This week had some big news in the world of movies. Unfortunately it didn’t include any new movies worth watching at the local multiplex.
First, Roger Ebert sadly passed away. In certain circles, his style of movie criticism—thumbs and all—was criticized as simplistic, bordering on crass salesmanship. It allegedly failed to appreciate the finer points of cinema. But this take on his work is unfair. While simple, Ebert’s criticism demonstrated that strong opinions about movies could be defended with unpretentious language. He was a critic, whether you agreed with him or not, whose obvious passion for the movies led him to offer his brief insights on thousands of movies for decades. His passion could be infectious, and he was often keenly perceptive.
He was often willing to let a movie tell the story the way it wanted to tell it, as for instance, when he takes Gene Siskel to task for for demanding that Taxi Driver be another movie than it is. (BTW–who would describe Travis Bickle’s courtship of Betsy as “funny and erotic” rather than as extremely disturbing as Siskel did? Though Siskel could also be perceptive critic.) His tastes were also broad, as he regularly defended popular tastes in a genuine manner (e.g., The Terminator), even as he had a film snob’s appreciation of “arty” flicks (e.g., David Cronenberg’s Crash).
While he was a good writer, and in his last years he was confined only to writing, Ebert was on television for so long that he came across as someone who you knew personally. Since, you allegedly knew him you could come to believe that you knew why he liked or disliked a movie—or even why he “hated, hated, hated” it. You understood his taste and his criteria for judgment. In this way, his television personality alone was a kind of non-academic film education in itself. He will be missed.
With his death, I suspect that the importance of the film critic—and of movies and films in general—to American popular culture is over. Of course, this has been the case for some time now, but with Ebert’s death, it seems to have become all the more obvious.
You might dispute this claim of loss with the second piece of big news, namely that Martin Scorsese found himself giving the annual NEH Jefferson Lecture. Entitled “The Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,” we are treated to an instructive and entertaining discussion of the history of motion pictures in terms of some of its constituent elements (light, movement, time, cutting, etc.) all the while interspersed with clips ranging from Edison’s “boxing cats” to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In his presentation, Scorsese didn’t offer controversy and provocation, unless one thinks a defense of an education in learning the “language” of moving images or an argument in favor of the preservation of the entirety of film history is controversial and provocative. But I think in the area of “film studies,” or amongst movie fandom at least, there is little controversy here.
Perhaps being the first movie director to receive such an honor, Scorsese felt the need to give an account of movies, flickers, cinema, kino, “the seventh art,” etc., that demonstrated their importance. After all, the previous honorees were writers of some sort—various poets, novelists, historians, philosophers, academics, and the like. Yet the official or semi-official recognition of the importance of cinema as well as its appreciation, study and critique has been around for awhile—recently “canonized” in the Library of America volumes of writings on film by James Agee, Manny Farber, and Pauline Kael.
In his prepared speech about moving images, Scorsese defends the case for an education in cinematic language. He tells us that today images confront us faster than the light that hits the astronaut’s eye in the stargate scene in 2001. For any kind of sense to be made of our world today, one therefore needs to be more than a consumer of images. One needs to understand their composition, nuance, and complexity in order to get at what they mean. Scorsese points out that motion pictures have a surface and a depth, that they can present reality and contain “special effects,” and that they require an inference in the viewer’s “mind’s eye” that is provocative of thought that goes unspoken or that is even unspeakable.
He says that certain movies warrant repeated viewing over time in that they can offer new insights and perspectives. He even problematically speaks of finding “new values” in the watching of movies! We are told that movies—the moviemakers and the moviegoers—present the world through the biases of their time, and that an understanding beyond such bias emerges in the hindsight of time. However, Scorsese’s account of the artistry of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the films of Powell and Pressburger belie his popular historicism, as such excellence while unappreciated during its time is still excellence then and as well as now.
In the lecture, he brings up a famous scene in Plato’s Phaedrus—a written dialogue toward the end of which Socrates recounts a myth in which the Egyptian king Thamos criticizes the god Theuth’s invention of the art of writing as an art that begets the soul’s forgetfulness. Writing, according to Plato’s portrayal of Socrates’ Thamos, is a drug not for conducive to memory but merely to reminding.
For Scorsese, we now find ourselves in a world where present day Thamoses criticize the inventions of Muybridge, Edison, Friese-Greene, the Lumiere brothers, et al. as leading to distraction, consumerism, and an emphasis on the bottom line of box-office grosses. He suggests that this art may be older than seen at first glance, in that the attempt to capture motion in images can be found as early as bison cave paintings. Ultimately he claims that the origin of the art of moving images is unfathomable, even as he claims that it can aspire to indications of the purity of being. However, far from leading to distraction, with the study of images one is confronted with the questions of metaphysics!
With a historical knowledge of the art, informed by an understanding of its elements, Scorsese says that the images can point toward things more important than themselves—such as the preservation of an American cultural heritage. A good example of such education is found in his own documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies. Another notable example is Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself.
His case for the preservation of film—an art inherently connected to technological change—is particularly interesting. As noted, images can serve as reminders of things outside of themselves. We are told that moving images constitute a history of various “invocations of life,” and therefore spur a kind of “dialogue with life.” So while he brings up Socrates apparent critique of writing, perhaps Scorsese is not so much in disagreement with him (or Plato) as the lecture makes it seem. For instance, we are told in an aside that Frank Capra once said, “Film is a disease.” Unlike Socrates, Scorsese may not claim that philosophy (or hemlock!) is the cure for a diseased life in terms of film, but he surely teaches that film needs to be understood (rather than just merely consumed) in order for an individual and a culture to live well.