The Importance of Colour

Above: Peter Silverton by Rankin

I was watching The Social Network and it got me thinking about something. Though, at first, I had little idea of what I was thinking about, notions did start to crystallise when I found myself watching another movie: in particular, two scenes from a movie; two-and-a-half if you count the brief, wordless scene that comes between them: that of a man, then two men, on a wooden jetty by a lake, pinked by the newly-risen sun.

The first of the two scenes is of a woman being nearly murdered in a suburban house at night, followed by her (violent) rescue. It starts in the dark and ends in the predawn; a lush pink horizon. The woman is wearing a white skirt and pastel pink top. The man trying to kill her is dressed in pale blue jeans and a dark blue shirt with wiggly, snake-like, pale diagonal stripes. He’s also balding, with a pink top to his domed skull. The rescuer is dressed in black. One of the room’s windows is – or shows up on the screen as – lime green: not the frame, the actual window; the glass. There is a table: sharp green in some camera shots and a muddy eau de nil in others. At one point a whole wall is pink. Perhaps this is dawn announcing its impending arrival. When it’s all over, the victim and her rescuer are standing outside the house, haloed by the predawn sky: bright pink and heart-broken lilac. Police bustle around them, dressed in pale blue shirts and dark blue trousers: the reverse of the serial killer’s outfit. “Who are you?” the woman asks. “Graham,” replies her rescuer. “I’m Will Graham.” There is no other dialogue in the whole scene, from beginning to end. The second scene – the final scene of the movie – is a little wordier, but not much. It’s a tender meeting – a reunion really – between a husband and his wife; with their son appearing later. The man is the rescuer from the previous scene. The encounter takes place on an ocean beach at dusk. The wife is in all white, while the husband is wearing a pastel blue shirt and pink swim shorts. The son is in a blue shirt, too. The husband and wife embrace; the dipping sun goldens her hair. “So how’d we do?” she asks. “We did okay,” he tells her. “Most of them made it.” That’s the final line of the film. The image sets; the couple frozen, facing out to the ocean and a golden sunset.

That’s the end of Manhunter; the first film adaption of Thomas Harris’s series of Hannibal Lecter stories. It was directed by Michael Mann. Just as significantly, perhaps, is that its cinematographer was Dante Spinotti; who may actually be primarily responsible for what I’m writing about. But I’ll stick with Mann; if only because, in Heat, he made, from such thin, unpromising material, one of my favourite films of all. More than that, it was Heat that gave me, for the first time, a visceral understanding of the meaning of surface in film. I’d known it before, of course, but this was something else, something new; for me, at least. Spinotti shot Heat too, of course. Manhunter’s colours are very 1980s and Miami Vice; of which Mann was executive producer. As a director, he has always been a poet of the surface. No one in movies shoots buildings better than he does. He is capable of rendering the physical surface as meaning, rather than scenery.

Without Mann’s talent, Collateral would be a nonsense and Heat completely stupid. Via a narrative of physical structure, he creates depth from emptiness and gives meaning to the simplest, sparest of dialogue. “Who are you?” “Graham. I’m Will Graham.” Words so simple as to be simple-minded, yet given substance and resonance by colour; complexity too: a hero in black, for example, or a man in pink shorts. Painting with light: that’s one of the many descriptions of moviemaking and how it works its works. Manhunter is a narrative of colour.

Okay, perhaps that’s not the most original observation about a film that seems more original with every year, but it’s really striking, nonetheless. To paraphrase Ian Dury (who himself was a trained painter and sometime magazine illustrator): pink sky, white skirt; pink shorts, white top; green window, blue shirt; blue trousers, lilac sky. This is not colour as decoration, or even elaboration. This is colour as meaning. I’m not talking about colour balance or the kind of radical colourisation of, say, Beowulf, where an entire atmosphere is created for the entire movie.

Here, colour works as a narrator of sorts, engaging directly below and beyond our conscious minds; a poetics of hue. I think of William Eggleston pictures, in which the directness of the colour is at least three things: an implicit (maybe even explicit) challenge to the hegemony of monochromatic photography; a newly-direct representation of the world; and a metaphor for that directness. And so to The Social Network. It’s the yellowest film I’ve ever seen. It’s deliberate, too, I know; its makers have said as much. It’s not the yellow of incandescent light, though. Nor is it the yellow of hi-vis jackets, or warning signs, or even piss. It’s something else.

Now you don’t have to agree with the late French ‘penseur’, Jacques Lacan, that our unconscious is structured like a language (I certainly don’t), to see bridges between colour and language, but there clearly are: blue for boys, pink for girls; purple with rage, green with envy. Hear (or read) the phrase; see the meaning in the colour. Maybe you could work out topographies and typologies of colour in photography and movies. Harsh, almost fluorescent white, for example; a kind of daylight-plus that’s often found in sci-fi films: THX 1138, Minority Report, even Close Encounters.

So to The Social Network’s yellow. You know, I just can’t figure out what it means and represents. Not in language, certainly. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps if I could paint, I could paint it. We are in a realm where there are no words; there can be no words. If, say, Rothko could have described what he was doing in words, he could have given up painting. The meanings of Bourdin photographs are as much (if not more) in the ravishing slabs of colours as in the ravishing (and perhaps ravished, too) models. When Simon Norfolk chose, for his recent book, to photograph Afghanistan, predawn, it was not to signify something as stupid as a new dawn for that buggered country. That crepuscular light does carry meaning, however; it both embodies and comments on the photographs. As with Manhunter, the colours are a narrative and emotional core; an unconscious one which is both deep inside the artist and the wider world outside. It resonates with us too; otherwise those colours would be dead to the touch, or the eye.

Like, for example, the super-saturated secondaries in David Bailey’s recent pictures of India. Finally, I think of moviemaker Nicholas Ray, whose best work was done in the 1950s and who died in 1979. I think of the colour red; of James Dean’s red windcheater in Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause; of Cyd Charrise’s red frock in his Party Girl; and Joan Crawford’s red shirt in Johnny Guitar. I think of Ray’s tortured, probably deceitful personal life, and I think of a picture of him I saw recently. He was out somewhere, at a party or something. He was wearing a formal jacket. It was red.

© Peter Silverton 2012

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