The NEH awarded film director Martin Scorsese with the Jefferson Lecture this year, the highest honor the federal government gives for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. On April 1st, Scorsese gave his lecture to a full audience at the Kennedy Center. Titled “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,” Scorsese spoke about the history of cinema and the movies that first inspired his love of film.
History of the Jefferson Lecture
The award, although given annually since 1972 by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has never before been received by a filmmaker. NEH Chairman Jim Leach commented on this notable decision in his opening remarks, and mentioned the increasing importance of digital humanities, and the need to acknowledge the groundbreaking and influential work of film-making.
Scorsese began his lecture with images from cinema’s infancy, including Lumières’ train footage and Thomas Edison’s video of two cats “boxing.” He also discussed the contributions of filmmakers such as Georges Méliès, D. W. Griffith, and Stanley Kubrick. With humor and a clear gift for storytelling, Scorsese regaled the “Golden Age” of the 1950s film industry and spoke on the challenges of the 21st century.
Today’s Film Industry
Scorsese cautioned his audience that today, classical cinema is at odds with the great influx of available media; we are “overwhelmed by moving images coming at us all the time and absolutely everywhere.” In another quote, Scorsese reiterated his point: “We’re face-to-face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before. Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, 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.”
The Importance of Preservation
Just as Chairman Leach encouraged digital humanities projects, Scorsese stressed the significance of preserving films. As Chairman of the World Cinema Foundation and Director of The Film Foundation, he has been instrumental in helping restore and preserve dozens of films. His lecture clearly reflected his dedication to this endeavor: “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.” Like books, films have the ability to “tell us who we are.”
For those interested in hearing the lecture in its entirety, it is available courtesy of the NEH on its website.