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"Best Cinematography" is an Oscar that probably means very little to the average citizen who watches the annual Academy Award broadcast to find out who got Best Actor and Best Film. It means a lot more to industry insiders who know the value of the work, and is a winning buzz-subject for outsiders who want to sound knowledgeable.

But most of us could name only a handful of greats off the top of our head: Toland, Nykvist, Willis, Wexler. Visions of Light, a co-production of the American Film Institute and NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, attempts to heighten the general viewer’s understanding of cinematographers and their work. It offers more light than substance, perhaps, but is a lovely 95 minutes nonetheless.

The box advertises "more than 125 movies," but if such were really the case, and they were apportioned an equal amount of time, you’d get no more than 45 seconds of each film in 95 minutes, without any onscreen appearances by the commentators. Instead, I counted about 83 films actually identified and discussed—from Birth of a Nation and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Goodfellas and Blue Velvet—as well as interview footage of roughly two dozen cinematographers (from Nestor Almendros and Vilmos Zsigmond to Willis and Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee’s cameraman) and the odd editor or two. The extra 40 movies consist of passing clips of early silents, Garbo, Dietrich, E.T., Blade Runner, 2001, etc., which flash by but are not really discussed.

The film’s precis could be divided into roughly six parts: the silent era and German Expressionism; black and white, sound, and the studio system; the language of noir; color, wide screen, and the New Wave; the New York style; and "me and my movie." In other words, the historic discussion is reasonably coherent, but by the time Visions of Light gets to the 1960s and beyond, the interviewees are reduced to talking about how they did a particularly spectacular shot in one of their own films (and some of them are pretty spectacular!).

A minor quibble is that the film never explains precisely what a cinematographer does. Even those of us who have seen a lot of movies couldn’t say, exactly; it has something to do with the camera and something to do with lighting. Several interviewees in the movie refer to "DPs," but is Director of Photography interchangeable with Cinematographer or not?

We get to see a lot of evidence of what cinematographers have done, but until late in the film very little discussion of how, and even less of why. (Alan Daviau jauntily admits that cinematographers, acting on instinct, sometimes don’t know why they’re doing something until they see the final film all put together.) The makers of Visions of Light could have spared two minutes, tops, to let us know just what a cinematographer does and does not do, or might do, given the producer and director.

It’s a minor irritant when a comment in voiceover is unidentified. What’s worse is to see something startling and not be told where it’s from. Right after the discussion of the 1930s "studio look"—the gloss of Paramount, the harder edges of Warner Brothers, the glamour associated with MGM—there’s a dynamite sequence of a man seated next to a flapper and singing "in the shadows when I come and sing…" and then they kiss. A white rose in her hand gets tossed toward the camera, splashes and ripples, distorting the couple in mid-embrace, and you realize that all along, you’ve been watching them in an amazingly sharp reflection, and the camera must have been shooting upside down to make them look right side up. What’s that from?!

Another mistake was that whoever packaged the video threw the same lovely music that is used to open and close Visions of Light into a pre-film ad for the AFI. (It’s Saint-Saens’ ethereal "The Aquarium" from The Carnival of the Animals, probably most familiar to moviegoers after Terence Malick used it in the closing scenes of Days of Heaven.) Thus, we hear it during the ad, and it comes around again, immediately, in the film that follows, and once again at its close. This kind of overexposure damages the music’s effectiveness.

But the film does have the positive effect of driving us back to the great films, of making us want to see them again (or catch the ones we’ve missed): Toland’s deep shots in Citizen Kane; the luminous Dietrich (William H. Daniels always gave her 110 to 115 foot-candles of light so she would pop out of the otherwise 100-foot-candle-lit set, Charles B. Lang tells us); Conrad Hall’s amazing In Cold Blood shot of the light "crying" down Robert Blake’s face through a rainy window as he speaks unemotionally about his father the night before his execution; the underlit and underexposed Godfathers of "The Prince of Darkness," Gordon Willis; Almendros’s use of natural light during "the magic hour" (after sundown) in Days of Heaven; the astounding palettes of Victor Storaro (his discussions of light and color choices in Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor, respectively, are marvelous); and Michael Ballhaus’s ingenious, simultaneously tracking-back and zooming-in shot of De Niro and Liotta in a café booth in Goodfellas, when Liotta realizes De Niro is sending him to his death. The two look utterly stationary as the background through the window behind them shifts wildly, as a visual metaphor for the Liotta character’s realization that his world has changed utterly.

No surprise that the credits thank Lucas and Spielberg, whose films get prominent play in the film, but Akira Kurosawa turns up as well. Why? There’s no sign of any of his movies, or any Asian-made pictures (except Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, of course, which doesn’t count). I figure he must have helped his old buddies (they produced his Kagemusha, and everybody knows how much Star Wars owes to Kurosawa’s 1957 mock epic, The Hidden Fortress) in negotiations with NHK.

David Loftus


David Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com


Terry Lawler, Yoshiki Nishimura—Executive Producers
Todd McCarthy—Writer/Interviewer/Director
Stuart Samuels—Producer/Director
Arnold Glassman—Editor/Director/Co-Producer
Nancy Schreiber—Director of Photography

1992, 95 minutes


1993 Best Documentary, Boston Society of Film Critics
1994 Best Documentary, National Society of Film Critics (USA)
1993 Best Documentary, New York Film Critics Circle