John Huston’s searing 1946 documentary Let There Be Light plays this weekend at New York’s IFC Center. It’s a rare showing of an important, singular work in the great filmmaker’s career. On the occasion of the screenings (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), we’ve unearthed a real treasure from the Reverse Shot archives: the inimitable Kent Jones’s 2003 essay on the film, which originally appeared in our “This Means War!” symposium.
To Tell the Truth
Kent Jones on Let There Be Light
The gaps between rhetoric, intention, and reality open wide in John Huston’s Let There Be Light. Fifty years after the fact, you might ask: what is it? A documentary? A propaganda film? A semi-dramatic film with “real” actors, disguised as a documentary, an unwitting forerunner of the most interesting side of early 21st century cinema? This terrifying, bewildering, eloquent, synthetic film resists easy judgments. I would call it a piece of failed propaganda, a movie made for a specific reason with a specific goal in mind. What exactly gets in the way of attaining said goal? Namely, everything that made Huston an artist: his instincts, his extraordinary sensitivity, his way of honing in on the issue at hand like a water witch with a divining rod. In the end, this is a movie best understood as an artifact of that brief postwar moment when Hollywood wrestled with the truth, when the urge to cosmeticize was, for an ever-so-brief moment, automatically questioned and even resisted. Just as in fiction films of the period like From This Day Forward, Till the End of Time, and, of course, The Best Years of Our Lives, there is a conflict between duty to country and duty to reality, and between the re-touched and the unvarnished. Read the rest of Kent Jones’s essay.