Last night at the Kennedy Center concert hall, Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese delivered the 2013 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture. He spoke of the importance of preserving film and lamented the studios' fixation with box office grosses. The end of celluloid saddened him, but he reminded us that there were exciting new developments in film technology we shouldn't overlook. But mostly Scorsese focused on protecting the old movies—90 percent of silent films are now gone. It's an important subject, don't get me wrong, but couldn't he have talked about Goodfellas or Casino a little bit? I mean, c'mon!
It was quite a curious crowd in attendance. There were congressmen like Henry Waxman and Jim Moran. Kennedy Center-types (very old people) whom I heard asking, "Have you seen many of his pictures?" and making astute observations like, "This guy is one of the Hollywood heavyweights." And then there were the film hipsters who were here to glimpse their idol—guys and girls who have actually seen Boxcar Bertha and New York, New York. I haven't, but I've seen a majority of the Scorsese oeuvre. Plus I've watched Goodfellas at least 100 times. So it was with great disappointment that I sat through the Q&A with the director and critic Kent Jones, who failed to ask that most vital question: When Jimmy told Karen to go down the block and pick up some Dior dresses, was he planning on having her wacked, or was she simply paranoid?
In all seriousness, the lecture was enthralling. Scorsese has a passion for film that began when he first saw The Magic Box (1951). And his breadth of knowledge is staggering. For those of us who did not take film class in college, it was a treat to learn about the origin of movies, from the time of Edison and on through Lumière, Méliès, and Friese-Greene. Concepts like the cut, and inference, we now take for granted. On a screen behind the director we watched clips of D.W Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley, essentially the first gangster movie, and newly restored classics like The Red Shoes and Vertigo. (The problem with older films was the material—nitrocellulose, which could start a fire. And many of these old movies ended up being melted and turned into guitar picks and heels for shoes.)
Scorsese pointed out that oftentimes what we consider a classic today was not always so—Moby Dick wasn't a classic until the 1920s, he said. And the critics hated 2001: A Space Odyssey when it came out. (I still hate it.) But the reasons, he told Kent Jones, were quite funny: The opening of 2001 looked similar to the opening of Ice Station Zebra, which had just come out. The 45 minutes of apes reminded critics of the recently released Planet of the Apes. More Apes? Citizen Kane hadn't been widely praised until much later, and now some consider Vertigo to be even better. (I don't, but perhaps the next generation will finally realize the greatest film of all time is The Godfather: Part 2.)
And yes, the current Hollywood scene depresses Scorsese because of the all-consuming box office. That's what studios want. Twenty years ago, he was told that the movie he directed was on its way to grossing $60 million but the studio wanted $160 million. He wouldn't say which movie, but I'll guess Cape Fear, which finished around $80 million, domestic. That, he said, is when he knew "it was lost," although he mentioned a few recent exceptions, including Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and The Master.
Finally, he spoke about how kids today don't make films the way he and his generation did. Because of technology, they see things differently. They edit differently. And yet: One of the oldest clips Scorsese showed us was a flickering image from 1894 produced by Thomas Edison using a kinetograph. It starred two cats boxing. "I guess this is what they were doing in Jersey at the time," he joked. But go to YouTube and type in "cats" or go to lolcats.com. Yes, the technology is radically different. Us? Maybe not so much.