Analyzing Martin Scorsese’s Essay: ‘The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema’
Martin Scorsese is a master of cinema. From Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967) to his iconic character creations, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and James Conway in Goodfellas (1990), his films have been a staple of cinema and are still prominent in today’s movie landscape.
Scorsese has a way of bringing history to life on the big screen and making issues of the past still relevant to modern culture.
The latest example is Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), which follows members of the Osage Native American Tribe in Oklahoma in the 1920s who are murdered when oil is found on their land.
In 2013, the New York Review of Books published Scorsese’s essay, “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,” where he discussed a range of cinema points beginning from his early influences to encouraging contemporary audiences to appreciate older works of cinema.
Scorsese’s points are broken down into simple terms that can be useful for every filmmaker to learn and appreciate the art of filmmaking.
- The Wonder of Cinema & Forming Connections with Moving Images
Martin Scorsese credits The Magic Box (1951) for impacting his view on cinema. He was only eight years old, but the profound influence of the William Friese-Greene character made him see cinema in a completely different light. That film ignited his “wonder of cinema, and the obsession—with watching movies, making them, inventing them.”
Scorsese not only saw the power of cinema at a young age but also connected with his family through watching movies. The films of the 1940s and 1950s often showed the “emotional truths on screen” in coded form. There was a certain normalcy in films from the relationships between characters to their expressions and gestures that highlighted the everyday life which the audience experiences too.
This coded form of storytelling often reveals hidden meanings behind messages posed by the filmmaker. These nuanced gestures—no matter how small—reveal something about characters more than dialogue could tell. Though in real life we often fail to realize such simple gestures compared to the characters on screen, this form of visual storytelling (a way to tell a story captured through a series of images) connects the parallels between real life and stories told in movies.
Scorsese emphasizes that cinema has the power to connect with the real world as an “ongoing dialogue with life.” Through cinema the audience experiences the world in a heightened form of reality. After all, movies and real life are not too different, and the stories told across cinema can serve as important lessons in life.
- The Comfort of Cinema
Old theatres encapsulated what Scorsese remembered as a “sacred space, a kind of sanctuary where the living world around (him) seemed to be recreated and played out.” These theatres created the experience for cinemagoers: the doors, the thick red carpet, the popcorn stand, the ticket taker and the little windows that gave a peek into the “magical happening up there on the screen.”
Referencing Scorsese’s more recent comments on the rise of streaming platforms, cinemas will no doubt have to work harder to get the audience watching releases on the big screen rather than on their “small screen” devices. This stems debates on the future of film and whether the cinema experience will change to compete with the rise of home cinemas and the increasing demand for streaming platforms.
- The Four Elements of Cinema
Collected from years of cinematic knowledge, Scorsese recorded what he believes makes movies so special in the four elements of cinema.
The first element is Light. Light is at the start of cinema. The projectors light up the big screen and their darkness signals the end of the movie. Light allows stories to be told.
Light is the element that allows us to recognize “patterns, similarities, differences, naming things—interpreting the world.” Light forms metaphors in “seeing one thing ‘in light of’ something else” and metaphors form messages in cinema. How two audience members view a scene will be completely different because of how they interpret the world. We can use cinema to understand ourselves.
The second element of cinema is Movement. At just five or six years of age, Scorsese recalls looking inside a projector of a 16mm cartoon. What he saw was the “sensation of movement.” He admired the stringing together of what James Stewart termed “pieces of time.” Filmmakers have this desire to capture the movement of images.
This movement dates back to cave paintings of 30,000 years ago. Scorsese calls this desire to recreate movement the mystical urge. It’s an urge to “capture the mystery of who and what we are, and then to contemplate that mystery.” To capture who we are in the movement of images within a period of time leads directly to the next element.
The third element of cinema is Time. This element dates back to the early pioneers of filmmaking, the Lumière Brothers, who made “the first publicly projected film” in 1896 that conveyed time in a unique way. The Arrival of a Train (1896) showed the movement of people arriving and departing a train but there are two aspects of time here. One aspect captures time in the moment during filming and the second brings the characters to life as the audience watches the film in real time.
Even though they are people of the past, within cinematic terms, time unites them into a frame of the present.
Cinema also conveys time through editing and cuts and to create the illusion of one continuous action. Scorsese references one of the most famous and earliest examples of a cut in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). The scene cuts from the car’s interior to the exterior in one unbroken action to convey the continuous motion of time.
The fourth element of cinema is Inference. Scorsese summarizes inference as the “image in the mind’s eye.” D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), “the first gangster film,” shows gangsters moving along a wall and exiting the frame in a dramatic close-up. They cross space but the camera does not capture this movement. Instead, it is up to the audience to infer what is happening in the scene and so the image is in the mind’s eye. This marked the beginning of Scorsese’s obsession with filmmaking.
“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.”
Scorsese credits Sergei Eisenstein for the start of his obsession where Scorsese experimented with timing and inference to discover that “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.”
This terminology is termed Film Language, a type of cinema language which surrounds terms related to different areas of filmmaking, e.g., editing terminology includes “cross-cutting” or Eisenstein’s term “Intellectual Montage.” That cinema has the power to have its own language presents further evidence that film is an art form.
- The Early Pioneers of Cinema
In the essay, Scorsese refers to the influences and impact of many filmmakers on his filmmaking. To learn from Scorsese and the filmmakers that influenced his filmmaking, here are two tables showcasing the early pioneers of cinema he refers to.
- Visual Literacy
Scorsese stresses the importance of Visual Literacy. There is a stark difference between moving images in cinema and moving images that are intended to “sell” products. Scorsese encourages schools to make this difference known to young people, so they understand the true distinction between film art and marketable images.
In marketing, images come and go, moving quickly out of fashion. In cinema, the images on screen are meant to be analyzed, intended to be thought-provoking and spark debate. For example, the Stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) conjures several elements of cinema including “narrative, abstraction, speed, movement, stillness, life, death…”
In order to continue appreciating cinema from auteurs like Kubrick and early film pioneers like Georges Méliѐs and the Lumiѐre Brothers, the images of the past need to be analyzed as part of film language.
The importance of the moving image links directly back to Scorsese’s points about both film language and the mystical urge. Scorsese points out,
“…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.”
The landscape of the film industry is evolving. Films are expansive in choice and today’s market is filled with new filmmakers. Streaming platforms showcase endless options from genres and subgenres to mainstream cinema, independent, and low-budget films.
The world is now processing these images at a much faster pace and places the power in the viewers’ hands, accelerated by streaming platforms which provide the viewer with the power to watch a film or TV show at the convenience of being anywhere at any time to play, pause, and rewind.
As more moving images flood the market, they should be taken just as seriously as images from film classics. We must not forget the beauty of the moving images and the elements that form each individual frame.
If we consider these moving images as a film language, they can be better understood, analyzed, and appreciated to mirror the filmmaker’s dedication to create moving images that contribute to film art.
Indeed, analyzing such scenes as the Stargate sequence causes sparks of the mystical urge:
“… 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.”
- Alfred Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense
Scorsese discusses the different eras of cinema—from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, to the directors of the French New Wave. Each era helps us better understand the idea of film authorship. The moving images on screen evoke certain emotions in the audience through this concept of film language.
Hitchcock’s grasp on visual storytelling enriched the film language we know today. The 1983 restoration of Vertigo (1958) took Hitchcock’s auteur vision more seriously, showcasing the film’s richer color palette.
Since the introduction of film language, Vertigo (1958) has been analyzed as a work of art—considering Hitchcock’s sense of visual storytelling and the emotional complexity behind his stories. After the restoration of Vertigo, the film was seen for the obsessive focus and hypnotic beauty that Hitchcock intended to evoke.
- Preserving Film
Appropriately, Scorsese’s next topic is Preserving Film. The process of restoring old films can introduce a “different time of storytelling” to new generations of filmmakers. Restoring the color palette alone can clarify the intent of the filmmaker.
Scorsese not only reinforces the importance of film preservation but also encourages the younger generation to see the beauty of films. Films are intended to be rewatched to understand, appreciate, and study the visual storytelling and manipulation of techniques.
Cinema helps us understand the filmmakers’ process, along with the intended meanings and hidden messages behind their stories. It is in the art of rewatching where we discover how to craft masterpieces and how the different aspects of mood, tone, atmosphere, light, and score work together to achieve the desired cinematic experience. As Scorsese states, “… you haven’t really seen Vertigo until you’ve seen it again.”
- The Importance of the Moving Image
In October 2023, I was lucky to see Martin Scorsese at the BFI Film Festival Screen Talk in London. Scorsese discussed his onscreen vision from his early films to his latest, Killers of the Flower Moon.
It is clear that Scorsese’s wonder, ignited at eight years old when he saw The Magic Box (1951), is still burning just as strong. At 80, with a career spanning over 50 years, Scorsese discussed how cinema was a place where cinemagoers went to see the latest films without expectations, viewing any genre as an exciting experience.
Through filmmaking, Scorsese discovered his coming-of-age journey in both his stories and the films he watched on screen. There is a personal sacrifice a filmmaker experiences each time they make a film, and their characters will often feel close to home.
Scorsese is unsure where cinema is heading but he asked the younger generation of filmmakers to think: What does a single shot mean to you?
With social media and AI, audiences are experiencing pictures at a rapid pace. In Scorsese’s “Persisting Vision” essay, he emphasized the need to keep the audience’s attention on the moving images. Ten years later, Scorsese predicts that franchises will continue to dominate cinema, but he insists that the key to cinema is to create pictures that enrich your experiences in life.
Perhaps the future is not about breeding a generation of content providers for social media but developing the next generation of filmmakers who evolve with the industry, developing their own personal identities.
As Scorsese says:
“Young filmmakers can use the latest technology to enhance their films. It is time for them to reinvent cinema in this Streaming Age by rethinking their messages and the process for how they wish to tell their stories.”
From cinema’s early pioneers to Hollywood’s Golden Age to the Streaming Age, each era defines a generation. The questions remain the same for every generation: who are you, how do you interpret the world, and how do you convey this on screen in a timeless and universal manner?
Across each era, the “wonder of cinema” has survived. Hopefully, Scorsese’s “obsession with watching movies, making them, inventing them”—his persistence of vision—is what every dedicated filmmaker will feel. Because the power of cinema lies in its future masters.