Martin Scorsese: Film Preservation and the Importance of Cinema

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.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

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’s Remarks

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.”

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Photo courtesy of NIcholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

For those interested in hearing the lecture in its entirety, it is available courtesy of the NEH on its website.

Ticket Update for the 42nd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

Martin Scorsese, Academy Award winning director of The Departed, will present the 42nd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday, April 1, 2013, at 7:30 PM at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The NEH’s annual lecture is the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. During his lecture, Scorsese will discuss film history and preservation, the importance of the humanities, and the art of storytelling. The lecture is hosted by the National Endowment for the Humanities and funded by generous donations from American Express, HBO, and other private sources.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

Martin Scorsese. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe.

This year’s lecture has yielded an unprecedented demand for tickets. One hundred general admission tickets were distributed to Congressional staff on a first-come,first-served basis. The process began with an email alert to staff members who focus on the arts and schedulers in each Congressional office. A short wait list is being maintained.

Those who did not receive a ticket or a spot on the wait list were invited to register for tickets through the website for the general public, which went live shortly after the Congressional ticket distribution. Members of the general public were able to register for tickets as of 11 AM on March 11; all tickets were reserved in about three hours.

Reserved tickets will be held by the NEH at a will-call station in the Kennedy Center until 7 PM on April 1. At that time, unclaimed tickets will be distributed to members of the general public on a first-come, first served basis. If you are interested in attending the lecture, but do not have a ticket, you should get to the Kennedy Center early on April 1, to wait in line for a ticket.

The event will be live streamed for those unable to attend, and the link will be available at on April 1.