Thursday, August 27, 2009

Beautiful Evidence

Most new films shot in black and white make me think of television. Why? Because TV, at its core, is about presenting a sort of evidence, and black and white has been, for a few decades now, a very effective way for directors to "prove" that their film is serious. The fact of the black and white is more important than the image. I don't mean to degrade these films; there's nothing wrong with having your roots in television or the Internet or books or comics or music. Sometimes the TV thinking results in something very beautiful -- it's because of his beginnings in 1950s television that Sidney Lumet's current mise-en-scene is so concerned with evidence.

I'm sure it's because of its perceived seriousness that George Clooney chose to print (though not shoot) Good Night and Good Luck in black and white -- a film which is both about television and evidence, the relationship between the two: how TV gave us "fact," and what it was evident of.

It's a real "actor's movie," full of under-appreciated performers: Ray Wise, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey, Jr. (right before everyone started taking him seriously again), Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella. David Strathairn's fantastic, serious acting evidence, proving to us how committed Edward R. Murrow was. In close-up, he has a real sinner's face, like Leonard Cohen.

Back to the evidence, which is everywhere: the speech patterns, the archival TV footage (with kinescopes of Joe McCarthy playing the part of the senator, so that no one can say the screenwriters twisted his words), the heavy cigarette smoke (all fake, the cast being mostly non-smokers and smoking being forbidden in the studios anyway). The opening shots, "candids" of a ceremony honoring Murrow, all look very serious and "artful," like the photos Joaquin Phoenix takes at the bar mitzvah in Two Lovers.

But somehow Good Night and Good Luck seems less televisual than, say, Manhattan or The Man Who Wasn't There, to cite two examples; maybe it's because Clooney has got more of a sense for cinema than either Allen or the Coens, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that he has no tastes, just interests (Allen and the Coens, on the other hand, are only interested in their tastes, and are only capable of interacting with the world through the prism of their Top 10 list). Good Night and Good Luck isn't an attempt to recreate 1950s cinema; with the exception of a few images (Strathairn finishing his cigarette before he gives his speech, a screening room where the gang watch 16mm documentary footage), this is a 2000s film through-and-through. He's not thinking quite as much as the anachronists are, which gives him more room to feel.

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