterrupted screening time. If you have a chance to catch either of these magnificent films in all their black-and-white glory, by all means, do.


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