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B for Bastille Day, B for Black & White


Today, on Bastille Day, Turner Classic Movies aired the 1938 Marie Antoinette with the talented elenco of Norma Shearer, Tyrone Power, Robert Morley and others. Aside from the very good performances of its actors, the movie is a visual delight, in almost every single frame. This, thanks to the cinematography team of Leonard Smith, George Folsey, and Slavko Vorkapich.


Almost every single moment would create a perfectly composed still photograph. Many of the shots included time and space enough that my eye had time to roam a scene, to appreciate the costume details, the expressive shifts within an actor's gaze, and to place myself in the scene in my mind's eye.

Tight shots never gave up all space, as many video images do today, where we see nothing but lips or eyes, or just a slice of a human face, filling the screen. No, context was never lost in this film. I found myself thinking how luxurious it was to allow my eye to revel and relax in the many shades of black, white, grey--endless shades. I never longed for color.


In fact, the black and white images made me much more keenly aware of line than I tend to be when watching a color film. It was a delicia visual.


It, naturally, also led me to think on revolutionary matters. To notice that the banner reading: Patrie, Egalité, Liberté hung in the air just behind the man who slapped the French Queen, Marie Antoinette. (A later motto included Fraternité)

To think how we too often long to see things in black and white, to see the "bad queen" and not the mother who wanted to save her children; to see someone as all-bad and someone else as all-good, or a situation as all-bad, or all-good; how developing this kind of two-toned vision can make a rise to or grab for power much easier to rationalize.


There is much reason to believe that Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake." Bloodshed is no sign of egalité, liberté, or fraternité. And the revolution--which certainly had good effects in many ways--shed the blood of many innocent people. Had the revolution been true to its motto, making the aristocrats equal with the peasants would have made supreme sense. Put them in jail. Strip them of the material goods or sheer luck that made them über persons that enforced an unequal world. But killing has no role to play in creating egalité, liberté or fraternité.

It´s a good lesson to remember: how beautiful it can be to see in black and white, and how dangerous it can be to think that way.

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