Monochromatic – Black and White Film in Our Modern Era of Filmmaking


Cinematography can create many eye catching images that immediately stick out in the mind of the viewer.  Sometimes it’s with simple framing, or some kind of optical trick, or even some bold choices of color.  Oftentimes, it’s the shot that doesn’t call attention to itself right away that ends up sticking in our minds, because of the precision of it’s execution.  But, as we’ve seen over the years, to become a successful cinematographer in Hollywood, you have to be someone who knows all the minute details of the tools of their trade.  If a film is poorly shot, it will affect the movie even more than poor writing and weak performances.  The cinematographer must understand everything about how the camera works, and understand the best way to use it for dramatic purposes.  That’s why they are such a valued member of the crew and are often the ones who work more closely with the director than anyone else.  Some even go on to be directors themselves, like Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black), Jan de Bont (Speed), and Nicolas Roeg (The Man Whod Fell to Earth).  But, one tool of the trade that carries it’s own significance across a broad spectrum of different styles and stories that many of the best cinematographers do love but seem to seldom use is black and white photography.  Once the dominant form of film in the early days of cinema, the practice of shooting a movie in black and white has become somewhat of a rarity, and yet it still persists and is admired to this day despite the change in the market.  In a time when color film is the standard, how does black and white photography still hold up today?

The biggest misconception that’s made about black and white photography is that it’s easy to do and that’s why you rarely see it valued by Hollywood elite; because it’s thought to cheapen the overall product.  While it is true that black and white photography is easier and less expensive to process, it is by no means easier to shoot.  In fact, because of the lack of color, many cinematographers and directors have to take into more account how they are going to light a scene, as well as know how they are going work with their designs.  Cinematic shortcuts that are commonplace in color films like thematic color coding and high key lighting are not as readily available to a film shot in black and white.  The Director of Photography or DP (aka the cinematographer) needs to work around these shortcomings in order to deliver the same kind of storytelling that a color film will give you and this is a challenge that many DP’s embrace with pleasure.  It takes a knowing mind to figure out how to suggest color in a scene when their is none, and which ever filter they run the film through can offer some interesting visual surprises as a result.  The way a scene is lit also becomes a much more important tool, since contrasts between light and dark become much more delineated in the two tone process.  Because of the advancement of color, the black and white process has indeed gone through it’s own evolution into a different kind of storytelling tool, and one that is used much more carefully by filmmakers today than it had in the past.  That’s probably why it’s a seldom used but cherished art-form today; because it’s something that immediately stands out in the market and is also held to a different standard than everything else.  And for something that’s held to different standards, it’s uses and misuses are caught more acutely by the general audience.

Looking back at film history, we can see how competition in the market spurred a different kind of classification for the use of black and white photography.  For years, the only way to make a movie in early Hollywood was in black and white.  Kodak wouldn’t develop the first color kodachrome film for the public market until 1935, and the process took even longer to take hold in Hollywood.  Different attempts to bring color into cinema included dyeing film stock like what D.W. Griffith did for the different segments of his epic Intolerance (1916), or painting directly onto the film itself like Georges Melies had done with his early shorts.  Sephia tone was the most commonly practiced form of coloring for silent films and even today, it’s a commonly parodied form of coloring to make a movie appear old-fashioned.  But for the most part, most movies had to work with shades of gray and little else for decades.  That was until the Technicolor company developed it’s first three strip process which for the first time true color was successfully recreated on film.  The Walt Disney Company was the first to jump on the new process and they were given exclusive rights to the process for nearly 5 years, using the process to give bright color to their Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony shorts.  Because of Disney’s success with the three strip process, Hollywood was convinced that they needed to begin using Technicolor film on a much larger scale.  The year of 1939 became a monumental year for this change as audiences were treated to a triple whammy of color blockbusters with The Adventures of Robin HoodThe Wizard of Oz, and the Oscar-winning Gone With the Wind all released that year.  Because of those movies, color photography had taken it’s place in Hollywood, but for a while it would have to share theater screens with black and white.

Black and white films still dominated for a few decades more, mainly because of the higher cost for color film.  The wartime rationing also played a role in keeping color film to a minimum, and for a while, Hollywood would treat color photography as a special storytelling licence used only on special occasions.  The advent of television, which was also limited in it’s ability to display true color, helped black and white film to survive even longer, since there would be little change from one format to the other.  But, as color processing became more prevalent, and as a result cheaper and more available to the public, color cinema began to quietly take over the industry, and by the late 70’s and early 80’s, black and white films were almost non existent.  It never went away fully, but instead sort of switched places with color as a process that was no longer the standard, but instead an exception; used solely for the purposes of style and story.  Hollywood blockbusters in particular stayed away from black and white photography, because it was believed that in the public’s eye, the process was viewed as old-fashioned.  That would change though in the early 90’s, with the growth of the indie film market.  Many independent filmmakers saw the value in black and white photography because they felt it gave a grittier, more documentary look to their films.  Because a black and white movie is more eye-catching in a world dominated by color, shooting your low budget movie in the format could help get it noticed, and that’s what spurred a new revival in the process.  With films by Gus Van Sant (Mala Noche), Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes) and Kevin Smith (Clerks) all getting recognition with the process, it was time for Hollywood to take notice again.

And this leads to an interesting era in Hollywood that we find ourselves in today, where black and white photography has a mystique around it that it hadn’t had in the early part of it’s history.  If a filmmaker uses black and white for a movie today, it’s not because it’s required of them like it was back in the old days, but because it is necessary for the story that they want to tell.  I especially find it interesting when a director suddenly shifts their style to work in black and white as opposed to color which they normally work with.  In some ways, their style stays the same no matter what the format, but their black and white feature will still stand out.  Tim Burton has made only two features in black and white, Ed Wood (1994) and Frankenweenie (2012), and while very different, they do affect the director’s body of work in some way.  With Ed Wood, the normally bombastic visual artist subdued his style to make a more down-to-earth biopic, and the black and white photography did an effective job of conveying that while still feeling true to the director’s style.  And Frankenweenie stands out as one of the rare black and white animated features, another oddity that fits within the director’s body of work.  Mostly, high profile directors look to the process as a way of underlying a darker, more somber tone to their movies.  Steven Spielberg used it to profound effect in Schindler’s List (1993), giving the movie an immediacy and visceral effect that I don’t think it would’ve had in color.  And Martin Scorsese memorably shot his classic Raging Bull (1980) in black and white, giving the biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta a very stripped down and naked feel to it, fitting the tone perfectly.  But, even still, these directors don’t rely on black and white always.  It’s only used when it’s absolutely essential for the movie they’re making.  Black and white wouldn’t work well for something like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) or The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) for instance.  Accomplished filmmakers know the proper uses of black and white cinema, and that’s something that could be misused by an unskilled amateur.

Black and white is misused sometimes, and it more or less has to do with how black and white has evolved into a more prestigious trade tool.  There’s a misconception today that filming in black and white will automatically make your movie feel grittier and cinematically deeper than it really is.  It’s become a crutch for the pretentious wannabe director, who tries to cover up his or her cinematic shortcomings by making their movie more monochromatic.   The only problem is that doing so doesn’t hide the other problems like script, acting, and/or direction and this kind of audience manipulation is often too easy to spot.  In an age today where switching between color and black and white is as easy as a push of a button on your keyboard, or a filter on your phone, people too often take this change for granted.  To make black and white look good, it takes an expert eye to understand how the image will come out when the color is removed.  That’s why when a movie shoots in black and white, it must be carefully constructed by the cinematographer.  Their input is the most important from movie to movie and they make all the difference when it comes to black and white.  Take two examples for instance from  the body of work of Woody Allen; Manhattan (1979) and Celebrity (1998).  Manhattan is heralded as one of the director’s best and it’s stunning widescreen black and white cinematography is part of that.  And then there’s Celebrity, a later less heralded feature also shot in black and white, made during Allen’s off years.  So, why is one more celebrated than the other.  Part of it is because black and white is cinematically more essential to the story of Manhattan, whereas it’s an afterthought in Celebrity.  Manhattan (shot by Gordon Willis) was meant to evoke a sense of nostalgia, and that’s why the black and white imagery stood out, because it was evocative of old photographs of New York City from the pre-War years.  Celebrity (shot by Sven Nykvist) just uses it to give the movie a more gritty look, and as a result, it feels more cliched.  It just shows that even with the same filmmaker, the process can be misused depending on the film.

But, depending on how a director uses it, it does affect the overall story.  One thing that I am pleased has developed in the last couple decades regarding black and white photography is the value that audiences put into it.  Remember the outcry that audiences made when studio and broadcast executives like Ted Turner began to “colorize” old black and white movies.  It’s unheard of today, but some believed that in order for old films to be accepted by modern audiences, they had to have color added to them.  It didn’t matter that a movie could hold up well because of how it was performed or directed.  Because they were in black and white, people at the time purely thought that without the color, these movies were worthless.  Thankfully, the process was short-lived and audiences accepted the old black and white movies as they were originally intended to look.  But this gets into an interesting aspect of filmmaker intent and how that contrasts with audience reception, and how often the studios tend to misread both.   There have been different attempts by some filmmakers to try to bring more black and white films to the forefront, only to end up compromising later on by switching to color.  Filmmaker Frank Darabont, the man behind The Shawshank Redemption (1994) has tried to be a champion of the black and white process, often producing two different versions of his movies in the editing process; one in color and the other in black and white.  He released two version of his film The Mist (2007) on home video, and left it up to viewer to prefer which one they wanted to watch.  He also did the same for the pilot episode of The Walking Dead series that he also produced and directed.  It’s an interesting experiment that I’m glad Darabont is putting out there for us to decide, but it seems unfair that he has to work outside the studio standards in order to achieve this, and not in the cinemas like it’s supposed to.

Black and White continues to hold a special place in the film-making world, but I often feel that it’s value is somewhat underestimated.  Like all great art, black and white photography requires expertise and it can often be misused or misunderstood.  Sometimes I’ve found that some movies could’ve been better served by using the process.  In my own personal experience, I can recall one time when I was watching Martin Scorsese’s forgotten 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead, and it was all in black and white.  Despite the film’s shortcomings, I was finding the cinematography interesting because of the stark contrasts in lighting, and it actually enhanced the experience for me.  But then I realized that my TV had accidentally had it’s color settings turned all the way down, so I was in fact watching a color film that was mistakenly shown in black and white.  What strikes me is how different my reaction to the movie was purely based on whether it was in color or not.  While I don’t believe it’s true for every movie, and it shouldn’t be encouraged as a practice by studios to circumvent the intentions of the filmmaker, I actually would recommend trying to do this trick with a variety of other movies, just to see what might happen.  It just goes to show how much of a difference black and white photography makes in storytelling.  There are some movies that actually play better in black and white than they would in color.  The same isn’t true the other way around.  And that’s the sign of a process that has matured over the years.  It is far from old-fashioned, but rather a different and more challenging passage into a story, whether you’re watching it or making it, and in many ways, it represents film-making in it’s purest form.

Snowden – Review


Love him or hate him, Oliver Stone is without a doubt one of the most unique voices in the film-making industry.  Unapologetic about his sometimes extreme political views, the acclaimed director has been responsible for some of the most celebrated political features in the last quarter century.  From his poignant anti-war statements like Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), to his hard edged political thrillers like Wall Street (1987) and JFK (1991), to his sometimes gonzo social commentaries like Natural Born Killers (1994), he is a filmmaker that has something to say and say it loud for all to hear.  But, as the filmmaker has aged and gone deeper down the rabbit hole of increasingly fringe conspiratorial beliefs, some have believed that he has lost his focus and with it, the edge that marked most of his earlier work.  His George W. Bush biopic W. (2008) was not as incendiary as some of Stone’s most ardent fans would’ve liked.  His recount of the events of 9/11 in World Trade Center (2006) were too boring and safe.  And of course, his attempt at classic Hollywood epic filmmaking turned into the notorious flop that was Alexander (2004).  Suffice to say, Oliver Stone has spent much of the last decade trying to rediscover that same spark that drove much of his early career.  It’s not that he doesn’t try; I have yet to see an Oliver Stone movie that I outright hated or found boring (yes, even Alexander).   But, Stone is a filmmaker who lives by absorbing new information and keeping up with current events, and that has not always found it’s way into his directorial style.  He is both emboldened by his politics and shackled by them as well.  What he needs now is something that appeals to his interests but also lends itself very well to his style of film-making.

So, he should feel very lucky that something like the Edward Snowden case fell into his lap.   The Snowden incident has all the hallmarks of an Oliver Stone story, with an intelligence insider discovering a huge and illegal government operation at work and finding himself caught up in the middle, leading him to risk his life and career in order to expose the truth and hold powerful people accountable for their actions.  Oliver Stone loves these kinds of underdog whistleblower stories, and the fact that this true life event was still fresh in everyone’s minds gave the filmmaker the perfect opportunity to delve back into what he is good at.  For those unfamiliar (if there are any of you), Edward Snowden is responsible for the largest and most damaging intelligence leak in U. S. history.  In the documents that he released to the press, he exposed evidence of widespread wire-tapping conducted by the government against it’s own citizens, with high-profile communication companies like Verizon, Apple, and many others compliant in the program.  It was a huge black eye for the American government, who quickly had to spin the news to make it appear that they were using the intelligence responsibly in the War against Terrorism.  Despite whether or not Snowden was heroic for his actions, he did spark a debate on the nature of privacy and government overreach with his actions and it has since become a defining moment in recent world politics.  Snowden, today, is still a fugitive from the law, living as a refugee in Russia, but he has gained a following of supporters through all of this, including Stone himself.  Now, Oliver Stone has brought Edward Snowden’s story to the big screen, and it should be a movie that fits perfectly within his wheelhouse.  But, did Oliver Stone fail to live up to the potential of this story, or did Snowden bring his style back to form in a big way.

Snowden tells it’s story much in the traditional biopic way.  We are introduced to Edward (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in his most pivotal moment, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel as he discreetly hands over the stolen documents from the CIA over to a handful of journalists.  The journalists in question are Guardian columnists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), along with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo); people Snowden hand-picked to speak to based on his faith in their level of discretion and commitment.  As they wait for approval for their story to go forward, Snowden reflects back on what brought him to this point.  We then flash back to his early days as a politically conservative idealist looking for an opportunity to serve his country.  After health concerns force him out of the army, Snowden looks for a job in the CIA as an analyst.  During his training, he becomes influenced by two veteran teachers, Intelligence director Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and Agent Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), both of whom see a lot of potential in the bright young man, but steer him in different directions.  O’Brien appeals to Ed’s more idealistic leanings, while Forrester appeals to his more cynical side.  Both ideals clash as Snowden falls deeper into the world of espionage and surveillance, discovering just how far the American government will go to stay one step ahead of the rest of the world.  The stress takes it’s toll on him and he becomes more and more paranoid; something that puts a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).  After several back and forth clashes between him and the agency he works for, once he learns of the full breadth of what the Intelligence community is up to, he resolves to throw everything away in order to expose the truth.

A story like this had to find it’s way to Oliver Stone eventually; if not right now, it would’ve later.  It has all the hallmarks of a traditional Stone thriller and it practically t-balls the situation for Stone to hit it out of the park.  So, is Snowden a return to form for the legendary agitprop director.  Well, yes and no; and more emphasis on the latter.  Snowden unfortunately misses a lot of opportunities to really deliver a compelling thriller, and yet at the same time, still delivers on some of the things that Stone is exceptional at.  I think it’s a movie that perfectly illustrates the unfortunate characteristic of Stone’s latter career; the disconnect between the political and the professional that defines the way that Stone directs.  Oliver Stone becomes a very different person whenever he delivers a sermon in his movies, as opposed to when he’s the storyteller.  In many ways, these are the best parts of his films; whenever he gets political.  And Snowden is no exception.  There’s a montage in the middle of the film where Edward Snowden breaks down exactly what the Intelligence community is doing with all it’s new found power and how that is shaping the political dynamics all over the world.  The montage is an expertly delivered visual essay that really helps to spell out the full picture of the world that Edward Snowden lives in and it’s by far the most intriguing part of the movie.  Unfortunately, most of the rest of the film is generic and unoriginal as a biopic.  This is where the division in Stone’s style begins to undermine the movie.  He clearly wants to deliver an intriguing political point, but it’s buried within too much conventionality to feel important.  Stone’s long history in Hollywood undermines his message here, as his more subdued direction steals the power away from a hot button subject.

But, despite the conventionality of Stone’s direction, it still is fairly competent direction.  Not once was I bored watching this movie.   I especially find it intriguing how someone so critical of the United States still manages to infuse all his movies with a strong sense of Americana.  A lot of waving flags show up in this film.  Some parts are actually quite compelling; especially those within the Hotel where Snowden makes his transfer.  I would’ve liked to have seen more emphasis put on these crucial moments in the hotel, because it’s the point of the movie where Snowden’s life hangs in the balance the most.  Much of the rest of the movie gives perhaps too much focus to his backstory, much of which gets repetitive after a while.  Seeing the interaction between journalists and a whistleblower is a story-line that could’ve been mined more and it’s surprising that Stone chooses not too.  My thinking is that Oliver Stone probably felt that his subject needed more context, considering that Snowden has come under fire and is pre-judged from pretty much everywhere; in the political world and in the press.  That’s why I think he stepped away from his own political ideals and portrayed this story from a more conventional angle.  But, even still, it’s a different approach than what he would have done with the story if it were in his heydays.  In a movie like JFK, Stone pushed aside the broader picture and conventional things like character insight and narrative flow in order to deliver the story that felt right to him, and that resulted in a film that was unconventional and historically inaccurate but cinematically engaging.  I do admire the fact that a more mature Oliver Stone seeks to delve deeper into his characters and their motivations, but it becomes a disadvantage when the film’s narrative has less drive because of it.  The Stone-esque moments that he’s become so good at are there, especially near the end; it’s just that the director is less reliant on them as he used to be.  And as a result, you have a movie with ambition behind it, but not the propulsion behind it to make the narrative as strong as it could be.

But, Oliver Stone’s still strong direction is one of the movie’s saving graces.  Unfortunately it’s undermined by a huge factor that prevents the story from ever taking hold, and that sadly is the character of Edward Snowden himself.  Snowden is fundamentally a weak character in the movie.  Despite what you think about the man, a person who has affected so much change in the political world over the last couple years should be a compelling individual when portrayed on screen, and sadly, this movie fails to make that happen.  Snowden comes across as a boring, stick-in-the-mud boy scout with an unsavory condescending attitude towards anyone who doesn’t see the world his way.  I don’t know if this is the fault of Oliver Stone trying to stay true to the character or perhaps being so reverential to his subject, that he makes him obnoxiously perfect.  Whatever the case, Snowden is not an appealing character as portrayed in this film.  It is kind of reflective of the man himself, who’s been given celebrity status as both a champion of privacy and as a criminal from justice, which he has come to embrace.  I try to avoid taking a political stance on most things but, I do see the validity of both arguments against him.  I for one am happy that his actions have sparked a debate over the ethical dilemmas associated with the government’s secret wire-tapping of it’s own citizens; something which shouldn’t go un-ignored.  But, at the same time, I’m not a fan of Snowden’s cocky self-image that he’s projected ever since then; making himself look like the supreme authority on all intelligence activities conducted by the United States and it’s allies.  He knows more than me, surely, but I think there are still plenty of other intelligence experts out there that could school him on a bunch of things too.  It’s not surprising that Snowden had involvement in this film’s making, which tells me that he wanted to put his best image forward.  But, in doing so, he makes himself appear less interesting and as a result, less sympathetic.  Some heroes are worth investing more in when you see their flaws.  Oliver Stone makes Snowden too one-dimensionally perfect to feel real.

But, despite the unsavory character at it’s center, I will say that Joseph Gordon-Levitt does deliver a solid performance as Snowden.  In particular, he nails Edward Snowden’s accent perfectly.  There’s a point late in the movie where we transition between the actor and the real life person and you see just how much work JGL put into getting the speech patterns right.  He does much better with the voice than with the physical performance, because you never quite shake the feeling that you’re watching an actor do an imitation throughout the movie, but the actor does deliver for the most part and helps carry the film as a whole.  And I’ll say this about Oliver Stone movies; they are always filled with great ensemble casts.  Here you have the likes of Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, and even Nicolas Cage all offering strong performances in the film.  Albeit, most of them get short shifted, but they do stand out as a whole.  In particular, I liked the brief appearance of Justified‘s Timothy Olyphant as a covert CIA agent who gives Snowden a darker window into the world of spy networks.  Rhys Ifans also stands out as Director O’Brien, becoming something of the film’s primary antagonist.  Despite being the story’s villain, O’Brien shows more shades of character in the movie, being both menacing and appealing at the same time, and it makes him a far more compelling character than Snowden in the overall narrative.  The film’s weakest character sadly is Shailene Woodley’s Lindsay, a character who should be the political spark in Snowden’s outlook on life, but instead just turns into a passive tag along on his inevitable road to infamy.  Still, it’s the cast that largely holds this film together, even when the characters are not written well enough to deserve the strong performances given to them.

Overall, the movie is neither the long awaited return to form for Oliver Stone that we’ve all been looking for, nor is it a huge step backwards either.  It’s just an acceptable political thriller with some minor provocative points to make.  I would’ve loved to have seen more risks taken with this material, because it’s a debate worth having and Oliver Stone is the kind of troublemaker that would’ve offered up an engaging statement on the subject.  Unfortunately, by handling his key subject with too much care, he kind of undermines the impact that this story could have had.  Snowden is still a controversial figure, and this movie wins him no sympathy points at all; with his supporters, his detractors, or with people on the fence like me.  If you want more sympathy on your side, don’t be afraid to show a little more character.  Otherwise you just look like an arrogant jerk.  That’s ultimately the failure of this film; a weak main hero.  If you want to see a more compelling account of the Snowden case, watch the Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour (2014), the making of which is dramatized in Stone’s movie.  Laura Poitras’ “you are there” documentation is immediate and compelling, and offers up a much better portrait of Edward Snowden as we witness him in his most vulnerable moment.  There are some moments in history that just come across better in a documentary, and this is one of them.  Still, fans of Oliver Stone probably won’t be too disappointed.  It’s still a competently made thriller, showing that the director hasn’t fully lost his touch.  It’s just that he’s got to take more risks and strike a better balance between his propaganda and his narrative.  It’s good to see you compelled to believe in something again Mr. Stone.  Just don’t be afraid to make it a little messy and a tad bit insane cinematically, because that was always the appeal of your movies before.

Rating: 7/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – Pocahontas vs. The New World


Our own history as a civilization has provided Hollywood with countless inspiration for a variety of movies.  And oftentimes, historical events are so monumental, that they inspire multiple interpretations.  The same is also true with historical figures as well.  The interesting thing about how Hollywood presents history on screen is that oftentimes the interpretation changes based upon the values of the current day.  Heroes of older historical retellings can often be changed into the villains for more modern films.  New historical evidence presented can even make us view the same events in a new light.  Regardless of the truth behind the historical accounts, Hollywood has shown that the way we view history is as fluid as any other type of story-telling.  Some of the most beloved historical films in fact play very loosely with actual history.   Wildly inaccurate historical movies like Braveheart (1995) often get a pass because they have an emotional resonance that transcends the need to stay faithful to what actually happened.  In many ways, it’s expected of Hollywood to not be historically accurate when making their movies, because in order to keep to a manageable two hour running time, elements of history will inevitably have to be changed, condensed, or just expelled completely to serve the story.  The many different angles that can be taken with historical films leads to many interesting results, and it’s especially fascinating to look at how different films take on a real historical figure.  Perhaps the most extreme recent example I can think of wildly different portrayals of the same historical figure would be the two films depicting the life of Native American icon, Pocahontas; the daughter of a Powhatan chieftan in pre-colonial America who was one of the first to encounter and interact with the European colonists.  There could have been many angles to take with the character, but it’s surprising in the end that Pocahontas’ big screen identity is defined as a Disney princess in Pocahontas (1995) and as the subject of an art film named The New World (2005).

Cinematically, these two movies could not be more different.  When Disney decided to take a shot at adapting Pocahontas’ story to the big screen, it was at a time when they were aiming high in the middle of their successful Renaissance period.  Then studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg believed that Pocahontas could be the Disney Studio’s equivalent of a prestige picture.  It was taken markedly more seriously than some of the other films from Disney Animation; with less of the usual Disney trademarks like talking animals (although there was still magical elements and musical numbers).  It also took on headier issues like cultural intolerance, colonial exploitation, and interracial love, which you wouldn’t normally see in an animated feature.  But, even with it’s higher ambitions, the movie only became a modest hit for Disney; grossing far under expectations and being overshadowed by the supposed “B-picture” that came before it (The Lion King).  Some would argue that Pocahontas suffered from the historical liberties that it took to tell it’s story, while others would argue that it’s story was just not up to the same level as previous Disney films.  More often, the former of the two complaints would win out.  Historians were just not happy with the Disneyfication of real events and people, because they felt that it presented the wrong lesson and portrait of the person that Pocahontas was.  Only ten years after, we were given yet another movie depicting the life of Pocahontas, only this time from art house icon Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life).  Malick’s take on the character felt truer to history in a production sense (with authentic locations and visual sense) but at the same time still felt like a big departure from actual history.  So, do either of them stand out as a worthier interpretation?  What I find more fascinating in comparing the two is not the ways that they are different, but the ways that they are similar, and how that better serves them as a cinematic experience.


“Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land.  You are our mother.  We, your field of corn.  We rise from out of the soul of you.”

Before we contrast the two films, we should probably look at the subject herself, and what her legacy has meant for the history of America.  Pocahontas, or Matoaka as she was first named, was born around the turn of the 17th century in what is now coastal Virginia.  Nicknamed Pocahontas, which in the Algonquian language means “playful one,” she was among the first native people to encounter the arrival of English colonists in North America.  When the colonists arrived in 1607, they established the settlement of Jamestown, and not soon after began clashing with the native population.  According to legend, one of the colonists named John Smith was captured by the Powhatan people and was brought forth to the chief to be executed.  Before Chief Powhatan lowered his club, Pocahontas laid her body upon Smith to spare his life.  This act of mercy is proclaimed as one of the moments in American history meant to represent an ideal of peace across cultures.  However, the historical account is often called into question (Smith himself is the one who documented it), and harmony among cultures is something that didn’t really pan out for much of Native American history thereafter.  But, what we do know for certain about Pocahontas’ life thereafter is that she left her life among her people and lived among the settlers, later marrying a tobacco farmer named John Rolfe.  Her iconic status grew when she visited England years later and was brought before the court of King James as a representative of the “New World.”  Her visit marked the first ever for someone from the Western Hemisphere to make it Eastward.  Unfortunately, she contracted smallpox before she could make her journey home at the age of 21.  Though her life was brief, her influence on native and colonial relations is still significant, and she remains a historically important figure in early American history.

Though well known in American history, Pocahontas has surprisingly not been the subject of many film adaptations.  It’s probably because Hollywood has had a complicated history with Native American depictions.  Like I stated before, the values of the times change, and for the longest time, Native American people were often portrayed badly in movies from the past; often playing the role of the villains in Cowboy flicks.  As we’ve developed a better understanding of native populations in America, the need to present them with more dignity and respect has become much more essential.  Disney, more often today, has been making an extensive effort to include more culturally diverse characters into their stable, and Pocahontas was their attempt to include Native Americans into the mix.  While you can’t really state that Pocahontas is a princess like so many of the rest, she’s often given inclusion within the “Princess” product line that Disney has.  Disney themselves were also guilty of less than flattering depictions of Native Americans in the past (the tribe in Peter Pan for example), so I can understand why they would want to embrace the character so much as part of their collection.  But in doing so, did they undermine the significance of the person in American history?   There can only be an answer to this by contrasting it with a more true life image of Pocahontas that we find in The New World.  The Terrnence Malick film is not without it’s own liberties as well, but at the same time, it tries to do what few other movies have, which is to examine the world that Pocahontas lived within and attempt to understand how this shaped her into who she was.


“Pocahontas, the tree is talking to me.”

“Then you should talk back.”

The character of Pocahontas comes across very differently in both movies.  The two films do stress the identity of a free spirited individual.  As one character in the animated version states, “She goes wherever the wind takes her.”  In many ways, this is something that feels true to the actual person that Pocahontas was.  Pocahontas bridged the gap between two cultures, and in order to do that, she couldn’t be entrenched in tradition and committed solely  to her own racial identity.  She had to see the changing times that were ahead and embrace the change that was coming her way; whether it was for the betterment of her society or not.  This is handled a bit more delicately in the Terrence Malick version.  Both films cast authentic Native American actresses in the role of Pocahontas, and in The New World, they went as far as to cast someone age appropriate as well.  Then 15 year old Q’orianka Kilcher portrays a version of Pocahontas that feels very authentic.  Though of mixed Incan and Swiss-German descent, Kilcher is close enough to the physical likeness of the real Pocahontas, whose only physical representation is preserved in a English made portrait from her final years.  Her performance is also nicely understated, capturing the innocence of the young girl caught up in a turbulent time quite well.  Though she often has to work through some of Terrence Malick’s sometimes dense poetic indulgences, her performance still gives you a sense of a maturing and awestruck pioneer.  Disney’s Pocahontas, voiced by Native actress Irene Bedard, is a bit more heavy handed in her depiction.  Though Bedard is exceptional in her vocal performance, it’s the writing that lets the character down.  Disney’s Pocahontas changes little in the movie; starting off as stereotypically rebellious and naive as she begins to encounter the English settlers.  It’s the downside of portraying a historical character within a highly fictionalized world like animation; you lose some of the subtlety.  It makes her growth far less involving when she you have to buy into the fact that she’s speaking to an enchanted talking willow tree.  Which is why I give the portrayal in The New World the edge here.



“There’s something I know when I’m with you that I forget when I’m away.”

I believe where historical critics took the most issue with the portrayal of Pocahontas’ story on film was in how it depicted the relationship between her and John Smith.  In reality, Smith and Pocahontas were mere countenances who’s paths crossed briefly during the early days of the Jamestown colony.  Like I stated earlier, John Smith is the only one who accounted for Pocahontas’ act of mercy, and he only shared it long after the fact.  But, I guess for the purposes of cinematic licence, John Smith needed to be a stronger male presence, and in the case of Disney, I think they fell victim to their own formula here.  Not only do Pocahontas and John Smith fill the lead roles in the animated film, but they also become romantically involved, in the fairy-tale romance kind of sense.  While this is natural in so many other Disney movies, the romance is so awkwardly fixed into this story, especially when you know about the real history.  In reality, John Smith was nearly 30 years older than Pocahontas, so Disney aged her up just for the purpose of giving her a love story and avoid controversy.  Truth be told, the movie does handle it okay (it’s probably the most mature Disney love story we’ve seen to date), but it’s clearly the most blatant attempt by the studio to give this story a more conventional appeal.  It would be more problematic if Disney alone was guilty of this, but surprisingly, Terrence Malick includes a romantic connection between Pocahontas and Smith as well.  This is actually a bit more problematic in The New World considering it’s cast age-appropriately with the 15 year old Kilcher sharing a kiss with 30-something Colin Farrell as John Smith.  While it’s out of place, the romantic angle is understandable from a filmmaking point of view, and Disney manages it a bit better by giving it more resonance.  Also, Disney’s John Smith is a more charming lead (voiced by a pre-scandal Mel Gibson), whereas Colin Farrell was still in his awkward, trying too hard, Alexander era phase.   In many ways, I feel Disney was unfairly singled out because of this, while Malick somehow was given a pass for doing the same exact thing.

But, perhaps the most striking difference between the movies cinematically is the way it uses the most defining moment of Pocahontas’ life; her self-sacrifice to save John Smith.  The movies both spotlight the moment, but their placements are very different and because of this, it defines exactly what sets the different depictions apart.  In The New World, the pivotal moment happens early in the movie, using it as a touchstone to set into motion all that would happen afterwards in Pocahontas’ life.  In the animated film, it serves as the climax, bringing to head the collision between cultures that has been building up so far in the story.  It’s a really interesting comparison, where you can see how the same event can serve as both the start and ending of a story, depending on how it’s used.  In Disney’s Pocahontas, the heroine’s moment of truth stands in contrast to the growing racial tensions between her tribe and the Jamestown settlers.  Her action inspires her father to reexamine his resolve to kill for vengeance and it in turn teaches everyone that peace between cultures is the better way.  It’s a well handled statement and It’s clear why Disney waited for this moment in the film to bring the legendary action into the story.  In contrast, Terrence Malick starts his narrative off with the moment of defiance, and then uses the rest of the movie to show the aftermath; how it affected the tensions between settlers and the natives, how it turned Pocahontas into a cultural ambassador, and how it moved her away from the culture of her youth.  Essentially, Pocahontas’ act of mercy becomes one of many pivotal moments in the development of her character, rather than her defining moment.  The New World essentially uses the story of Pocahontas a window into the experience of being in pre-colonial America, and it is there where Terrence Malick’s ethereal style kind of undermines the purpose of the story.  Where Malick’s film wants to create an experience, Disney’s film is more intent on delivering a lesson, and a noble one at that.  Neither is historically true, but in Disney’s case, it leaves you with a bit more to think about by film’s end.


“I’d rather die tomorrow than live a hundred years without knowing you.”

I guess in the overall picture, the surprising thing is not that Pocahontas’ life became the inspiration for film adaptations, but that her journey to the big screen manifested in such unexpected ways.  An animated love story is something that I’m sure many historians never thought Pocahontas would find her way into.  And for the cinematically experimental Terrence Malick to take an interest in her story as well is something that I’m sure very few cinephiles and historians alike would’ve ever thought would happen.  And yet, we’ve ended up with two noteworthy and unique adaptations of Pocahontas’ life.  Neither work very well as a history lesson, but they are interesting cinematic experiments regardless.  I tend to favor Disney’s version over Malick’s.  Despite all of it’s formulaic flaws, it’s heart is in it’s right place.  I feel like Disney made the film as a means to right some of their earlier wrongs and give Native American cultures the same level of dignity as any other.  I especially like how she is embraced today as among one of Disney’s most endearing Princess characters, despite the fact that she’s somewhat out of place in that category.  The New World is also a flawed work of art that still has much to admire.  The cinematography by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki is unbelievably gorgeous, as is the production design.  Malick’s poetic style may not be for everyone, but it can’t be disputed that his movies are beautiful to look at, and it’s interesting to see that style attached to Pocahontas’ story.  I’d say watch The New World in order to understand who Pocahontas was, and then watch the Disney version to understand why she’s so important.  They both serve their purposes, but the more resonant one will be the animated version.  Sometimes historical liberties are essential to help us learn more about figures from our past.  And in this case, Pocahontas evolved from a chief’s daughter, into an ambassador, to American icon, and is now viewed many years later as a princess.  That’s history for you.


“You can own the Earth and still all you’ll own is Earth until you can paint with all the Colors of the Wind.”


Flying too High – Is the Superhero Movie Genre on the Verge of Collapse?

superhero movies

Our recent summer season revealed a few things to us, particularly with the abundance of Superhero movies released in the last few months.  First thing we know is that the genre still has power at the box office, with 4 of the 5 Superhero movies this year meeting or exceeding their projected grosses.  But, what we’ve also seen this year is a much more mixed reception from both critics and fans towards the genre.  There are a variety of factors for this, though it mostly comes down to some movies just being better than the rest.  But, the other underlying factor that is also starting to develop in response to these movies is a feeling of fatigue.  It may not be a dominant factor, but it’s there and it’s growing.  Some people are just sick and tired of hearing about what’s going on in the Marvel universe and the DC universe, or have just stopped caring.  And while it’s a feeling that hasn’t hit me just yet, it’s one that I do understand.  Hollywood goes through many cycles, with audiences taking interest in one type of genre of movies before eventually losing interest and finding something else to watch.  Superhero movies has been surprisingly resilient in the last decade; staying strong long after many industry predictions would have guessed it would die down.  But, by being on top for so long, the Superhero genre also runs the risks of eventually having a bigger collapse, one that could leave it fractured and dormant for a long time.  It may seem alarmist to think of this now after the success that we’re still seeing this year with movies like DeadpoolCaptain America, and Suicide Squad, but as Murphy’s Law states, what goes up will always come down, and it depends on the genre itself to determine how far it may fall.

To see where there may be signs of a downfall on the horizon, we should look at the results of this year’s slate of Superhero movies.  The year started off strong with surprise showing from Deadpool, a film that took an irreverent look at the genre as a whole.  Then came Batman v. Superman, which rode a hype train towards a strong box office, but was savaged by critics and ultimately also by disappointed fans.  Then Captain America: Civil War continued Marvel Studios hot streak and grossed a billion worldwide.  After that, Fox released their eighth X-Men film Apocalypse to an underwhelming reception, becoming the lowest grossing film of the series in over a decade.  And then finally, there was Suicide Squad; probably the most divisive film released this year overall.  Looking at all of these, it’s really hard to say if the genre has hit a turning point yet, but the signs of fatigue are certainly there.  The mild reception of the new X-Men movie probably is the biggest indicator of the bunch that following the same formula may not be working out as well as it used to.  But, at the same time, it’s also the only real failure of the movies I named.  So, where is the problem?  I think it has more to do with than just the box office numbers.  The highly negative reception towards DC comics two big blockbusters this year also indicates a growing level of distrust towards the people making these movies.  Customers can only be sold a bad bill of goods so long before they turn against the merchant, and DC right now is dangling on the edge.  The ability to reach it’s base audience has managed to keep DC afloat in this year’s box office, but their problematic movies are not winning them over any new fans either.  Audience apathy is what ultimately kills a genre’s staying power, and given the long life span this genre has had, a significant shift can be expected if this kind of reception gets any stronger.

One only has to look at how other genres have fared over the years to see what the future might mean for the superhero genre.  Fantasy films were for the longest time a long marginalized genre, even with a brief upswing in the mid-eighties with movies like Labyrinth (1986) and The Neverending Story (1987).  Then in 2001, we got the double-whammy of the first adaptations of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy; both juggernaut box office hits.  Suddenly, a long dead genre saw new life and many other Hollywood studios quickly tried to cash in on other properties.  There was a brief window of time where it did seem like this was a genre with lasting power, as Disney’s adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe also became a hit.  But probably more quickly than many expected, the genre lost steam fast.  The Narnia franchise lost it’s mojo by the second film, and other would-be franchises like The Golden Compass (2007), The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) and The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2007) barely took off at all.  More recently, we have seen the sad fall of Hunger Games (2012) clones in the last year, with The Maze Runner (2014) being put on an indeterminate hiatus and the Divergent (2013) series being reduced to having it’s last film made for TV instead of theatrical.  Not to mention other genres like the Western which have stayed in hibernation for ages now.  Superheroes movies have the benefit of broader appeal and more diversity of the stories that can be told than some of these other genres, but it is not immune to changes in the tastes of it’s audience like them.

The Superhero genre has gone through peaks and valleys before, and in one case, you could say that had crashed.  It’s also a genre that took a long time to come into it’s own.  It was Richard Donner’s Superman (1980) that really marked the beginning of the genre, but the series took a dive once Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) came out.  A couple years after, the genre hit a high point again with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), but like Superman, that franchise lost steam and resulted in a movie that many claim could have been a genre killer with the campy mess that was Batman & Robin (1997).  Yet, the genre endured with highs and lows as Marvel started entering the fray with their adaptations of X-Men (2000) and Spiderman (2002), which of course led to the less beloved X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Spiderman 3 (2007).  But, then Marvel began their ambitious plan for a Cinematic Universe where all their movies would be interconnected and aimed towards culminating in huge crossover productions.  This is what ultimately ended the up and down trajectory of the genre and instead brought Superhero movies to full dominance in Hollywood.  That’s why it’s hard to say whether or not the genre is due for a downfall or not, because Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is something that we’ve never seen accomplished so well in Hollywood before.  Marvel has found it’s Midas touch and it hasn’t let them down yet.  The same can not quite be said for their rival DC comics.  While their movies do see huge opening weekends, they can’t quite match Marvel’s numbers and their movies are far less beloved.  The perception that DC is just in the game to capitalize on the success of what their rivals have built is another sign of weakness in the genre that could lead to a downfall later on.  When you start to do what’s best for your bottom line instead of what’s best for the material and characters in question, then you begin to lose the goodwill with the audience that could help you sustain success in the long run.

Despite the fact that Marvel’s done things right so far, even they may not be immune to a dramatic shift in attitude towards the genre.  And that shift in attitude may have found it’s origins this year within a product from the genre itself.  The success of Deadpool indicated several things about the genre as it stands right now and they are things that should give the big studios pause and concern right now.  For one thing, Deadpool found it’s best laughs by openly mocking the state of the Superhero genre; with it’s formulaic origin stories and often obnoxious self-importance.  Though most of his jabs were aimed at the increasingly stale X-Men franchise, Deadpool did brutally critique the Marvel and DC formulas as well; including a hilarious spin on Marvel’s predictable post-credits scenes.  And secondly, Deadpool managed to become a success without any meddling from the studios.  This makes it an anomaly in a genre that’s increasingly micro-managed by studio executives; much to the detriment of DC’s recent movies in particular.  The fact that this upstart, irreverent little movie was able to laugh right in the face of it’s bigger adversaries and become a hit because of this shows that audiences are ready to embrace something that is able to skewer the genre as a whole.  And for a genre that currently is caught up with trying to make their grand plans bigger and more meaningful, this sudden shift in perspective could undermine what they are trying to build.  Not that it’s Deadpool‘s intent to destroy it’s competitors and change the genre to suit it’s needs.  Like the character himself, the movie is more or less there to be a silly diversion for the comic book world; never taking itself seriously, while still embracing the genre cliches it’s also trying to critique.  But, given that the response to the movie was so big, it’s irreverent tone may have more of a lasting impact on the genre than it’s creators had originally intended, and set a tide against the genre that could shift how well the ongoing story-lines evolve from here out.

This has already affected DC’s plans for it’s cinematic universe.  When they first embarked on building their franchises, the idea was to take a far more serious, dark tone, inspired mostly by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.  This, however, changed in the wake of Deadpool’s record breaking success.  Released on a month before Batman v. SupermanDeadpool managed to still out-gross the more high profile release; making a $363 million gross on a $50 million budget, while BvS settled at $330 million against a $250 million budget.  DC and their parent studio Warner Brothers sensed something was amiss and they quickly reshuffled their creative team behind their future films, including giving star Ben Affleck more of a role and director Zack Snyder less of one.  This also led to costly re-shoots for Suicide Squad and a re-edit to make it more comical that many believe made that movie much more of a mess that it would have been.  So, one unexpected hit that deconstructs the genre has already caused cracks to form at one of the major comic book empires already.  But, is the mighty Marvel vulnerable as well.  Well there has been no sign of fatigue just yet, but by climbing so high they may ultimately be the bringers of their own doom.  You see, what Marvel has done is put a lot of investment on the end game of their grand master plan of a Cinematic Universe, and that end game is coming up soon with the release of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War in the summer of 2018.  For the whole plan to be worth the time we’ve spent watching all of it, Infinity War needs to be a outright masterpiece, otherwise we’re going to look at the whole build-up as worthless in the end.  It’s been a fun ride to be sure, but Marvel has to know that they need to deliver on this, otherwise the genre itself may never be able to reach the same highs ever again, because we would have been put through the biggest of letdowns.  That’s the risk associated with being on top for much longer than you were expected to be.  The inevitable fall could be not just damaging, but crippling as well.

So, when will such a downfall eventually happen to the Superhero genre.  Well, that’s ultimately up to the filmmakers and studios behind the movies.  The thing that can kill a genre over time is a growing disconnect between what the audience wants and what the studios think the audience wants.  Marvel, at this moment, has been very good at anticipating the desires of it’s audience and delivering them to us on screen.  The successful relaunch of Spiderman into the Marvel Universe is an example of how they’ve managed to deliver on such a promise, making us once again eager to see the webslinger on the big screen again by actually focusing on his character and personality rather than his abilities.  DC on the other hand seemed to be doing things the way they wanted to, and once it became apparent that they needed to change direction, it became too late.  And X-Men faulted when they decided to just coast on formula and perhaps spread themselves too thin with a way too big cast of characters in Apocalypse.  But, when you’ve been on top for so long, it becomes tempting to just follow the rules instead of take a gamble.  That’s why the last thing that the Superhero genre needed right now was a game-changer like Deadpool.  Because of Deadpool, now both Marvel and DC are second guessing themselves after investing so much effort in building their respective cinematic universes.  Do they stubbornly stay the course, or do they alter things just enough to stay relevant.  I think what has benefited them up to now is that the worst that the genre has produced over the last few years has been marked as disappoints rather than outright disasters.  We have yet to see this generation’s Batman & Robin.  Last year’s Fantastic Four could have been that tipping point, but there was no legacy for that film to ruin, so it ended up just being a forgotten failure that didn’t effect the industry in any way.  But, if second-guessing their plans and using unnecessary last minute fixes become the norm for both Marvel and DC in the years ahead, then we may end up seeing a point where the Superhero genre comes crashing down.

So, the Superhero genre remains fine for now, but the seeds are planted for an eventual downturn.  It remains to be seen how the genre will fare in the years ahead.  We know now that an overabundance of genre entries can wear down and overwhelm an audience and that tastes can wane over time, diverting towards something else.  At least for now, that something else is another representative of the same genre with Deadpool, but at the same time it’s a movie that deconstructs the foundations that the genre is built upon.  The release of Marvel’s Infinity War in a couple years will tell us if the genre has hit it’s apex yet, and if there will be a future ahead of it still.  But even before then, are we going to see a backlash develop all of a sudden towards Superhero movies?  If there are a string of disappointments, or if DC continues to alienate it’s base by continually trying to meddle with their movies before they’re ready, than that day may come sooner than expected.  The truth of it all is that the Superhero movie genre has enjoyed a very good run, but it’s time will come eventually too.  Just like how Hollywood has abandoned fantasy and western films in the past, despite some worthwhile releases, so too will audiences tastes change towards something new and fresh that’s not in the Superhero genre.  As of right now, Superhero movies are the mainstream, and there is a constant trend in the film industry to renew itself every several years by subverting the mainstream and finding that fresh new thing.  My hope is that while the industry will eventually move away from the superhero genre, that it will be a gentle fall for them and that the whole thing won’t be brought down by one particularly wretched failure.  The best we can hope from Marvel and DC now (and also Fox with their Marvel licenced characters) is that they still create entertaining movies that don’t ruin the characters we love.  Their own bad judgement can be their kryptonite, and it’s a walk along the edge that none of them would like to take right now.