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The enduring allure of black-and-white film


Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, left, and Will Forte as David Grant in a scene from the film "Nebraska," about a booze-addled father who makes to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

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NEW YORK — Black-and-white movies are a rarity today, of course, but they nevertheless cling to a persistent and exceptional existence among more flashy fare at the multiplexes.

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which opens today in limited release, follows several notable films this year that have opted for monochrome over color, including Noah Baumbach’s New York tale Frances Ha and Joss Whedon’s Shakespeare-on-the-cheap Much Ado About Nothing.

Filled with handsome, austere plains photography, Nebraska is a Midwest road trip film about an aging father (Bruce Dern) and his son (Will Forte). As a studio release (Paramount) and a film set in contemporary times, “Nebraska” is unusual among modern black-and-white films, which have tended to be independently made or period pieces.

Usually black-and-white is attempted by ambitious young filmmakers or veterans with enough industry pull. Payne has said his Nebraska was budgeted for less because it was in black-and-white and considered to have less box-office potential as a result.

Yet audiences have proved open-minded about black-and-white: The crowd-pleasing 2011’s The Artist won best picture without the benefit of color or sound, just as did Steven Spielberg’s black-and-white Schindler’s List (1993).

As an iconoclastic group, modern black-and-white movies stand out for their classical photography and their willful connection to an earlier period of filmmaking. Here are a handful of memorable examples:

“PAPER MOON”: Peter Bogdanovich made 1973’s Depression-era father-daughter tale “Paper Moon” as well as 1971’s Texas coming-of-age story “The Last Picture Show” in black-and-white. Both films, particularly the Midwest-set “Paper Moon” (a cherished favorite of Payne’s), were inspirations for “Nebraska.” Bogdanovich once said color made the Texas town of “The Last Picture Show” ‘’too pretty”: “There’s something mysterious and enriching about black and white. Color is too realistic,” he said.

“MANHATTAN”: New York has probably inspired more black-and-white films in recent decades than any other place. Woody Allen has often utilized black-and-white, including the newsreel style of “Zelig” and the Fellini-esque “Stardust Memories.” 1979’s “Manhattan,” shot by Gordon Willis, famously begins with Allen’s Isaac Davis practicing an introduction: “To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”

“PI”: The New York of Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 debut bears none of the romanticism of Allen’s “Manhattan.” Made incredibly cheaply and filmed illicitly on the subway, the high contrast black-and-white of “Pi” — blotchy and grubby — is more in the surreal style of David Lynch’s horror film “Eraserhead.” Aronofsky was inspired by Frank Miller’s comic book “Sin City,” which years later was made into a highly stylized, mostly black-and-white film. A world without color can be a strange, unsettling place.

“STRANGER THAN PARADISE”: Jim Jarmusch has been one of the most frequent practitioners of black-and-white filmmaking. In 1984’s minimalist “Stranger Than Paradise” — as well as the jailbreak drama “Down by Law,” the Western “Dead Man” and the absurdist vignette series “Coffee and Cigarettes” — Jarmusch’s colorless palette only adds to his deadpan sensibility.

“THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE”: The Coen brothers and their usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins, fashioned one of the most beautiful black-and-white films of recent years in this 2001 film, joining noir shadows with the constant cigarette smoke emanating from Billy Bob Thornton’s dour barber. But sometimes great love of black-and-white photography can suffocate a film with nostalgia. Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German” (2006), while a loving ode to films like “The Third Man,” felt stuck in the past.

“KILLER OF SHEEP”: In this 1979 cult classic, Charles Burnett brought black-and-white Italian neorealism to the ‘70s ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles. The film was seldom seen for years because of fights over the licensing of music in the film, but it steadily grew in renown and was eventually inducted into the National Film Registry. In “Killer of Sheep,” black-and-white helps strip Burnett’s film down to its bare naturalism. Like “Nebraska,” it’s a monochrome portrait of poverty, albeit in a very different part of the country.

OTHERS WORTH MENTIONING: Martin Scorsese’s boxing epic “Raging Bull,” the mock documentary “Man Bites Dog,” Kevin Smith’s convenience store comedy “Clerks,” Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning World War I tale “The White Ribbon,” Bela Tarr’s Hungarian drama “The Turin Horse,” Wim Wenders’ angels-among-us fantasy “Wings of Desire,” Christopher Nolan’s noir “Following.”

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