The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema (Scorsese in the NY Review of Books)


Robert Donat in The Magic Box, 1951

a fine piece from Scorsese and these passages particularly connect with some of the ‘debates’ on this blog:

“So not only do we have to preserve everything, but most importantly, we can’t afford to let ourselves be guided by contemporary cultural standards—particularly now. There was a time when the average person wasn’t even aware of box office grosses. But since the 1980s, it’s become a kind of sport—and really, a form of judgment. It culturally trivializes film.

And for young people today, that’s what they know. Who made the most money? Who was the most popular? Who is the most popular now, as opposed to last year, or last month, or last week? Now, the cycles of popularity are down to a matter of hours, minutes, seconds, and the work that’s been created out of seriousness and real passion is lumped together with the work that hasn’t.

We have to remember: we may think we know what’s going to last and what isn’t. We may feel absolutely sure of ourselves, but we really don’t know, we can’t know. We have to remember Vertigo, and the Civil War plates, and that Sumerian tablet. And we also have to remember that Moby-Dick sold very few copies when it was printed in 1851, that many of the copies that weren’t sold were destroyed in a warehouse fire, that it was dismissed by many, and that Herman Melville’s greatest novel, one of the greatest works in literature, was only reclaimed in the 1920s.”

or again:

” We have to look beyond the officially honored, recognized, and enshrined, and preserve everything systematically. At this point in film history, many people have seen a 1958 picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock called Vertigo. When the film came out some people liked it, some didn’t, and then it just went away. Even before it came out, it was classified as another picture from the Master of Suspense and that was it, end of story. Almost every year at that time, there was a new Hitchcock picture—it was almost like a franchise.

At a certain point, there was a reevaluation of Hitchcock, thanks to the critics in France who later became the directors of the French New Wave, and to the American critic Andrew Sarris. They all enhanced our vision of cinema and helped us to understand the idea of authorship behind the camera. When the idea of film language started to be taken seriously, so did Hitchcock, who 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.”

8 Responses to “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema (Scorsese in the NY Review of Books)”

  1. “When the film came out some people liked it, some didn’t, and then it just went away.” Yes, these are the kind of pictures that are candidates for turning out as classics in alter age. NOT films that a vast majority of people DISLIKE when they are released. A future classic can be one , if the vast number of people who disliked is balanced by a good number of people’s cultist admiration for it. Something like Godard’s Breathless or Dylan going electric with ‘ Like A Rolling Stone’. A film like Heaven’s Gate or Caligula which a vast majority call a dud with no balancing admiring community is never going to be resurrected as a classic. That is why I will bet on Cocktail or Rockstar or No Smoking turning up as a classic decades later.

    However one point I am vehemently supportive of is about the relevance of Box Office figures in discussing a film. How people related or reacted to a film, yes, but not box office figures, for god sake.


    • Utkal: I am stunned that you think Heaven’s Gate is not considered a great film by anyone- I actually think there are enough admirers of the film including myself.

      I actually don’t think any of your 3 Hindi film choices will ever ‘turn up’ as classics- No Smoking has a cult value, the other 2 don’t even have that.

      And BTW some of the people here call JBJ and BM as cult-films have as well, don’t think any of them has attained that status. They are not even like Parwana or Benaam on this score, if you know what I mean. The best example here would be something like Johnny Gaddaar


      • yes but Parwana took 30 years or more to get to that status! BM was instantly accepted as ‘cool’ in the most important multiplex quarters. JBJ has a certain appeal in many quarters which might not seem like much except that a film like D6 for example doesn’t even have that so far (though it has its purist partisans). Actually what Utkal misses is that even D6 or Raavan had some significant critical voices praising it but in the minority. If such films are eventually resurrected he would be the first to dig out some of those reviews and say ‘see some folks liked it even then’!

        Where I do agree with you is that only a certain kind of film can become a classic while another kind can get to cult status and so on. Parwana can become a cult film, Agneepath is treated as a classic. However less important than these distinctions is the fact that films that were not considered important enough by any significant cross-section of opinion from the audience to the critics are resurrected in some form or fashion. Obviously no rejection of a film is 100% unless it’s the worst kind of meaningless commercial film. There are always supporters. So with the whole ‘if no one likes it it can never become a classic’ position Utkal has misses the point in a different sense as well.

        Finally one should get to the even larger point here, something that has always been implicit in Scorsese’s critical project as well as many of his discussions and should be obvious in any case looking at the history of any art form — there is plenty that is worthwhile or even great that is never really resurrected. It always remains a minority pleasure if you will. Of course nothing is ‘for eternity’ but plenty of works never get much attention for either a general public or critics. They might be recognized as worthwhile by the latter but they remain buried for the most part. In cinema there are lots and lots of films that are accomplished works that have simply never enjoyed any sort of critical upswing. Films can also be ignored in this sense as well.


    • I’m sorry to inform you you’ve missed the bus on the Heaven’s Gate revival! It’s had a massive upswing in its critical fortunes over the last decade or so. According to Rosenbaum the longer cut (it was instantly cut by 70 min in the US after a disastrous box office opening) was applauded by many as a masterpiece in Europe even at the time.

      The stumbling block you always face Utkal is that you insist on some ‘clue’ to posterity in the present. Some sort of box office result, some kind of critical opinion, that will convince you about the absolute worth of a film for all time. This I’m afraid to say is an imaginary position. It is simply not possible. It would argue against all history in the arts (not just cinema), it would argue against history as a general matter. But most immediately any knowledge in this matter should be enough to persuade one of the tons and tons of examples in every industry of the world of films that were dismissed by audiences or critics or both. After the event when the film has been resurrected one can start picking at crumbs and trying to establish some sense of ‘appreciation’ for the film in its original present that will then offer that same sort of clue about why the film was eventually rediscovered. But this is a quixotic exercise. History cannot be completely predicted this way, whether it’s an artistic event or a political one.


      • rockstar Says:

        Back home movies like ghatak etc suffered the same fate and this restoration which has started in India is also not an ancient phenomenon in Hollywood

        Hugo example is so apt with all the layers:

        two leads and age gap between them and how a child of today discovers and restores past of vetran and his work and brought him redemption

        Analogy of watch and time fixing in a fantacy and how it leads to ancient time brought back again…fantastic


        • rockstar Says:

          And ya fantastic analogy of pictures and books and so well researched…kudos

          There is a reason why there is so emphasis of screenplay with best sellers some giving credit and some not …how many are even aware that akshay Kumar best khiladi works to is inspired from ved prakash Sharma one of the best Hindi fiction writer we have


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