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The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema

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Everett Collection
Robert Donat in The Magic Box, 1951

In the film The Magic Box, which was made in England in 1950, the great English actor Robert Donat plays William Friese-Greene—one of the people who invented movies. The Magic Box was packed with guest stars. It was made for an event called the Festival of Britain. You had about fifty or sixty of the biggest actors in England at the time, all doing for the most part little cameos, including the man who played the policeman—that was Sir Laurence Olivier.

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. I believe this is what ignited in me the wonder of cinema, and the obsession—with watching movies, making them, inventing them.

Friese-Greene gives everything of himself to the movies, and he dies a pauper. If you know the full story of his life and its end, the line in the film about the invention of the movies—“You must be a very happy man, Mr. Friese-Greene”—of course is ironic, but in some ways it’s also true because he’s followed his obsession all the way. So it’s both disturbing and inspiring. I was very young. I didn’t put this into words at the time, but I sensed these things and I saw them up there on the screen.

My parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I had been 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 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 I realize now that the warmth of that connection with my family and with the images on the screen gave me something very precious. We were experiencing something fundamental together. We were living through the emotional truths on the screen, often in coded form, which these films from the 1940s and 1950s sometimes expressed in small things: gestures, glances, reactions between the characters, light, shadow. These were 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. 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.

Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease.” I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother. You’d go through the doors, up the thick carpet, past the popcorn stand that had that wonderful smell—then to the ticket taker, and then in some of the old theaters there would be another set of doors with little windows and you’d get a glimpse of something magical happening up there on the screen, something special. And as we entered, for me it was like entering a sacred space, a kind of 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 think I’ve discovered 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 cinema is 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.” 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, someone projected a 16mm cartoon and I was allowed to look inside the projector. I saw these little still images passing mechanically through the gate at a very steady rate of speed. In the gate they were upside down, but they were moving, and on the screen they came out right side up, moving. At least there was the sensation of movement. But it was more than that. Something clicked, right then and there. “Pieces of time”—that’s how James Stewart defined movies in a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich. That wonder I felt when I saw these little figures move—that’s what Laurence Olivier feels when he watches those first moving images in that scene from The Magic Box.

The desire to make images move, the need to capture movement, seemed to be with us 30,000 years ago in the cave paintings at Chauvet—in one image a bison appears to have multiple sets of legs, and perhaps 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 contemplate that mystery.

A film made by Thomas Edison of boxing cats, 1894

Which brings us to the film of boxing cats illustrated here, one of the lesser-known scenes that Thomas Edison recorded with his Kinetograph in his Black Maria studio in New Jersey in 1894. Edison, of course, was one of the people who invented film. There’s been a lot of debate about who really invented film—there was Edison, the Lumière 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.

And then you could go back even further to the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, which were made in the 1870s and 1880s. He would set a number of still cameras side by side and then he’d trigger them to take photos in succession, of people and animals in motion. His employer Leland Stanford challenged him to show that all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground when the horse is running. Muybridge proved they did.

Does cinema really begin with Muybridge? Should we go all the way back to the cave paintings? In his novel Joseph and His Brothers, 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.

A film by the Lumière brothers of a train arriving at a station in France is commonly recognized as the first publicly projected film. It was shot in 1895. When you watch it, it really is 1895. The way they dress and the way they move—it’s now 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 (2011), we went back and tried to recreate that first screening, when people were so startled by the image of an oncoming train that they jumped back. They thought the train was going to hit them.

When we studied the Lumière film, we could see right away that it was very different from the Edison films. The Lumière brothers 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 and 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—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 it did.

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Photofest
Georges Méliès, circa 1929, with a painting for his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon

Georges Méliès, whose contribution to early cinema is at the core of Hugo, began as a magician and his pictures were made to be a part of his live magic act. He created trick photography and astonishing handmade special effects, and in so doing he remade reality—the screen in his pictures is like a magic cabinet of curiosities and wonders.

Over the years, the Lumières and Méliès have been consistently portrayed as opposites—the idea is that one filmed reality and the other created special effects. Of course this kind of distinction is made all the time—it’s a way of simplifying history. But in essence they were both heading in the same direction, just taking different roads—they were taking reality and interpreting it, reshaping it, and trying to find meaning in it.

And then, everything was taken 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 understanding that we’re still within one continuous action? Again, to quote Thomas Mann—“unfathomable.” One of the earliest and most famous examples of a cut is in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 milestone film The Great Train Robbery. Even though we cut from the interior of the car to the exterior, we know we’re in one unbroken action.

A few years later, there was a remarkable film called The Musketeers of Pig Alley, one of the dozens of one-reel films that D.W. Griffith made in 1912. It’s commonly referred to as the first gangster film, and actually it’s a great Lower East Side New York street film, despite the fact that it was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey. There’s a very famous scene in which the gangsters move along a wall, each one slowly approaching the camera and coming into dramatic close-up before they exit the frame. And in this scene they’re crossing quite a bit of space before they get to Pig Alley, which is in fact a recreation of a famous Jacob Riis photo of Bandit’s Roost, but you’re not seeing them cross that space on the screen. 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. The image in the mind’s eye.

For me it’s where the obsession began. It’s what keeps me going, 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 Sergei Eisenstein wrote about this, and it was at the heart of what he did in his own films. This is what fascinates me—sometimes it’s frustrating, but always exciting—if you change the timing of the cut even slightly, by just a few frames, or even one frame, then that third image in your mind’s eye changes too. And that has been called, appropriately, I believe, film language.

In 1916, D.W. Griffith made a picture—an epic—called Intolerance, in part as an act of atonement for the racism in The Birth of a Nation. Intolerance ran about three hours and Griffith goes much further with the idea of the cut here: he shifts between four different stories—the massacre of the Huguenots, the passion of Christ, the fall of Babylon, and a modern story set in 1916 about conflicts between rich and poor Americans. At the end of the picture, Griffith cut between the different climaxes of these different stories—he cross-cut through time, something that had never been done before. He tied together images not for narrative purposes but to illustrate a thesis: in this case, the thesis was that intolerance has existed throughout the ages and that it is always destructive. Eisenstein later wrote about this kind of editing and gave it a name—he called it “intellectual montage.”

For the writers and commentators who were very suspicious of movies—because after all they 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—one that started with the Lumières and Méliès and Porter. This was just another, logical step in the development of the language of cinema.

That language has taken us in many directions, from the pure abstraction of the extraordinary avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage to a very well done commercial by the visual artist and filmmaker Mike Mills, made for an audience that’s seen thousands of commercials—the images come at you so fast that you have to make the connections after the fact.

Or consider the famous Stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. Narrative, abstraction, speed, movement, stillness, life, death—they’re all up there. Again we find ourselves back at that mystical urge—to explore, to create movement, to go faster and faster, and maybe find some kind of peace at the heart of it, a state of pure being.

But the cinema we’re talking about here—Edison, the Lumière brothers, Méliès, Porter, all the way through Griffith and on to Kubrick—that’s really almost gone. It’s been overwhelmed by moving images coming at us all the time and absolutely everywhere, even faster than the visions coming at the astronaut in the Kubrick picture. 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.

We certainly agree now that verbal literacy is necessary. But a couple of thousand years ago, Socrates actually disagreed. His argument was almost identical to the arguments of people today who object to the Internet, who think that it’s a sorry replacement for real research in a library. In the dialogue with Phaedrus, Socrates worries that writing and reading will actually lead to the student not truly knowing—that once people stop memorizing and start writing and reading, they’re in danger of cultivating the mere appearance of wisdom rather than the real thing.

Now we take reading and writing for granted but the same kinds of questions are coming up around moving images: Are they harming us? Are they causing us to abandon written language?

We’re face to face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before. 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.

As Steve Apkon, the film producer and founder of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, 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. They’re both important. They’re both fundamental. Both take us back to the core of who we are.

When you look at ancient writing, words and images are almost indistinguishable. In fact, words are images, they’re symbols. Written Chinese and Japanese still seem like pictographic languages. And at a certain point—exactly when is “unfathomable”—words and images diverged, like two rivers, or two different paths to understanding.

In the end, there really is only literacy.

  1. *

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 

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