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The Nine Best Quotes from Martin Scorsese’s Essay on the Language of Cinema

The Nine Best Quotes from Martin Scorsese's Essay on the Language of Cinema

Martin Scorsese pens an inspiring, spiritual, and comprehensive essay for The New York Review of Books called “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema.” He meditates on the history of cinema, its impact on the humanities, and his own personal connections to different aspects of film. Of course, Scorsese’s activism for film preservation is a beating subtext throughout the essay. 

The whole thing is worth a read, but we have selected some key highlights from the original piece. 

  • And I realize now that the warmth of that connection with my family and with the images on the screen gave me something very precious. We were experiencing something fundamental together. We were living through the emotional truths on the screen, often in coded form, which these films from the 1940s and 1950s sometimes expressed in small things: gestures, glances, reactions between the characters, light, shadow. These were things that we normally couldn’t discuss or wouldn’t discuss or even acknowledge in our lives. And that’s actually part of the wonder. Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as “fantasy” and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it’s not life—it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.

  • The desire to make images move, the need to capture movement, seemed to be with us 30,000 years ago in the cave paintings at Chauvet–in one image a bison appears to have multiple sets of legs, and perhaps that was the artist’s way of creating the impression of movement. I think this need to recreate movement is a mystical urge. It’s an attempt to capture the mystery of who and what we are, and then to contemplate that mystery.

  • All beginnings are unfathomable–the beginning of human history, the beginning of cinema.

  • Over the years, the Lumieres and Melies have been consistently portrayed as opposites–the idea is that one filmed reality and the other created special effects. Of course this kind of distinction is made all the time–it’s a way of simplifying history. But in essence they were both heading in the same direction, just taking different roads–they were taking reality and interpreting it, reshaping it, and trying to find meaning in it.

  • You’re seeing it all in your mind’s eye, you’re inferring it. And this is the fourth aspect of cinema that’s so special. That inference. The image in the mind’s eye… For me it’s where the obsession began. It’s what keeps me going, it never fails to excite me. Because you take one shot, you put it together with another shot, and you experience a third image in your mind’s eye that doesn’t really exist in those two other images… And that has been called, appropriately, I believe, film language.
  • We’re face to face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before. And that’s why I believe we need to stress visual literacy in our schools. Young people need to understand that not all images are there to be consumed like fast food and then forgotten–we need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.

  • So not only do we have to preserve everything, but most importantly, we can’t afford to let ourselves be guided by contemporary cultural standards–particularly now. There was a time when the average person wasn’t even aware of box office grosses. But since the 1980s, it’s become a kind of sport—and really, a form of judgment. It culturally trivializes film.
  • We have to remember: we may think we know what’s going to last and what isn’t. We may feel absolutely sure of ourselves, but we really don’t know, we can’t know. We have to remember Vertigo, and the Civil War plates, and that Sumerian tablet. And we also have to remember that Moby-Dick sold very few copies when it was printed in 1851, that many of the copies that weren’t sold were destroyed in a warehouse fire, that it was dismissed by many, and that Herman Melville’s greatest novel, one of the greatest works in literature, was only reclaimed in the 1920s.
  • Someone born today will see the picture with completely different eyes and a whole other frame of reference, different values, uninhibited by the biases of the time when it was made. You see the world through your own time–which means that some values disappear, and some values come into closer focus. Same film, same images, but in the case of a great film the power–a timeless power that really can’t be articulated–is there even when the context has completely changed.

The full essay is here, at the New York Review of Books

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Scorsese sounds the clarion call for preservation, but it's a mission that becomes much harder when "films" are no longer made on film. What form does a movie most often take these days? A hard drive? A memory card? A disc? A tape? Formats that are much more ephemeral than 35mm film ever was. For over 100 years 35mm films could be viewed on a projector. How will we view something on a hard drive in ten years or even five, or two, after the technology has changed? Techies offer a solution that sounds perfectly simple to them: back everything up in whatever new format appears. But who is going to do that? Who takes charge of that? Who keeps track of it? Which version gets backed up? These are big jobs and it's a safe bet that most production companies and studios don't have departments devoted to them. And how many individual filmmakers have the resources to do it?

And what happens when books stop getting printed and are available only on e-readers? Who's going to preserve the literature of our time? Future archaeologists will find plenty of material from the 20th century they can examine and study. Books and photographs on good photographic paper will last. Even without a projector they will be able to figure out how a reel of film works and reverse engineer a method to view it. But the 21st century will be a complete blank to them since they will be unable to figure out how to decode the formats from our current era.


Have ANY of the 70's Show wunderkind managed to
pass the threshold into the next level artistically?

And where are the second thought, not to say repentance,
on the 'content' factor.

How does one feel having basically promoted and celebrated the
mafia 'vision' without that old Warner Bros. morality of the 30s?

And beyond that —just the STALENESS of it all.


I'm surprised by the large number of factual errors in Scorsese's (probably ghost written) ramble, beginning with the circumstances of the "Vertigo" restoration. The old prints were fine; it was the horrible make-over of 1993 that produced the awful magenta color cast that now mars the film, as well as the outrageous, re-foleyed soundtrack, in which the gunshots now sound like explosions in a Michael Bay movie.


it's interesting that Scorsese mentions that Moby Dick was reclaimed decades after it was first published. I saw his My Voyage to Italy recently and I expected to learn something new about the history of Italian cinema but he only repeated what I already knew – that Rossellini, Visconti, de Sica and Fellini were great film makers. He didn't mention anyone or any movie I never heard of and that's what I was hoping for.

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