Texture is the ignored ingredient: when describing one’s favorite dessert, taste takes precedence; in the Smithsonian, color compliments are noted; in film, shot composition is discussed. Talk to a cook or a painter, though, and they will stress texture, it determines a cut of meat’s quality, makes or breaks crème brulee, and attracts the attention in a painting without attracting attention. Artists from all fields stress it, perhaps because it is often the most difficult element to perfect. There is an art form, however, which unabashedly presses texture upon its audience—the nearly lost art of the black and white movie.
With the removal of color, a distraction, this medium emphasizes the material of objects. Iron and cashmere need not differ in color, but they must in texture. Have you noticed in old movies the formulaic uses of focus, of attention to texture? For example, the overwrought romantic scenes are nearly always blurred, as though there is a slight removal from the world. Is it the same in colored movies? If the method is occasionally used, it is not used for the most part, instead being replaced by slow motion or ethereal lighting, which underlines the structure of pacing and color.
Here, in Blancanieves, we have a movie which chooses to return to the beauty of black and white, and goes yet further: it is also silent. ‘Silent film’ is, however, a misnomer: the musical score is entirely engaging, and this is in keeping with the old ‘silent’ movies—they too relied on their music. The pace is set by the music, and it almost seems as though the music comes first, much as it does in ballet.
Also like ballet, Blancanieves indulges extravagant gestures, and many critics dismissing silent film add exaggeration to their list of grievances. But there is a difference between extravagance and exaggeration: one is a free use of something because it seems good, the other is an overuse meant to accent an aspect of the thing exaggerated. Believing silent film exaggerates its gestures follows, as a rule, the supposition that the exaggeration is meant to fill the void left vacant by words. To look at gesticulations this way is to suggest that all silent films use them either from necessity (in the old movies) or from some tongue-in-cheek love of the gimmicky (all movies which could have talking, but don’t). There are movies which accept their silence as a gimmick (The Artist), but there is a better way to approach grand gesture—extravagant indulgence.
Perhaps we are being asked to look again at gesture’s relation to speech. Instead of being an overzealous fill-in for speech, an understudy trying desperately to make an impression, gesture reads the soul and expresses it in his own way; a way usually restrained by a sense of decorum or from fear (a restraint permitted by the mastery of language). Are emotions best captured and conveyed by words? I’m not sure. Isn’t body language our most subconscious and universal language?
You might be thinking, ‘all this is very interesting, I’m sure, but why does this recommendation entirely consist of examining the advantages of the medium of silent, black and white film?’
The most striking theme in Blancanieves, the motif mulled over throughout, is the pain of elusive nearness to the beloved. Those who have lost a loved one often nourish the pain of loss as a way to have the distance of absence nullified: I feel those I miss are near me when I think of them—a bittersweet pleasure built upon the juxtaposition of nearness and distance. Again, there is a certain suffering which defines our lives, which struggles in the dual distances of nearness and remoteness: Christ ever present in the Eucharist, ever distant through our sins and our attachment to this world. This pain is innermost in each of us, unable to be struck from our souls. In some way, meditation is nothing more than bringing this great divorce before our mind’s eye, sin nothing other than the rejection of what we love. In forgiveness, though, we are given the grace to be happy in the return of what we had rejected.
Watch Blancanieves and ask yourself, ‘would this still be good with color and speech?’ I think not—some sufferings are trivialized when put into words, or misconstrued by the very act of articulation. The movie’s texture will immediately arrest your eye and place you in the arena with our heroine, without permitting you to wonder if this fairy-tale might be ethereal. Once alongside Blancanieves, the music sets a pace too swift to permit abandonment, you will be caught up effortlessly and carried with her through her life. From of your nearness to her, her soul will shine through her looks and gestures; you shall see why she is heroic, how such an unhappy life can be so beautiful, and what it means to be a suffering soul.