Logan: Noir and Watching Movies in the Age of Instagram

Thanks to Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services, and with high-quality home-entertainment systems more affordable than ever, theaters have been upgrading their technology to coerce moviegoers to actually go to the movies. So the limited release of Logan in black-and-white (dubbed Logan: Noir) should come as no surprise to anyone.

The central gimmick appeals to both studios and exhibitors as an easily marketed nostalgia grab that can be used to entice the film’s large fan base back to theaters for another viewing. And while we probably shouldn’t expect black-and-white options to come standard for every new blockbuster, it seems unlikely that Logan will be the last to receive such treatment. Whether this nascent trend earns any long-term cache is yet to be seen, but it is interesting what this says about the attitudes of today’s filmgoer compared to only a short time ago. Taken to its logical extreme, it may clue us in as to how viewers will soon be able to customize movies to their liking, regardless of the filmmaker’s intent.

Logan is not the first film in recent memory to receive the monochrome treatment: a “Black & Chrome” version of Mad Max: Fury Road became available to stream last year, and the 2008 dual-DVD release of Frank Darabont’s modern cult classic The Mist included a B&W version as well. (Also of interest: in 2016 AMC re-aired the first season of The Walking Dead, produced and created by Darabont, in black-and-white for a day-long marathon.) Logan is, however, the biggest release of its kind to date, which gives it special significance.

The reviews seem to agree that the experience is a fun one, if of little interest beyond its novelty. This makes sense considering that the idea supposedly came about after some of its black-and-white promotional stills were met with a large amount of fan interest.

There is nothing inherently offensive about Logan: Noir — nor, for that matter, Mad Max: Fury Road — Black and Chrome — but neither is there any substantive defense to be made for their existence. The problem isn’t that the color adjustment is merely unnecessary, at least not any more so than 3D conversions for films shot in 2D are; it’s simply that they don’t suit the material. It’s one thing to convert an in-your-face spectacle like Mad Max: Fury Road to 3D, but it would be baffling to do the same for the films of, say, Jim Jarmusch. By that same standard, a version of Jarmusch’s Paterson converted to the same grainy black-and-white that most of his early efforts were shot in makes a certain kind of sense, improbable as it may seem; whereas the same can’t be said for the eye-popping color palette of George Miller’s magnum opus.

Likewise, The Mist’s supplemental B&W DVD release is easily justifiable: for all of its modern sensibilities, it is, at heart, an old-school giant monster movie, with a twist ending and moral lesson straight out of The Twilight Zone. In terms of genre and thematics, it’s well suited to black-and-white.

By contrast, not only is Logan, despite its new subtitle, not a noir, but its thematic concerns all but demand that it be presented in color. Logan is, in many ways, a modern Western, and for as much as it quotes George Stevens’s Shane (shot in color), its true spiritual daddy is Unforgiven. And while Logan is no match for the powerhouse treatise on the myth vs. reality that is Eastwood’s swan song to the Western (nor could it ever have hoped to be, considering that Logan is based on pure fantasy to begin with), it is attempting to say something similar about its own particular genre. However nifty or cool-looking it may be in black-and-white, such a change undercuts its own purpose by placing it squarely in the realm of the mythic.

Beyond the necessity for any one movie to receive this kind of treatment, the question of artistic intent must also take precedent. Unfortunately, the precedent that has been set over the years is not one that many filmmakers would take comfort in. For all of the discussion revolving around these few recent examples of reverse colorization, little has been noted about the controversy that surrounded its opposite trend from the mid ‘80s to the early ‘90s.

The colorization of classic black-and-white movies was a crass commercial attempt to cater to modern audiences’ worst and laziest sensibilities. No classic was safe from the vandalizing touch of crude corporate suits who thought first, last, and only of a bottom line that, as it turned out, wasn’t even there to begin with.

The man who would become the despised poster-boy for film colorization, Ted Turner, openly mocked the notion of artistic intent, publicly proclaiming, “The last time I checked, I owned the films that we’re in the process of colorizing…. I can do whatever I want with them, and if they’re going to be shown on television, they’re going to be in color.”

It is hard to understate how much anger this caused amongst filmmakers, critics, and audiences. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel spoke out frequently against Turner’s attempts, as did the likes of Woody Allen and John Huston (who initiated a lawsuit against the colorization of his directorial debut, The Asphalt Jungle). A public pressure campaign successfully managed to halt the production and release of a colorized version of Citizen Kane, and eventually, the process proved too expensive and controversial to take hold.

The difference between copyright owners colorizing old films without (or even against) the consent of their creators and the directors altering their own films are obvious, but that’s not to say that things can’t change. While James Mangold, George Miller, and Frank Darabont may all have initiated the supplemental de-colorization of their own films, it is hardly inconceivable that a filmmaker opposed to such customization would be overruled by a studio looking to cash in on this trend.

That the current mood of audiences regarding colorizations is a complete 180 from those who fought tooth and nail against Turner and his ilk — understandable as that may be in context — does not bode well for future arguments regarding artistic intent. Previously, filmmakers and curators had the overwhelming sympathy of the moviegoing audience. But today, in the age of Instagram and FaceApp, where people are able to digitally manipulate the media they create to suit their whims, how long is it before studios and theater chains (and, perhaps even more inevitably, streaming sites and mobile apps) figure out a way to tailor movies for individual consumer customization?

If mobile technology has taught us anything about ourselves it’s that, despite having the ability to capture the sharpest, highest definitions imaginable, we sure do like to make them look antiquated and old-timey. In that spirit, why stop at Logan: Noir? Why not allow viewers to choose through which filter they’d most like to watch Hugh Jackman slice and dice his way across our screens? How about Logan: Gingham? Logan: Slumber? Logan: Nashville?

And why stop there? Sure, the steely stoicism of Tom Hardy in Fury Road cuts a heroic visage, whether in color or black-and-chrome, but what if I, as a viewer, am in the mood for something a little lighter? Maybe I can give him dog-ears and a long, wagging tongue. While I’m at it, maybe I’ll just give everyone in the movie a funny mustache too.

Such a scenario may seem like pearl-clutching by out-of-touch cineastes, and it may well be. But if this last year has taught us anything, it’s that the worst-case scenario is entirely plausible. Can anyone really deny that modern audiences don’t have a greater sense of entitlement over their entertainment than ever before? Would anyone argue that mobile technology and an ever-expanding field of new media platforms haven’t made us more easily distracted? The same theater chains that go to great lengths to heighten the theater-going experience through 3D and IMAX have all but stopped telling people to turn off their phones. Taken together, do any of us really expect a sea change in public and corporate attitudes that ensure that films are presented in the manner that their makers intended?

None of this is to say that Logan: Noir is any kind of harbinger of doom when it comes to how movies are presented and watched. It is to say, however, that we shouldn’t take such backwards-looking examples as mere trends. It may not be so — forgive me — black and white.

Zach Vasquez lives in black-and-white-and-smoggy Los Angeles.