Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Visual Literacy | Edutopia
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Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Visual Literacy

The filmmaker touches on topics ranging from the importance of teaching visual literacy to violence in films to the preservation of classic movies. More to this story.
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Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Visual Literacy (Transcript)

Scorsese: You know, I come from a working class family. My mother and father weren’t well-educated. Second generation, I guess, Italian American. And there was no tradition of reading in the house. No books. Of course, I read in school, etc. I read books in school and that sort of thing, but the-- it was more of a visual tradition, more if-- I was taken to movie theaters a lot. Also, being a sickly child with very severe asthma, I couldn’t play sports. So, again, the movie theater. The movie theater and the church. The church and the movie theatre. And so, along with the films, there was also the advent of television, 1948, ’49, in the heyday of really the best-- some of the best programming in American television-- in the history of American television up to this point with the fifties, 1950s. And so I saw a lot of television shows, but also films on television. Being a working class family, too, they didn’t have enough money to go to the theatre, so theatre wasn’t an option, live stage shows. So, it was mainly visual literacy what was-- was what was happening at that time to me. I did not understand that that was happening. What it made me realize was that there was an intelligence, another kind of intelligence, that was trying to tell a story through where the director, the writer and the cinematographer, where they were focusing your eyes, you know. Whether it was the-- the camera may be at an extremely low angle, looking up at you, the use of the lens, the size of the lens. I began to understand certain lenses did-- interpreted the story differently. A longer lens crushed everything together and made it flat. A wider lens stretched everything and some don’t distort it, especially if camera movement-- I learned looking at certain pictures, particularly Welles’s films and William Wyler, too. A wide angle lens, but Wyler used his wide angle lens in a very strong, steady image, but Welles used that wide angle lens, 18 mm, it turns out very often, to move along the walls, move along-- and you really felt-- I felt as if the camera was flying, as if the story was flying by, you know. I didn’t know why until I kept seeing the films again and again, and as I began to know a little more about what filmmaking was like and what cameras did, and at that’s-- I still didn’t know who made the pictures, you know, but I was beginning to understand that there are certain tools you use, and those tools become part of a vocabulary that’s just as valid as that vocabulary that is used in literature and our language.

Scorsese: One has to begin, I think, reach younger people at an earlier age for that to shape their minds to-- in a critical way-- a critical way of looking at these images and what they mean and how to interpret imagery. And I think in a more official way, I think, than just punching up on a computer or seeing something on a TV commercial or something like that. I think you really need to know how ideas and emotions are expressed through a visual form. Now that for- that form could be video, you know, or film, probably eventually be digital video from a long period-- for a long time to come, but it still has the same rules. And it still has the same vocabulary, and it still has the same grammar, I should say, really the same grammar. And the grammar is panning left and right, tracking in or out, you know, booming up and down, intercutting a certain way, use of a close-up as opposed to a medium shot. Was is a medium shot? What is a long shot? All these sort of things and how do you use all of these elements and the different kinds of lighting, and how you use all these elements to make an emotional and psychological point to an audience, and I think we have to begin to teach our younger people how to use this very powerful tool, because we know film, the image, can be so strong for-- not only for good, for good use, but also for bad use. Look at World War II and look at the films that were made in Germany. Look at the great director, Leni Riefenstahl. Look at her “Triumph of the Will” and how that really-- the extraordinary ability she had as a filmmaker that helped shape the policies of the Third Reich, and of course, we know what that lead to. And so film is very powerful. Images are very powerful, I should say, and we have to start-- begin to teach younger people how to use them and what they-- and at least to begin to understand to interpret them.

Scorsese: I think it is good if a young person wants to express themselves and take a video camera and go out. They’re going to find that they have to frame the image, and in framing the image, they’re going to find that they have to interpret what they want to say to an audience. And how do you point the audience’s eye to look where you want them to look and to get the point, the emotional, psychological point that you want to get across to them. They’re going to have to make that decision. The real making of the filmmakers when they look through that viewfinder to tell the story, and I don’t mean just telling a story man goes, you know man-- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. No, I mean a story could be the story-- a story could be rain hitting a tree, leaves. That could be your story, you know, but how? Where do you begin to put the camera? Then let them see what they do. Then, you know, I mean, yes, there’s a curiosity in children and young people. They may try one or two and then they realize it’s not for me, and they move on, but there might be those one or two that realize, “And if I put the camera under this leaf and I see this drop of rain coming at it, I get it in such a way, and if I wait for a certain hour in which the sun is glistening and then...” Who knows? May not be a filmmaker. May be a great painter, but you’ll find that they will learn. They will learn as they do it. At the same time, at the same time, the respect for the language of cinema itself, the history should be taught and the visual literacy should be taught, because there are others who are not going to be able to do that. There are others who can’t afford to get a camera, and this is one of the things. My-- where I came from, we couldn’t afford any 8 mm cameras or anything like that. I drew pictures. I imagined that they moved, but I drew them.

Scorsese: You know, violence is an all-- is an encompassing word. It’s a word that takes in so much. It depends on the world you’re depicting. It depends on the audience you’re aiming for, and then there’s the issue of your responsibility to the story and to the world that you’re depicting, and if you’re going to go on a realistic basis, let’s say, where a world I came from, although is good, hardworking people trying to raise a family respectably, there was a lot of organized crime, and I saw a lot of violence where I grew up. I just saw it. It was part of me. When it came time for me to make movies, I knew those films were not for children. That was a time before-- that was a time with the rating system, but it was before cable television. I knew those films would never be shown on television, and if they were, they’d be edited to the point where they were unintelligible and I couldn’t care less, because I wouldn’t want them shown at six o’clock at night or eight o’clock at night for a child of mine to see. The violence that I have in my pictures and again, you know, be self-criticized, people say sure, you know, “The kind of violence you do, you think is alright, but for anybody else who does it, you’re criticizing them.” But when we’re talking about the violence in my films, it’s not pleasant. It’s not pleasant, and I’ve just finished a film, now. I’m working on this film right now, which is very violent. And it’s not pleasant at all. And it’s not-- you reap what you sow in the stories I’m trying to tell, and I don’t know any other way to show it. And it-- and there’s also to deal with the very, very dangerous aspect of that adrenaline one has as young that could be expressed many different ways and some sort of excitement, whether it’s sexual excitement or violence or whatever, there’s that danger that one has to know. That’s part of what it is being human, especially young, and that could go wrong. And when it goes wrong, this could happen. Now, the world I came from, the world I knew, or aspects, I should say of the world I knew, a lot of times was a valid form of expression. That’s the world I’m-- that’s the world I’m-- that’s the human condition. That is the human condition, and it’s tragic and it’s set up in such a way that will-- it will do us in as a species, if we don’t learn about it. I don’t put it up there for people to enjoy it, you know? And if they are enjoying it, they catch themselves enjoying it, and the characters pay for it. Watch the characters pay for it, particularly in “Goodfellas” and in “Raging Bull”, in this film, “The Departed”, which I just finished also.

Scorsese: Well, I think you have to make room for film in curriculum. I don’t think it’s time, and I don’t-- and this is a key thing, we don’t mean to be having young people take two hours of their time or three hours of their time a week or however the curriculum works to just sit and enjoy a movie. No. This is a learning experience. That also doesn’t mean that you take a notebook and you write down everything in the notes as you’re watching the film, because you can’t see the film. So, what you’re doing is training the eye and the heart of the student to look at a film in a different way by asking questions and pointing to different ideas, different concepts, suggestions. You’re training them to think about a story that’s told to you in visual terms in a different way and to take it seriously. I don’t say it’s a great film. You can learn more from even a bad film, you know, and so, uh.. this is why it’s so important, I think, because so much in-- of today’s society is done visually and even subliminally for young people that it could be dangerous, and one has to know it’s a very, very powerful tool.

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Video Credits

Interview by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Camera Crew:

  • Dominic Orlando
  • Matt LaGreca

Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Looking for resources for visual literacy?
A course was offered several years ago in conjunction with Newspapers In Education, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and LEARN NC.

Here is a link that will help:

Following the multitude of links provides a depth and breadth into this intriguing topic.

Mary C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am confussed and understand it all at the same time. This is a subject that has become very important to me, but I don't know how to expound upon it. It's something that I want to advocate, but how do I go about it? Help me please?

Anita Platt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is of the utmost importance that students be educated about how their emotions can be manipulated. Young people can be very susceptible to "following the crowd" without understanding where they are being led. Having a theater bacjground, I have always felt that there should be a message or meaning for such experiences that will foster social responsibility.

Mari's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This seems very exciting for students to realize they can learn so much about the world, history, and themselves by storytelling through lenses. It will bring out so much creativity in children and really teaching them an alternate to learning.

Jewellyn Forrest's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This will help children tremendously...they will no longer just believe everything they see at face value. They will consider the source and everything involved...they will think about how they are being influenced by what they see.

Gloria Reid's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's a good concept to teach them how there are different views in everything we read and see. I think it's important to teach kids not to believe everything they read and to question it.

Jennifer Bygness's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree that students do learn as visual learners and the usage of media is a very important tool to use & have in our classrooms. The discussions that can come from this will also be very useful as well when analyzing video and print.

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