The last three films I watched were shot in black and white, a delightful accident that got me to think about why directors today would make such a bold choice. Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is artfully constructed by a director at the top of his craft, delivering exciting lighting, sets and camera angles that move the film cleanly out of the present; it feels like a classic already. Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing is elegiac; she uses black and white to evoke 1920s Harlem, as well as the mysteries of a female sensibility. Passing also feels like something we will watch again and again
And then there is Buster Keaton – who is a genius (of course, he had only black and white film to work with). I loved all three for different reasons, and recommend them highly!
Buster Keaton (anything and everything)
Two books on Buster Keaton have been released since the start of the year, which provides an excellent excuse to reacquaint yourself with an American treasure. The first was written by Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens (Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the 20th Century). The second, written by James Curtis is nearly twice as long, and takes a more scholarly approach (Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life).
I listened to Dana Stevens talk about the silent film star on FreshAir, and enjoyed this review of the book. I have always adored The General (available on Amazon Prime), but didn’t really know much about the arc of Keaton’s career or his impact on the film industry. Understanding that he did all his stunts and created all the comedic gags makes his work all the more amazing. They stand the test of time, and his facial expressions (or lack thereof) are likewise classic.
Best of all, I learned that you can watch nearly all his films on YouTube. Have at it – I recommend the shorts for a lunchtime break! Most clock in under a half hour and will make you smile. Kids will love the compilation of his best stunts and gags.
Here is a good article from the LA Times about the two books; either, or both, would make a great Valentine’s Day gift for a movie lover.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (Dir. by Joel Coen)
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand star in Joel Coen’s gorgeous adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. The shot composition is stark and compelling and, according to reviewers who know much more than I of the play itself, the script is pared back to its most basic elements. It’s worth seeing in the theater if you are comfortable but it is also available on Apple TV+. Everyone here is a master of his or her craft.
Passing (Dir by Rebecca Hall)
Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of the novel Passing is a quiet story that builds to a devastating finale. The film represents a directorial debut from an actress who herself had a mother who passed as white, and a father who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company. As such, the emotion in this tale is genuine and the acting sublime. That Hall manages such magical imagery, using black and white, take this film to yet another level of artistry. It’s beautiful and haunting.