Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On the color version of Alexander Payne's Nebraska

Bette Davis wears a red dress to the ball with Henry Fonda in the classic Jezebel.

“Keep Ted Turner and his God damned Crayolas away from my movie.” – Orson Welles on the possible colorization of Citizen Kane

The dress is brown. In an iconic moment from a near-forgotten classic, a Southern belle wears a red dress to the ball. She means it as an act of defiance but quickly regrets this decision. To prove a point, the target of her defiance – and the object of her affections – forces her to dance with him. The floor clears, and all the attendees watch the shameful display of the woman in red who has crashed their party.

The film is William Wyler’s fantastic Jezebel, a Best Picture nominee in 1938 for which Bette Davis, the belle, won her second Best Actress Academy Award. Henry Fonda plays the love interest. It is a classic epic romance of the time period, preceding even Gone with the Wind by a full year. The performances are grand, the scenery is lush, the racial politics are suspect, and it is, of course, shot on black and white film stock.

Colorization is a tragic business-over-art decision that has thankfully been avoided throughout the years, though there are any number of classic films available as candy-colored nightmares if you look hard enough. The true artists of cinema have always fought back against this kind of commerce-first decision making, including people such as Orson Welles, as evidenced by the quote that heads off this article.

It is hard to blame the money men. Black and white is a tough sell. I once knew a girl who refused to watch Casablanca because she did not like black and white movies. Best Picture winners The Artist and Schindler’s List are among the few exceptions, and for every one of those, there is a Good Night and Good Luck or a Nebraska the studio heads look at and say, “What if they had been in color?”

Well, this weekend, they get their wish. Epix, a cable movie channel you may or may not be familiar with, will air the colorized version of Alexander Payne’s wonderful Nebraska. It is a version that exists as a compromise between the filmmaker and the studio, which ever-concerned with its finances wanted a more commercial option. It is not the version anyone should see, nor is it the vision Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael intended to communicate.

I urge you to avoid this version. Do seek out the film. You will not be disappointed. It is witty, charming, a little sad, and ultimately uplifting. It is a great film that landed firmly in my top 10 of last year, but what it is not is a color film.

The truth is: Red does not really read on black and white stock. The blood in Raging Bull is chocolate sauce. The same is true of the black and white sequences in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. And so too is Davis’ dress in Jezebel. The dress is brown because that is the art of shooting a film in black and white. The technology exists to make it red, but it would be nothing more than a coloring crayon representation of a classic film. The money men will always color their pictures, but that does not mean we have to hang them on our fridge.

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