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.