Martin Scorsese is a great film director, but as this segment shows, he's also very well spoken and passionate about the history, mystery, and power of cinema. Scorsese's 2013 Jefferson Lecture, entitled Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema, goes into detail about the birth of cinema, the first films that made him want to become a director, and helps answer the question: what's so special about movies? Hit the jump to listen to an excerpt of his speech, curated by NPR, where he explores the impact of the inciting moment and why light and movement are so important to us.
Reading the language of cinema is like reading between the lines of a novel, or a poem. The information is in-between the images. Scorsese says that in-between any two images, the mind's eye creates a third image, and it is in this that the power of cinema is found. A filmmaker versed in this language can use it to evoke a very specific dialogue with the viewer, one we might not be able or willing to receive in everyday life:
We connected through the movies and we were experiencing something fundamental together, we were living through the emotional truths on the screen together. Sometimes they're expressed in small things: gestures, glances, reactions between the characters, light and shadow. Things we wouldn't discuss, or couldn't discuss, or even acknowledge in our own lives, and that's part of the wonder. So when I hear people dismiss movies as fantasy or make a hard distinction between film and life, I think that's just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it's not life, it's the invocation of life. It's an ongoing dialogue with life.
I think what Scorsese is talking about here is profoundly important for not only filmmakers to take note of, but everyone who consumes visual information. It's easy to take everything at face value, and there is an inherent belief in "If we see it, then it must be true," when visual mediums are simply another mode of communication.
The danger is in the passivity of the interaction -- absorbing images doesn't take as much work as, for example, reading a book. Today it seems we are bombarded by images, most of which can probably be translated to "Buy this now," and this fundamental understanding of visual language is quickly becoming a skill we all need to have, both as creators and as viewers, and Scorsese provides us a good foundation for beginning to think about images this way.
For the full hour-long lecture, including video coverage, head over to the National Endowment for the Humanities website.
Do you think visual language is being lost? Is it evolving? With the advent of image capture technology, are we actually better at understanding the distinction between visual mediums and empirical truth? Join the discussion below.