09 September 2008

Color my World

When I was a kid, I thought that people in the 1950’s could only see in black and white. After all, all of the TV shows from back then that I watched as a kid, Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, Mister Ed, Ozzie and Harriet,, were all in black and white. Furthermore, all the characters on these shows seemed to think nothing of it, going about their daily lives as if it were perfectly normal that everything was shades of gray.

Then, some time in the mid1960’s, something happened. Something mysterious. Something BIG. I wasn’t sure exactly when or how, but, sometime between seasons one and two of Gilligan’s Island, SOMETHING HAPPENED, and humans were able to see color.

Picture yourself, falling asleep on night in a world that is black and white, as it had been all your life, and waking up to find the world alive with color. I imagine that it would have been not unlike the scene when Dorothy takes her first steps out of her black and white Kansas farmhouse and into the marvelous Technicolor Land of Oz.

The “Wizard of Oz” actually supported my hypothesis. For Dorothy, only Oz was in color, and she seemed sufficiently amazed by that fact. When she returned to Kansas, it was back to good old black and white.

I was surprised this hadn’t been mentioned in my history books. After all, you’d think it would’ve been kind of a big deal at the time. Surely it would have made the paper. But where were the old news clippings? Where was the news footage of a television announcer, Walter Cronkite perhaps, announcing excitedly that the world was suddenly and mysteriously full of color?

Did people just not notice? Was there a conspiracy afoot? Or, was it simply a situation wherein they just didn’t want to talk about it. It all seemed like a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, and trapped inside of an enigma.

Nevertheless, I am aware that there were some gaping holes in my “Something happened” theory. For example, how did I explain the full color paintings of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in my elementary school classroom? For that matter, how did I explain “Little House on the Prairie” which, though it took place way back in the 1800’s, was awash in color? In truth, I never fully reconciled these disparate facts. I was six. And anyway, the 1800’s were so long ago, that the might as well have been, well, the 1800’s.

But, looking back now, there never really was any contradiction. My theory was not that the WORLD was black and white. It was that humans could only SEE in black and white, just like my dog. I surmised that human beings had some how evolved, or “grown up” during this time, and the result of this maturation was the ability to see color.

Today, when I watch those old shows, especially those shows like Gilligan’s Island, or Andy Griffith, that straddled the black and white and color TV line, I enjoy the black and white episodes a bit more. They somehow seem more authentic. Particularly with the Andy Griffith show, the colored seasons seem as if they were filmed in black and white and then painted over by an intern.

Maybe it’s because color brings out the details, those subtle differences on hue and shade that highlight the complexities of our world. Black and white, on the other hand, is cleaner, better defined and straight forward. The good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats, it was as simple as that

In some ways, the mid-sixties change from the clearly contrasted world of black and white TV, to the subtleties of color television mirrored the cultural shift happening at the time. After the fall of Camelot, the moral clarity of our culture, at least the perceived moral clarity, was coming apart at the seams, what with the struggle for Civil Rights, the rise of the drug culture, and war protesters, and burning bras. Even now those times seem so far removed from the idealized Leave it to Beaver version of the ‘50’s that it is hard to believe they took place in the same century, let alone less than 10 years apart.

World War II, the great, morally justifiable conflict between the evil Axis powers and the righteous Allied Forces: Black and white. Vietnam, the murky, morally ambiguous war of foreign intervention: Color.

The black and white Beatles were witty, lovable mop tops in three piece suits who sang about how much she loved you, wanting to hold your hand, and the virtues of yesterday. The color Beatles were long haired, pot smoking, LSD experimenting rock gods who sung of hallucinogenic trips through Strawberry Felids, happiness being a warm gun, and as long as we are here, why don’t we do it in the road.

In 1960, the number one TV show was the black and white version of Gunsmoke, where Matt Dillon always did the right thing and good always triumphed over evil. By 1969, the number one show was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, with its counter-culture leanings, veiled references to sex and drugs, and a cast who seemed obsessed with looking things up in Funk and Wagnall’s.

The advent of color TV brought the complex inconsistencies of our society into our living rooms, and showed us that, as much as we might want it to be, our world was definitely not black and white. Black and white TV may be cleaner, but color TV showed the world as it was, warts and all.

In the early ‘90’s when Ted Turner was intent on colorizing every black and white film he could get his hands on, there was a cultural backlash, and he eventually gave up. I think this is because black and white movies and TV remind us of an earlier, somehow simpler time. A time when Good guys were supposed to wear white hats, and Bad guys are supposed to wear white hats. Because that’s the way it was back then, even if it wasn’t.

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