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Movie Symbolism In Amazing Technicolor

by Laurie Sosna
February 13, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 7


IF IT'S PURPLE, SOMEONE'S GONNA DIE: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling, by Patti Bellantoni, Focal Press, 2005, 243 pages, $39.95 (ISBN 0-240-80688-3)

Studying film is a bit like studying chaos theory. You look into the cacophony of images, sounds, and words to find recognizable patterns. Semiotics, the study of signs and sign systems, has been used in film studies for decades to find the order in the chaos of cinema. Film grad students worth their salt will tell you that if you can understand post-structuralist icon Roland Barthes and his Merry Band of Doctrinaires, movies are easy.

Since the first full-length color motion picture, "Becky Sharp" (1935), color in film imagery has been used to influence the viewer's emotional response to a film story. This influencing effect has been explained using a combination of the classic color spectrum combined with elements of semiotics. Generally speaking, the signifiers go like this: Red is intense, blue is tranquil, yellow is a warning.

One of the problems with this approach is that there is always someone who comes along and says: "Dude, it's only a movie." The truth is, it's not and hasn't been for a long time. "Movies" were flickering images of a train rolling into a station that caused viewers in 1895 to leap out of their seats in terror.

Today's films are a perfectly balanced equation of multiple signals. As our sophistication increases, our ability to be fooled decreases. Our ability to suspend disbelief, a key component in the early days of cinema, has all but withered. Filmmakers today must use every tool at their disposal to send us information about the story they are telling. Using recognizable signifiers without our even knowing it can be the most powerful tool they have.

The semiotics of color is what Patti Bellantoni posits in her book "If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling," a how-to manual for visual designers and an eye-opening experience for the ordinary viewer. Bellantoni takes her analysis beyond the basic signifiers by including many variations of each color: Anxious red. Cerebral blue. Obsessive yellow. Ambivalent green. She has discovered, through 20 years of experimentation on the effects of color on behavior with students in her classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, that what appears on the surface gets more interesting the deeper you zoom in.

This type of visual iconography goes back to the white hat/black hat icons of the Westerns and the blond good girl/dark bad girl duality of bedroom comedies. Bette Davis' notorious red dress in "Jezebel" is legendary for the fact that much is made of the color in the story, but the film is shot in black and white. One can only imagine the rainbow of vermillion, crimson, scarlet, and cinnamon dresses that went through the minds of viewers in 1938.

No such speculation was necessary for Scarlett's frock in "Gone with the Wind" (1939). Costume designer Walter Plunkett must have gone through many a bolt of fabric and dozens of camera tests before settling on the red for that legendary dress.

Today's films add a further element to the discussion of color. For example, it's easy enough to see that Sigourney Weaver's red dresses in "Working Girl" (1988) are signifiers of power. Dig a little deeper and you'll find this interesting juxtaposition: In a scene where both women wear nearly identical black business suits, compare the power of Weaver's red ski boots (another visual signifier of power) with Melanie Griffith's overly teased, dyed red hair (a cultural signifier of lower-class aspirations of beauty). "If It's Purple" is filled with many examples of how meaning can be deepened through the contrasting of one color with another in a scene.

This idea is not entirely new. In 1810, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe took time from writing his two-part epic poem "Faust" to publish "Zür Farbenlehre" (Theory of Colors). Using what would later be termed "exploratory experimentation," Goethe tried to develop and describe (among other things) his own "laws of color harmony," and he came to the conclusion that our perception of color is also affected by complementary colors and the harmonies they create. Goethe's work intrigued Werner Heisenberg and Mitchell Feigenbaum 160 years later: Both of them thought that the old boy might have had something.

Bellantoni also acknowledges second-order colors: green, orange, and, of course, purple. Purple is the most problematic of colors and therefore the most interesting. It may be the dark matter of visual storytelling. Once thought to be a signifier of nobility and elegance, purple, Bellantoni posits, is the color that lights the realm of the noncorporeal, the transformative. Characters in purple are signifiers of change or death. Purple is the color of mysticism and magic and illusion. She further illustrates the subtleties of the color by delineating its various species: asexual, illusory, fantastic, mystical, ominous, and ethereal. What fun!

Purple's intangible qualities and mercurial nature also allow for a really cool title for the book. (And, I hazard to guess, her publishers probably turned down the obvious first choice: "If It's Red, Someone's Gonna Get Laid.")

There are, of course, countless movies with colors in their titles: "The Red Shoes" (1948), "Yellow Submarine" (1968), "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), "Purple Rain" (1984), "Blue Velvet" (1986), and "The Green Mile" (1999). Some people will wonder how these films fall into Bellantoni's paradigm. We may never know. That she does not elaborate on such films makes perfect sense.

The act of naming a color in the title brings it to the forefront of the viewer's consciousness. (Maybe there is a little Heisenberg at work here?) But Bellantoni is looking at visual elements that sneak up on the viewer, that work in more subtle, nuanced ways. Furthermore, as she looks for harmonic elements, it is important to understand that it is not just that the shoes are red, but that other colors are working to influence the viewer.

In the scientific sphere, the technicians who labor for hours in a dark lab usually don't get to walk up and receive the applause come Nobel Prize time. Cinematographers, their filmic counterparts, have a similar, thankless task: Take a director's vision and capture it in light and shadow. More often than not, however, the director alone gets the credit. Orson Welles, in a rare example of selflessness, acknowledged Gregg Toland's masterful cinematography and lighting in "Citizen Kane" (1941) by giving him coproduction credit. Bellantoni also gives credit where it is due. The selection of cinematographers and production designers in her book covers nearly every genre of film from "An American in Paris" (1951) onward. The inclusion of this film is particularly heartening, as it was one of the last great film musicals and is absolutely unparalleled in its use of color as signifier.

Make no mistake, Bellantoni is an academician, but she's also a fan. The book has sidebars, spoiler alerts, and recommendations scattered all through it. She writes fondly of these films and filmmakers, whose quotes fill the sidebars to punctuate a section. The list of films included is vast and varied, and her analysis at times is interesting enough to inspire a trip to the video store.

Something is inherently paradoxical about books about film, however. You have to wade through endless descriptions of shots, where a simple photo would do. Although "If It's Purple" is a visual buffet of glossy goodness, I kept thinking, "A photo right here would have been nice." This is visual storytelling, after all. If ever there was a book that deserves a multimedia adaptation, this is it. And what a joy it would have been to pop in a DVD of film clips and follow along. After finishing the book, I was compelled to watch "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" again to, you know, double-check her findings.

What makes books like this so much fun is when nuance comes into play. The deep purple I imagined as I read her analysis of the final scene of "Crouching Tiger" is nothing like the gray-mauve that appears in the actual scene. Her observations are acute, but use her cues as a starting point and you begin to see visual harmonics that you might not have seen before.

We will now pause for those among you to scoff and deride such cinematic hairsplitting. It's okay, everyone does. Let it out. The fact is, that is the nature of science, isn't it? And there is a science to this: Ask anyone who works for an ad agency. Their demographics are filled with this stuff.

For the nonscientist, the artistic beauty of a fractal can be a gateway to the extraordinary science of chaos theory and nonlinear systems. But the real reward is applying science to everyday life. Once you've seen a fractal, you'll see them everywhere. Purple may never be the same.


Start thinking about color in these films

  • “Marnie” (1964). From the opening shot of a yellow purse, you’re hooked.
  • “Days of Heaven” (1978). Use of color is both subtle and profound. Breathtaking.
  • “One From the Heart” (1982). Coppola’s neon-drenched, postmodern, kind-of musical romance.
  • “The Last Emperor” (1987). Emperor Pu Yi’s life expressed as colors of light. Transcendent.
  • “Heathers” (1989). Every Heather has a color … but Veronica’s the one to watch. Comfortable and entertaining entry into the world of color as signifier.
  • “Sideways” (2004). The wine is purple, the vines are green, but Miles is oh, so blue. Subtle use of color as an expression of the character’s inner life.

Laurie Sosna works in the department of academic technology at San Francisco State University. Her love for science and scientists is eclipsed only by her love of movies.


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