Light, movement, time and ideas: the persistence of cinema

‘Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream, it takes over as the number one hormone; it bosses the enzymes; directs the pineal gland; plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film.’

Frank Capra

Light, camera, action

On April 1, one of my favourite directors of pictures (his preferred term), Martin Scorsese, delivered the 42nd prestigious Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The lecture, entitled, ‘Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema’, is as great a lecture on the history of early cinema as you are ever going to hear. Not content being one of the most extraordinary film directors to ever pick up a camera and say ‘action,’ in recent years Scorsese has also emerged as a great film teacher and an activist for film preservation.

Like all discussions on the history of cinema the past and the present inevitably collide. And in any discussion Scorsese ever has about the history of cinema it is as much his story, his own personal, lifelong journey with film.

His excellent 1995 series – A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies – is a case in point. As is My Voyage to Italy, his 1999 personal documentary journey through Italian cinema. If you haven’t seen either of these films, I recommend you do.

Martin Scorsese - always happy to talk about pictures
Martin Scorsese – always happy to talk about pictures

Scorsese begins the Jefferson lecture arguing for the continuing importance of cinema as an art form. He says that whenever he hears ‘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. And, of course it’s not life – it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.’ Later, he extrapolates that ‘early filmmakers, the pioneers like the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison, William Friese-Greene, and the great Georges Méliès, ‘were taking reality and interpreting it, reshaping it, and trying to find meaning in it.’

I like this idea of cinema and life in constant conversation with each other, telling each other secrets, sorting out the world’s problems, together. I think it’s a powerful model and certainly, this reciprocity between image culture and life (the social, political, emotional and personal life) is one of the ways I make sense of film.

Scorsese structures most of his lecture around what it is he thinks makes cinema special. That’s a question I’ve been thinking about for the past year writing this blog. For Marty, there are essentially four things.

The first thing is light. He says:

‘Light is at the beginning of cinema, of course. It’s fundamental – because it’s created with light, and it’s still best seen projected in dark rooms, where it’s the only source of light. But light is also at the beginning of everything. Most creation myths start with darkness, and then the real beginning comes with light – which means the creation of forms. Which leads to distinguishing one thing from another, and ourselves from the rest of the world. Recognizing patterns, similarities, differences, naming things – interpreting the world. Metaphors – seeing one thing – in light of something else. Becoming – ‘enlightened’. So light is at the core of who we are and how we understand ourselves.’

I don’t have much to add to that explanation. Cinema is light, is creation, is seeing, understanding and becoming enlightened.

Secondly, cinema is special because of how it imagines and captures movement, the sensation of movement. Cinema is propelled by what Scorsese calls the ‘mystical urge’ to recreate movement.

Closely connected is the third element that Scorsese identifies as key to cinema’s uniqueness as an art form – its ability to play with time. Cinema captures a moment, a new way of seeing that moment, and the possibility that if but for a few seconds either side of the moment being captured, we’d see it, the world and ourselves in a different way.

Finally, and most importantly, cinema is special because it deals with ideas. Scorsese explicitly links this to editing – or the language of film – how a film is literally cut together and how you see it in your mind’s eye, as a result of ‘tak[ing] one shot, put[ting] it together with another shot, and experience[ing] a third image in your mind’s eye that doesn’t really exist in those two other images.’ Scorsese finds the possibilities in this endlessly fascinating, how ‘if you change the timing of the cut even slightly by just a few frames or even one frame, then the third image in your mind’s eye changes too. And that has been called, appropriately, I believe, film language.’

Using D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance as an example, Scorsese goes further:

‘Now at the film’s end, Griffith cross-cut through time, something that had never really been done before. He tied together images, not for story purposes or narrative purposes, but to illustrate an idea, a thesis. In this case the thesis was that intolerance has existed throughout the ages and it’s always destructive. Now, Eisenstein later wrote about this kind of editing and he gave it a name. He called it ‘intellectual montage’’.

One of the epic scenes in DW Griffith's Intolerance
One of the epic scenes in DW Griffith’s Intolerance (1916)

Connecting the past and the present, Scorsese laments the end of celluloid but is also practical in his embrace of digital filmmaking:

‘But cinema has always been tied to technological development, and if we spend too much time lamenting what’s gone, then we’re going to miss the excitement of what’s happening now. Everything is wide open. To some, this is cause for concern. But I think it’s an exciting time precisely because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, let alone next week.

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.’

Exactly one month after Scorsese’s speech, another great director of pictures, Steven Soderbergh, delivered the San Francisco International Film Festival’s annual State of Cinema Address, a speech that has now been labeled by everyone (including Soderbergh himself) as a ‘rant’.

Steven Soderbergh on the state of cinema in 2013
Steven Soderbergh ‘ranting’ about the state of cinema in 2013

I’ll admit that when I first read the transcript I had to agree – not that Soderbergh sounded bitter about anything but that his argument was slightly disjointed, all over the place, almost too organic. But I’ve revisited it and specifically read it again in relation to how it sits alongside Scorsese’s obviously more refined and thoughtful polemic. Now, I think it’s just passionate, and passion is under no obligation to be rational.

On first reading Scorsese’s speech seems mostly concerned with the past and Soderbergh’s with the current and future state of cinema. But look at each speech more closely and you can see that Scorsese is as concerned with the now as he is with the then, and Soderbergh’s lament is wrapped loosely in a longing for what has been lost.

Their common ground is their equally passionate belief in the need for a cinema of ideas and their fear that this is dying. They both ask us not to lose sight of its importance.

Soderbergh makes a distinction between what he sees as a ‘movie’ and what he sees as ‘cinema’:

‘The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.’

And while Scorsese uses the terms interchangeably, I believe they are basically talking about the same thing. Auteur theory. Film as a personal vision, as the expression of ideas. Visual storytelling not just visuals. Film as art.

Soderbergh wonders if the world is going insane. He dirges in his opening speech about watching a fellow passenger on a flight ‘watching stuff’ on his iPad: ‘And I begin to realize what he’s done is he’s loaded in half a dozen action sort of extravaganzas and he’s watching each of the action sequences – he’s skipping over all the dialogue and the narrative. This guy’s flight is going to be five and a half hours of just mayhem porn.’

Soderbergh’s not happy at all that this seems to be what the mass film audience has a stomach for – explosions, cheap thrills, super-short concentration spans, and intolerance to ambiguity. In a studio system run by executives who know nothing about cinema and cinema history, Soderbergh wonders what’s happened to art and ideas when we need them now more than ever, when we’re living in a world riddled with problems, where art, as he says, ‘is a very elegant problem-solving model’.

Overall, Soderbergh paints a grim picture of the state of cinema. But it’s important to remember he’s talking mostly about mainstream American film. As is Scorsese, here, when he worries about the way film is culturally trivialized and devalued to the point where it’s a sport, where it’s all about box office. He and Soderbergh agree that cinema is not about money. And he worries about a generation being raised to apply these standards to everything they see:

‘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 really hasn’t.’

I haven’t lost hope. I suppose it helps that for every mainstream film I see, I see two independent or foreign films. I see films that are both entertaining and contain an abundance of ideas. Earlier today I saw a film that I doubt had box office returns as its primary motivation, a film bursting with light, movement, time and ideas – the Portuguese drama Tabu directed by Miguel Gomes.

Tabu (2012, Miguel Gomes)
Tabu (2012, Miguel Gomes)
Gian Luca (Carlotto Cotta) and Aurora (Ana Moreira) in Tabu
Gian Luca (Carloto Cotta) and Aurora (Ana Moreira) in Tabu

Tabu is a love story told in two unique parts, shot in sensual black and white, part silent film, part golden age romance. Here is filmmaking that is playful, powerful and subversive. It’s an intoxicating film and a film that tests what audiences expect (most of the film is narrated in voiceover). It also tests what cinema, today, in this most cynical age, can be. Like a silent film, it reminded me of the sheer beauty of images, how they are cut together into exquisite textures and shapes that just reach out from the screen and touch you in unexpected ways. Tabu is wholly original (though some of you might call it pretentious) and I hope Marty and Steve have seen it. It’s a film that looks to the past to create the future. It’s a film, I think, that will remind them that freedom exists in art (and vice versa) and that cinema, all over the world, persists.

You can listen to Scorsese’s full lecture here:

Or read the full transcript here:


2 thoughts on “Light, movement, time and ideas: the persistence of cinema

  1. Well to add to this. I dont know what these both creators had painted the canvas of present film industry but i do agree with Spielberg & Lucas who had given a latest lecture in University of South California. They have predicted – “a “meltdown” in the film industry as more Hollywood blockbusters flop at the box office, which will lead to increased ticket prices and less choice for moviegoers. I think you should also have a post on this lecture. Well Blogger!! are those your eyes in the photo.

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