Documentaries offer behind-the-scenes look at filmmaking

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

It is easy to regard movies as nebulous events that stir emotions through vivid imagery and echoing sounds. The audience enters a building, the lights go out, and drama materializes before their eyes.

But movies are mechanical creations that involve hundreds of technicians, workers and specialists. Their magical product is a physical construction of labor performed under the domineering strictures of time, budgets, and interpersonal relations. What are the minds like behind the entertainments at the local cineplex? What hardships did they endure to produce such unique experiences?

Two recent documentaries about filmmaking take the viewer "behind the screen" to show the craft behind the creation, the madness behind the movies: "Visions of Light" (1992) and "Hearts of Darkness" (1991).

"Visions of Light" was produced by the American Film Institute, and is a compilation of interviews with some of the cinema's most skilled technicians: cinematographers, or directors of photography (DPs). They lead the camera crew and the lighting technicians, and they oversee the film's development.

"Visions of Light" is loosely constructed around the chronological evolution of movies. It follows the cinema's beginnings through technical innovations like sound, color, and the widescreen format. There are interviews with famous DPs like Allen Daviau ("E.T."), Conrad Hall ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"), Vilmos Zsigmond ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), Haskell Wexler ("Days of Heaven"), Sven Nykvist ("Cries and Whispers"), Michael Chapman ("Raging Bull"), and Vittorio Storaro ("The Last Emperor"). Their interviews are supplemented by clips from the movies they describe. The result is a fascinating look at the visual aspect of movies that will alter anyone's appreciation of cinematic form.

"Hearts of Darkness," is a documentary about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1980). It was made by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, who compiles her own footage at the time with recent interviews looking back at her husband's disastrous production.

The film shows how Coppola's film mushroomed in budget, suffered through a hurricane that demolished several major sets, survived a heart attack by its star, Martin Sheen, and struggled with a rebellious Marlon Brando who demanded to ad-lib all of his lines. The footage is wonderfully voyeuristic and includes scenes of Coppola lamenting the fact that he doesn't know how his movie will end, encouraging Sheen's grief during a drunken stupor, and Marlon Brando suddenly yelling that he "swallowed a bug."

"Hearts of Darkness" vividly displays filmmaking at its most tumultuous, out-of-control, and unmanageably brilliant execution and tells the story of a filmmaker who simply will not give up.

Anyone who loves movies should watch these two documentaries. The world of filmmaking is as conflicting, spirited, and creative as anything the skilled craftsmen could ever give to the viewing public.


I Like To Watch" is an arts feature that recommends favorite films available on video.

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