“Glassman uncovers networks of influence and inference, whole microhistories around the camera . . . “
Interviewed by Peter Cowie for Cowie’s book Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the ‘60s (Faber, 2004), Italian director Francesco Rosi spoke of the camera. “Our generation was impressed and dominated by the camera, because the camera was the means of expression. Nowadays, with digital cameras and very small cameras, it’s all changed — young directors are much more casual in their attitude to the camera. At that time, the camera was a mystery…”
The advent of digital technology has undoubtedly seen a significant shift in filmmaking aesthetics. Arnold Glassman’s documentary is itself the beneficiary of digitization. Recently released by the British Film Institute on DVD, it is a fine transfer of a rich film. But shifts also make us aware of what we leave behind. Glassman uncovers networks of influence and inference, whole microhistories around the camera, further freeing film history from the dead hand of literary allegiance, with its paraphernalia of adaptation studies, auteur thematics, and giving it back to the filmmakers. Co-produced by the American Film Institute and NHK, the Japan Broadcast Corporation, Visions of Light traces a cinematographer’s path through American cinema, interspersing interviews with some beautiful extracts.
“In the very beginning, there was just a camera,” a voice intones over footage from a Lumière “actualité We are reminded that, long before money, glitz and subtext made movies self-important, too complex, too remote, they were simple novelties, and audiences looked with childlike wonder at life recorded by a moving picture, what Griffith called “the wind in the trees.” However contrived the images became, Glassman’s film never loses sight of the ontology of the image, the sense that we are watching something through the cinematographer’s lens. Talking about effects and visual legacies, interviewees touch upon cinema’s materiality, the sense in which movies are physical. Not products in the crass corporate sense of a Dreamworks Release or AN OLIVER STONE PICTURE, but in the sense that men and women thought about them and crafted them with their hands, their minds and their hearts, that they worked a delicate balance of art and science as they coaxed the film into the world.
These reflections on the studio era emphasize the wealth of experiment and collaboration that we evoke when we talk about classical Hollywood, what André Bazin called “the genius of the system.” Interviewees give the old stars back to their best cameramen, those who shared their finest hours: William Daniels and Garbo, Lee Garmes and Dietrich, Charles Lang Jr photographing Colbert in Midnight (1939). Long before auteurist rhetoric clogged film books and the liveliest art sought admission to the academy on literature’s coat tails, films could be recognized by the look of a Toland, a Barnes or a McCord. Orson Welles actually shared the director title card with Gregg Toland on Citizen Kane (1941), we are reminded. As we watch the choreography of settings and cameras from that amazing tracking shot across the teeming street in Sunrise (Charles Rosher/Karl Struss, 1927), a long swish pan from Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Karl Struss, 1931), to the velvety dream of The Night of the Hunter (Stanley Cortez, 1955), the Parisian mystique of mise-en-scène so often ascribed to the director alone, becomes “an increasingly dark and dense visual vocabulary.” Black-and-white is more abstract, it emphasizes artifice, we are told as Lillian Gish answers Robert Mitchum’s cruel lullaby in the endless night. Perhaps this is why monochrome is so beloved of cinephiles, as well as cinematographers. I first became enamoured of the cameraman’s art watching the dance hall scene from Since You Went Away (Cortez, 1944).
Yet for all the magic of those decades, for all the workmanship, black-and-white still evokes realism, authenticity, television documentaries for generations deploying aged newsreels as historical verisimilitude. You wonder how classical audiences coped with Hollywood’s progression from monochrome to colour. We are talked through a long derrick shot of Scarlett O’Hara walking among the casualties in Atlanta in 1939 and I am struck by how the dry, dusty, washed-out scene resembles the old aesthetics. And as for us so for them. Thanks to magazine photography, in the ’30s and ’40s monochrome still bore the stamp of real experience. Comparison is made between the look of Toland’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and WPA photography of tractored-out dirt farmers from the Depression. Later on, Michael Chapman talks of preparing Raging Bull (1980), and being influenced by the big flash photography spreads of boxers in postwar issues of Life magazine (above left). As Vittorio Storaro speaks of the ghosts of Toland and Welles that haunt The Conformist (1970), we sense film history’s hidden arcs and trajectories. Watching this DVD, it is borne in on you that a movie is saved from the drudgery of official film history, the aspic of “classic.” when you forget about Oscars and return Lawrence of Arabia (Freddie Young, 1962) to the annals of cinematography, restoring its repute as the culmination of postwar widescreen experimentation. For years my parents and I trundled back to Lawrence for O’Toole, Sharif, Lean, Bolt. The cinephile in me had to strike out alone to see it as the logical next step from Charles Lang, William C. Clothier, Joseph P. MacDonald, and, arguably, Miklós Janscó and Michael Mann’s model look.
One of this documentary’s gifts is the desire it creates to go back to movies you never thought much of just for the photography. The Professionals (Conrad Hall, 1966), even The Locked Door (Robert Planck, 1929), an apparently static early talkie with Barbara Stanwyck and Rod La Rocque. Conrad Hall talks us through what seems (to me) like a newly discovered dimension of In Cold Blood (Hall, 1967). A potted account of the impact of New York “street style” from The Naked City (William H. Daniels, 1948,above) and On the Waterfront (Boris Kaufman, 1954), through The French Connection(Owen Roizman, 1971) to Annie Hall (Gordon Willis, 1977), will seem revelatory for those cinephiles who, whether they remember them or not, fell for the movies because of the ’70s. It took Glassman to make this cinephile see the similarity between Popeye Doyle chasing the train under the El in Friedkin and Annie’s ferocious driving!
Finally, Nestor Almendros describes the “magic hour,” that favourite cinematographer’s moment as the sun dips beneath the horizon and can no longer be found, but before darkness falls, when a residue of light coats the earth like a smear of milk on the lens. So fragile is the light that, while you take it for granted in broadest day, as it dies you see it as a thing in itself. Almendros is accompanied by a tableau of the plains at dusk from Days of Heaven (Almendros, 1978). I am reminded that once upon a time audiences and filmmakers loved movies because they let them see the light.