Lately, I’ve been watching films about films. The connecting thread throughout all of them has been Martin Scorsese. I could listen to him talk about movies all day. Scorsese is a tireless advocate for cinema and he speaks about the art form in a way that is both personal and technical. He can talk about a feeling evoked by a film and then discuss how exactly that feeling was generated through framing, pacing, lighting, and the other tools that directors use.
In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Scorsese muses on the meticulous and masterful scenes created by Alfred Hitchcock. In A Letter to Elia, he reminisces about the power of Elia Kazan’s films and how they sparked Scorsese’s own desire to be a director. He shares memories of being a child and watching movies for the first time and what the movie theater meant to him, how it was a place of refuge and protection. Scorsese’s reverence for cinema is moving and it reminds me of my own passion for the art form.
My passion began in high school in 2004 when I took a film appreciation class. The class was held in the school theater where the teacher set up a projector and screen. I still remember sitting in that theater in the darkness, surrounded by a few of my peers (it was a small class with maybe a dozen students) and watching classic films. We watched Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho, Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. We watched The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon. We learned about the birth of cinema, the popularity of silent films, the rise of talkies. I loved watching the films. I found a pleasure that, until that moment, I’d never known. Films were entertainment. They were something I watched and then forgot. But this class made me realize that cinema was an art form, that it could make me feel things, that it could show me things that I’d never seen.
I was reminded of all this recently when I watched another film about film: Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies. It’s about the intersection of cinema and art, specifically the effect that film had on Cubism, which was pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. As you’d expect, Martin Scorsese is in the documentary. He talks about how, when you watch a film, you’re really “living a dream.” I think, more than any other art form, cinema is about dreaming, it’s about entering a dreamlike state. When I remember those days of watching films in the high school theater and when I watch them now, I’m in love with the dream that film creates.
When I first learned about the early days of cinema, I was enchanted by the short silent films that were made, like The Kiss and Le Voyage Dans La Lune. They still delight me. Filmmakers were experimenting with the camera, pushing the boundaries, constructing a cinematic language to tell stories. The image that most enthralled me was the Danse Serpentine. Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies spotlights the dancer, Loie Fuller, who created the dance. Fuller was an American dancer who became a sensation in France in the 1890s. She had no formal dance training at all, but she beguiled audiences with her choreography. The Metropolitan Museum of Art writes:
Manipulating with bamboo sticks an immense skirt made of over a hundred yards of translucent, iridescent silk, the dancer evoked organic forms –butterflies, flowers, and flames–in perpetual metamorphosis through a play of colored lights. Loie Fuller’s innovative lighting effects, some of which she patented, transformed her dances into enthralling syntheses of movement, color, and music, in which the dancer herself all but vanished.
Fuller’s dance was copied throughout the world and many filmmakers captured other dancers performing it. To reproduce the light effect, the film was tinted with different colors. Watching videos of it, you feel as though you are in a dream. The voluminous folds of the dancer’s clothing curve and swirl in the air. I’ll never forget the impact of this imagery. It was so striking, to see a woman dance with abandon and throw her arms around and lose herself in the movement itself.
When I found out that they tinted the films by hand, I used to think about a person going through each frame and drawing the color on. It seemed so laborious but playful, a form of experimentation. Today’s films simply can’t compete with those early works when it comes to evoking a dream world. Those first pioneers and innovators were birthing cinema, they were bringing it to life, they were dreaming it as they created it.
Around 1900, Samuel Joshua Beckett captured striking photos of Loie Fuller dancing. Fuller may not have been formally trained, but perhaps this is what gave her such guts and imagination. She transcends dance. She transforms the human body into other shapes. She gives herself wings and looks like she could take flight. It’s no wonder that Picasso was fascinated by her, or that all of the world was mesmerized by her movements.
My journey with cinema is only beginning. There’s still so much I don’t know and so many films I haven’t seen. Scorsese is a kind of guide. I don’t necessarily have the language and the theory to talk about cinema, but I have the passion and the curiosity and the love and so I will always write from a place of tenderness and awe. I think cinema is for the dreamers. I think cinema keeps our dreams alive.