Neon is Our New Technicolor
The introduction of full color to movies, historically not too long after the introduction of sound to movies, was a pretty glorious moment. Three-strip Technicolor burst onto the scene in Hollywood in the late thirties with color-saturated iconic movies like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, both of which still look beautiful today. Three Strip, in which three different layers of colored film are placed on top of each other, also created the distinctive look of sixties psychedelia. With its wildly vibrant and almost unnatural color, it could create a surreal effect without anything actually being surreal. Famously seen in movies like Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Suspiria (1977) (one of the last movies to be shot in three-strip technicolor) this now dated process made hues pulse and explode on screen. However, this eye-popping color was also highly toxic, expensive, and difficult to produce, so when a better option came along (and a better one after that, and a better one after that) it was quickly retired and set out to pasture.
There is a recent trend in the past ten years or so of what I think should be called “the new Technicolor.” Despite not actually using the original process, and many times not even using actual film, there is a slew of newer movies that have been embracing “knock your eyes out” color. Instead of the intensely saturated three strip movies, these new movies are made with a neon palette. Instead of their aesthetic simply being a product of a common process, these newer releases are specifically going out of their way to achieve the neon aesthetic.
Hype William's brilliant and bright Belly (1998) came first, seemingly ahead of its time as critics rejected it and Williams never made another feature film again (though launched a solid career in music videos and shorts). Then came Gasper Noe’s Enter The Void (2010), which arguably revived the neon explosion to the big screen that we're now seeing in a massive variety of movies. The neon color scheme doesn't seem to be indicative of any certain type of film, most these movies share almost nothing in terms of content despite overlapping in visual style.
For some, the colors are sourced from the world around them then pumped up for our viewing pleasure on screen. Ingrid Goes West (2017) and Neon Demon (2016) (and the upcoming film Gemini) both take place is Los Angeles. But it's not the actual Los Angeles as much as it's a very curated and surface-level version of it; where color, aesthetic, and Instagram dictate how people live, instead of the other way around. Moonlight (2016), a movie I’ve described as a pastel waking dream, was filmed in Miami, another city known tropical vistas and flamboyant, expressive colors. And The Golden Girls of course. These bold and bright environments go hand-in-hand with the neon aesthetic, so it's no surprise the colors were played up to create a look that not only represents these landscapes but also serves to make the settings into their own characters.
On the hand, Enter The Void is a film that deals with drugs, nightlife, and nihilism from a “first person shooter” perspective. Two out of three of those things lend themselves quite well to neon, and the city of Tokyo certainly conjures up images of lit-up signs, but the neon world it paints is clearly more of an artistic decision than anything else. Every part of the city (down to the toilets) shares the stylized look. Which is wonderful, for anyone who might think that means I don’t like that. The film remains luminous at times when the story would justify the image getting a little darker and less saturated, but like the giallo movies of the past, Enter the Void decides that the viewer should see the horrifying and the weird in all the glorious radiance of a Baz Luhrmann dance number. Doesn’t matter if what you’re watching is a dead drug addict’s soul navigating a city; it’s still going to look like a gorgeous acid trip in a vaguely recognizable human world.
Then there are movies like The Bad Batch (2017) and Only God Forgives (2013), both of which have a mix of both approaches. Only God Forgives (disclaimer: not my favorite movie) takes place in Bangkok, and while the city where the action is happening is one the embraces color, it’s really more of a story about the criminal underworld and revenge. Being brightly and, more importantly, artificially colored is not necessarily a requirement to the story telling. Likewise with The Bad Batch, a movie about a civilization taking root in a place where people have been banished from everyday society, filmed entirely in the desert (Slab City, California to be precise). Its color palette could have been the washed out or merely accented with colors, instead of being flush with it. It’s not nearly as drenched as something like Only God Forgives but they both seem to exaggerate the colors of their natural surroundings in order to purposefully create a visual irony to their darker plots.
There are tons of movies that are visually stunning that go for muted colors, or even visually stunning movies that have lush, rich colors but don’t reach for the over-the-top quality of neon. On the surface, it can be hard to judge what makes for an appropriate movie to employ such vividness. Movies like Only God Forgives and Moonlight might seem like odd choices when explained flatly. A revenge film and a film about a confused kid slipping through the cracks of society don’t sound like great options right off the bat. Yet after the whole world is built, and the radiance blooms from these surrounding influences, do you realize how the colors help to embolden the emotional storytelling. Other movies sound like perfect vehicles for this new-aged technicolor, yet flounder due to lack of substance backing the style. Paging Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) on that one.
Colors connect with a viewer, whether consciously or unconsciously. They can link the viewer to the correct headspace, build a powerful atmosphere, or just be used as simple distraction. This is nothing new. There have always been beautiful messes, and as this neon technicolor trend really takes off, we should be prepared for all types. Beautiful messes can be just as fun as beautiful masterpieces. In the end, what’s really important is that we’re all simply drowning in beauty and color but it never hurts to have a great plot, dialogue, and characters inside the razzle dazzle. Ya' know, just to keep it really interesting.