May 2011, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour – Light in Cinema

2001 – A SPACE ODYSSEY, 1968

Light is nothing less than the foundation of cinema. Lighting and the distribution of light in filmmaking possesses far more than just a technical aspect. Light is a basic theme in cinema in regard to dramaturgy, narration and staging. Bright lights and minimal lighting, the casting of shadows, the interplay between lightness and darkness tell stories without words.

In 1927, F.W. Murnau gave his debut in Hollywood with the visually excellently narrated movie SUNRISE (Feb. 1 & 7, on the piano: Eunice Martins). A glamorous beauty from the city seduces a young villager and persuades him to kill his wife so that they can live with each other unbothered from then on. Intoxicated by love, he agrees to drown his wife on a boat trip, but regains his senses at the last moment. In an uprush of emotion, the couple, again in love with each other, travels to the nearby city. In a merry and carefree way, they experience the possibilities of the electrically illuminated town, indulge in amusements offered by elegant cafés, plush hairdresser's and ballrooms. Like in a dream, reality and visions merge. The climax of this magically flowing mise-en-scène is the seamless transition between city and countryside.

BARRY LYNDON (Stanley Kubrick, GB 1976, Feb. 2, 4 & 27) A period movie set in the 18th century about the rise of Barry Lyndon to the highest tiers if society and his subsequent fall to poverty and insignificance. Kubrick reconstructs this distant age with comprehensive meticulousness, culminating in interior shots illuminated only by candlelight. Yet this does not lead to drawing today's viewers closer to the foreign living environment but creates an obvious distance, separating them from the 18th century and imparting an unbridgeable foreignness. "Surprisingly, the result of this effort to create authenticity is not realism, but a strangely unreal, floating mood of light that, like patina on an old oil painting, turns into an 'objective correlative' of temporal distance separating us from the filmed scenes." (Thomas Allen Nelson)

2001 – A SPACE ODYSSEY (Stanley Kubrick, GB/USA 1968, Feb. 3 & 5) is a bold, overwhelming space opera. The movie begins and ends with light as the origin of all life. While at the beginning it is the sun illuminating the onset of the history of man, the last part turns into a hallucinating trip. The suction of colorful lighting effects, a pure orgy of light, forms the gate to another state of consciousness, in which the course of time is abolished, in which past and future, death and birth coexist.

CARAVAGGIO (Derek Jarman, GB 1987, Feb. 5 & 11) is an homage not only to the Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571–1610), but also to chiaroscuro, a dramatic light-and-shade effect that he brought to perfection. In his portrait of Caravaggio, Jarman makes use of this stylistic means to express the strife-torn life and art of the painter. Caravaggio enjoyed early success; the wealthy and powerful paid court to him. Yet he felt more comfortable among his impecunious models, socializing with hustlers and day-laborers, and living in a love triangle with the thief Banucchio and his wife, the prostitute Lena. His being torn between these different worlds made Caravaggio an outsider and a lonesome figure.

In M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER (Murderers Among Us, D 1930, Feb. 6 & 8), Fritz Lang did not seek realistic lighting. A vague, diffused lighting and empty shadows refer to the insecurity and fear that the wanted child murderer triggers. Repeatedly used motifs such as the empty stairwell, the view into a mirror and the strong contrasts between lightness and darkness visualize not only the uncertainty gripping the entire population, but also restlessness of the criminal, played by Peter Lorre.

TAXI DRIVER (Martin Scorsese, USA 1976, Feb. 26 & 28) The loner Travis gets a job as a taxi driver. Both fascinated and disgusted by the city at night, he becomes obsessed, after an unfortunate love affair with the campaign aid Betsy, by having to save a child prostitute and settle scores with the dirt and scum of his tawdry environs. Travis mainly lives his life at night, in his shabby apartment and in dingy bars sparsely lit by realistic, natural light, and thus corresponding to his inner life. Brightness only prevails when he meets Betsy, but once this relationship fails, his entire life becomes gloomy.