Administratia, Extra Credit

In Which I Disagree With Martin Scorcese

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
  • Flipper
  • 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.

Administratia

A Much Longer Syllabus!

Well, gosh.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, a new version of the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has just been released, and because I’m insane a completist that means that the movies they added are ones I’m adding.

Like, there’s a lot though.

  • Lamerica (1994)
  • Toy Story 4 (2019)
  • Avengers: Endgame (2019)
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (2019)
  • For Sama (2019)
  • Booksmart (2019)
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
  • The Farewell (2019)
  • Joker (2019)
  • Parasite (2019)
  • Monos (2019)
  • Little Women (2019)
  • The Lighthouse (2019)

I guess it’s…..a good thing that we are coming into winter and I am on an enforced bedrest due to a broken knee. Now if I could translate that into writing the reviews as well as watching the movies I’d be all set.

Administratia, We Have Buster Sign!

I Fall Down Go Boom

Buster Keaton's “Sherlock Jr.” Live Film Score by Tim Carless – The  ArtsCenter

So.

On Sunday afternoon I watched my next film. On Monday – the day I planned to write the review – I unfortunately had a bad fall while walking to work, and have broken my kneecap. I am now forced to spend the rest of my week keeping my leg as still as possible until this following Monday, when I can get surgery to stabilize it and then start proper recovery.

As a result, my review is going to be an eensy bit delayed, hence my throwing up Buster Sign. Come Friday I may go stir crazy and try a draft anyway, but for now I’m still figuring out how to maneuver myself to and from the bathroom without Roommate Russ having to tend to me. (I think I got it, fortunately, which is a bit of a relief for us both.)

Thank you for your patience.

Administratia

List Updates – Forecast

Rear Window: A Perfect Blend – Reelistics Views

So periodically there is a new edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, and when that happens there are changes to the list. And when that happens, I have more films to add. A new version of the book drops next month; early indications show that the updates may include the following films:

  • Parasite
  • Joker
  • Little Women
  • For Sama
  • The Lighthouse
  • Once Upon A Time In Hollywood….

I’ll hold off adding them until the book is actually published and in stores and someone can check what it involves. But thank God they included The Lighthouse – it got very little attention at the Oscars and it absolutely should have had more.

Administratia, film, movies

A Note From The Movie Crash Course Principal

So we interrupt the regular Movie Crash Course semester for a special announcement.

It seems that HBO’s streaming service, HBO Max, has made the decision to temporarily pull some films from its library in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  The films in question are ones with a…perspective on racial history in America which has as of late become problematic.  They plan to re-introduce them later, after adding some title cards or contextualizing discussing the racial attitudes that pose problems.

One of the films that Film Twitter are having a snit about is Gone With The Wind.  “It’s an historic film!” they are squealing.  “It’s the first African-American Oscar Winner!  HBO pulling it is just caving into the libs!” A couple people have pulled up the point that Hattie McDaniel’s birthday is this same day, and are hand-wringing over how she might have felt knowing that the movie where she won her Oscar was being singled out in this way on her birthday.

Here’s the thing, though.

The movie isn’t going away permanently.  It’s still available for streaming on many other services – Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play all show it as an option.  DVDs of the film also exist – I got a copy on DVD via Netflix’s DVD rental, and early reports show that Amazon is currently making a killing selling copies of the DVD now because of HBO’s ban.  This is not the complete and utter Orwellian erasure that the doomsayers are saying it is.

And again, this is a temporary move on HBO Max’s part.  They are figuring out how to provide proper context for the film for future viewers – much the same way that Warner Brothers added a statement to its screenings of older cartoons with problematic racial stereotypes.  “While not representing the Warner Bros. view of today’s society,” the statement explains, “these [films] are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”  Arguably that doesn’t even go far enough.  But it’s something – it’s a reminder, before you watch, that some of this stuff is really, really not cool.  (Warner Brothers also is sitting on eleven shorts that it most likely will not show again no matter what because of how racist they are.)

And speaking of Hattie McDaniel – it’s true that she did win the Best Supporting Actress playing Mammy.  But the film fans who point to this fact seem to think that the mere token acknowledgement of her performance somehow negates the problems with the film.  “You can’t say it’s prejudiced, it’s got a black character!” the argument seems to be.  But this is treating Hattie McDaniel’s presence in the film like a shield preventing the film from being criticized on its other qualities – and it is by its other qualities that it is being judged.  Consider: if all that mattered when it came to a film’s significance was whether anyone of color won an Oscar in it, we have Lupita N’yongo winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Twelve Years A Slave as well.  Heck, she was also playing a house servant on a plantation as Hattie McDaniel did.  But no one would equate Twelve Years A Slave with Gone With The Wind simply because they both have Best Supporting Actress award winners who played house servants; that’d be like saying Children Of Paradise is like It because they both have clowns.  So falling back on Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar as a way to defend Gone With The Wind  smacks of the old “but I can’t be racist if I have a black friend” trope, and is missing the point of HBO’s move.

…There’s also the anecdote that even though Hattie McDaniel won that Oscar, she was not allowed to sit at the same table with her co-stars at the awards ceremony, but was instead relegated to a table in the back all on her own.  In fact, if her agent hadn’t cut a deal with the venue – then a whites-only establishment – she might not have even been allowed to attend at all.  McDaniel also wasn’t allowed to attend the premiere of  Gone With The Wind, because its world premiere was in Atlanta, Georgia, at a time when Atlanta had strict segregation laws.  Producer David Selznick tried to get her into the theater, but MGM told him to drop it, since even if Selznick had succeeded McDaniel would have had to sit in the “colored” section of the theater anyway.

This is all the kind of information that HBO is considering adding to its future presentations of Gone With The Wind, when it returns that film to its library (and you note that I do say “when”).  If I believe anything about the films I’ve been watching, I believe that the context in which they were made and the context in which you watch them can have a huge impact – so much so that the less you know about the history of the film you’re watching, or the time in which it was made, the more likely it is that you’re watching a completely different film than the one that the original creators intended to make.  In most cases, that’s perfectly fine, and in many cases that can’t be helped.  But I still think it’s important to  try to learn about a film’s context and history; the worst thing that happens is that maybe the things you’ve learned change your opinion.  But that kind of thing happens to all of us as we change and grow.  It’s also possible, too, that maybe you’ll come away from this with a greater respect for Hattie McDaniel than you had before, for keeping to such a standard of professionalism and dignity even when she was being horribly mistreated on what should have been a historic night.  Either way you’ll come away as a more educated person – and that should be something we all want.