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  • PG
  • Documentary, History
  • 1992
  • 90 mins

Visions Of Light

Visions Of Light


Using only talking heads and film clips, Arnold Glassman's documentary casts new light on the art of cinematography and the history of filmmaking


The director may run the show and get most of the glory, but in the collaborative enterprise that is filmmaking, it is the cinematographer, also known as the lighting cameraman or director of photography, who puts the pictures into the frame.

Though they are rarely seen on the opposite side of the lens, these unsung heroes of the moving image are brought right into focus in the late Arnold Glassman's 1992 documentary Visions Of Light, co-directed by Todd McCarthy (currently chief film critic for 'Variety') and Stuart Samuels (author of 'Midnight Movies').

Despite its slightly off-putting title, suggestive of a portentous film studies lecture course, Visions Of Light is an engaging and unpretentious history of the cinematographer's art, as told anecdotally by an impressive number of its practitioners, and accompanied by film excerpts that anthologise almost a century's worth of their finest work.

The selection of clips is dizzying in breadth and scope, from the hand-painted colour experiments of The Red Spectre in 1907 right through to a "tracking-back zooming-in shot" used in GoodFellas in 1990. While the rapid succession of stunning sequences can become frustrating, it offers a discriminating sampler of an extraordinary range of cinematographic styles and techniques, and might even inspire viewers to review some of the original films at greater length.

Naturally there are favourite landmark films for showcasing the cinematographer's special skills, including Sunrise, with its "crane shots that went on for ever and ever and ever", Citizen Kane with its "complete choreography of acting to camera" and The Conformist ("almost a compendium of all of cinema language"), but just as interesting are the observations about innovative techniques in less celebrated films, like Haskell Wexler's early use of shots taken from a helicopter when he was working on the second unit of Picnic (1956), or Conrad Hall's 'accidental' discovery on the set of In Cold Blood (1967) that raindrops reflected from a window onto an actor's face could be far more effective than tears ("the visuals were crying for him").

Similarly, while directors like Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese are singled out by the cinematographers for their unusual sensitivity to the visual aspect of films, it is just as fascinating to learn of more difficult, if no less creative, collaborations between director and cinematographer. Bill Butler, for instance, reveals that if Steven Spielberg had got his way on Jaws and shot the water sequences from a camera fixed to the boat, the audience would almost certainly have been made seasick; while Frederick Elmes discusses the difficulties of realising the ideas in David Lynch's brain for the exquisitely strange Eraserhead ("we would talk about how dark was dark").

Visions Of Light spans the entire history of cinema in more or less chronological order, showing the way in which developments in technology, the ethos of a given studio, the ambience of a city, the mood of a genre, or even the shape of a particular actor's face, have all brought their influence to bear on the evolution of cinematography. That so much ground is covered in a mere 90 minutes is down to Glassman's marvellous work as an editor, including some transitions (like the neat segue of a door closing in the noir-ish black-and-white of Touch Of Evil to a door opening in the florid Technicolor of The Wizard Of Oz) that, in all their artful contrast, would be equally at home in a non-documentary feature.

If Visions Of Light has a flaw, it is its pronounced bias towards films from the US. Apart from Vittorio Storaro's work on Bertolucci's The Conformist and a brief glimpse at Raoul Coutard's images from Jules Et Jim, European cinematography is mentioned only as an influence on American cinematography rather than examined in its own right, while films from other continents are ignored altogether.

Still, this is a mere quibble given the sheer volume of material covered: over 100 films, with spoken contributions from 28 cinematographers, many of whom in fact were attracted from abroad to work in the US.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: John Bailey, Ernest Dickerson, John A Alonzo, Stephen H Burum, Todd McCarthy, Conrad L Hall, Allen Daviau, Michael Ballhaus, Néstor Almendros, Lisa Rinzler, Michael Chapman, Caleb Deschanel
  • Director: Stuart Samuels, Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy
  • Screen Writer: Todd McCarthy
  • Producer: Stuart Samuels
  • Photographer: Nancy Schreiber

In a nutshell

This breathtaking documentary sheds brilliant light (and subtle shading, too) on the history and practice of cinematography. No lover of films should miss it.

by Anton Bitel

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