This is admittedly a digression from the Crash Course. Say this is more like you’ve run into your professor in the hallway and you get into a conversation on the way to class.
So Martin Scorcese is making some waves right now with an essay he’s written for Harper’s Bazaar, in which he finds some fault with the current state of the movie industry. He begins with a memory of being a younger film fan here in New York in the late 50s and early 60s, excitedly tracking down some of the films just then coming stateside from France or Italy, marveling how he would be able to jump from an Andy Warhol art film to a screening of The Cranes Are Flying to Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, and capping things off with a screening of the latest work from Federico Fellini. Then he goes on to lament that today, “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content’.”
This isn’t the first time he’s made an argument about “the art of cinema” and how it differs from “movies”. In 2019 he famously made waves by dismissing the MCU as “not cinema” – it was cheap expendable stuff, he seemed to imply; people cared more about film as an art form back in the day, he said then. And he says that again now, and this time puts forth an example of what he means; most of his Harper’s essay is an ode to Fellini’s artistry in particular, with Fellini’s film 8-1/2 as Scorcese’s favorite work.
Now, on the one hand I do get what Scorcese is saying about film as art. There is a difference between a film that is the latest entry in a franchise, and a film that is a smaller passion project. Scorcese says that right now, “content” is a catch-all to describe “all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.” And there absolutely is a difference between a David Lean movie and a Superbowl commercial.
I’m afraid I disagree with Scorcese on two points, however. His earlier comments about the MCU got several people’s hackles up, as he seemed to suggest that since the MCU films weren’t “cinema”, that they were somehow a little….lesser-than, and not to be taken seriously. It’s possible he didn’t intend to leave that impression – but if he did, I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, superhero movies are big and flashy and special-effects-heavy, but the people writing for Marvel are saying some nuanced and complicated things in those films. The current WandaVision miniseries is painting a surprisingly complex portrait of someone seeking to escape trauma and grief, and is simultaneously presenting a satire of cheesy family sitcoms and how their handling of serious fare changed and evolved over time. And as for film – I went to see Black Panther largely because it was such a clear cultural touchstone, but I walked out surprised that it had given me some food for thought about distribution of natural resources and wealth, and a given community’s responsibility towards its neighbors in the global community. The fact that the people saying those things were discussing a fictional metal and were dressed in panther-eared armor didn’t distract me from what they were saying in the slightest.
In his current essay, Scorcese also seems to suggest that in the past, “cinema” was valued more by moviegoers; that it could be found on more screens, that it was more prevalent, that there was more of a demand for it. I disagree here as well – there has always been cheaper forgettable stuff, designed to appeal to the mass market, alongside the more “artistic” stuff. For instance, let’s take Scorcese’s beloved 8-1/2. That came out in 1963 – and while a handful of other “cinematic” works also came out that year, it also saw the release of some films Scorcese didn’t mention in his essay:
- The Sun Of Flubber
- The Day Mars Invaded Earth
- Follow The Boys
- Operation Bikini
- The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
- It Happened At The World’s Fair
- The Nutty Professor
- The Girl Hunters
- Island of Love
- Captain Sinbad
- Jason and the Argonauts
- Tarzan’s Three Challenges
- Gidget Goes To Rome
- Beach Party
- The Three Stooges Go Around The World In A Daze
- X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes
- Under The Yum Yum Tree
- Gunfight At Comanche Creek
- Take Her, She’s Mine
- The Pink Panther
- Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed?
I would wager that Mr. Scorcese would not categorize any of those films as “cinema” either. I would also wager that back in 1963, he was tutting about them just as much as he tuts about the MCU today. And most importantly – I would wager that Mr. Scorcese doesn’t even remember that those films came out at the same time as 8-1/2, and that he was rolling his eyes at them.
My point being, then, that I suspect Martin Scorcese is making a complaint about how the movie business today cares less about art and more about commerce, but that he is basing his complaint on a selective recollection of what the movie scene was like when he was younger. He doesn’t remember those films today because they weren’t designed to be remembered, just like many of the films today aren’t designed to be remembered either. His remembering more Fellini on screens back in the 1960s isn’t a sign that the public cared more about art – it’s a sign that he cared more about art, and just forgot The Sun Of Flubber existed too. He’s also forgetting that many of the theaters showing the films he cared about were smaller independent outlets, as opposed to the big cineplexes showing Gidget Goes To Rome or other guaranteed money-makers.
And the good news is, that hasn’t changed today. In 2018 I went to see Black Panther at an Alamo Drafthouse theater, but could also have seen it at any one of six different other movie houses within three blocks of that theater. I later saw Infinity War and The Force Awakens at similar big-box movie houses. But I also saw Call Me By Your Name and Get Out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s theater, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri in another smaller theater, the same place where I’d go on to see Parasite a year later. The artistic films have always had to compete with the big dumb popcorn films, and all such films manage to find their audiences and after a couple decades it’s the artistic films are the ones people are more likely to remember. Or, rather, it’s the quality films people are more likely to remember – for there are some quality films masquerading as big dumb films sometimes.
So I wouldn’t worry about things, Mr. Scorcese; cinema is doing just fine, as fine as it always has.