Visions of Light – the Art of Cinematography

The art of cinematography gets its due in this traditionally formatted documentary (interviews & movie clips) that looks back at a hundred years of cinema, putting those who have spent their lives behind the camera finally in front of it.

Visions of Light talks to many of the big guns- Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis, Haskell Wexler- all who helped steer the direction of Hollywood cinema with their innovations and visual insights. For cinephiles, it doesn’t get better than this- crazy anecdotes about how our favorite movies got made, sometimes with mistakes that were left in and changed the course of cinema forever. My personal favorite tale comes from William A. Fraker, who tells us about a scene in Rosemary’s Baby where Roman Polanski kept sliding his camera framing over to the left a little in order to obscure Ruth Gordon’s face for a specific setup. Fraker couldn’t understand why, until he watched the final movie with an audience and saw the entire theater lean over to their right, hoping to see Gordon’s full face. So simple, so brilliant, so Polanski.

Released in 1992 and long out of circulation, Visions of Light definitely has its obvious flaws that peopled seemed to have overlooked at the time. There are no female cinematographers interviewed, save Sandi Sissel, a name you’ve probably never heard in your life- and even that interview is relegated to a single sound bite at the end of the film. Similarly, the only Black cinematographer in the film is Ernest Dickerson, who shot all of Spike Lee’s early films and gets to wax poetic here about Do the Right Thing. Devil’s advocates might argue not to blame the messenger, and that in 1992, the entire Hollywood DP field was pretty much a White Boy’s club. Which may be true, but hard not to notice 30 years later.

Less defensible is the fact that the doc solely focuses on the history cinematography in Hollywood, and ignores all the brilliant innovations brought to us by the rest of the world. Conspicuously missing are people like Giuseppe Rotunno, who collaborated with Fellini on many of his best films, or Raoul Coutard, who shot several French New Wave classics- two countries who advanced the art of filmmaking in many ways that Hollywood liberally stole from. Even when non-American Cinematographers like Vittorio Storaro are profiled, it’s for films that were big in America: The Conformist or The Last Emperor.

Had the film been subtitled The Art of American Cinematography, that would have at least acknowledged the narrow focus, though then you’d have to ask where are all the great American Independent films that pushed the art form’s boundaries even further (like Stranger Than Paradise). Other than a brief inclusion of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, all the indie greats are nowhere to be found. Given that Hollywood has perennially stolen from indie films as well, this omission is disingenuous at least.

But whatever; this is a film about Hollywood, by Hollywood insiders who want to praise the industry that has given them careers- an industry they clearly revere with all their hearts. If you can make peace with that, Visions of Light is a trip through the best Hollywood has to offer, and a love letter to the men that will never become household names like Spielberg and Lucas. Still, all those directors’ films are talked about here, from Buster Keaton to Kubrick, Malick, Scorsese, and more. Much more- check out the full roster here, and then watch a free insider’s trip down Hollywood memory lane.


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