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Cinema and Colour: The Saturated Image by Paul Coates (review)
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Cinema and Colour: The Saturated Image Paul Coates. BFI Publishing, 2010. 184 pp. paper $30.95.

Paul Coates’s Cinema and Colour: the Saturated Image delves deeply into how filmmakers use color not only as a technique to evoke emotion, but also as a way to expose viewers to how various cultures connect with the colors being filmed. There [End Page 61] is no denying that Cinema and Colour is impeccably researched by one of the leading scholars in this area of the discipline; however, the book is a series of essays loosely held together by an introduction that assumes its readers are already familiar with the subject matter. The result is a work that is (at times) hard to follow.

Chapter One, “Introduction: Theorizing Colour and Ambivalence,” sets the tone of the book immediately by letting the reader know that blue already has a series of connotations associated with it: in places like Spain and Portugal the color represents “something vital and full of energy,” while in Italy blue is more associated with joy and the sublime. Coates’s work is meant to expose “the slipperiness of colour’s location, its readiness to inhabit multiple contexts and traditions” (3), and to recognize the ambiguity of a symbol or a sign in a medium where “ambiguity may be particularly endemic” (4). Color, then, has an ambiguous, independent, dialectical quality that needs deciphering based on the cinematic text it inhabits.

While Coates’s concept is rather simple, his presentation is marred by obscure references and dense language. For example:

Paradoxically, given its title, the obverse of a dialectically self-conscious theoretician of color may well be ‘Color Consciousness”, Natalie Kalmus’s landmark 1935 speech to the Technicians’ Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The nearest thing to an aesthetic manifesto of color to have emerged from within the mainstream industry, within which Kalmus would wield enormous power between the mid-1950s and 1948 as a chief colour adviser for the Technicolor process devised by her husband Herbert, its rhetoric gains adherents by mobilising a sufficient array of conventional Occidental associations of particular colours to allow the singularity of each (in other words, its status as something controllable, like a colour on a palate) to fan out into the multiplicity of stories that could employ it.


Here Coates seems to assume that all of his readers are theoreticians of color who know who Kalmus is as well what constitute the “conventional Occidental associations of particular colours.” Surely, such references could be more clearly defined within the text.

More examples arise in his essay, “The Moment of Colour: Colour, Modernism and Abstraction.” The essay begins with Coates’s assertion that the most imperative moment in the liberation of color was the fin de siècle. Coates specifically discusses music and painting, and how color had become less “shackled” to the object with which it was associated (what Coates calls an “adjectival style”) and “achieves equality through the necessity of its presence to delineate the growing number of objects discerned as mysterious, ‘alienated’ (if viewed negatively) or ‘exotic’ (if viewed positively)...” (22). Color itself, then, becomes alienated from the object “in which it had been lodged” (22), and, in a sense, splits the object and creates the ambiguity to which Coates refers in his introduction. This liberation of color is modernist and [End Page 62] abstract in that a certain freedom is inherent in it; however, these modernist works may also have political implications insofar as they seek “to define and critique the functioning of colour within a socio-political system it claims to be able to stand outside completely” (33). This essay is more devoted to women (color and femininity), but Coates seems to believe that viewing audiences recognize the broader contexts of his examples, including when the films were made, where they were produced, and the socio-political atmosphere that surrounded them when they were filmed: “For whereas political modernism simply spurns identification, modernism both employs and critiques it” (34). Coates deftly discusses such auteurs as Godard and Antonioni (among others) as using this “adjectival style”; but his argument once again gets lost...