What is Cinema? My Public Disagreement with Martin Scorsese

I almost met Martin Scorsese once. He introduced a nitrate print of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) at the 2017 TCM Classic FIlm Festival. Sitting in the  Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, greatness loomed. Scorsese’s love of film resonated through the historic space as he told us about the newly renovated nitrate projection system at the Egyptian, and extolled the beauty of watching film from light projected by a bulb onto a big screen. 

A few weeks ago, my almost-friend got himself into a bit of internet hot water. During an interview, he said that Marvel movies are “not cinema.” Of course the internet lost its mind and now Scorsese is back, defending his position in an OpEd for the New York Times. In the OpEd he’s says, “I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me.” Fine. Stop there. But he continues. His words imply he probably hasn’t even given them a real chance, probably hasn’t even watched a complete film. By comparison to old pictures, he says franchise movies are not art, and while may be “made by people of considerable talent,” these movies can’t be cinema.

When the fever hit over his comments a few weeks ago, I was pretty sure I knew what he meant, and he has some good points. He is absolutely correct that artistic cinema is being nudged out of theaters by the big-budget franchise films. I love art films, and the kinds of cinema Scorsese is talking about. I am literally known by the staff at one of my local multiplexes because I show up so often to see their screenings of independent films. Last week I went to the theater to see The Lighthouse. Talk about an art movie with risks and real consequences! And alas, here is where I must publicly disagree with Martin Scorsese.

It is total poppy-cock to say there is no risk in these franchises … There have been quite a number of big-budget flops in recent years … Suicide Squad, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Hellboy, Dark Phoenix, and on and on. These films were bad. Bad to the bone. And they exist because of all the reasons Scorsese talks about. 

While some of the superhero or action movies out there (maybe even a lot of them) fall into the non-cinema, no risk, no consequence, theme-park-ride category to which Scorsese is relegating them, the best superhero (and action) films have been by auteur directors and did have real risks and consequences … Logan, The Dark Knight, Joker and even Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989 were all very big risks, and I think transcend the “Marvel” problem Scorsese is talking about. 

And sadly, sometimes even good moves fail. War for the Planet of the Apes was among the best films of 2017 in my opinion. This big-budget franchise-film couldn’t translate at the box office. While it wasn’t specifically a Marvel picture, this move was a franchise action movie, a superhero vehicle of sorts. I know Scorsese is mostly talking about artistic risk, but studios make tons of decisions based on financial risks. The focus-group mentality comes from this fear of financial risk.

And as illustrated by War for the Planet of the Apes, even when they are good, these pictures are far from sure fire hits. Of course, when they do hit big, they hit REALLY BIG. This leads us to the heart of the problem: Hollywood’s ongoing mistake of taking the wrong lessons away from hits OR flops. When things flop, the fallacious reasoning seems to be “spend more, focus group more.” And when things are a success, they seem to assume it is because of special effects and money, and they forget that EVERYONE wants a good story. 

I’ve seen many of the films Scorsese mentions in his OpEd, and I’ve made a list to make sure I see the ones he mentioned that I haven’t seen. I actually got to see Strangers on a Train last year for the very first time. In a movie theater. With an audience of 450 other film lovers. It was glorious. But so were Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Mission: Impossible Fallout. The fact that Goddard, Siegel and Hitchcok made classic films does not mean Chris McQuarie or Lord & Miller or Jon Favreau can’t make cinema. Joker literally mimics TWO Scoresese masterpieces. Maybe this is the picture’s problem (ok that is definitely Joker’s problem!) But at a minimum, it was trying really hard to make art out of a super hero/villain idea, and I think it kinda succeeds.

Scorsese says, “the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” This sounds like a literal AND spiritual summary of both Joker AND Into the Spider-Verse. 

I can’t be sure, but it seems to me that Scorsese has made a decision — based on his age (he actually pretty much says this in his OpEd piece) and his prejudices — to discard and entire segment of films. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that bad non-cinema gangster movies far outnumber the few good ones he and Francis Ford Coppola have made. Every genre or segment will suffer bad movies. Non-cinema. I totally get that these modern CGI action pictures don’t match with his “personal taste and temperament.” That’s cool. I don’t much like horror or the Will Ferrel/Adam Sandler/Adam McKay brand of film comedy. But I’m sorry Mr. Scorsese. I love your movies, and you are among the modern living greats, but even you don’t get to dismiss an entire category of motion pictures as “not cinema” because you don’t like them. Even worse, because you haven’t really even watched them, and certainly don’t understand them

Worst of all is his last paragraph. With these scant words he robs an entire generation of hope.

“For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out,
the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the
act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.”

This paragraph is about becoming old and cynical, not about what is — or is not — cinema. Mr. Scorsese you may be right that it will be hard for young filmmakers to get their pictures in theaters. But honestly, it has been hard to get movies in theaters since the dawn of the art form. But this generation has something better: every single kid with a dream has the ability to actually make a movie. 

We live in an amazing world of technology and affordability. They don’t need a studio or financier to back them. Please don’t knock our young artists or pity them. They have more chances than anyone in your generation ever had of making movies. They have amazing ideas and vision, so please let’s give them the chance to do exactly what you have done without knocking them down before they even get started.

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