BY David Batchelor in Profiles | 05 MAY 08
Featured in
Issue 115

Almost Blue

The release of the film Chromophobia raises questions about authorship and appropriation

BY David Batchelor in Profiles | 05 MAY 08

Kristin Scott Thomas in Chromophobia, 2005

I first heard about it four years ago. It was a Wednesday, just after nine in the morning, and I was listening to the radio. The host of a chat show was introducing an actor, and in the course of listing his achievements and current projects she mentioned Chromophobia. Which is how I learnt that the title of a small book I had written in the late 1990s was to become the title of a big film starring, among others, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Penélope Cruz. It was written and directed by Martha Fiennes, and due for release later that year.

Trailer for Chromophobia (2007)

This felt strange, not least because the book I had written was largely an argument about a perceived resistance to colour in Western culture since Aristotle. In other words, not obvious film material. Chromophobia, I had suggested, is the fear of contamination or corruption through colour. It is found in the tendency to treat colour as somehow at odds with the higher workings of the Western mind, as feminine, primitive, oriental or infantile; as superficial, inessential or cosmetic. Somewhere between a meditation and a rant, I looked at the use and suppression of colour in art, architecture, movies, literature and philosophy. Originally conceived as a short pamphlet to accompany an exhibition of sculptures I had been making, I began by looking for a concise way of describing this pattern of resistance to colour in the West, this apparent fear of the chromatic, this seeming phobia, this … chromophobia. I knew right then that I had invented a good title for my essay. In due course the pamphlet grew into the book, which was published in 2000.

So there I was, one Wednesday morning in 2004, with the sound of BBC radio ringing in my ears, and a sense of confusion – a strange feeling, a mixture of surprise, irritation and flattery that was quickly followed by a number of questions. Were they actually making a film of the book, or had they just appropriated the title? Would they contact me, or was it all just a weird coincidence? Was I going to make any money? Was I going to meet Penélope Cruz? I really had no idea what to expect, except that I expected to hear more as the weeks and months went on and it got closer to the film’s release date. But what I heard for the next three years was, well, nearly nothing. There was a tiny item in my local newspaper, the Hackney Gazette, under the headline ‘Penelope Cruz-es in!’, which announced that the actress had filmed some scenes outside the kebab shop on Hackney Road, only yards from where I live. Then I heard that the film was due to be screened out of competition at Cannes in 2005. And then, for over two years, nothing. No announcements, no interviews, no previews, no reviews. I did hear a few rumours: that the distributors had got cold feet after a lukewarm reception at Cannes and that Fiennes had been asked to re-edit the film, but otherwise it was as though Chromophobia, the film, had never existed. Then, last November, it was announced that the film would be released the following month; so my questions, or some of them, might finally be answered.

In the meantime I had been asked questions by people who knew my book and had heard about the film. Had I copyrighted the title? Could I sue? Had I met Penélope Cruz? I had wondered whether it was possible to copyright a word, but it seemed unlikely and slightly absurd. How could you own a bit of language that was simply a combination of two existing Greek terms? And, oh, it also turned out that I hadn’t actually invented the word. Some time after writing the book I came across an earlier use of the title: in 1966 the Belgian animator Raoul Servais had made a nine-minute cartoon titled Chromophobia. It’s a bit like an animated Paul Klee drawing scripted by a hippie and is rather charming, if you like that kind of thing. It begins as a happy, colourful little town is invaded by grim-faced soldiers in black who abolish colour and play and art and joy. A vivid cockerel on the town hall is gunned down and replaced by a glowering black crow; children’s balloons mutate into black balls and chains; fruit withers; flowers die. Then, slowly, gradually, there are silent acts of resistance, as people – a jester, a painter, a child – begin to fight back. Blackness is rejected. Colour is reinstated. Happiness returns.

The story of the suppression of colour in Servais’ film is, at least in certain respects, related to the fear of colour I described in my book. In one crucial area, however, it differs: where Servais had used black to represent the suppression of colour, I used white. I had wanted to begin my book with a vivid image of the abolition of colour from certain areas of contemporary culture, so I began Chapter 1, ‘Whitescapes’, with the story of a strange experience I had had when I went to a party at the house of an art collector. The interior of this house was a vast, blinding and very expensive minimalist hell. Every surface was purged of ornamentation, every detail was abolished (including door handles, I remember), every curve was squared off, all idiosyncrasy was removed. It was utterly elegant but absolutely cold and heartless. And, most strikingly, there was absolutely no colour anywhere. As I put it at the time, without any exaggeration, ‘all the walls were white, all the furniture was black, and all the works of art were grey’.

A few weeks ago I sat down to watch Fiennes’ movie, and what did I see? The title appeared in big letters across the screen, followed by a slowly revealed, very expensive, very white, very minimalist interior. Featureless white walls, a mixture of black and white furniture and work surfaces, even a pair of tea towels – one white, one black. No colour anywhere. But plenty of art because, it turned out, this was the home of an art collector and dealer, played by Scott Thomas. And this art was all quite colourless too: a white Marc Quinn marble sculpture; a linear grey steel figure by Antony Gormley; something blobby in shiny stainless steel on the floor; two bland grey paintings on the wall.

This was beginning to feel less like a coincidence. The house turned out to be a key motif, and the narrative returned to it several times for a number of important scenes. The title, however, was alluded to only once. It is in a curious and rather confusing scene, about half-way through the film, where Scott Thomas turns up at the opening of an exhibition at a generic contemporary art gallery. She is struck by a particular video work consisting of a pair of flat-screen monitors in white frames; on the screens there is something rather pale and abstract; occasional washes of soft blue drift across the surface. The work is titled Chromophobia; she buys it and has it installed in her house, and at one point we see her looking wistfully at it. But that’s it, and the work is never referred to or seen again. I have no idea whether this was an actual work, like the Quinn and the Gormley, or whether it was one made for the film. It looked like the latter.

As for the rest of the film, it is a complicated, confusing and ultimately dispiriting series of parallel narratives, none of which has anything to do with the title, or often, as far as I could tell, with the others. There seem to be two main storylines. The first involves various members of the ludicrously privileged family of an English high court judge, played by Ian Holm. They appear to own at least two crumbling country manors, work in the City and go deerstalking in Scotland at weekends, wearing tweeds. The son – Damian Lewis – is a useless lawyer being fast-tracked through the family firm. Scott Thomas is his wife, and they have bad sex in their minimalist hell. Their possibly gay friend, played by Fiennes, works for an auction house authenticating old masters; he has a habit of taking Rembrandt drawings home in his briefcase and then showing them off to spotty teenagers at the local comprehensive school near where he lives. When, in due course, the kids whack him with a handy statuette and rob him, they take his computer but – duh! – they leave the Rembrandt behind. The other storyline concerns a ludicrously beautiful, underprivileged migrant sex worker and single parent – Cruz, obviously – who lives in a crumbling basement flat in Hackney, turns tricks in the City for rich punters – including the occasional horny high court judge (see above) – and drives them wild by wearing a nurse’s uniform that seems rather too small for her. Also, she has hepatitis and is going to die of cancer in a month, although she doesn’t know it yet. A badly dressed ex-cop turned trainee social worker – Rhys Ifans – does know it however, and so makes soup for her and tidies up her flat. There is more, including a corrupt peer of the realm, a dodgy eco-journalist, some cosmetic surgery, an electric guitar and a dead crow; but, fortunately, there isn’t space to go in to that here. Anyway, it all comes to a brutal climax as a group of Black Hawk attack helicopters swoop in over the city and dispatch heat-seeking missiles into the cold heart of the minimalist interior, blasting the Quinn into a million super-slo-mo pieces. Then they stage a daring split-screen rescue of the ailing ‘nurse’ Cruz, so as to whisk her off to a top secret cancer-treatment facility in the Welsh mountains, where she might live happily ever after with her dopey social worker. OK, so I made up the ending about the helicopters, because I can’t remember the actual ending, and after a couple of hours in a near empty screen of a vile West End multiplex just before Christmas, with muffled explosions from Die Hard 8.0 rumbling through the wall, it’s difficult not to fantasize a little.

I sat through the end credits a somewhat bewildered, looking for acknowledgements, but found only a reference to the White Cube gallery, which, in a selfless act of blatant product placement, had supplied the works of art for the minimalist interior, which were all by gallery artists. And that was it. I left the cinema still feeling confused but less and less flattered. But then, what did I expect? Would I have felt better if the film had been any good? I really don’t know. Was I surprised? Was I disappointed? I’m not sure, because while I expect advertisers to lift ideas and images regardless of their origin or content, I think I hoped for something more from cinema – although I have no idea why.

On the other hand, of course, artists including Douglas Gordon, Christian Marclay and Candice Breitz have been lifting material from films for years – these days it is difficult to think of much contemporary art that doesn’t use appropriation in one form or another – but it’s generally done openly and knowingly. Thus a discussion about authorship and intellectual property is rarely a simple black and white issue in the arts. It should probably lead to a more nuanced commentary on notions of originality, on questions of influence, conscious or otherwise, on intertextuality, on creative exchange, the flow of ideas and cross-pollination between different art forms. But maybe I’ll leave that for another day. Instead, in a slightly less noble spirit, I Google ‘chromophobia’ to see how many entries there are for the film and how far down the list my book has been pushed. It’s not good. But I notice something: the name of a Brazilian DJ keeps popping up. He’s called Gui Boratto, and he has produced a number of house and techno albums, the latest of which was released last July. It’s called Chromophobia. For some reason the situtation makes me think of a cartoon I saw in an old copy of Private Eye. An elderly couple are waiting patiently at a bus stop; they are looking towards a group of grotesque horses that are galloping towards them; the horses are being ridden by horrible human skeletons. ‘Typical’, the old man says. ‘You wait all day for a Horseman of the Apocalypse, then four come along at once.’