Martin Scorsese is a legend of a director — and he's also a great film teacher, a man who balances a passion for the medium with a deep knowledge of its history. Delivering this year's installment of the National Endowment for the Humanities' prestigious Jefferson Lecture — a talk he titled "Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema" — Scorsese demonstrated his speaking chops as well.
In this excerpt from the lecture, delivered April 1 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and edited for broadcast by Fresh Air, he talks about the early days of cinema, and about one of the films that stuck with him from childhood.
His parents, worried about young Martin's asthma, took him to the theater regularly instead of encouraging him to participate in sports. It was there that he first saw the 1950 film The Magic Box and fell in love with the pictures moving on that screen in a dark room.
Scorsese also talks about the development of cinema and the evolution of motion pictures — from the early photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge to the editing style of D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Martin Scorsese is a great director, but after having heard him talk several times about movie history and his favorite films, I've come to also think of him as a great film teacher. We're going to hear him talk about the early days of cinema. One of the early film directors, George Melies, was the inspiration for Scorsese's movie "Hugo."
We are happy to be able to present an excerpt of Scorsese's talk when he gave the National Endowment for the Humanities' 42nd annual Jefferson Lecture last month at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He started his talk with a clip from the film "The Magic Box," which was made in 1950. When Scorsese saw it, in 1952, it made a lasting impression on him. It's based on the story of William Friese-Greene, who invented the movie camera and stars Robert Donat. In this scene, Friese-Greene has just projected moving images of London's Hyde Park for a man who's never seen a moving picture before and is astonished by what he's just witnessed.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MAGIC BOX")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Where's it come from and where is it going to?
ROBERT DONAT: (as William Friese-Greene) It's all here. Here. Look. That's where the Hyde Park you saw is. Like a magical lantern.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) But it moved.
DONAT: (as William Friese-Greene) Yes, it moved, didn't it? Now look, look at this strip of celluloid film.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) It took me years to get to that - years.
DONAT: (as William Friese-Greene) That's the secret. Dozens of snapshots of Hyde Park - only in one picture the carriages here, the next it's here, the next it's here, the next it's here - and so on. Now look at the negatives. It is a film? That's what it's called? Comes from this spool over these rollers - that's the tension; you've got to have tension - onto the second spool down here. Now look in the middle. It's a bit like a magic lantern, but instead of one picture at a time, you see eight or more pictures every second - and that's what you see in that sheet there - eight pictures every second, and they all merge together into one moving, living picture. See?
(as William Friese-Greene) Of course, there's a bit more to it than that but I'm not thinking that's - far from it. But it works. God be praised, it works, doesn't it? You can see that.
MARTIN SCORSESE: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. This scene was from a picture called The Magic Box," which was made in England in 1950. And the great English actor Robert Donat plays the inventor William Friese-Greene - he was one of the people who invented movies. I saw this picture for the first time with my father. I was eight years old. I've never really gotten over the impact that it had. And I believe this is what ignited in me the wonder of cinema, and the obsession - watching movies, making them, inventing them.
Friese-Greene gives everything of himself to the movies, and he dies poor. He dies a pauper. That line - You must be a very happy man, Mr. Friese-Greene - of course, is ironic, knowing the full story of his life. But in some ways it's also true because he's followed his obsession all the way. So it's both disturbing and inspiring.
And then my parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I was always sick with asthma since I was three years old. And I apparently couldn't do any sports, or that's what they told me. But really, my mother and father did love the movies. They weren't in the habit of reading, that didn't really exist where I came from, and so we connected through the movies.
And over the years, I know now that the warmth of that connection with my family and with the images up on the screen gave me something very precious. Because we were experiencing something fundamental, together. We were living through the emotional truths on the screen together, often in coded form, these films from the '40s and '50s. Sometimes expressed in small things, gestures, glances, reactions between the characters - light, shadow. I mean we experienced these things that we normally couldn't discuss or wouldn't discuss, or even acknowledge in our lives.
And that's actually part of the wonder. So 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. And, of course it's not life - it's the invocation of life, it's in an ongoing dialogue with life.
Frank Capra said: Film is a disease.
SCORSESE: He went on, but that's enough for now.
SCORSESE: I caught the disease early on, you know. I used to feel it. And they used to take me to the movies all the time. I used to feel it whenever we walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother. You'd go through the doors, and the thick carpet, to - past the popcorn stand that had that wonderful smell - then to the ticket taker, and then sometimes they'd get - these doors would open in the back and there were little windows in it in some of the old theaters and I could see something magical happening up there on the screen, something special. And as we entered, for me I think now, it was like entering a sacred space, a kind of a sanctuary where the living world around me seemed to be recreated and played out.
What was it about cinema? What was so special about it? I mean I think I've discovered some of those - some of my own answers to that question a little bit at a time over the years.
First of all, there's light. 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.
And then, there's movement. I remember when I was about five or six, somehow I was able to see someone project a 16-milimeter cartoon in a small projector, and I was allowed to look inside the projector. And I saw these little still images passing mechanically through the gate at a very, very steady rate of speed.
And at the gate they were upside down but they were moving. And on the screen that came up, right side up, moving. At least there was the sensation of movement.
But it was really more than that. Something clicked then, pieces of time. That's how James Stewart, the great actor, defined movies in a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, that wonder I felt when I saw this, these little figures move. The desire to make images move, the need to capture movement, I mean, it seems to be with us. Well, 30,000 years ago in the cave paintings it show that, as you can see here.
In this image the bison appears to have multiple sets of legs. Maybe that was the artist's way of creating the impression of movement. I think this need to recreate movement is a mystical urge. It's an attempt to capture the mystery of who and what we are and then to think about that, to contemplate that mystery. Which brings us to the boxing cats.
SCORSESE: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, these are the boxing cats. This appears to be two cats boxing. It was shot in 1894 in Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio that he had in New Jersey. It was actually a little shack. This is one of, really, hundreds of little scenes that he and his team recorded with his kinetograph. It's probably one of the lesser known scenes.
SCORSESE: There are better known ones of a blacksmith, the heavyweight champion Jim Corbett boxing, you know, Annie Oakley, the great sharpshooter from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. I mean, at some point somebody had the idea that, you know, two cats boxing apparently is what went on in New Jersey at the time.
SCORSESE: Didn't say anything about now. OK. Edison, of course, was one of the people who invented film and there's been a lot of debate about who really invented film. It was Edison, the Lumiere Brothers in France, Friese-Greene and R. W. Paul in England. And actually, you can go back to a man named Louis Le Prince who shot a little home movie in 1888.
But then you could go back even further to the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge which were made in the 1870s, 1880s. He was just set and adjust, but he would set a number of still cameras side by side and then he'd trigger them, take photos in succession of people and animals in movement. His employer, Leland Stanford, bet him that all four of a horse's hooves do not leave the ground when the horse is running.
But as you can see here, Muybridge won the bet. All four hooves do leave the ground at the same time while the horse is galloping. I mean, does cinema really begin with Muybridge or should we go all the way back to the cave paintings?
In his novel "Joseph and His Brethern" Thomas Mann writes: The deeper we sound, the further down into the lower world of the past we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its history and culture, reveal themselves unfathomable.
All beginnings are unfathomable. The beginning of human history, the beginning of cinema. Now this film, by the Lumiere Brothers in France is commonly recognized as the first publicly projected film. It was shot in 1895 and when you watch it, it really is 1895; the way they dress, the way they move. It's now, the present, and it's then at the same time. And that's the third aspect of cinema that makes it so uniquely powerful.
It's the element of time. Again, pieces of time. When we made the movie "Hugo" we went back and tried to recreate that first screening when people were so startled to see this image that they jumped back. They thought the train was going to hit them, you see. And when we studied the Lumiere film, because we had to use the original, we could see right away that it was very different from the Edison films.
They weren't - these films that the Lumiere did, they weren't just setting up the camera to record events or scenes. This film is composed. When you study it, you can see how carefully they placed the camera, the thought that went into what was in the frame, what was left out of the frame, the distance between the camera and the train, the height of the camera, the angle of the camera.
And what's interesting is that if the camera had been placed even a little bit differently, the audience probably wouldn't have reacted the way they did. So in essence, the Lumieres weren't just recording events the way they did in the Edison studio, they were really interpreting reality and telling a story with just one angle.
And of course, so was George Melies. Melies began as a magician and his pictures were made to be part of his live magic act. He created trick photography, incredible handmade special effects. And in so doing, he sort of remade reality. The screen in his pictures is like opening a magic cabinet of curiosities and wonders.
Now, over the years the Lumiere Brothers and Melies had been consistently portrayed as opposites: one film reality, the other film special effects. Of course this happens all the time; it's a way of simplifying history. But in essence, they were both heading in the same direction. They were just taking different roads. They were taking reality and interpreting it, reshaping it, and trying to find meaning in it.
GROSS: We're listening to an excerpt of Martin Scorsese's 2013 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to Martin Scorsese talking about the early days of cinema. We're listening to an excerpt of his National Endowment for the Humanities 2013 Jefferson Lecture. In this part he talks about the addition of editing to the early language of film.
SCORSESE: Everything went further, was take further with the cut. Who made the first cut from one image to another, meaning a shift from one vantage point to another with the viewer understanding that we're still within one continuous action? As far as we know, one of the earliest and most famous examples of a cut is from Edwin S. Porter's 1903 milestone film "The Great Train Robbery."
Now, even though we cut - he cuts from the interior of the car to the exterior, we know we're in one unbroken action. And this film is one of the dozens of one-reel films that D. W. Griffith made in 1912. It's a remarkable film called "The Musketeers of Pig Alley," commonly referred to as the first gangster film, and actually it's a great Lower East Side New York street film.
Now, if you watch, the gangsters are crossing quite a bit of space before they get to Pig Alley. Which is actually a recreation of a famous Jacob Riis' photos of "Bandits Roost" from Five Points. But you know you're not seeing them cross that space on the screen, yet you are seeing it. You're seeing it all in your mind's eye. You're inferring it.
And this is the fourth aspect of cinema that's so special, that inference, that image in the mind's eye. For me, it's where the obsession began. It's what keeps me going, actually. It never fails to excite me. Because you take one shot, you put it together with another shot, and you experience a third image in your mind's eye that doesn't really exist in those two other images.
The Soviet filmmaker Eisenstein, Sergei Eisenstein, wrote about this and it was at the heart of all the films he did. And this is what fascinates me, though. It's frustrating sometimes, it's always exciting. Because 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 eyes changes too. And that has been called - appropriately, I believe - film language.
Now, in 1916, D. W. Griffith made a picture, an epic called "Intolerance" in part as an act of atonement for the racism in "Birth of a Nation." "Intolerance" ran about three hours but he goes further; he goes further with the idea of the cut. He shifts between four different stories.
The first story is "The Massacre of the Huguenots," and the second story is "The Passion of Christ." The third was a spectacle, really: "The Fall of Babylon." And a fourth story, which was a modern American story set in 1916, "The Train." Now, at the end of the picture what Griffith did is that he cut between the different climaxes of these different stories.
He 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. Now, for the writers and commentators who were very, very suspicious of movies because, after all, it did start as a nickelodeon storefront attraction, this was the element that signified film as an art form.
But of course, it already was an art form. That started with Lumiere and Melies and Porter. This was just another logical step in the development in the language of cinema. But the cinema we're talking about here - Edison, the Lumiere Brothers, Melies, Porter all the way through Griffith and all the way through Kubrick - that's really almost gone.
It's been overwhelmed by moving images coming at us all the time and absolutely everywhere. I mean, classical cinema, as it's come to be called, kind of feels now like grand opera of Verdi or Puccini, that period. And we're no longer talking about celluloid. That really is a thing of the past.
Now, for many film lovers this is a great sadness and a sense of loss. I certainly feel it myself. I grew up with celluloid and its particularly beauty and its idiosyncrasies. But, you know, 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.
I mean, everything's wide open. To some this is a 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.
GROSS: We heard an excerpt of Martin Scorsese's National Endowment for the Humanities 2013 Jefferson Lecture, which he gave last month at the Kennedy Center. Our thanks to the NEH and Paula Wasley. We have more on our website. You'll find a link to a video of Scorsese's complete lecture, links to several of the very early films he referred to, and a slideshow of stills from movies that he mentioned. That's at freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.