Martin Scorsese on Film Preservation and the Future of Movies

Review of Scorsese’s Jefferson Lecture

The National Endowment for the Humanities selected filmmaker Martin Scorsese to deliver its 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, a distinction NEH calls “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.”

Speaking to an audience at the Kennedy Center in April in Washington, D.C.—and to a worldwide audience that could access the lecture online as Scorsese delivered it—the filmmaker passionately encouraged his listeners to embrace film preservation, a cause the director has championed since the 1980s.

“Since that time,” the director noted, “I think there actually has been a shift in consciousness and much more awareness of the need for preservation, which is ongoing – because it isn’t something that’s done once. You have to keep going back, constantly, moving the films from one format to another, to make sure they survive, because it’s an endless process.”

The importance of film preservation today results, Scorsese explained, from a combination of the deterioration of the film stock on which most films were shot prior to 1950 and an increase in media literacy in recent decades.

“As Steve Apkon, the film producer and founder of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., points out in his new book The Age of the Image, the distinction between verbal and visual literacy needs to be done away with, along with the tired old arguments about the word and the image and which is more important,” Scorsese said. “They’re both important. They’re both fundamental. Both take us back to the core of who we are.”

Scorsese’s association with the cause of film preservation long ago caught the attention of film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who interviewed Scorsese, along with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, for a TV special on the subject in1990. The transcripts of those interviews were collected in a book, “The Future of Movies,” published in 1991.

The book’s interview with Scorsese shows both how much—and how little—has changed in the area of film preservation since the book’s publication. In the book interview, Scorsese expresses concern that film executives make sure they know what’s in their studio vaults, and he confidently asserts that the popularity—and profitability—of home video will provide enough incentive to preserve all films from that point in time. (p. 30)

More than 20 years later, he sounded less certain. Although advances in home-video technologies have bolstered the home viewing experience, they’ve also lulled film buffs and others into thinking that recent films (not to mention celluloid from the early 20th century) don’t need careful attention—if they think about the subject at all.

“We’re face to face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before,” Scorsese said during his lecture. “And that’s why I believe we need to stress visual literacy in our schools. Young people need to understand that not all images are there to be consumed like 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.”

Key to the issue is which films should be considered important. Scorsese, in his lecture, pointed to a comprehensive answer: all films, because we never know which films that aren’t well reviewed by critics, or well received by audiences, might be considered tomorrow’s classics.

For instance, take Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” released in 1958 to tepid audience and critical reaction, and then largely forgotten until the 1980s, when it was reissued and reassessed as the fullest exploration—thematically and visually—of Hitchcock’s obsessions.

“When the idea of film language started to be taken seriously, so did Hitchcock,” Scorsese explained during the Jefferson Lecture. “His [Hitchcock's] films seemed to have an innate sense of visual storytelling. And the more closely you looked at his pictures, the richer and more emotionally complex they became.” Some of Hitchcock’s films, including Vertigo, were withdrawn from circulation in the 1970s, but they returned to exhibition in the mid-1980s. However, the color in the new film prints was, according to Scorsese, “completely wrong,” and “the original negatives needed serious attention.” Only after film restorers Bob Harris and Jim Katz gave Vertigo the attention it demanded did the film’s stock soar among film enthusiasts, who propelled it onto the list of the best films ever made.

Chiefly, the British film magazine Sight and Sound has, since the early 1950s, put out a poll of directors, writers, producers and critics listing the best films ever made. Its first number-one choice was Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. In 1962, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane rose to number one, and stayed there 40 years. In 2012, Scorsese said, Citizen Kane “was displaced by a movie that came and went in 1958, and that came very, very close to being lost to us forever—and that’s Vertigo.”

The point, Scorsese underlined, is that “we have to preserve everything.”

“We have to remember: we may think we know what’s going to last and what isn’t,” Scorsese said. “We may feel absolutely sure of ourselves, but we really don’t know, we can’t know. We have to remember Vertigo.”

Preserving today’s films will help future generations not only see films the way they were meant to be seen by their original audiences, but it will help viewers better understand the values that shaped our current age.

“You can only see the world through your own time—which means that some values disappear, and some values come into closer focus,” Scorsese said. “Same film, same images, but in the case of a great film the power—a timeless power that really can’t be articulated—a that power is there even when the context has completely changed.

“But, in order to experience something and find new values in it, it has to be there in the first place—you have to preserve it. All of it. Archeologists have made many discoveries by studying what we throw away, the refuse of earlier civilizations, the things that we consider expendable.”

Now the shifting of video formats demands that film preservation stay apace of technological developments of the film. Some worry about the changes in film distribution and home video technologies. What’s being lost as the age of celluloid gives way to digital projection and online streaming of films?

Although Scorsese mourns the passing of films on celluloid, he looks forward to what’s to come.

“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.”

Hand in hand with Scorsese’s insistence that we preserve today’s image-making went the filmmaker’s plea education in the field of visual literacy.

Scorsese concluded his early-1990s interview in The Future of Movies with a call to begin the necessary steps to preserve film. “First things first,” he said. “Start restoring, start preserving the [film] negatives. That’s the main thing.” (p. 35) The costs of restoring and preserving films was substantial even then, but the required investment couldn’t be determined until we better understood which films existed and weren’t beyond repair.

Decades later, Scorsese stressed the benefits, rather than the costs, associated with the preservation of art.

“We need to remember that there are other values beyond the financial, and that our American artistic heritage has to be preserved and shared by all of us,” he said. “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. … 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.”


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