And that’s actually part of the wonder. Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as “fantasy” and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course it’s not life—it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.
Calls for “visual literacy” are nothing new in the digital age, but what does it really mean? One notable proponent to take a recent crack at distilling its essence is none other than Martin Scorsese, whose 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities was titled “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema.” Scorsese’s impeccable credentials go beyond his directorial resume: he is also a passionate film historian and preservationist. His lecture movingly links his personal experience of the transformative power of movies with both a broader understanding of visual culture and the need to preserve the artifacts (films) of that culture. I want to reflect more on Scorsese’s lecture more tomorrow, but first I’d like to tell the story of a man largely forgotten in American arts and letters, one who also called for visual literacy while discussing movies…98 years ago.
Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) has faded from our cultural memory despite being one of the most recognizable poets in the United States during the 1920s. The Illinois native with a formative Disciples of Christ upbringing was known for poetry that offered a “celebration of village life” in the face of growing urban cosmopolitanism in early 20th century America. He was famous for dramatic public performances of reading poetry and for poems like “The Congo,” (which later proved controversial for its depictions of race and African primitivism). Lindsay later experienced a steep decline in reputation, health, and finances before tragically taking his own life in 1931. Lost in the lingering vestiges of Vachel Lindsay’s faded legacy and sad personal story, however, was a work he published in 1915 about the rising art form of movies. The Art of the Moving Picture became a harbinger of the film criticism to come in ensuing decades despite long periods when it remained out of print. It was recently republished in Modern Library’s “The Movie Series,” edited by none other than Martin Scorsese–which seems fitting, because Lindsay shares Scorsese’s belief in the power of films and the need for visual literacy.
Lindsay’s poetic, almost mystical book provides some unusual categorizations of film: the Photoplay of Action, the Intimate Photoplay, the Motion Picture of Fairy Splendor, the Picture of Crowd Splendor, the Picture of Patriotic Splendor, and the Picture of Religious Splendor. He includes intriguing, if quirky, comparisons with sculpture, painting, architecture, theater and even ancient hieroglyphics. One gets a snapshot of a medium in transition: between the stage and the movie, between the silent era and the talkie, and between the cultural authority of Protestantism and an industry that would cultivate its own cultural power while laying roots in California:
“The moving picture captains of industry, like the California gold finders of 1849, making colossal fortunes in two or three years, have the same glorious irresponsibility and occasional need of the sheriff. They are Californians more literally than this. Around Los Angeles the greatest and most characteristic moving picture colonies are being built… Edison is the new Gutenberg. He has invented the new printing. The state that realizes this may lead the soul of America, day after to-morrow.”
Touché. But Lindsay believed that film could be harnessed for larger goals than just expanding the industry’s cultural footprint. As Stanley Kauffmann observes in the Modern Library edition’s introduction to The Art of the Moving Picture, Lindsay hoped film could awaken America’s underdeveloped visual sensibility and provide social cohesion:
“the film could do with titanic ease what he had been trying to do literally on his own two feet: spread the gospel of Beauty (still, in those days, to be spelled with a capital B), educe some national standards, and thus perhaps create a whole out of a huge and heterogeneous nation.”
Or as Lindsay put it, “We can build the American soul broad-based from the foundations.” The task of understanding film and nourishing visual literacy was therefore vital because of how it could be harnessed for larger social–and even religious–goals. The “prophet wizards” of film must begin the process of “transubstantiation,” taking a new technology and transforming from a mechanical process to a spiritual art form. (This spiritual process had practical benefits as well, as the temperance movement-supporting Lindsay believed movies could become a “substitute for the saloon” for the working class.)
The Art of the Moving Picture was written as the world plunged into the darkness of the Great War, whose destruction made Lindsay’s gospel of beauty–part apocalyptic and part optimistic–all the more poignant:
“If the New Isaiahs of this time will write their forecastings in photoplay hieroglyphics, the children in times to come, having seen those films from infancy, or their later paraphrases in more perfect form, can rise and say, “This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears.” But without prophecy there is no fulfilment, without Isaiah there is no Christ.
America is often shallow in her dreams because she has no past in the European and Asiatic sense. Our soil has no Roman coin or buried altar or Buddhist tope. For this reason multitudes of American artists have moved to Europe, and only the most universal of wars has driven them home. Year after year Europe drained us of our beauty-lovers, our highest painters and sculptors and the like. They have come pouring home, confused expatriates, trying to adjust themselves. It is time for the American craftsman and artist to grasp the fact that we must be men enough to construct a to-morrow that grows rich in forecastings in the same way that the past of Europe grows rich in sweet or terrible legends as men go back into it.”
Lindsay’s vision of world renewal and American cultural renaissance through film may seem wildly fanciful (and woefully unfulfilled in light of current offerings), but I wonder if Scorsese wouldn’t appreciate Lindsay’s belief in the power of film to recast the world. More on Scorsese tomorrow.
Photo: Serge Ottaviani, “L’Idéal Cinéma – Jacques Tati à Aniche inauguré en 1905 est l’un des plus ancien cinéma du Monde” (attribution: CC BY-SA 3.0).