Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jordan Schonig reviews Tracking Color in Cinema and Art

Edward BraniganTracking Color in Cinema and Art: Philosophy and Aesthetics. New York: Routledge, 2018. 344 pp.

Review by Jordan Schonig

4 March 2020

In the opening of his book Metaphors on Vision, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage poses a rhetorical question: “How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green?’” Drawing on a long-standing philosophical opposition between color sensation and language, Brakhage constructs a myth of the untutored eye as a fantasy of seeing a pure field of nameless hues. In his Tracking Color in Cinema and Art: Philosophy and Aesthetics, Edward Branigan also explores the idea that language influences how we see color in the world and on the movie screen. However, for Branigan, our words do not in fact restrict color perception, but rather do quite the opposite. The book’s guiding claim is that what we say about color is precisely how we create meaning with color in everyday perception, art, and cinema. Published less than two years before his untimely death in June of 2019, Tracking Color is at once a testament to Branigan’s distinctive combination of philosophical rigor and aesthetic sensitivity, as well as a work that firmly establishes his status as one of the most significant scholars of cinematic color. 

Film color has become a growing field of scholarly interest in the last fifteen years, but largely with an emphasis on the technological history of color processes and the analysis of color in particular films. By contrast, Branigan approaches the topic from a philosophical and metatheoretical perspective, often invoking the myriad puzzles that color has posed for centuries. Philosophers have long fixated on the mystery of what color essentially is and where it resides. Is your red the same as my red? Is redness a property of the red ball, like its roundness, or is it supplied only by my perceptual apparatus? When the lights dim around the ball, where does its redness go, and is it still red? Such questions are indeed pertinent to Branigan’s discussion of color, but he has little stake in answering them. As a follower of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy, Branigan sidesteps such ontological questions and instead investigates the kinds of descriptive utterances that colors can inspire. In doing so, Branigan shifts the emphasis from color as an emblem of skepticism to color as a vehicle for intersubjectively constituted meaning.

It’s for this reason that the book is just as interested in concepts and phrases that invoke color (an off-color joke, feeling blue, seeing red) and impossible colors (“luminous gray,” “yellowish blue”) as it is in the apparently concrete manifestations of colors on a movie screen (Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers in The Wizard of Oz, Madeleine’s green dress in Vertigo).  This may seem like conceptual slippage. Literally seeing the red of Dorothy’s slippers appears to have little to do with the idiomatic expression “seeing red.” But for Branigan such apparent slippage enacts his philosophical commitment to the slipperiness of all concepts (not just colors) as functions of language. While it’s tempting to think of color as a kind of perceptual firstness, sensationally pure and prelinguistic, for Branigan “it makes no sense to say that sensation stands alone. Sensation is what we make of it.”

Though Branigan is interested in all matter of linguistic contexts where we may speak of color, the primary domains of color language investigated by the book are aesthetic, philosophical, and film critical discourses. Much of the theoretical work of the book involves surveying such discourses for their lurking assumptions and logics about color. In aesthetic theory, color has been subordinated to the dominance of the line and has been conceived of as merely cosmetic or decorative. In philosophy, color has been regarded as something superficially applied to objects but inessential to them, like a coat of paint. Branigan’s Wittgensteinian approach doesn’t so much dismiss these formulations as acknowledge that their usefulness is confined to particular contexts. 

Though much of the book takes the form of a philosophically informed discourse analysis, Branigan’s own arguments emerge when he turns to color in film theory and criticism. Central to his claims about the spectatorial experience of color significance in film is that the meanings we attach to colors emerge and change in patterns across time. This emphasis on color perception as a process of continuous pattern recognition, recall, and anticipation is what Branigan calls a “tracking” theory of color. In Branigan’s words, “A color moves, develops, even changes hue . . . No blue is ever just blue.” Part of what Branigan means here is fairly familiar: the spectator does not summon a static list of a priori semiotic codes for what particular colors essentially mean (red means passion). But neither is a color’s meaning wholly constituted by the text of the film, as if the text were isolated from the networks of meaning that colors accumulate through cultural norms, aesthetic conventions, embodied cognition, and social linguistic systems. For Branigan, color is relational; “no blue is ever just blue” because the perceptual specificity of a color cannot be separated from its perceptual context as well as its physiological, cultural, and art historical associations. 

Where Branigan’s book shines is in putting these philosophical principles into critical practice. Among Branigan’s few virtuosic close readings is an analysis of three seemingly unremarkable shots from Vertigo, a film notable for its elaborate color design and Technicolor set pieces. Branigan’s analysis tracks the graphic interaction between the neutrally dressed actors and the vibrant accents of red that subtly emerge from Jimmy Stewart’s necktie and a door in the background. On Branigan’s reading, seemingly conventional choices of camera angle, mise-en-scène, and performance create a small symphony of color that reflects and advances core issues of narrative, character, and theme; the door and necktie themselves remain narratively insignificant objects but their “movements of red” constitute a rich design element. Branigan then contrasts his own reading with a more typical one that draws its analysis of color from a system of preestablished semiotic codes, an approach that he scrutinizes with healthy skepticism but does not dismiss wholesale. What results is a careful integration of criticism, metacriticism, and aesthetic philosophy, the very combination that distinguished the critical voice of Branigan’s previous books, Point of View in the Cinema (1984), Narrative Comprehension and Film (1994), and perhaps Tracking Color’s closest philosophical companion, Projecting a Camera: Language-Games in Film Theory (2006). 

Like those previous landmark works, Tracking Color in Cinema and Art somewhat resembles a textbook in structure––summaries, lists, diagrams, appendices, footnotes, and bibliographic entries abound. However, despite such formalities and layers of dense theorizing, the book feels like a philosophical memoir. What unites the book’s chapters and sections, which sometimes feel loosely composed and connected, is less a methodically written argument than a way of thinking about the relation between art, language, meaning, and color. In other words, Branigan’s thought process is not charted linearly but––to borrow one of his own formulations drawn from George Lakoff––radially: it spreads out in associative trails, conceptual leaps, and family resemblances. This is fitting for a book so centrally about the perceptual and conceptual instability of colors––their propensity to change, take on multiple meanings, and inspire new forms of thought and speech.