There are few directors I admire as much as Martin Scorsese, but Sidney Lumet is definitely one of them. So it was a case of cinephile nirvana when I came across a priceless gem of an artifact last weekend at the limited-engagement Scorsese Exhibition at The Deutsche Kinemathek: a letter from Lumet to Scorsese.
Dated April 23rd, 1980, it is a response to the manifesto Scorsese had authored on the abysmal state of archival film elements held by various studios and the dire need for urgent action on the film preservation front. The very legacy of cinema is at stake here, he had argued a few weeks prior in a call-to-arms letter to hundreds of his colleagues, a veritable list of filmmaking legends, including Losey, Spielberg, Fassbinder, Coppola, Kurosawa, Wenders, and Powell among many others. The original letter was presented at the exhibition, along with a slew of supportive responses he had received, all signing a petition and offering their help. “Every year the blue of the sea fades in colour, while the blood spewing out of Robert Shaw’s mouth gets more red”, read Spielberg’s response in reference to the state of the negative for Jaws.
I was stunned when I got to Lumet’s letter:
To put things in context, at this point in his career, Sidney Lumet is already a bonafide legend. It has been 23 years since 12 Angry Men, he has 26 feature films under his belt, including indisputable masterpieces like The Hill, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Network, alongside other groundbreaking films like The Pawnbroker, Fail Safe, and The Offence. Yet he is the one filmmaker who takes this call to action to heart most, with the energy and enthusiasm of an idealistic kid (which, in many ways he remained until his dying day). Instead of patting Marty on the back and passively offering support, he expands on his manifesto, bringing into focus the poor manufacturing standards of the raw negative film of the era produced by Kodak (complacency that comes with industrial monopoly is the likely cause, Lumet hypothesizes), and suggests a concerted effort at a boycott of Kodak stock until the issue is taken seriously.
But what he does next is truly astonishing: proposing an industry-wide conference to seriously discuss using video technology for both image acquisition and projection. “Something I know is possible”, Lumet says. This is 1980. Video capture technology is still in its infancy, with the Hollywood establishment, of which Lumet should be a part (at this point he was already a three-time Academy Award nominee), only regarding it with a mixture of disdain and apathy. This is even before a seemingly indestructible, post-Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola was laughed at and scorned for daring to dream of “electronic cinema” as he dubbed it in 1982.
It would take another twenty years before Hollywood started catching up with Lumet. “I could cut below the line costs minimally 50% on video tapes”. He was, throughout his unparalleled career, a consummate professional who loved and thought sacred the field he always considered himself lucky to be in. He just wanted to make movies, and we are so immeasurably blessed that he did.
Go on and celebrate the great man’s life and legacy. Put on Serpico, turn off the lights, and lose yourself. And when the film is finished, click here (http://www.movingimagesource.us/dialogues/mp3/567), listen to a wonderful Q&A on the making of a classic, and let Lumet charm you with his warmth and infinite passion. What are you waiting for?