WASHINGTON -- The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities is billed as "the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities," and those so honored tend to be exactly the sort of people that description calls to mind -- academics and authors, with a noticeable tilt toward novelists and historians. This year's choice, by comparison, seemed to come entirely out of left field: Martin Scorsese, the Academy Award-winning director and giant of American cinema, known for gritty, macho classics such as "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," and "Goodfellas."
In the 41 years since it was established, the Jefferson Lecture had never been given by a filmmaker. Recent Jefferson Lecturers have included Wendell Berry, the conservationist, activist, author and sometime faculty member; Drew Gilpin Faust, the Civil War historian and president of Harvard University; and Jonathan Spence, Yale University professor emeritus and the author of 14 books on Chinese history.
Scorsese's speech, "Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema" -- delivered Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts -- differed from previous Jefferson Lectures in several conspicuous ways: it incorporated a wide variety of movie clips; it featured, after the talk itself, a Q&A between Scorsese and film critic Kent Jones; and, fittingly enough, it was the first to be live streamed on the website of its sponsor, the National Endowment for the Humanities. (It was also the first Jefferson Lecture to have a designated Twitter hashtag: #JeffLec2013.)
But while Scorsese's medium contrasts with that of his predecessors, his message was familiar: we have to preserve -- and study -- all our cultural artifacts, because they "tell us who we are, ultimately."
Using brief clips to demonstrate his points, Scorsese outlined four factors that he sees as elemental to film, each building on the one before it: light, which "is at the beginning of cinema"; movement (here he showed an 1894 clip from Thomas Edison's film studio, the Black Maria, featuring two cats "boxing," prompting much laughter from the audience: some things never change); time; and inference, "that image in your mind's eye." And it is that inference that forms the basis of "film language": tying together images "to illustrate an idea, a thesis," rather than simply to further a narrative.
Scorsese made almost no mention of his own movies, with the exception of one passing reference to "Hugo" in the context of a Lumiére brothers clip. Instead he showed scenes from a century's worth of other classic films, from "The Great Train Robbery" to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Though he never referenced "the humanities" as such, Scorsese built an implicit case for cinema's inclusion among them, drawing repeated parallels between film and other media. "We have no choice but to treat all these moving images coming at us as a language," he said. "We need to be able to understand what we're seeing and find the tools to sort it all out."
Citing a forthcoming book by Stephen Apkon, The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens -- for which he wrote the foreword -- Scorsese argued for eliminating any distinction between verbal and visual literacy, and called for the latter to be taught in schools just as the former is. Recalling a famous section of Plato's Phaedrus in which Socrates expresses concern about the potentially detrimental effects of reading and writing, Scorsese noted that "we certainly now all agree that verbal literacy is necessary."
Meanwhile, he said, we are now "face-to-face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before." Consequently, much as they are taught to examine and evaluate written language, "young people need to understand that not all images are there to be consumed like fast food, and then forgotten."
The idea of preventing forgetting -- of forestalling loss -- lay at the heart of Scorsese's talk. That should come as no surprise to those who've been following his career: Scorsese has long been a vocal advocate for film preservation and restoration, which are the goals of the nonprofit foundation he established in 1990. (An article on the Film Foundation's work appears in the current issue of the NEH's magazine Humanities and may be read here.)
Using a variety of examples of once-discarded but now-precious artifacts -- an ancient Sumerian tablet recording a business transaction; Civil War-era glass photographic plates, many of which were later sold to gardeners, who used them to make greenhouses; and early editions of Moby Dick, unsold copies of which were destroyed in a warehouse fire -- Scorsese argued that, as for movies, "we have to really take good care of what's left -- everything, from the acknowledged masterworks of cinema to industrial films and home movies." Over 90 percent of the silent films ever made, he said, are already gone forever.
A number of films now widely regarded as masterpieces came perilously close to extinction, he added. Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," a film of "hypnotic beauty and very strange, obsessive focus," originally met with a lukewarm reception. Later, it went out of circulation for years -- pulled from distribution by Hitchcock himself -- and then required significant restoration to be returned to something like its original color. And while "Citizen Kane" was hailed as a classic soon after its release, its original negative was damaged in a fire in the 1970s and nearly lost.
When it comes to preservation, Scorsese contended, "we can't afford to let ourselves be guided by cultural standards, particularly now." In an era when a movie's success is defined by its box office gross -- a standard, he said, that "culturally trivializes film" -- "the work that's been created out of seriousness and real passion is lumped together with the work that isn't." All of which means that we can't trust our own judgment about what is or is not worthy of being preserved.
In an entreaty surely all too familiar to academics in the humanities, Scorsese urged the audience "to remember that there are other values beyond the financial."
"Our American artistic heritage," he added, "has to be preserved and shared by all of us." Cinema, he argued, is largely an American art form: "That's a big responsibility."
"...[T]he moment has come," Scorsese concluded, "when we need to treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress."
For those accustomed to the ongoing debate over the value of the humanities, Scorsese's lecture was a different spin: not whether or why the humanities matter -- points that he clearly takes as given -- but why cinema deserves its place among them as an object of both study and respect. Words and images, he argued, are equally important.
"They're both fundamental. Both take us back to the core of who we are."
It's a sentiment that might have been expressed by any other Jefferson Lecturer, regardless of background or medium. As a choice for the honor, Scorsese may have seemed anomalous; as a humanist, he fit right in.