Film director Martin Scorsese has made an impassioned plea for young people to embrace the rich cinema heritage of America before it disappears.
The 70-year-old Oscar-winning director of films such as Raging Bull,Goodfellas and Taxi Driver was delivering the annual Jefferson humanities lecture at the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington.
In a speech called Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema, Scorsese said: "We're face-to-face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before. Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, 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."
Scorsese is the first filmmaker to deliver the Jefferson address since it was launched in 1972 (writers Tom Wolfe, Arthur Miller and Robert Penn Warren have been previous guest speakers) and he called for "visual literacy" to be taught in schools, as he cited a reference to Plato'sPhaedrus.
He said that films were a cultural artifact that needed preserving, because they "tell us who we are, ultimately".
Scorsese's lecture incorporated a wide variety of movie clips to illustrate the four factors he regards as crucial to film — light ("something at the beginning of cinema"), movement, time and inference. He used an 1894 clip from Thomas Edison's film studio, the Black Maria, featuring two cats 'boxing' to illustrate how movement has always been vital to film, and to show that today's cult obsession with YouTube cat videos has its historical precedents.
But Scorsese argued that to fully comprehend the language of moving images, it is essential to "preserve everything" from blockbusters to home movies, by way of films which may not look like works of art on first showing. To prove his point, Scorsese screened a clip from Vertigo— regarded now as a work of brilliance but dismissed by many at the time of its release in 1958 as just another crowd-pleasing Alfred Hitchcock thriller (below, with James Stewart as John 'Scottie' Ferguson).
"It came very very close to being lost to us," he said, adding that over time viewers can appreciate elements in a film that might not be evident on its initial release.
He also showed segments of the painstakingly restored 1958 British ballet film The Red Shoes — a seven-year effort in which he was closely involved — as he talked about the digitisation work done by the Film Foundation, a non-profit organisation he founded in 1990, which has helped save more than 500 fragile old films. Over 90 per cent of the silent films ever made, he said, are gone forever.
"Today we have some really wonderful tools," said Scorsese, who last week announced plans with Hollywood studio Miramax to make a television version of his Oscar-nominated 2002 film Gangs of New York.
"Just as we learned to take pride in our poets and writers, and in jazz and blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, a great American art form. It's a big responsibility. We have to really take good care of what's left — everything, from the acknowledged masterworks of cinema to industrial films and home movies." He added that "we need to treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress."
Scorsese said that when it comes to preserving films there is a danger in an era when a film's success is defined by its box-office takings, a standard which "culturally trivialises film".