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`Colorize' me purple

By MELVIN MADDOCKS / November 28, 1986



NOT since Attila the Hun sacked Rome has such a cry of outrage gone up from civilization as when Ted Turner ``colorized'' John Huston's black-and-white classic, ``The Maltese Falcon.'' Huston himself called a press conference to denounce this act of barbaric impudence. Fellow directors like Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet muttered, ``Desecration!'' Sacre bleu! - to name just one - could it be that the Dark Ages have returned, this time rouged in electronic tints? Meanwhile, the viewers of Turner's cable network tuned in in record numbers for the novelty of watching Sam Spade (also known as Humphrey Bogart) curl his lip in a pinkish sneer at Mary Astor in a lilac dressing gown.

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Stand by, Bogie fans, for a rainbow-hued ``Casablanca'' - it's on its way. Turner holds the opinion that he can paint any boat he buys any color he wants - and the same goes for films.

How can the purists, for whom ``colorization'' is the horrible word for a horrible crime, take their revenge? Perhaps by buying up their own library of color films and reducing them to black-and-white. Imagine how it would diminish a Western like ``Shane'' or a musical like ``Singin' in the Rain'' if all those wide open spaces, on the one hand, and lavish costumes and sets on the other, were bleached out of their colors.

An artist's control over artifact is the latest entitlement in the never-ending claims for individual rights we call modern history. Certainly the right is not to be taken for granted in a world where cost accountants have the last word everywhere - except, of course, at the Pentagon. But the Great Colorization Controversy goes beyond who is answerable to whom for what.

A powerful emotion is free-floating around these days that might be described as technological nostalgia. The emotion exists in the hearts of those too realistic to yearn for kerosene lamps, hand pumps, and horse and buggy, but too romantic to feel at ease with computers, jets, and microwave ovens.

Trapped in a kind of no man's land between primitive and state-of-the-art, these are the people who favor the Good Old Days (but not too old) of the manual typewriter, the prop plane, and, yes, the black-and-white movie, if not the silent film. Call them the Low-Tech Generation.

How can you recognize a member of the Low-Tech Generation? Among test issues, the simplest may be one's feelings about one's record player. A Low-Tech person is very suspicious of compact discs. The argument gets ingenious. In removing all impurities of sound, from surface noise to heavy breathing, compact discs are too perfect. Something human is screened out as well.

The jazz critic Gary Giddins illustrates what can happen when a Low-Tech person gets carried away. In a recent column in the Village Voice, he not only rejected the compact disc but the LP. Spurning the engineers who ``remaster and equalize'' old recordings, he vaulted back in time to those brittle and wonderfully scratchable 78 rpm shellac discs. ``They sound better,'' he insisted with the heroic stubbornness that is the passion of the Low-Tech purist.

One of the common experiences of Low-Tech people is to have seen Walt Disney's ``Fantasia'' too many times in their childhood. They become obsessed with the fable of ``The Sorcerer's Apprentice,'' in which the magic-machinery ends up enslaving its master - in this case Mickey Mouse.

Low-Tech people also wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning after nightmares that Hal, the computer from ``2001,'' has taken over not just the spaceship but the world.

These two movies, constituting the complete scientific education of a lot of Low-Tech people, leave them convinced that if you invent a tool, sooner rather than later you use it, whether it's the wheel, the ukelele, or The Bomb.

Out of this apprehension, Low-Tech people dream of an ideal situation where necessity has mothered just enough Good Inventions - running water, wind-up phonographs, Model T Fords (maybe) - but the genie is still in the bottle.

And since Utopia needs a guard to keep things that way, bring in Humphrey Bogart, with his hands deep in his pockets and his trench coat collar turned up - in living black-and-white.

Gray it again, Sam. A Wednesday and Friday column