[film clip: The Magic Box, by John Boulting]
That scene was from a picture called The Magic Box, which was made in England in 1950. The great English actor Robert Donat plays the inventor William Friese-Greene – he was 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 50 or 60 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 8 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 – of 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. I was very young. I couldn’t put this into words when I saw this, but I sensed them. I sensed these ideas and these things and saw them up there on the screen.
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. 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. 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. 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.” He went on, but that’s enough for now. I caught the disease early on. I used to feel it. 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, up the thick carpet, past the popcorn stand that had that wonderful smell - then to the ticket taker, and then sometimes these doors would open in the back and there’d be 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 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 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 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.” 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 16mm cartoon on a small projector, 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 it was 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.
[slide: bison, cave paintings of Chauvet] The desire to make images move, the need to capture movement, seems to be with us 30,000 years ago in the cave paintings at Chauvet – as you can see it 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 contemplate that mystery.
Which brings us to the boxing cats. [film clip: cats boxing, filmed by T. Edison in 1894] 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 it was just a little shack. This is one among hundreds of little scenes that he and his team recorded in the studio with his Kinetograph.
It’s probably one of the lesser known scenes – there are better-known ones of a blacksmith, the heavyweight champion Jim Corbett boxing, Annie Oakley, the great sharpshooter from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. At some point, somebody had the idea to do two cats boxing – apparently this was what went on in New Jersey at the time.
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, [slide: E. Muybridge’s photos of horses running] which were made in the 1870s, 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 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.
As you can see, Muybridge won the bet. All four hooves do leave the ground at the same time while the horse is galloping.
Does cinema really begin with Muybridge? Or 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.
[film clip: 1895 film of train arriving in station by Lumière Brothers] This film, by the Lumière Brothers 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.
[film clip: from Hugo, by M. Scorsese] 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. The 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. 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 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 they did. In Hugo, we converted the Lumière film to 3-D, and we combined it with our 3-D image, but it didn’t have the same effect. We discovered we had to do it in two dimensions within a 3-D image, because the composition by the Lumière Brothers was designed to create the illusion of depth within a flat surface.
So in essence, the Lumières weren’t just recording events the way they did in Edison’s studio, they were really interpreting reality and telling a story with just one angle.
And of course so was Georges Méliès. [film clip: G. Méliès’ Impossible Voyage]
Méliès began as a magician and his pictures were made to be a part of his live magic act. He created trick photography and 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 Lumières and Méliès have been consistently portrayed as opposites – one filmed reality, the other created 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, just taking different roads – they were taking reality and interpreting it, re-shaping it, and trying to find meaning in it.
And then, everything was taken further with the cut. [film clip: Great Train Robbery] 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?
Again, to quote Thomas Mann – “unfathomable.” But as far as we know, this is one of the earliest and most famous examples of a cut, from 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.
And this film [film clip: The Musketeers of Pig Alley by D. W. Griffith] 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. It’s 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 photo of Bandit’s Roost from Five Points, but 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 4th 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 all the films he did. This is what fascinates me – it’s frustrating sometimes, it’s 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.
[film clip: Intolerance, by D. W. Griffith] 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. But he goes further with the idea of the cut, he shifts between four different stories – the first story is the massacre of the Hugenots, the second story is the passion of Christ, the third is a spectacle really, the fall of Babylon, and a fourth story which was a modern American story set in 1916. 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 been done before. He tied together images not for story or 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 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 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.
For instance, here, [film clip: Love Song, by Stan Brakhage] into the pure abstraction of the extraordinary avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Or here –[film clip: Cisco commercial] This is a commercial, very well done 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.
Film language has also taken us here [film clip: 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick]
This is the 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 through 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.
Classical cinema, as it’s come to be called, now feels like the grand opera of Verdi or Puccini. And we’re no longer talking about celluloid – that really is a thing of the past. 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 particular beauty, and its idiosyncrasies.
But 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. Everything is wide open. To some, this is 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.
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, written by Plato, Socrates worries that writing and reading will actually lead to the student not truly knowing it –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 it for granted – reading and writing are taught in schools - 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. In fact, as Steve Apkon, the film producer and founder of The Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY, 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.
[slide: image of Sumerian tablet] 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.
But in the end, there really is only literacy.
At The Film Foundation, which I founded in 1990, we developed a curriculum called “The Story of Movies,” which we make available for free to any teacher who wants it. So far, 100,000 educators have used it in their classrooms.
[film clip: The Day the Earth Stood Still, by Robert Wise] We’ve created three study units around certain titles, one of which is a 1951 film called The Day the Earth Stood Still. Which, as you can see, was shot not too far from here. Why this picture? Because it’s beautifully made in black and white. Because it’s Hollywood at its best during the era that, I think, really deserves the name Golden Age. Because it’s one of the really great science fiction pictures of the 50s. And there’s another reason.
The American film critic Manny Farber said that every movie transmits the DNA of its time. The Day the Earth Stood Still was made right in the middle of the Cold War, and it has the tension, the paranoia, the fear of nuclear disaster and the fear of the end of life on planet earth, and a million other elements, more difficult to put into words. These elements have to do with the play of light and shadow, the emotional and psychological interplay between the characters, the atmosphere of the time woven into the action, the choices that were made behind the camera and that resulted in the immediate film experience for viewers like myself and my parents. These are the aspects of a film that reveal themselves in passing, the things that bring the movie to life for the viewer. And the experience becomes even richer when you explore these elements much more closely.
But what happens when a movie is seen out of its time? For me, 1951 was my present when I saw it. I was nine. For someone born 20 years later, it’s a different story.
For someone born today, they’ll see it with completely different eyes and a whole other frame of reference, different values, uninhibited by the biases of the time when the picture was made. You can only see the world through your own time – which means that some values disappear, and some values come into closer focus. Same film, same images, but in the case of a great film the power – a timeless power that really can’t be articulated – that power is there even when the context has completely changed.
[slide: image of Sumerian tablet] But, in order to experience something and find new values in it, it has to be there in the first place - you have to preserve it. All of it. Archeologists have made many discoveries by studying what we throw away, the refuse of earlier civilizations, the things that we consider expendable.
For example, this Sumerian tablet. It’s not a poem, it’s not a legend. It’s actually a record of livestock – a balance sheet of business transactions. Miraculously, it’s been preserved, for centuries, first under layers of earth and now in a climate-controlled environment. When we still find objects like this, we immediately take great care with them.
We have to do the same thing with film. [slides: series of images of decayed film]
But film isn’t made of stone. Until recently, it was all made of celluloid, as I said before – thin strips of nitrocellulose, the first plastic compound. Through the late 1940s, before nitrate film was replaced by safety film, nitrate film caught fire, it blew up - it could turn to powder and explode. In 1950 it was replaced with safety stock.
And with a few exceptions, preservation wasn’t even discussed at that time– it was something that happened by accident. Some of the most celebrated movies were the victims of their own popularity. Every time they were re-released, they were often printed from the original negatives, and in the process they were run into the ground. Film is so fragile – that didn’t really sink in at the time.
It wasn’t so long ago that nitrate films were melted down just to get the silver content back. Prints of films made in the 70s and 80s were recycled to make guitar picks and plastic heels for shoes.
That’s a disturbing thought – just as disturbing [slide: photo by Mathew Brady from Civil War battlefield] as knowing that those extraordinary glass photographic plates taken of the Civil War not long after the birth of photography were later sold to gardeners for building greenhouses. Whatever plates survived are here in the Library of Congress.
So when I hear the question – and interestingly enough some people are still asking it – “why preserve anything?” – I just think of those stories. All that silent film, all those images of the Civil War, and there was no consciousness of their lasting value. That only came later. Why preserve? Because we can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been – we can’t understand the future or the present until we have some sort of grappling with the past.
I became involved with the cause of preservation in the early 1980s, when I really understood just how fragile film was. Since the early 90s, around the time we formed The Film Foundation, which was an idea by Bob Rosen to put all of us together, myself and a number of other directors, Spielberg, and Lucas and Coppola and Robert Redford, Sydney Pollack… The Film Foundation was formed to bring the studios together with the archives.
Since that time I think there actually has been a shift in consciousness and much more awareness of the need for preservation, which is ongoing – because it isn’t something that’s done once. You have to keep going back, constantly, moving the films from one format to another, to make sure they survive, because it’s an endless process. Today, we have some really wonderful tools. When the time came to restore Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, [film clip: The Red Shoes, by Powell & Pressburger] one of my very, very favorite films and one of the best films ever made, we were fortunate enough to have these tools at our disposal.
I thought I would just show you a little bit of the restoration demonstration Thelma Schoonmaker put together for the Blu- Ray of that film, to give you an idea of the work involved. It took years to get this going and was quite expensive. You must bear in mind that The Red Shoes was shot in the old three-strip Technicolor technology with very heavy cameras that had not one but three rolls of film going through them at the same time.
[film clip: on the restoration of The Red Shoes] None of this would have been possible before digital technology. But I have to say that we are too late. Over 90% of all silent cinema is gone. Lost forever. Every time a silent picture by some miracle turns up like John Ford’s film he made in 1927 called Upstream, which was recently discovered by the National Film Preservation Foundation in an archive in New Zealand – every time one of those shows up we have to remind ourselves that there are hundreds, maybe thousands more that are gone forever. So we have to take really good care of what’s left. Everything, from the acknowledged masterworks of cinema to industrial films and home movies, anthropological films. Anything that could tell us who we are.
And here’s one example of why we have to look beyond the officially honored, recognized, and enshrined - why we have to preserve everything systematically
[film clip: Vertigo, by Alfred Hitchcock] This is a 1958 picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock that I’m sure many of you have seen, called Vertigo. When this 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. Because his films 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.
Ironically, as people were starting to recognize Hitchcock’s genius, several of his most important pictures were suddenly unavailable. This was in 1973. Vertigo was one of them. There were a number of films: Rear Window, Rope…
At the time, no one understood what had happened, we couldn’t see these films anymore, not even on television. In fact, Hitchcock himself pulled the films from distribution so that he could get his estate in order. There were secret screenings, some people had private prints here and there in New York and L.A. In the case of Vertigo that only added to the mystique of the picture.
When it came back into circulation, in 1984, along with the other films that had been held back, it needed work but the new prints weren’t made from the original negative and the color was completely wrong. The color scheme of Vertigo is extremely unusual, and this was a major disappointment. In the meantime, the elements – the original negatives - needed serious attention.
Ten years later, Bob Harris and Jim Katz did a full-scale restoration for Universal. It was very expensive. The picture was originally shot in the Vista-Vision process, and so they had to do their restoration in 70mm, which was as close as you could get to VistaVision – because that format is gone now. At that point, they had to work from extremely damaged sound and picture elements. But at least, a major restoration had been done.
As the years went by, more and more people saw Vertigo and came to appreciate its hypnotic beauty and very strange, obsessive focus. Obsessive… focus…
[film clip: Vertigo, by Hitchcock] A man is hired to follow a woman. The woman appears to be haunted by the legend of her great-grandmother and that woman’s tragic life. She goes into trances, absences that put her in danger. She sees a vision of her own death in an old mission in northern California that has a bell tower. He brings her there to cure her. She climbs the tower, he tries to go after her but he can’t because he suffers from vertigo, and he just watches, helplessly, as she jumps to her death.
That’s just the first half of the film. And that’s only the plot. As in the case of many great films, maybe all of them, we don’t keep going back for the plot. Vertigo is a matter of mood as much as it’s a matter of storytelling – the special mood of San Francisco where the past is eerily alive and around you at all times, the mist in the air from the Pacific that refracts the light, the unease of the hero played by James Stewart in the lead, Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score. And, as the film critic B. Kite wrote, you haven’t really seen Vertigo until you’ve seen it again – so for those of you who haven’t seen it even once, when you do, you’ll know what I mean.
In 1952, the British film magazine Sight and Sound started conducting a poll. They do it every ten years now. They asked film people from around the world – directors, writers, producers, critics – to list what they thought were the ten greatest films of all time, and then they tallied the results and published them. In 1952, number one was Vittorio de Sica’s great Italian Neorealist picture Bicycle Thieves. Ten years later, in 1962, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was at the top of the list. It stayed there for the next forty years. Citizen Kane is a masterpiece, of course. It was released in 1941 with a lot of fanfare, and while it wasn’t a great financial success, it was generally regarded as a milestone in the art of cinema, re-discovered in the 50s by my generation, on television actually, and considered one of the greatest films ever made. It still is. It was also regarded as an essentially American picture about drive, ambition, failure, and, again, like Vertigo, time.
As I said, Citizen Kane was number one for forty years. Until last year, 2012, when it was displaced by a movie that came and went in 1958, and that came very, very close to being lost to us forever –and that’s Vertigo. And by the way, so did Citizen Kane – because the original negative was burned in a fire in the mid-70s in LA.
So, my point is not only do we have to preserve everything, but most importantly, we can’t afford to let ourselves be guided by 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 really hasn’t.
And then, amidst all this chaos, 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 also remember that Moby-Dick sold very few copies when it was printed in 1849, 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.
We also have to think about where we are now.
We need to remember that there are other values beyond the financial, and that our American artistic heritage has to be preserved and shared by all of us.
Just as we’ve learned to take pride in our poets and writers, in jazz and the blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, our great American art form.
Granted, we weren’t the only ones who invented the movies. We certainly weren’t the only ones who made great films in the 20th century, but to a large extent the art of cinema and its development has been linked to us, to our country. That’s a big responsibility. And we need to say to ourselves that the moment has come when we have to treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress.