Visions of Light Review

Financed primarily by the American Film Institute, Visions of Light is a glossy, well-fashioned glimpse at the art of cinematography. Its purpose is twofold: firstly, to provide a potted history of the form, from the silent era to the then present day (the most recent title being Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing); and secondly, to demonstrate numerous wonderful examples. In other words, this is something of a clip-show, yet with the AFI’s backing it’s also one which never struggles in gaining the footage nor is it left wanting for interviewees. With the exception of famed director and editor Robert Wise, every talking head here is one of the major cinematographers of recent times: Gordon Willis, Nestor Almendros, Sven Nykvist, Michael Chapman, Conrad Hall, and the list goes on and on.

Taken on simple documentary terms, Visions of Light is an extremely easy film to approach. Constructed solely from these various clips and talking heads – and without recourse to a narrator – it’s succinctly edited and never too heavy in its discussions. Certainly, with so many directors of photography on hand things are going to get a little technical, and in this respect they never really hold back (talking freely of fast stocks, negative space and the like), yet such terminology rests easily within the simple framework. There are more clips than speak and the overriding structure is that of a standard chronology, from the 1890s to the 1990s.

Moreover, this chronology also forms the basis for what is very much a popular history. As you’d expect from the AFI’s major presence, Hollywood is more than predominant. Admittedly, the likes of Gance’s Napoleon and Lean’s Oliver Twist do feature, as do The Conformist, The Last Laugh and Jules et Jim, yet they are far outweighed by the sheer numbers of American movies on show. Indeed, this particular history of cinematography is tied to the studio and star systems, such Hollywood-driven progressions as the coming of sound, colour and Cinemascope, and the European influence as opposed to Europe’s output in itself.

Similarly, Visions of Light never goes for anything obscure. The average self-respecting film fan will no doubt be aware of each of the films featured, even if they’ve yet to have gotten around to seeing each and every one. Furthermore, they should also be fully aware of much of the history as it’s presented here: from the manner in which the vast majority of the early sound pictures effectively anchored the cameras to Gregg Toland’s “deep focus” methods; from Marlene Dietrich being lit from above to emphasise to her cheekbones to film noir’s more abstract impulses.

And yet Visions of Light is also a film in two distinct halves. Of course, the likes of Toland and John Alton were no longer with us when the documentary was made and so the early years of the form are covered by those who weren’t around at the time. However, once we do reach the era of our various participants – generally speaking, the sixties onwards – then the film is able to take on a different edge. The history suddenly becomes their history and thereby allows a more personal, anecdote-laden account to come into play. Thus In Cold Blood, for example, is discussed not so much for its black and white stylings, but rather for a particular scene in which Robert Blake appears to be crying – and much the same applies to the likes of The Godfather, Easy Rider and The Day of the Locust. Indeed, we’re able to get closer to the motivations behind their actions and therefore their art. Needless to say, Visions of Light becomes a much more interesting film as a result.

The major effect of all of this is that essentially we’re offered up an alternative history of filmmaking. Rather than present the standard auteur approach, the director is rarely mentioned. With each clip comes a piece of text identifying said picture, the year of its production and the director of photography – when it comes to likes of Greta Garbo’s pictures we only hear of William Daniels’ contribution, not those of George Cukor, George Fitzgerald or any of her other directors. Furthermore, the amount of detail and passion with which are participants approach their work, and that of their forbearers, is such that we never particularly miss them. Certainly, Visions of Light is still a piece of populist history and as such works better as a primer than it does a film for the enthusiast, yet it nonetheless provides a number of pleasures and for these we should be grateful.

The Disc

Sadly, the BFI’s handling of Visions of Light is something of a disappointment. Of course, any film designed to show off the myriad forms of cinematography needs a decent presentation, and this isn’t what we get. Some of the problems come down to the film itself and therefore cannot be avoided. The 1.66:1 ratio, for example, means that any films which are intended for 1.85:1 have been cropped down to this smaller size (those in 1.33:1 have been window-boxed to fit the ratio, those in 2.35:1 and above are correctly maintained), whilst the quality of many of prints – no doubt really quite impressive in 1992 – appear less so to eyes more used to DVD restorations and the like. Meanwhile, the disc also presents them non-anamorphically, plus there are issues with image clarity, both in terms of the clips and the talking heads. Essentially, the appearance of The Wizard of Oz here, for example, or Taxi Driver isn’t going to live up to the DVDs of those films proper. That said, the quality of the cinematography does shine through; we’re still able to fully appreciate the efforts which went into The Big Combo, say, or The Long Voyage Home.

As for the soundtrack, here we find no major problems unless you’re expecting each of the clips to replicate their original showing. Everything comes in DD2.0 and it copes especially well. The talking heads come across clearly enough, and the clips do likewise. Of course, Apocalypse Now and its ‘Ride of Valkyries’ sequence may not be quite as dazzling as it would in the cinemas (or on its own DVD editions), but then this is neither here nor there. Certainly when Visions of Light was shown theatrically in the UK it wouldn’t have accommodated such considerations.

All of which leaves the extras which here amount to a booklet listing each of the films included in the documentary and their respective DPs, plus a 30-second Topical Budget newsreel entitled Men Who Film the World For You. Of course, at this length it doesn’t make too much of an impact, but it’s a welcome addition nonetheless and quite amusing in its own immoderate manner.

6 out of 10
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