Tom Maremaa

Notebooks

Some random notes, blog posts, memories and reflections

Language of Color

Every great city in the world has its own unique palette of colors, one you can’t miss upon arrival.

    If you've seen the red tulips in Amsterdam at the first break of spring, you've seen the city as never before. If you happen to catch the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., also in the first blush of spring, or the gentle fog of San Francisco and the magical light that falls on the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, you know you’ve touched the divine, the ethereal. The same is true for Prague, which I wrote about in my novel Entanglement and where I once spent a week in August in my days of youth, dazzled by the city's golden light, devotion to the arts, and generous spirit. I can think of a dozen other cities, too, from Venice to Los Angeles, from Boston to Rio, that are blessed with their own spectrum of colors. As a writer, I try as best I can to tune into the colors of every landscape when I travel because they tell me much about the mood of its inhabitants, how they express themselves and how they want to be seen. Writers are there to reflect and understand, curry favor with the locals, and come away with notebooks written in the language of color.

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    Painters, of course, have the tactile sensation of applying brush to canvas, living and breathing color; film directors do the same, yet on a larger scale. In Robert Altman’s classic, 3 Women - Criterion Collection, each of the women––Pinky, Millie, and Willie––has a particular color associated with that character, reflecting varying degrees of mind, and this becomes important when Pinky and Millie exchange personalities, and in effect, change their colors in so doing. Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) is one of the first films that I saw in which the colors of the landscape became a way of depicting, like Altman, the moods and changes of the film’s characters. Antonioni was one of the first directors to use a telephoto lens for flattening effects, as well as heightened tones of color to reflect a kind of existential angst suffered by modern woman (Monica Vitti) in the barren landscape of gray factories, post-WWII Italy, where everything appears devoid of beauty.

    During the month of June the midnight sun bathes the city of Tallinn, Estonia, in an almost surreal, golden light that magically illuminates its medieval towers and walled fortress with remarkable clarity. Blue is all around you: from the cool waters of the Baltic to the faces etched in blue of the folk who inhabit this wondrous landscape. Blue is one of the three colors of the national flag and symbolizes the Scandinavian coolness of attitude, being tall enough and strong enough to touch the sky; the power of faith and claiming one's past. 

In my novels, I owe a major debt of gratitude to the late great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy (Blue / White / Red). Art is about finding a way of seeing the world as no one has quite seen it before, and Kieslowski’s vision is certainly that, as well as quite inspiring in its storytelling, characters and diverse settings (from Paris to Poland). Language is my camera and the images I evoke, if they’re any good at all, are ones that appear with some intensity and vividness in the minds of my readers.

    In Tehran, which I’ve written about in my novel Entanglement, women are required to wear long black chadors, head to toe — well, not always black, sometimes grey or tan. Still, black is preferred, apparently. Black is also mandatory for at least one year following the death of a loved one or family member. The mood of the city itself is far from black; quite the contrary, it’s vibrant, bustling, smoggy as hell, yet, with its many shops and bazaars and beautiful parks, also full of life. Families may dress in black as part of Islamic custom or if they're in mourning, but at the same time, Persians tend to love the color black simply because it’s stylish and the ultimate in chic. Remember, Persian women (such as Firoozeh Azadi, the heroine of the story) are encouraged early on to aspire to the chicness of Parisian models. If you pick up on Entanglement, you’ll find a number of contrasts, as well as some contrapuntal themes and sleights-of-hand. That’s the nature of storytelling with the language of color, I figure.

Tom Maremaa