Paul Schrader Cinematographer Asks: Who Killed The Color? (Guest Column)

I’m writing because I’ve just seen a movie, “The Dying of the Light,” with pictures I don’t recognize, although the credits say I’m the director of photography. The film we shot had images with strong, violent colors and was dark. This one is not. A minor thing for some, of crucial importance for others. I’m writing therefore in the name of those for whom the sudden disappearance of even a single tiny element from a picture is the end of the world, because they (perhaps stupidly) think that the image in which they invested blood and tears has been destroyed.

In my case, I was denied the possibility to accomplish in post-production what is any cinematographer’s duty: “assuring that what audiences will see on cinema and television screens faithfully reflects the “look” intended by the director” (according to the American Cinematographer Manual). I have to say that this is the only version of “The Dying of the Light” I’ve seen and to which I can relate Paul Schrader’s intentions as they were expressed during pre-production and shooting. Regarding the issue of a possible “director’s cut,” and the non-disparagement agreement that (according to the press) prevents Paul from talking about it, I can only express my stupefaction at such a Kafkaesque situation. Seen from my country, Romania, it is hard to understand how a contract may contain language in conflict with the sacred First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Paul Schrader wanted color to play an unusual, extremely important role in the visual style of his movie. An Expressionistic approach where color doesn’t just represent moods and feelings, but meanings and symbols. This is why he insisted that color should be embedded in the very fiber of the image — using filters on lenses and colored lights — so that we were not merely catching colors on film, but truly sculpting the picture with color.

The moment you try to “re-paint” or modify such a thing, it is supposed to crash to pieces. And this is what has happened to “The Dying of the Light” — an unpleasant and tragic demonstration of the limits to the so-called wonders of digital post-production. By surgically eliminating the expressionistic color from the image — the pasty yellow-green of the African scenes, the dense sepia-chocolate of the American ones, and the bluish-green from the European ones — an unknown author has offered the public not only a crippled caricature of everything, but a collection of images deprived of soul, emotion and significance.

The result is that an unconscious feel of inartistic simplicity and amateurism pervades things you would not normally connect with color. As pretentious as it may sound, the reality is that color affects not only the perception of the artist’s world on screen, but the perception of an actor’s performance too: eyes, skin, make-up, hair, come to us in an “intended” emotional color. (For those who don’t believe, try watching “Apocalypse Now” in black-and-white.) The unbalancing of a well thought “color formula” has the effect of mutilating not only atmosphere, composition, and centers of interest in the frame, but also detailed production design, costume and make-up concepts all based on that original formula.

I’m writing this letter because I’m trying to understand why would someone deliberately ruin such a visual expression. Just because it’s possible? By pushing some magical buttons at a console, or because of some kind of aesthetic Daltonism? Why would someone damage something achieved with unknown effort and sleepless nights? Just because there are people today who cannot take a human activity called artistic creation seriously?

In the absence of a logical answer I can only make suppositions. I imagine there was someone at the production or distribution company who was suddenly struck by the thought that too much color is equivalent to too much art. “Art” being something traditionally understood by only a few, this person thought you cannot sell such a thing to too many people (ticket buyers). So he or she proposed to get rid of the art by getting rid of the color. Making things look “normal” seemed, for this person, a normal way of thinking. The unanticipated effect of killing the color — a Hiroshima-like image landscape — was determined by the fact that the color was not in the objects, but in the light. With the color died the light itself.

I am always reminded in this kind of situations — regrettably frequent nowadays — that you have the right to re-paint a precious painting bought with your money. Why not repaint a Picasso if you own it? After all, it’s yours. I agree, but this sort of thing will make the artist (wherever he is) very sad. And he may well ask: Why ?

Gabriel Kosuth is an award-winning cinematographer whose credits include “Made in Romania,” “Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis” and Paul Schrader’s “The Dying of the Light.”

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