Don’t be scared off by the title. Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography is a kind of That’s Entertainment! of memorable film images, a reminder that much of what we’ve always loved about the movies is the way they look. This intoxicating documentary offers a cornucopia of Hollywood’s visual high points — and I’m not just talking pretty pictures. At one point, we see that famous sequence of Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, the one where he stops in the middle of the street, bangs his fists on a taxicab hood, and yells, ”I’m walkin’ heah! I’m walkin’ heah!” The whole notion that Ratso Rizzo isn’t just some quaint ”character” but a bona fide lowlife, an anonymous derelict engulfed in the chaos of Manhattan, is evoked by the way he’s photographed: at medium range, surrounded by indifferent pedestrians, the entire shot staged to make us feel as if we’d just looked up from the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of this loudmouthed creep. Hoffman’s acting is sublime, of course, but it’s the image that lodges itself in our brains.
The images keep coming in Visions of Light. For a thrillingly fleet 90 minutes, we’re given an appreciation of just how much the art of motion pictures has been shaped by its offscreen visual magicians — everything from the charcoal expressionist grandeur of Citizen Kane to the sunbaked documentary immediacy of Dog Day Afternoon, from Dietrich’s haunted glamour mask to the inscrutable glower of Brando’s Don Corleone (whose eyes, you probably didn’t realize, are usually bathed in shadow), from the whirling pop surrealism of Gold Diggers of 1933 to the psychodramatic camera sweeps of Martin Scorsese.
In addition to the clips, the movie features interviews with dozens of the medium’s greatest cinematographers (Gordon Willis, Vittorio Storaro, Michael Chapman), most of whom come off as disarmingly modest craftsmen. They’re a paradoxical, almost oxymoronic, bunch: aesthetic tinkerer-mechanics, men with the souls of technicians and the eyes of artists. As they relate stories of the movies they’ve worked on, the problems they’ve solved, the innovations they’ve made standard, one gets a full measure of the love and obsession that goes into the creation of motion pictures. My favorite anecdote: Conrad Hall talking about how he shot the penultimate scene of In Cold Blood, discovering — through a complete accident — an effect by which the shadows of raindrops reflected like tears off Robert Blake’s face. Here, perhaps, is a clue to the primal allure of movies: that they’re an art form in a constant state of birth, capable of reinventing themselves with every new shot. A