Scorsese's Op-Ed on Marvel

User avatar
Ultimate Poster
Posts: 2171
Joined: Wed Feb 08, 2017 6:35 am

Scorsese's Op-Ed on Marvel

Postby Raxivace » Tue Nov 05, 2019 2:43 am

Martin Scorsese wrote:When I was in England in early October, I gave an interview to Empire magazine. I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.

Some people seem to have seized on the last part of my answer as insulting, or as evidence of hatred for Marvel on my part. If anyone is intent on characterizing my words in that light, there’s nothing I can do to stand in the way.

Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen. The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri.

For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — 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.

It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.

And that was the key for us: it was an art form. There was some debate about that at the time, so we stood up for cinema as an equal to literature or music or dance. And we came to understand that the art could be found in many different places and in just as many forms — in “The Steel Helmet” by Sam Fuller and “Persona” by Ingmar Bergman, in “It’s Always Fair Weather” by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and “Scorpio Rising” by Kenneth Anger, in “Vivre Sa Vie” by Jean-Luc Godard and “The Killers” by Don Siegel.

Or in the films of Alfred Hitchcock — I suppose you could say that Hitchcock was his own franchise. Or that he was our franchise. Every new Hitchcock picture was an event. To be in a packed house in one of the old theaters watching “Rear Window” was an extraordinary experience: It was an event created by the chemistry between the audience and the picture itself, and it was electrifying.

And in a way, certain Hitchcock films were also like theme parks. I’m thinking of “Strangers on a Train,” in which the climax takes place on a merry-go-round at a real amusement park, and “Psycho,” which I saw at a midnight show on its opening day, an experience I will never forget. People went to be surprised and thrilled, and they weren’t disappointed.

Sixty or 70 years later, we’re still watching those pictures and marveling at them. But is it the thrills and the shocks that we keep going back to? I don’t think so. The set pieces in “North by Northwest” are stunning, but they would be nothing more than a succession of dynamic and elegant compositions and cuts without the painful emotions at the center of the story or the absolute lostness of Cary Grant’s character.

The climax of “Strangers on a Train” is a feat, but it’s the interplay between the two principal characters and Robert Walker’s profoundly unsettling performance that resonate now.

Some say that Hitchcock’s pictures had a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true — Hitchcock himself wondered about it. But the sameness of today’s franchise pictures is something else again. Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.

They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.

Another way of putting it would be that they are everything that the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Claire Denis or Spike Lee or Ari Aster or Kathryn Bigelow or Wes Anderson are not. When I watch a movie by any of those filmmakers, I know I’m going to see something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience. My sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.

So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever. The equation has flipped and streaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.

That includes me, and I’m speaking as someone who just completed a picture for Netflix. It, and it alone, allowed us to make “The Irishman” the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful. We have a theatrical window, which is great. Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would. But no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.

And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.

But, you might argue, can’t they just go home and watch anything else they want on Netflix or iTunes or Hulu? Sure — anywhere but on the big screen, where the filmmaker intended her or his picture to be seen.

In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.

I’m certainly not implying that movies should be a subsidized art form, or that they ever were. When the Hollywood studio system was still alive and well, the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made — in the words of Bob Dylan, the best of them were “heroic and visionary.”

Today, that tension is gone, and there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary — a lethal combination. The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.

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.


DA and I have talked about Scorsese's comments on Marvel before, but damn here he's just not holding back at all.
"[Cinema] is a labyrinth with a treacherous resemblance to reality." - Andrew Sarris

User avatar
Eva Yojimbo
Ultra Poster
Posts: 874
Joined: Fri Feb 03, 2017 5:34 pm
Location: The Land of Cows and Twisters

Re: Scorsese's Op-Ed on Marvel   Reply #1

Postby Eva Yojimbo » Tue Nov 05, 2019 9:15 am

To c/p the first part of what I said in DA's thread: "To me, the only real problem with what Scorsese said is that he's essentially making a subjective assessment via what is an objective, semantic classification. "Cinema" shouldn't be synonymous with "art-cinema," "cinema" should just be synonymous with theaters where films are shown. If it's shown in a theater, it's cinema. If it's shot on film, it's film. If it's a moving picture, it's a movie, etc. I don't see the point in saying something's "not cinema" when what you really mean is "I don't like these kinds of movies." It's the same way when people try to say rap or metal or [insert controversial music genre here] "isn't music" when what they really mean is "it's not the kind of music I like." There's no way to define cinema in a way that Marvel movies aren't cinema, and there's no way to define music in such a way to exclude rap and metal. That everyone has their tastes and dislikes is fine, but it's not hard to express them in a way that isn't trying to dictate what the medium is, or what people should/shouldn't like, and THAT'S what rubs people wrong about what Scorsese said."

As for that article, the first two things that come to mind are, one, that much of it is really too vague to refute, and, two, that it's mostly just an expression of Scorsese's subjective tastes and why they are what they are. I do think I could refute a few things, though.

While I understand that there were indeed generations where American film was largely of the kind described (and even made by Scorsese), I think it's important we realize that big-budget "entertainment" films, in a variety of genres, have been a thing since the silent era. There have always been films and filmmakers that were exploring the limits of film technology in well-worn/popular genres whose appeal was, primarily, the "theme park" ride aspect. I mean, even thinking back to Fritz Lang's silent films, I'd dare say their primary appeal back then was that nobody had made "genre" films that visually spectacular and exciting. People weren't going to Metropolis for the deep social commentary (and even today that social commentary is pretty derpy), they went there for the visual thrills. One might say that there's a difference in the "artistic vision" it takes to imagine a future world and the "vision" it takes to imagine a superhero fight scene, but other than the fact that you may love the first and hate the second, can you really justify how the former is "artistic" and the latter is not?

I'd also say a big part of Hitchcock's appeal is that his film still thrill. I'd argue that North By Northwest's primary appeal is how thrilling/exciting it is. As a substantial piece of art in Scorsese's terms I'd say it's vastly inferior to most of Hitchcock's best; the characters, eg, are mostly a watered-down version of Notorious. NBNW mainly works NOW as an example of kinetic orchestration, or basically how Hitchcock composes movement and stillness. It's something plenty of modern filmmakers could learn from, but it's also not something I'd consider "artistic" in the way Scorsese is describing it. Even with Hitch's other films that are substantially artistic on those other levels, I think it would be foolish to overlook how entertaining they are as well. He wasn't called "the master of complex characters and deep themes," he was called "the master of suspense," and for good reasons. He knew how keep audiences on the edge of their seats, and that still largely holds true.

I think the most pertinent thing Scorsese says here is the fact that there's no "risk" in these films, and he's dead on as to the reasons why. But as I said in DA's thread, I think that should be expected given the budgets that are at work. When you working with hundreds of millions of dollars you simply can't afford to take risks, to make artistically daring decisions that can potentially drive viewers away. Of course, viewers like myself (and I imagine most everyone around here) would love to see more risks taken, but I think we would be the fools to be surprised that such things aren't done, or criticize these films for NOT being that. I'd also add that I see nothing wrong with this kind of "safe" entertainment so long as it's made well, and when it's made VERY well it even has the potential to transcend whatever limitations exist when playing it safe.

I also think Scorsese underplays the extent to which even "artistic" directors can essentially "remake" their own films. Hell, I'd say Casino is as much a "spiritual remake" of Goodfellas as any Marvel film is a "spiritual remake" of any other Marvel film. Plenty of artistic filmmakers fall into the trap of remaking their own films in spirit, some to the point where their filmography is nothing but variations on a theme (Ozu being the foremost example). So I think to say that you watch those filmmakers and expect to see something "new and unexpected" is just nonsense. That may be true of some artistic filmmakers, but surely not all of them.

As for the "chicken and the egg" part, nobody knew that superhero films could be THIS successful until they started making them and they started making that much money, so I disagree with Scorsese. People are voting with their wallets, the same way they always have. More are being made because people are still seeing them. Studios/Producers follow the money, they don't dictate what's popular. That's how it's always been. I also think that's why they're the "primary choice" in so many theaters, that combined with the fact that most people are content with seeing most films (and TV) at home, or even on their phones. Superhero films are among the few modern films that are "spectacular" enough that people want to see them on a big screen. Though I get what Scorsese's saying, most people don't feel compelled to watch "character study" films on big screens. Honestly, I'm closer to Scorsese's opinion on this as, to me, the films most worth seeing on the big screen are those where the aesthetics overpower everything else, and that never happens in superhero films; but it's also perfectly understandable why most don't care about that and, in terms of going to the theaters, are only interested in seeing something big, grand, loud, etc. It wasn't dissimilar in the 60s and 70s when filmmakers had to find ways to get people into the theaters and away from TV, so they started shooting widescreen epics, promising an experience you couldn't get at home. Nowadays, home theaters aren't far behind cinemas in terms of audio-visual capability, so whatever a film is offering better be larger-than-life to make the trip and spend the extra money.

Finally, I might say that Scorsese is being a bit too nostalgic for the olden days of cinema. In Hollywood's Golden Age the vast majority of films were made by producers who hired writers/directors to "play it safe" and made films according to the few successful genre formulas of the time. Yes, there were visionary filmmakers, your Hitchcocks, Fords, Welles, Wilders, Hawks, Sturges, etc., but these were exceptions to a largely homogenized rule. The vast, vast majority of films from that age have been (rightly) forgotten, and we just remember the handful of "visionary" examples that stood out from the crows. The biggest difference between then and now isn't the "producers playing it safe," but the fact that, back then, studios also produces a lot of mid-budget films so that they could afford to take some risks. Now, there aren't many mid-budget films. The major studios stick their big budget eggs into a few baskets (mostly superhero stuff), and let their "indie" wings handle the low-budget stuff. There's not nearly as much "in-between" as their used to be. This basically means that you have a pretty big split between the "gargantuan blockbusters" and the "small budget, arthouse stuff" without much in the middle (I guess some Oscar-bait stuff might be an example of the rare "middle ground" that's left). So I still think there's plenty of the "artistic visionaries" out there, but they just aren't as easy to see in the theaters as they once were. Thankfully, living in the age of the internet makes such stuff easily accessible to anyone who's interested, even if we do have to settle for seeing them on home theaters.
"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." -- Carl Jung

Return to “Movies & Television”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 5 guests