Following up its 1990 tribute to directors, AMERICAN MAVERICKS, the American Film Institute puts the spotlight on cinematographers in this ravishing, if uneven, documentary.
At its best, VISIONS OF LIGHT is like a visit with old friends. The films are represented in a cascade of clips that progress from the beginnings of cinema, most notably THE BIRTH OF A NATION; through the heyday of studio moviemaking, featuring stars like Garbo, Dietrich, and Bette Davis and
films like GONE WITH THE WIND and CITIZEN KANE; to the postwar expressionism of film noir and OUT OF THE PAST, T-MEN and THE BIG COMBO; to the advent of widescreen CinemaScope and Panavision, as the declining studios grasped at new ways to reclaim viewers from TV with films like LAWRENCE OF
ARABIA; through to the 1960s and 70s and latter-day cinematographic triumphs like CHINATOWN, JAWS, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and APOCALYPSE NOW. Interviews with some of the foremost practitioners of their art are designed to illuminate the way in which cinematography has expanded its range and
vocabulary to parallel the increasing sophistication of the medium itself. Thus is the leap made from the dawn of cinema, when filmmakers would frequently hand-tint films in the days before Technicolor, to Vittorio Storaro's enlightening discussion of the subtle use of color and light to develop
mood, theme, and character in such films as THE CONFORMIST, THE LAST EMPEROR, and APOCALYPSE NOW.
VISIONS OF LIGHT begins by pointing out that, in its earliest form, "cinema" mainly consisted of cameramen going out and shooting whatever happened to be going on, confident that what they brought back would be devoured by audiences fascinated with the new medium. It then documents the elaborate
efforts made to light and photograph the stars during the studio years, moving from thence to the anamorphic widescreen processes of the 50s and 60s. Focus later falls on proponents of hand-held camerawork; Haskell Wexler reveals that Richard Burton resisted Wexler's hiring on his first major
Hollywood project, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, fearing that Wexler's verite approach would be physically unflattering to the star. Bill Butler discusses how he persuaded Steven Spielberg to adopt the hand-held approach on JAWS, with spectacular success. VISIONS also deals at some length with
the process by which cinema verite and New Wave techniques were incorporated into the mainstream.
As is almost inevitable with a survey of this kind, there are some omissions. While widescreen processes such as CinemaScope and Panavision receive some attention, for example, no mention is made of Cinerama, the anamorphic process used by director Stanley Kubrick and cinematographer Geoffrey
Unsworth for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. (The super-widescreen Showscan process developed by Douglas Trumbull, another key contributor to 2001, also goes unmentioned.) A discussion of how improved optics and film stocks allowed more use of natural lighting neglects to include the achievements of
Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott on BARRY LYNDON; the Oscar-winning film was almost entirely lit by natural sources, most impressively in its rapturously candlelit interiors. No reference is made to the innovations in hand-held technique made possible by the Steadicam, first used by Haskell
Wexler on BOUND FOR GLORY (1975), or the similar Panaglide system, used by Dean Cundey in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN to capture fluidly the killer's point of view. While praise is rightly lavished on Stanley Cortez's achievements on THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, nothing is said of his no less
extraordinary work with maverick auteur Samuel Fuller; made on shoestring budgets, films like SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE NAKED KISS came out looking as if they had cost far more. One cannot ask a film like VISIONS to include everything, but space could have been made by cutting down on the profusion
of talking heads. Too few of the featured artists (Storaro is the most notably articulate exception) have anything of substance to contribute; some would have been best left to speak through their clips.
VISIONS OF LIGHT nonetheless offers a fascinating jumping-off point into the arcana of cinematography. Most importantly, the film clips themselves constitute a gloriuous trip through some of the high points of the medium.
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: NR
- Review: Following up its 1990 tribute to directors, AMERICAN MAVERICKS, the American Film Institute puts the spotlight on cinematographers in this ravishing, if uneven, documentary. At its best, VISIONS OF LIGHT is like a visit with old friends. The films are r… (more)