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Visions of Light (Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, Stuart Samuels) 1992
If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, when discussing the visual aspects of filmmaking, a snippet of footage should be worth a thousand pictures. One would think that a documentary film about cinematography in American films would be potentially revelatory, but there’s something lacking in the approach used in the AFI-financed venture Visions of Light. It should first probably be said that to an admirable degree the film succeeds in putting a face on some of the most important men who sit behind the camera. Thanks to an exhaustive series of interviews many of the most prominent American cinematographers get a chance to talk about what it is that inspires them.
As impossible as it is to cover the entire lexicon of American filmmaking in a brief documentary, I suppose Visions of Light deserves some credit for trying to cram much of it in. Using a roughly chronological approach, it begins at the dawn of cinema and proceeds until modern times. Along the way it makes compelling points about the major movements of cinematographic thought. It treats the pre-sound cinema reverently and many of the cameramen interviewed lament the invention of sound since it changed film from a strictly visual medium into something different. The influence of the Hollywood star system, in which most of the camera’s energies were devoted to making the star look as attractive as possible, is also presented intelligently. As the film spans forward through the introduction of color, the emergence of film noir, the invention of the Cinemascope composition, and the influence of the French New Wave movement, it seems to have use a levelheaded approach, even if the obvious is sometimes overstated.
Once the films that the interviewees themselves actually worked on are reached, however, things fall apart. Most of the directors of photography interviewed are too busy either playing down their achievements with a false sense of modesty or adding to the self-congratulatory tone that the film adapts (Gordon Willis, in particular, seems awfully pompous here). It’s unfortunate then that the film never allows the directors who collaborated with them to speak their minds, since it might have allowed more perspective into the process of creating these films’ aesthetics. There are some directors whose work is noticeably overlooked as well. Kubrick and Hitchcock each get only a cursory glance, and such omissions make one feel that a ninety minute feature is simply too short to cover a topic as deep as this one. Perhaps instead of this kind of failed omnibus, the ideal way to convey so much cinematic knowledge would be combing a book discussing these techniques with the actual source films. This might be terribly inconvenient approach for some, but filmmaking as wonderful as that discussed in Visions of Light deserves to be seen as more than just a snippet.
* * 1/2