Language of Cinema: Martin Scorsese's Essay Explains the Importance of Visual Literacy
I think the thing that made the greatest impact on me when I was in college was this strange concept, one I’d never heard of before — the concept of visual literacy. Understanding the historical, technical, and cultural significance of the film language is incredibly important, and in an essay by Martin Scorsese, he writes at length about how understanding it is not only imperative to create better films, but also for experiencing the intricate design of a cinematic story, and fully appreciating the auteurs who have managed to become masters of a widely foreign, albeit universal tongue.
Like I said before, being able to read a film has a range of significance in our world. Scorsese touches on a few areas in his article that explain how film language is important historically, technically, and socially.
The history of the “language” of cinema started, arguably, with the very first cut. I imagine it being like the first glottal stop or fricative that set apart the constant flow of sound, or in cinema, images, developing a rich and profound language.
Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903 is one of the first and most famous examples of cutting. In the first few minutes of the film, there is a shot of the robbers bursting into the train depot office. In the background we can see a train pulling in, and in the next shot, we’re outside with the robbers as the train comes to a stop near them. The significance of that is that the audience realized that the train in the first shot was the same one that was in the second, and it all happened in one action (it didn’t pull in twice.)
Further along the timeline, filmmakers continued to advance and add to the language of film. D.W. Griffith managed to weave together 4 separate storylines by cross cutting scenes from different times and places in Intolerance. Sergei Eisenstein forwarded the idea of the “montage” most famously in Battleship Potemkin and his first feature Strike. Continuity editing, shot sizes, including the close-up, the use of color, parallel editing, camera movement — all of these things and more began to speak to audiences and filmmakers in new and exciting ways.
These techniques began to solidify and become standard. The old way of making a film — one take or multiple long takes filmed in a wide shot — began to evolve into much more complex visual narratives. Films could encompass hours, days, years out of a characters story thanks to continuity editing. The shot-reverse-shot editing allowed for the use of close-ups and different camera angles. Certain shot compositions began to speak to audiences in different ways, giving the frame itself a life and language of its own.
Being able to read and speak the language of film as a filmmaker is a skill that must obviously be mastered. Everything on-screen — the lighting, the shadows, the size of the shot, the angle, the composition, the blocking, the colors, everything — is a word spoken to your audience.
For example the shot from Vertigo that employs the “Vertigo Effect”. Second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts invented this “zoom out and track in” technique, known as the “contra-zoom” or “trombone shot”. Roberts, essentially, invented a new word in the language of motion pictures that means “dizziness”, “fear”, “terrifying realization”, etc.
There’s a great Proust quote that my visual literacy professor shared with us one day in class, “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Films of the early 1900s were all about showing something exciting and different: cats boxing, a woman dancing, a train arriving. But, the filmmakers who developed the visual language of cinema were the ones who began to see things in a new light, and as they screened their films, audiences began to learn the language their films were speaking.
Today, filmmakers and viewers are visually literate, but not many viewers realize it. We, myself included, tend to allow the spectacle to overtake us — we get wrapped up in the story, the visuals, and the music. We feel sad when we watch an on-screen break up or fight between two people who had been close, but we may fail to realize, or at least consciously identify, that a lot of the drama that leads to that climax was created using visual queues.
Many audiences in the past took for granted this form of communication until the film critics that eventually ushered in the French New Wave, like Truffaut, as well as American critic Andrew Sarris took a closer look at the filmmaking of Alfred Hitchcock.
Scorsese mentions that because Hitchcock’s films came out almost like clockwork every year (Scorsese likens this to a sort of franchise,) his film Vertigo kind of disappeared into the heap of movies that came out that year. It wasn’t a failure by any means, but it wasn’t the overwhelming success we today would expect it to have been.
Today, the Master of Suspense is revered as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but it wasn’t until Cahiers du Cinema and critics like Truffaut and Sarris began studying Hitchcock’s work, decoding the film language Hitchcock used, that a more solid understanding of film language started to emerge.
They realized that Hitchcock had his own “dialect”, which helped develop the auteur theory. Without visual literacy, there wouldn’t be auteurs — the genius and skill of history’s greatest filmmakers could potentially be lost on a an audience that doesn’t know how to read between the lines of a film.
Understanding the concepts of visual literacy is not only a skill for filmmakers, but all who experience films, because films are such a huge part of our lives. Scorsese says:
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.
Scorsese laments that today movies are more often judged based on their box office receipts than on the artfulness of their execution.
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?
I definitely recommend reading Scorsese’s full article, which you can find here.
How would Hollywood and independent cinema change if audiences became more aware to what was being communicated to them visually? What is your most favorite cinematic “word?”