in Color, The Film Reader (edited by Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price)
“The neglect of color in film studies is a curious one. Color is not simply a choice a filmmaker makes at level of film stock; rather, having selected color (as most filmmakers today are so inclined) color becomes a constructive element of mise-en-scène, one that works alongside of lighting, sound, performance, camera movement, framing, and editing. Color is thus no incidental characteristic of film stock; it is an element carefully considered by set designers, cinematographers, and directors, all of whom must remain sensitive to the way in which color can create meaning, mood, sensation, or perceptual cues.” – pag. 2
“(…) And yet the neglect continues, even while careful considerations of elements of style have begun to flourish. Over the past twenty years, film studies has become attentive to other elements of style in an effort to detail the complexities of film as a medium, to move beyond simple images of analyses that engage a particular content – whether literal or nonliteral – without respect to how that content is determined by matters of style or form. (…) It is a field that continued to gain momentum through the mid. 1990s. Much of this work has been devoted to demonstrating the various ways in which sound, despite the fact that we are often less cognizant of it, is always working to structure our comprehension of the narrative or to create meaning in its own right. Indeed, as is best evidenced by Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision: Sound and Screen, sound theorists have worked at creating a complex, if much debated, vocabulary for describing the many constructive dimensions and effects of film sound. (PAG 3) The goal of the sound theorist has been to move sound out from the periphery and toward a more complex center, to the space formerly occupied by the performer and the word.
The same must be said of color. Where sound in film was once inaudible, color was once invisible, despite its overwhelming significance as a meaning-making structure of a film. (…) And yet, where is our vocabulary for color? As sound scholars have already noticed, without even a rudimentary vocabulary, color will remain invisible.”
“(…) Another major barrier to the study os color has been the larger philosophical and physiological problem of color vision. Where most of us with normal vision see a tracking shot the same way, very few of us see the same color exactly alike. We have all had the frustrating experience of identifying a colored object, only to be told that what we see as violet is, in fact, navy blue. The source of such frustration can be genetic. The difference of a single amino acid between two people, for instance, can guarantee a difference in the way each sees a particular color (Riley 1995: 2). To compound matters, color is itself something of an illusion, nowhere near as stables our everyday perception of it would indicate. Indeed, color itself is actually a property of light, as Steve Neale has so clearly explained:
Color, basically, is the mental or psychological result of the physical action of different light waves on our eyes and optical nervous system. Light itself consists of radiant energy of distinct and different wavelengths. The wavelengths in total form the spectrum of light – that range of radiant energy which the human eye can perceive. The eye and the optic nervous system overall form a specialized apparatus for responding to this range of radiant energy. When we perceive an object as being of particular color, this perception is the result of two distinct processes. First, it is the result of the modification of light by the object itself, which, in accordance with its own physical properties, will reflect some elements of the spectrum of light that strikes it and absorbs others. Secondly, it is the result of the physical and psychological characteristics of the perceiving subject and its optical apparatus.
(PAG 5) Light is made up, then, of different wavelengths of energy which we perceive as different colors. Objects are perceived as being differently colored insofar as they absorb and reflect different color in the spectrum. A red ball, for instance, is a ball which reflects the red light in the spectrum and which absorbs most or all of the other colors. (Neale 1985: 110)
In other words, a red ball is, in one sense, every color except red. And the fact too may change depending on the source of illumination and degrees of saturation.”
“On top of the radical subjectivity of color vision rests the even more vexing problem of color naming. There is, on the one hand, a staggering range of terms for, and shades of, any one color. And this is before consulting the digitalized, highly articulated thousands of blue available on the swatches of paint at your corner hardware store. (…)” – pag. 5
“What is more, color demands an especial attention to cultural specificity. Whereas in America the word “blue” refers to one color, in Russia, the word for blue refers to two colors (Batchelor 2000:90). And as Umberto Eco has pointed out, the Maori of New Zeland have 3000 different color terms, and the Hanunóo of the Philippines have four central color terms, any given single term encompassing a host of colors that we would, in English, recognized as distinct, an yet each denotes a more complex, highly specific, interactive system of color (Eco 1885: 168-9). An easy translation of color terms across cultures seems difficult, at best. Color does not, like the onde Utopian dream of a silent cinema that communicated freely (and profitably) across distinct national borders, reduce cultural specificity. Color only enlarges that need.
The problem of color naming is likewise a problem of meaning and interpretation. Even if we can agree on what to call a color, we may not be able to agree on what that color is meant to signify. How do we know what a particular use of red means if, in our culture, red can indicate multiple and often contradictory things: love and anger, revolution and madness. The polyvalence of color has led many artists and philosophers to search for synaesthetic systems, patterns of fixed correspondences between color and sound, color and language. Attempts were made in the eighteenth century, for instance, to create color organs that aligned keys with a particular color, a practice informed by Isaac Newton’s conception of the color spectrum along the lines of the diatonic scale. Even Arthur Rimbaud, so otherwise immune to essecialist impulses, attempeted to find a grammar for color, linking, in his poem “Vowels”, particular colors to particular vowels. The slipperiness of color has, in other words, encouraged a search for order, for a system that might contain, or at least marginalize, its ambiguity.
This has been especially true within film studies. Even those scholars especially sensitive to questions of style have attempted to sidestep questions about the meaning of color. Nowhere has this been truer that within neoformalist film criticism, an approach to film style pioneered (PAG 6) by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in Narrations in the Fiction Film and Breaking the Glass Armor respectively. Neoformalism has been notoriously opposed to any nonliteral meaning, that is to say, to interpretation. The neoformalist prefers instead descriptive accounts of how aspects of style – camera movement, editing, framing – contribute in a steadfastly literal way to our comprehension of the narrative, and to the achievement of stylistic convention. In other words, a bright yellow awning in the rear plane of the image is considered only if it contributes to the perceptual clarity of the image (helping to define or reduce the planes of the images), not for what it might contribute to the meaning of the film.” – pag 5-6
“(…) Color, in this account, is peripheral to questions of narrative comprehension. Moreover, it is seen as excess, a source of abstract visual pleasure and perceptual play that resides somewhere above questions about the film’s meaning. Excess is itself a category of neoformalist criticism, one that works to confirm structure even though it cannot be considered a part of that structure. Or as (Kristin) Thompson has put it:
“A perception of film that includes its excess implies an awareness of the strucutres (including conventions) at work in the film, since excess is precisely those elements that escape unifying impulses. Such an approach to viewing films can allow us to look further into a film, renewing its ability to intrigue us by its strangeness.”
If we are to take this claim seriously, however, we must assume that as spectators, we normally separate out the colors we see from the figures and objects on the screen. In order to perceive the film more efficiently, we must pretend, while viewing, that color is in some sense not there. Only later, and after we have “mastered” the narrative, can we be reminded by those curious bright colors. However, what do we do with them once we have returned for a second look? Is color merely an advertisement for the more serious business of story?
The relegation of color to the category of excess is a convenient critical move, insofar as it frees us from having to consider what a color might mean and how it might produce nonliteral meanings that are not so easily found or confirmed. However, the purging of color from narrative also suggests a much larger cultural impulse. In this pathbreaking work on the fear of color in Western culture, Chromophobia, David Batchelor speaks of the various ways in which color has been purged from culture, and what that may very well imply. I quote Batchelor at length:
“Chromophobia manifests itself in the many and varied attmpts to purge colour from culture, to devalue color, to diminish its sifnificance, to deny its complexity. More specifically: this purging of colour is usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first, color is made out to be property of some “foreign” body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, color is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. (It is typical of prejudices to conflate the sinister and the superficial.) it is other to the higher values of the Mind. It is other to the higher values of Western culture. Or perhaps culture is other to the higher values of colour. Or colour is the corruption of color.” (Batchelor 2000: 23)
Batchelor’s sweeping account of the fear of color should make us sceptical about ease with which color can be disregarded in art. That is, the impulse to marginalize color in the service of formal purity is animated by more than merely aesthetic concerns. An it is a problem, as Batchelor’s work shows so well, that long precedes film study. For instance, one need look no further than to Kant’s hugely influential theory of the aesthetic in his Critique of Judgment. There, color becomes an impediment to our ability to access the beautiful: “The colors which light up the sketch belong to charm; they may indeed enliven the object for sensation, but they cannot make it worthy of contemplation an beautiful.” Color might ultimately make an object more legible, more available to our comprehension, but is in itself unworthy of consideration. And, of course, for Kant, that which cannot be experienced as beautiful is that which cannot be understood by a transcendental subject. Only form, free forma an overwhelming use of color, can activate that which all perceivers are said to share. The stakes of Kant’s transcendental subject are numerous and well known. However, I point to the role of color in Kant’s aesthetic simply to suggest, in accordance with Batchelor’s claim, the long-standing difficulty of color, and the consequences of its relegation to the margins in an effort to offer a view of the work of art that is utterly standardized. Batchelor’s Chromophobia – an excert of which we are fortunate to include here – formulates in precise terms the ethical consequences of doing so. Seen this way, a better conception of how color works in film, an account of its vicissitudes instead ot its regulariry, would appear to be not only an aesthetic imperative, but a social and political one as well.
Supple, confident discussions of color are not only necessary for a better understanding of the history of film and the unique functioning of any particular work, but also promise to open up yet further ways of understanding the cultural role and functioning of cinema itself across a wide range od national borders.” – pag. 7
“(…) Along these lines, you will find the color theory of major practitioners such as Eisenstein, Oshima, Rohmer, Brakhage – all of whom speak to the centrality of color to their own aesthetic conceptions. Last, we have supplemented the historical and theoretical work with case studies on particular films and filmmakers. (…) What this volume should make most clear, however, is that there is no one way to address color. One writer’s system is another writer’s problematic. An that, I believe, is how it should be. (PAG. 8) Color, as you will see, demands specificity, difference. While there may be no methodological answer key to the study of color, the sheer variety of approaches to color in this volume should reveal the absence of such a key as a possibility rather than as a limitation. It should suggest the lines for further work, but with a reminder that color thrives on difference – perceptually, culturally, and as art.” – pag 7-8