Our ongoing film series at the Blanton, Come as You Are: Films of the 1990s, focuses on films produced in the United States, just as the artworks in the exhibition of the same title were all produced in this country. But it’s worth thinking about the rich tapestry of non-American films of the 90s, many of which continue to influence contemporary filmmakers in and outside America.
The 90s were the first decade during which all feature films were not, in fact, “films”: the Danish films The Celebration and The Idiots premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival as the first-ever feature “films” recorded entirely on digital video. They still needed to be transferred from digital video onto actual reels of 35-millimeter film in order to be distributed, but they opened the door to the digital video experimentation that is routine among today’s independent and studio productions.
In a decade during which the physical attributes of film changed, perhaps more substantially than in any decade since the birth of cinema in 1895, many innovative non-American directors were pushing the envelope of how films looked. And among their many formal innovations was an attention to making new uses of color.
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy is perhaps the most well-known and widely celebrated exploration of the expressive use of color in the 90s. The trilogy, which links the colors of the French flag (blue, white, red) to the ideals that those colors have historically symbolized (liberty, equality, fraternity), maps these matrices of color and theme onto three interlocking narratives. In Blue, the titular color evokes the protagonist’s grief over a family tragedy, but also conveys the tension between the protagonist’s need to reestablish human contact after the tragedy, with her desire for liberty, and to be free to process her grief privately.
By the resolution of the trilogy, with Red, the color of fraternity is evoked ironically, in a story about a curmudgeonly man who spies upon his neighbors and comes to interact with them reluctantly. The trilogy is fascinating in its insistence in being about three timeless ideals and the colors with which those ideals are associated, while questioning the symbolic associations we make between colors and themes.
The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s acclaimed film Taste of Cherry notably emphasizes a key color other than the one referenced in the title. Set and shot in Tehran, Taste of Cherry is saturated with rich ochres and marigolds in its landscapes and skyscapes, but also in the costuming and twilight sunshine washing over the actors’ faces. The use of color to link actor, land, and sky is incredibly poignant, given that the narrative dramatizes a man’s arrangements for burial after his impending suicide. The beauty of the ochre tones is contrasted by the deep empathy that the viewer feels for the protagonist.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry
Although black and white films in the 90s occupied a niche share of the feature film market, the Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s experiments with the absence of color in films such as Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies reflect some of the same concerns as Kiarostami’s films, transposed from Iran to late Communist-era Hungary. In Tarr’s films, the landscapes and the human bodies combine in a dark, disorienting visual style in which it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between a medieval building and an industrial factory, or between bodies and landscapes, or even humans and animals. The black tones in Tarr’s films represent the harsh conditions of life in eastern Europe but also suffuse the film with philosophical questions and even dark humor about the juxtaposition of natural and man-made objects that register on film as visual rhymes, cast in black shadows.
Bela Tarr’s Satantango
Postmodern directors like Wong Kar-Wai, especially in his 1994 film Chungking Express, were also interested in questioning how we analyze color in visual art. Wong’s films frequently set up associations between colors and characters, or between colors and themes, in the first act of the film, only to rearrange those relationships in the second and the third acts. And this visual switching is mirrored by his films’ screenplays, in which characters may change names, occupations, or romantic partners, and in which pronouns are frequently left ambiguous: when characters A and B discuss a third character in language coded so as to leave the audience to question whether A and B were discussing X or Y.
Critics have frequently analyzed this tendency in Wong Kar-Wai’s films through the lens of the transition of Hong Kong—the location of Chungking Express and his other early films—from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, a significant political and cultural shift during which Hong Kong residents went to sleep one evening in a state affiliated with the British Empire, and awoke the next morning affiliated with the Republic of China. But Wong has never endorsed this reading of his films, and it seems overly reductive to his complex system of color-switching, which takes place in Chungking Express among three primary colors and four primary characters, rather than through a two-state transfer of political control.
These examples only scratch the surface of the rich complexities of color explored by films of the 90s—Derek Jarman’s Blue, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite, Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, or Trans Anh Hung’s The Scent of Green Papaya, and many others. The decade was a transformational moment, as the sun began to set on the era where “film” and “movie” could be used interchangeably. In the contemporary landscape, where films shot without digital intervention are the anomaly rather than the norm, it’s worth thinking about how 90s filmmakers used film stock to begin experiments with color in ways that their contemporary successors are now continuing with 21st century technology.
Adam Bennett organizes the music, film, and lecture series at the museum in his role as the Blanton’s manager of public programs. He also writes about arts and culture and practices law in Austin.