Nightlies: Black, White, and the Persistance of Vision

No image tonight, folks, except the words flashing across the page, offering a comforting, pre-technicolour film contrast of black and white. Unlike film, where it seems that light is a desirable contrast to dark, to nothingness, text or writing is just a little bit of dark striving to fill up all that light (indeed, another kind of nothingness, I suppose). This is the dual struggle in a movie, which requires a camera to shine a light on human action and a pen or typed characters (and a writer) to darken that white page.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I like black-and-white films, or monochrome cinematography: it feels closer to writing, to the black and white of ink and paper, or text and WordPress document. But, of course, I can’t achieve that “persistence of vision” achieved in film, that is, the phi phenomenon, whereby our eyes see homogeneous shades or colors (like a spinning wheel) in continuous motion.

Nevertheless, “movies” seem to have begun with this wish to make characters come to life, to use various devices to create the optical illusion of reality in motion: still photographs, projected through a lens, to create the illusion of perpetual motion; the thaumatrope (which now seems like a primitive children’s toy), a circular disk containing two images, one on either side, that, when spun, created the illusion of movement, like a bird entering a cage. (See this example here: the poor kid looks bored, eh?) 

By the time Méliès was making A Trip to the Moon (1902), the optical devices had evolved into the Kinetograph, the first kind of “motion picture” camera ever to be used. And—I’d like to think—cinema had performed a kind of translation: it put words into motion by making the letters spin until they morphed into a grand image of life.


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