The cinematographer is often the unsung hero of the film business, with the director taking the greater praise. In this marvellous documentary of interviews with many illustrious cinematographers, and clips from their films, we are taken behind the camera and into their world. “In the best tale of all, William Fraker recalls director Roman Polanski (during Rosemary’s Baby) telling him to make Ruth Gordon only partly visible through a bedroom door. The shot caused entire audiences thereafter, Fraker relates, to collectively crane their necks to see around the corner.” Desson Howe, Washington Post (Cert PG)
Dirs: A Glassman/T McCarthy/S Samuels 91mins USA 1992
Tonight’s film is a documentary that will likely cause everyone who sees it to look at movies a little differently in the future. It is a film about cinematography, consisting of a great many great shots and sequences, commented on by the men (and a few women) who photographed them.
The only way to criticise a movie, Jean-Luc Godard famously said, is to make another movie. Certainly the best way to criticize cinematography is to show it. Here we begin with some of the earliest shots in which the artistry of motion picture photography began to pull away from the mere fact that it could record light and movement on film. At the very first, of course, filmmakers simply pointed their cameras at things, and then audiences gasped when they could see them. But then the lure of style began to seduce them.
Cinematographers such as Billy Bitzer, working with D. W. Griffith, began to move the camera in for closeups, and intercut shots to create an emotional rhythm, and move the camera itself – and soon cinematography was born.
In Britain, the cinematographer was originally known as the “lighting cameraman,” and indeed light – the way it falls on the subject, the way it is present or absent – is at the heart of the craft. In Visions of Light, many great cinematographers talk about their relationships with directors, with shots, and with the light.
It is always hard to say exactly where a director’s contribution ends and the cinematographer’s begins but it is always true that it’s the cinematographer’s responsibility to realize the director’s vision and sometimes, they hint here, to supply it.
Sometimes their skill consists merely of taking advantage of a happy chance. One of the most beautiful and effective shots shown in this film is from Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood, photographed by Conrad Hall in 1967. On the night he is to be hanged from the gallows, the murderer (played by Robert Blake) looks out through a window peppered with rain. Looking through his viewfinder, Hall discovered that the light through the window caught the shadows of raindrops as they trickled down the glass, and projected them against Blake’s face, creating the illusion of ghostly tears. “He told me not to move, and not to cry,” Blake remembered. The shot cries for him.
There are many other shots here, from Gregg Toland’s deep focus work in Citizen Kane through to Haskell Wexler’s work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which might have been retitled by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Haskell Wexler, since they let him photograph them with a distinctly unflattering realism, and the shots so suited the mood of the piece that it became one of their great collaborations.
Faithful readers will not be surprised to learn that the B&W cinematography, of course, is more beautiful than the colour. B&W, I believe, contains the naked soul of the cinema – colour photography merely supplies its clothes. In a segment devoted to Stanley Cortez’s great cinematography on Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), the younger cinematographer Allen Daviau talks about the reluctance with which the great cameramen left B&W, with its greater poetry and mystery, for the prosaic reality of colour. Certainly the shot shown from the film – Lillian Gish sitting grimly on a porch with a rifle, while Robert Mitchum loiters on a sidewalk – recalls the film’s almost surrealistic sense of horror. There is another shot in the film where Mitchum’s shadow from a street lamp is cast, stark and terrifying, on a child’s bedroom ceiling. The whole style bespeaks B&W.
The cinematographers quoted here all speak of the greater difficulty of lighting black and white but of its greater rewards. Of all of the crimes that television has committed against the movies, its lamebrained enforcement of the colour rule is the worst.
It came about because in the late 1960s, when most people began to have colour sets, it was naively believed that they wanted to see only colour movies on television. As anyone who has ever watched It’s a Wonderful Life or Casablanca on TV can testify, B&W actually looks better on TV than colour does. (The first network to return to B&W footage in a newscast will be surprised to find that its ratings jump.)
Visions of Light calls your attention to what is being shown on the screen, when you are perhaps more used to following what is happening in the story.
Look, here, at a scene from Rosemary’s Baby. The character played by Ruth Gordon is seen at the end of a corridor, on the telephone. Cinematographer William Fraker remembers that director Roman Polanski asked him to move the camera so that audiences could see only Gordon’s back; the rest of her body was concealed by a door. So sinister was the call and so great the audience’s curiosity, Fraker remembers, that when the shot played, everyone in the cinema unconsciously shifted to one side, trying to see around that door.
Acknowledgement: (late) Roger Ebert, http://rogerebert.com
Tonight’s film is a documentary in which the creators of the images and sounds that make up our films take a look at their own creative input into the art of cinematography. Cameramen and women discuss the roles that they themselves play in producing films and their influence on the final outcome. They do this through the medium of using one hundred clips from a wide range of films, including Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915), Do the Right Thing (USA, 1989), Citizen Kane (USA, 1941), The Conformist (Italy/France, 1970) and many others.
The role of the DP (Director of Photography) gets special attention. In addition, there are comments on the development of film over time and changing studio styles – the 1930s, the arrival of film-noir, the New York look and the influence of European films.
“From beautiful close-ups to sweeping crane shots, one comes to a new appreciation of that overworked phrase ‘the magic of the movies’” Gerald Pratley, Variety
“The older B&W films make for much more interesting viewing, the more recent works seem more ordinary by comparison” Anon, Movieguide
Directors – A. Glassman, Todd McCarthy, S, Samuels
Producers – Stuart Samuels, Arnold Glassman
Cinematography – Nancy Schreiber
Music Department – Diane Prentice
What an eye-opener! Left me full of admiration for a profession I know little about
Wonderful history of moving light and shadow. Less interesting to see American story perpetuated in violence [?]
Its great achievement was having the cinematographers talk about their peers and their work. However, the pacing made it a bit demanding in places – but it did make me want see many more films!
Excellent – we need to have some of those early films, please!
Lots of interesting shots from some famous films, many of which we’ve shown since I have been a member
Looking forward to seeing all those movies over the next century!
Very interesting and gorgeous to look at but a bit too long – found my mind wandering in the last 30mins
Good insight, which helped us appreciate the DP’s art better
Interesting introduction to the role of the cameraman
A great many striking sequences but difficult to follow because the accounts of many speakers were hard to hear and the extracts, in most cases, ended with a quick cut to something different. It seemed rather long but much of it was memorable
Interesting but difficult to follow, moving too quickly. Illuminating for a novice like me, though
I would have preferred more technical details and fewer clips
Educational. Some very clever people and some very ‘up’ themselves!
Interesting but, ironically, could have done with a good editing
Had a few interesting bits but too long and self-indulgent
Too much talk and not enough film!
Not my scene