2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

Martin Scorsese takes the stage.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2013, Volume 34, Number 3

On April 1, 2013, filmmaker Martin Scorses delivered the forty-second Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The prestigious lecture has been delivered in recent years by the writer Wendell Berry, Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust, the China scholar Jonathan Spence, and the bioethicist Leon Kass.

The title of this year’s lecture was “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema.” Scorsese discussed film history in its broadest contours, illustrating his talk with numerous film clips as he argued that movies are an essential part of our cultural heritage. Moving images, he said, are a part of our vocabulary and a part of our language. They are also urgently in need of protection. Some 90 percent of films from the silent era have been lost. And, Scorsese emphasized, it’s not just obscure films that  are in danger. One of the neglected films of recent decades was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which not long ago topped a poll of the greatest films of all time, overtaking Citizen Kane.

This shows, Scorsese said, that we cannot predict which films new generations will appreciate most. Over time, values shift. “But in order to experience something and find new values in it, it’s got to be there in the first place. You have to preserve it, all of it.”

After speaking from the podium, Scorsese sat down and talked with Kent Jones, artistic director of the World Cinema Foundation, a nonprofit that Scorsese helped to establish in 2007 to preserve international films. It is the second nonprofit Scorsese has helped build in order to protect films. The first, founded in 1990, is the Film Foundation, which has funded hundreds of preservation and restoration projects at major film archives, including many pictures especially dear to Scorsese, such as The Red Shoes, the 1948 British film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

As he talked with Jones in the interview format Scorsese often employs for public speaking, he talked in a more relaxed manner of the films he loved growing up, differences he notices among younger filmmakers, and the ups and downs of the business and history of film.