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The Persisting Vision

[ 67 ] September 3, 2013 |

Martin Scorsese gave a great talk for the 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. It’s reprinted in the New York Review of Books and is on the importance of preserving our language of film in a culture that values little but the weekly game of box office numbers. A snippet:

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.

And for young people today, that’s what they know. Who made the most money? Who was the most popular? Who is the most popular now, as opposed to last year, or last month, or last week? Now, the cycles of popularity are down to a matter of hours, minutes, seconds, and the work that’s been created out of seriousness and real passion is lumped together with the work that hasn’t.

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.

Just as we’ve learned to take pride in our poets and writers, in jazz and the blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, our great American art form. Granted, we weren’t the only ones who invented the movies. We certainly weren’t the only ones who made great films in the twentieth century, but to a large extent the art of cinema and its development have been linked to us, to our country. That’s a big responsibility. And we need to say to ourselves that the moment has come when we have to treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress.

What’s more, he referenced one of my favorite films of all time, Edison’s boxing cats. Because of that, I will once again embed it. Maybe we should get Scorsese to write a guest post here about it.

Comments (67)

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  1. Bargal20 says:

    Too bad there’s no “Edison electrocuting an elephant” clip for you to embed.

  2. Aimai says:

    That was a great, great talk. I watched it on youtube at the time.

  3. rea says:

    We have to remember Vertigo, and the Civil War plates, and that Sumerian tablet.

    I remember one out of the three–what’s he talking about, with “the Civil War plates, and that Sumerian tablet”?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      You have to read the whole essay. He’s talking about Civil War photographic plates that were discarded immediately after the war and a Sumerian tablet that catalogs some agricultural business. In other words, things that don’t seem to have value at the time actually do have immense value and need to be preserved.

    • David Hunt says:

      I’d venture that the Civil War plates is referring to the fact that photo negatives of the time were on glass plates due to the technology that was used to make photos. After the Civil War, most, vast numbers of them were lost as no one thought that they were important. Ken Burns’ Civil War special mentioned that lots of them ended up being used to make greenhouses so the images were burned out of them by sunlight. I’m sure that Civil War historians occasionally bang their heads on their desks thinking about the amount of photos that were lost.

    • rea says:

      Well, now I understand what he’s talking about, but I’m not sure he’s making sense.

      To some extent, Vertigo was an underappreciated work of art when released–Moby Dick is a stronger example. The lsson there is, don’t be too quick to judge the merits of uncventional works of art.

      The Civil War plates, on the other hand, and even more so the Sumrian tablet, are valued today precisely because they were not valued and preserved at the time. This is most obvious with the Sumerian tablet–should we treat contemporay farm records as potentiallly valuable artifacts? But even with the civil war plates, a lot of what was lost seems valuable to us only because it was not preserved. Here’s 67 more views of the railroad junction at City Point–is our knowledge of the period vastly enriched?

      • Brien Jackson says:

        It seems equally worth noting that a lot of art that flops at first does so because, well, it sucks, and then winds up living on in posterity because someone later decided it was awesome, and then a bunch of nose-in-the-airs decide that it’s “high culture” and we’re stuck with it. Like Moby Dick!

        • C.S. says:

          Yes, a thousand times over. I love Melville, but I would be very happy if someone had instead decided “Benito Cereno” was the height of literary excellence, and required reading for all high school sophomores.

        • jeer9 says:

          It’s deeply reassuring to know that Brien Jackson thinks Moby Dick is not “high culture” and that we’re stuck with it due to the rule of effete snobs.

          Carry on, brave iconoclast – but beware of the etymological vortex!

        • rea says:

          If you don’t like Moby Dick, let me offer you Van Gogh and Schubert as other examples . ..

          • And then there is that lady who became famous for shoving yams up her butt. High art personified.

            And the guy who defaced the Guernica, entriway to galleries up and down SoHo.

            And then there is that ladywho gathers her droppings into Poop Pope sculptures.

            And the guy who built all those kultur kampfs for the summer vacations of the jews.

            Ignored but later worshiped geniouses, every one.

      • Aimai says:

        Well, in addition the Civil War Plates and the Sumerian seals/writings were rather limited in number by nature since there were fewer people then and fewer people using the technology. Is that still true? To a film buff, yes, given the fact that despite the large number of copies of any given film when the medium is changed and the originals are trashed that might change.

      • N__B says:

        Here’s 67 more views of the railroad junction at City Point–is our knowledge of the period vastly enriched?

        Vastly enriched? Probably not. But you never know what you will find: I’ve recently been doing some construction history research, and among the endless late-19th, early-20th C views of lower Broadway in NY that the Library of Congress has put on line, I’ve been able to cull real historical info from some shots. But not all of them have been useful. You never know which ones will be important to someone doing research.

        It’s the old line about software: Everyone only uses twenty percent of the features, but everyone uses a different twenty percent.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Yes, we have been vastly enriched by seeing those shots. I can talk about the streets of New York during the early 20th century. For the students, it means about 20% of what showing silent films of the period that are filmed on the streets of New York does.

          • N__B says:

            My wording may have been lagging behind my figure-eight train of thought: we’re in agreement on the importance of saving any images we still have.

            • rea says:

              I quite agree that what survives ought to be preserved, and that anything that gives us insight into the structrue of everyday life in the past is fascinating. But the point is, that gives us no guidance for a program of preserving contemporary objects. Our household garbage will be of tremendous itnerest to future archeologists, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start saving it.

  4. But the cinema we’re talking about here—Edison, the Lumière brothers, Méliès, Porter, all the way through Griffith and on to Kubrick—that’s really almost gone. It’s been overwhelmed by moving images coming at us all the time and absolutely everywhere, even faster than the visions coming at the astronaut in the Kubrick picture. And we have no choice but to treat all these moving images coming at us as a language. We need to be able to understand what we’re seeing and find the tools to sort it all out.

    Splendid article, thank you for sharing.

    “The Departed” is one of my favorite films, and “Hugo” opened a vast, rich world for the offspring that might’ve remained hidden forever.

  5. LeeEsq says:

    When my parents were in college and their twenties, this would be in the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s, they tell me at the seeing foreign movies and art house movies was something of a required experience in order to be cool. I’m not really sure how accurate this is, they might be looking at things through rose-tinted glasses but it seems kind of accurate. During a lot of the mid-20th century, there seemed to be an assumption that people should be at least some what acquinted with high culture.

    In the beggining of Lolita, there is a seen where Lolita’s mother is attempting to impress/seduce Humbert Humbert with her cultural knowledge. Naturally, this is mocked and she is presented as kind of being over her head but at the same time it was a sign that in order to be considered educated you needed to have some sort of knowledge of high culture even if it was over your head.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      During a lot of the mid-20th century, there seemed to be an assumption that people should be at least some what acquinted with high culture.

      This was before Duck Dynasty, remember. We forget how impoverished their world was back then.

    • Richard says:

      I’m of the same age as your parents – went to college from 64 to 68. If you were cool, you had to go to the art house cinema (or to campus film society showings)to see Truffaut, Godard, etc and to see earlier American films. You really had no option. You simply could not be considered even remotely cool without knowing a little about French cinema.

      Some of the great movie experiences of my life -Breathless, 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, etc. Also some of the worst – Muriel (an Alan Resnais movie which is one of the few movies I’ve ever walked out of), Zabriskie Point, etc.

      • Lee Rudolph says:

        I’m having trouble with the word “cool” here. I was never cool. I don’t remember anyone in my circle at high school (James Ford Rhodes, Cleveland, OH, class of 1965) who was cool. (There were a few kids who were cool; took heroin, talked loudly on the city bus about fucking sheep, that kind of thing. But they weren’t in my circle.) We were wonks (though I didn’t learn that word until the next year, at college), or (I guess) geeks, or nerds (but those two words weren’t there), or something; but decidedly not cool. In 1965, one of them (one of only a small handful whose parents were actually upwardly mobile; their fathers were junior executives, and their mothers didn’t work outside the home!!!) who was, in some sense, my best friend then, got me to go with him to see David and Lisa, and Lord of the Flies, at the (only) art house on the West Side. When I got to college I fell in among the wonks, some of whom (I can see in retrospect) actually did aspire also to cool; but they weren’t (and therefore I wasn’t) going to “campus film society showings” (the only one of which that I ever did go to being Lolita): they were going to (and, occasionally, getting me to go to New York City to pick up the reels for) the experimental film club. Ed Emshwiller! Flaming Creatures!! The wozzname brothers!!!

        It all washed over me and I came out, at the end, no cooler than I had ever been. But I’m glad, at least, that someone else here publicly admits that Zabriskie Point was a worst-experience-movie.

        By the way, if you wonder what my point is, so do I.

      • LeeEsq says:

        One of the problems is that we no longer have these expectations. Until relatively recently, in order to be considered cool you needed to at least try high culture. You had to kind of know who Bergman, Truffaut, and Kurosawa was. In literature you needed to make at attempt at Joyce, Wolf, Lawrence, and Mishima.

        Sometime between the 1970s and the now, this expectation disappeared. Partly this was because of the explosive growth in geek culture and the increasing easiness of masterful special effects. This made spectacle a lot easier to achieve.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Yeah, I think the rise of geek culture is pretty fundamental to this. I don’t much care for any of geek culture, unfortunately. Instead, I feel about 25 years older than I am.

          • I enjoy geek culture and I still feel 25 years older than I am.

          • LeeEsq says:

            Its almost a form of revenge against literary authors for refusing to take science fiction seriously for so long.* I used to be really into geek culture but it became less and less interesting and exciting over time.

            *Although there is a curious anti-intellectualism that emerges when people take science fiction and fantasy seriously and fans do not like the analysis. We saw this when Avatar was attacked for its mighty whitey message of sorts.

            • Another Holocene Human says:

              That was just some peoples’ privilege speaking.

              There has always been serious analysis within the scifi world. You just need to know where to look. You don’t get that many highly overeducated people together without people trying to analyze it all in detail.

              The wounded screamers are either adolescents or arrested development cases and oh yeah, spec fic is full of those because it can attract those kind of people, exactly the reason it was dismissed by literary sorts from the get-go, stupid adolescent fiction for adolescent minds.

    • Linnaeus says:

      This is probably a class thing, too. Neither my parents nor anyone they knew would have considered watching foreign or art house movies as a requirement to be cool. Which doesn’t mean that they never saw them or wouldn’t have liked them, just that it wasn’t a talisman for them.

      • LeeEsq says:

        My parents were just typical middle-class baby boomers from the NYC area. My paternal grandfather worked for his father-in-law and then the IRS. My maternal grandfather was a draftsman.

  6. Brien Jackson says:

    I know none of these young people Scorsese is apparently cavorting with.

  7. Todd says:

    I love how “Hugo”, a film largely constructed for intellectually curious children, almost completely transforms into a fable about the importance of preserving the visual arts.

  8. Dilan Esper says:

    To me, this seems very self-serving. Of course Scorsese is going to say that we need to treat American cinema as great art. Gypsy Rose Lee would have probably argued we should treat American striptease as great art.

    And why do box office grosses trivialize film? Have best seller lists trivialized literature? Do Billboard charts trivialize music? His claim makes no sense.

    • Brien Jackson says:

      Seems to me he actually undermines the point to with his “Hollywood=cinema” formulation.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yes, best seller lists trivialize literature and Billboard charts trivalize music.

      • howard says:

        well, i’m not sure they trivialize music or literature: i’m always fascinated by what makes something popular.

        but popularity is not the same as artistic merit (which is not to say that works of artistic merit can’t be popular), and insofar as artistic merit is ignored in the name of popularity, that is a trivializing tendency.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          I think the fundamental difference is that the capital investment in writing a book or recording an album is so much lower than making a film, meaning that the real effect of this trivializing is a lot higher for film.

          • LisaH says:

            Ink and paper are cheap, I seem to recall from reading Virginia Woolf, so women can write novels. Two different things are at stake here: preservation (and I love Scorsese for this, I do!) and canonization. We don’t know what we’ll need to see and talk about and teach later; we can’t. Save it all as best as we can. Let the canons sort as they do, and have a lot more to choose from. Because we need to save film the same way we need libraries of dusty, crazy, neglected, unread until we read them again books.

            It’s a public good.

        • Richard says:

          I agree. Neither Billboard nor Variety claim that their charts establish artistic merit. They establish what movies and records are most listened to or watched or make the most money. That is interesting to some folks and not to others but it doesn’t trivialize the movies or records that make the list or dont.

          • C.S. says:

            I think the fundamental difference is that the capital investment in writing a book or recording an album is so much lower than making a film, meaning that the real effect of this trivializing is a lot higher for film.

            Neither Billboard nor Variety claim that their charts establish artistic merit.

            But National Book Awards, Pulitzers and the like do claim to establish – or at least recognize – artistic merit. And yet, they tend to recognize dreck to the same extent as the Academy Awards. To a greater extent, I would say. And . . . what were we talking about again?

    • Bill Murray says:

      Have best seller lists trivialized literature? Do Billboard charts trivialize music?

      yes. they change the focus of what’s important from my enjoyment to units sold

      • Breadbaker says:

        We were just noticing how much of the limited space in the NY Times Book Review is taken up with redundant and meaningless lists, like identical ones covering all sales including eBooks and covering only hardcovers. That is exactly what should be available only on a website and more book should be reviewed, but instead we get far more of those lists than we did previously.

    • Aimai says:

      I think “self serving” is just a weird way to look at what he’s saying or rather, its besides the point. He makes a damned good argument for why he cares, and why we should care. That he, in some sense, is standing up for his art is utterly besides the point. Its like dismissing an important political book with “well, he has a book to sell.” If anyone has made enough fame and money to not give a flying fuck about the illusory prestige of lecturing people about his art its Scorcese. The man is perfectly sincere and simply enthusiastic about a personal pleasure which he wishes to guarantee to more people.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        What do you mean? Marx didn’t actually care about workers, he was just engaged in self-serving promotion of his ideas.

      • Dilan Esper says:

        We know he cares.

        But with respect to why we should care, I’m not impressed at a film director arguing that what he does is important.

        And “sincerity” is not really the point. Most people who argue from self-interest feel they are being sincere. Indeed, whatever anyone does will tend to feel “important” to that person. But it’s still an argument that is tainted by self-interest.

        • Aimai says:

          Its not tainted. Its an argument. If you dont agree then dont agree and take the argument apart. But its not much of a criticism of the argument to say “what a jerk! He lives his work and thinks its important enough to the human endeavor that he wants to preserve the work of other people for posterity!” Your viewpoint is the very definition of churlish. Is nothing in your world worth fighting for? Because you act like you cant even grasp a fairly minor point in the favor of humanity–that people can love something, have a vocation for it, and work to share their joy.

  9. howard says:

    by pure random chance, i had an hour to kill yesterday and turned on the tv and turner classic movies had 90 minutes of edison films: it was fantastic material.

  10. Marek says:

    Martin Scorsese writes the best fucking essays.

  11. Breadbaker says:

    As a kid I remember reading some of James Thurber’s more obscure essays (though not as obscure as the ones you can access on the Complete New Yorker, ones that were never anthologized at all) and he would talk about some authors who were well-read and quite famous at the time but who are totally unread now. He assumed they would be as famous as Faulkner and Hemingway, but they didn’t make it to the early 70s (which is when I was doing this reading), let alone to today.

    It would be an interesting exercise to take not the #1 bestsellers over time, but books that never got above, say, #10, and see how they’ve fared over time. My guess is that the dreck/classic ratio would be about 1:50.

  12. journalmalist says:

    Marty reverently notes the importance of Light and Movement in film, but doesn’t mention Sound, which is disappointing. Even “silent” moviemakers understood the importance of sound in the film experience. Scorsese — of all people — should have mentioned Music, even in passing. His biggest films are basically music videos strung together as narrative.

  13. Another Holocene Human says:

    But is something nobody watches culturally relevant? Or just a toy for a small crowd of cognoscenti, some of whom are “into” it just because it’s “uncool”, like people who love bad movies but with less honesty about the endeavor.

    I’m not denying the existence of high culture or that a high level of crap is being churned out right now, but let’s face it, none of our historical great fiction was particularly subtle or terribly deep or not highly problematic, the exception being a few odd books of the Bible that aspire to be more than priestly hagiography, threats, and nagging, and the odd genius like Shakespeare who was able to get an audience’s attention for something rather unpleasant, subtle, even unnerving. Usually such material is a big flop.

  14. Sorry, pal, that train left the station in 1984.

    Get a new schtic, you bore me.

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