Forgotten Films

Visions of Light (1992)

I knew I would want to include at least one documentary on the list and it seems only proper that it be about the medium itself and that it should be the work that sparked my interest in filmmaking techniques and the nuts and bolts of the process and which would lead to me to eventually taking my MA Screen Studies course.

Visions of Light is about the art of cinematography, and features interview with a couple of dozen legendary photographers, from Gordon Willis to Vilmos Zsigmond to Conrad L. Hall, collectively narrating the history of their craft from the early days of silent film through to somewhere in the late Eighties when this film was produced.

It's a story of loss, about how the cinematographer was simply more expressive in the black and white days, how darkness, light and shadow could be used much more as a storytelling tool and to evoke character. But there were gains too, as the square frame opens to cinemascope allowing much more information to be present within the shot.

You hear about the work of James Wong Howe putting together his helicopter shot in Picnic and how NĂ©stor Almendros coped with Terance Malik's decree that all of Days of Heaven should be filmed during the magic hour, the forty minute window between day and night. Often there's a definite sense of the cinematographer's abilities elevating some pretty average material.

The only real omission is in the area of international cinema which gets just a few comments and a clip of Jules Et Jim to shine. The American cinematographers weren't working in a vacuum and although the connection is acknowledged, more could certainly have been made. It's a shame too that it seems to end a few years before the production date of the documentary so that what were new innovations then, such as steadicam aren't really covered, other than in a closing montage.

But even if the technical details don't interest you, there are the clips from a whole vast range of films, always illustrating the matter at hand. It's amazing to see the continuity between projects in someone like Gordon Willis as he shifts from Godfather to Annie Hall, and how certain men and women are hired because they're comfortable working within a certain locale such as New York.

The film was originally broadcast in the UK at the start of a whole season of films on Channel Four called Visions of Light, which included many of the titles featured within the documentary. It has since been released on dvd by the BFI, with, miraculously, all of the clips intact and it's really worth the trip.

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