'Visions of Light' packs great cinematography between eyes and I's

June 11, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Visions of Light: The Art

of Cinematography"

Directed by Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels

Released by Kino International

Unrated

***

Before they are anything else and after they are everything else, movies are documents of photography, and "Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography" celebrates this reality with a great deal of gusto.

The documentary, which opens today at the Charles for a week '' run, rediscovers the lost hero of American movies, that glum little man sitting next to the camera, fiddling with lenses, complaining that the actors keep missing their marks, keenly observing the play of light and shadow on the ground -- the director of cinematography. It offers a tour of great moments in movie photography -- clips from 99 pictures -- and a pack of enlightening and amusing interviews with some of the best of these craftsmen.

The great stuff is here: the collaboration between Orson Welles and Greg Toland that produced some of the most vivid images ever put on screen in "Citizen Kane," and the power of those images as refracted through the eyes of a boy who saw the movie in Hungary and was absolutely blown away. He later became a cinematographer himself -- Laslo Kovac, who shot "Easy Rider."

Then there's a moment where the great Haskell Wexler recalls apprenticing under the great James Wong Howe and the pleasure he took (and still takes) when the great Howe said, "That's pretty good" of a second-unit shot in "Picnic." These men, you must understand, are basically gods, and so such eavesdropping is like hearing Zeus commenting fondly on his relationship with Zoroaster.

The great Gordon Willis discusses his leadership of "the New York School" and how, with less sophisticated equipment, he evolved a darker, moodier look, even though he was bitterly criticized in "The Godfather" films for never showing Marlon Brando's eyes.

The movie, a co-production of the American Film Institute and a Japanese broadcasting corporation, is organized chronologically, which has its problems. The past, as we all know, is very clear, and the film stays on track as it neatly categorizes separate eras and looks. It moves smartly through the early work of D. W. Griffith's right-hand man, Billy Bitzer, on to the glorious gloss of the high studio days, with stops to look at the tricks used to light and shoot movie stars (Dietrich had to be lighted from directly above or her face lost its beauty -- and she knew it; Claudette Colbert could be shot from only one side).

It laments the coming of sound, which suddenly limited the mobility of the camera and set cinematography back a decade. It covers the influence of German Expressionism. It watches the bleak but resonant black-and-white pictorials of film noir, which were never black-and-white but 300 delicate tonal variations of black and 300 delicate tonal variation of white. It covers the coming of color.

But of course the present is too close and much less clear. Thus "Visions of Light" somewhat tumbles into chaos as it enters our age, in which no school or movement can be said to have seized control, and nothing is self-evident. The last half-hour of the 90-minute film seems random and tedious as it simply and arbitrarily wanders through modern times, looting this moment or that for no great edification.

And sometimes you wonder of these men: Do their eyes have it, or their I's? It's not exactly a festival of modesty, though the old cameramen, who wore ties and were embarrassed over any discussion of "art" are to be preferred over the new ones, in T-shirts, who rattle endlessly about camera flares and existentialism.

One supposes a documentary on directors would be filled with old coots saying "Well, I decided to . . . " or "Then I chose to . . . " if no one else had been present on the set that day. Exactly the same is true of the cinematographers who chatter on as if movies were all cinematography, without reference to drama, performance. Stars are meat, to be lighted this way or that. The movies are all about color and camera work, never about people or stories. Occasionally you feel they're looking at the movie through the wrong end of the lens.

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