Cameramen and women discuss the craft and art of cinematography and of the "DP" (the director of photography), illustrating their points with clips from 100 films, from Birth of a Nation to Do the Right Thing. Themes: the DP tells people where to look; changes in movies (the arrival of sound, color, and wide screens) required creative responses from DPs; and, these artisans constantly invent new equipment and try new things, with wonderful results. The narration takes us through the identifiable studio styles of the 30s, the emergence of noir, the New York look, and the impact of Europeans. Citizen Kane, The Conformist, and Gordon Willis get special attention.Written by
Director Todd McCarthy had hoped to include an interview with the legendary cinematographer, John Alton, whose work is highlighted in the film, but could not locate him. Alton had quit the movie business after working on Elmer Gantry (1960), and for many years, even close friends didn't know his whereabouts, or if he was still alive. In 1992, McCarthy was shocked to receive a phone call from the now 91-year-old Alton, who had heard about Visions of Light (1992), and wanted to attend the premiere. Alton insisted that there was nothing mysterious in his disappearance, that he and his wife had simply decided to give up the movie business and travel a bit. They had lived in France, Germany, and Argentina, and had a great time. Alton died in 1996 at the age of 95. See more »
In movie documentaries, and in the public's awareness of movies, cinematography rarely gets much attention, however important it may be. Indeed, the public would probably never hear about the craft if not for the academic cover it provides for the Oscars ceremony; putting it in the award lineup gives those silly prizes some more serious technical credibility, as do editing and art direction. Thus when I heard about this obscure documentary, I was impressed that somebody would focus on this topic, and expected a viewing experience that would educate me (an interested film buff who isn't aspiring to be a filmmaker) more about this aspect of film-making. Unfortunately the documentary turns out to be more superficial. I thought "Visions of Light" would be more "illuminating" (pun not intended) and "enlightening" (pun intended).
The visual presentation mainly consists of a glut of shots from films over the years parading by in breathless fashion, and amounts to little more than celebratory name-dropping. These shots could've showed up in the context of some other documentary -- about directors, actors, or "great American films", for instance -- and it would've been much the same. Sometimes the montage is pointless. Why look at Quinlan strangle a guy in "Touch of Evil"? Is the cinematography more interesting for this particular shot? And what *did* the cinematographer or "DP" for "Do the Right Thing" do to convey the hottest day of the year through his photography? The documentary never makes this clear, and the clips from the movie become the random scenes of a promotional featurette.
What the documentary cares to teach us is not technical enough; the show reiterates that DPs employ light and shadow to construct a shot. Okay, well, I knew that already. We glimpse many DPs chatting with the interviewer about their craft, but often their talking is just anecdotes or "Oh, what an eye-catching scene that old master made!" I wished to learn: What kind of process goes into shooting a scene? What kind of buttons and dials does the cameraman manipulate? Could we have seen some videos or animations of cameras, lights, and other devices in action? Likewise, there is no narrator to flesh out the history and technique of cinematography; we mainly hear the DPs reminiscing.
There is only scattered discussion of a few techniques used on a few films. It was intriguing to hear Michael Chapman mention how Paul Schrader's script for "Taxi Driver" was very visual and helpful for guiding his work. I would've liked to hear more about how the DP collaborates with the screenwriter, director, and other filmmakers, not just that Orson Welles was impressed by Gregg Toland, for instance.
A few humorous moments include (1) Chapman observing how both he and Martin Scorsese talk rapidly, which made discussing films with each other easier; (2) Gordon Willis making a pompous fool of himself by casually comparing himself to Rembrandt.
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