Martin Scorsese Is a Grumpy Old Fart—and Wrong About the State of ‘Cinema’

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I’m a big admirer of Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese—I thoroughly enjoyed his recent Bob Dylan “documentary,” Rolling Thunder Revue, and I look forward to watching his newest narrative film, The Irishman, when it hits Netflix later this month after a limited theatrical run (more on that later). But the 76-year-old genius behind Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and many other modern classics is sounding more and more like just another entitled, grumpy old man, bitching and moaning not just about the vulgar popular taste of everyday moviegoers but the supposed sacrificing of serious art films at the altar of crass commercialism. “The situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art,” declares Scorsese amidst an immense and sustained proliferation of quality film, video, TV, music, books, and other forms of creative expression. He sounds almost as delusional as his signature characters Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, and Henry Hill.

Scorsese’s sort of critique has never fit comfortably in a Hollywood setting—no art form is more deeply entwined with commercial culture than motion pictures—but it’s also flat-out wrong from a spectator’s perspective. If you like movies, you’ve never had as many choices of types of films, video, and series to watch or, even more important, as many ways to watch and enjoy them. Whether we’re talking quality or quantity, we’ve never had so much good stuff to consume, most of it available at our fingertips.

A few weeks ago in an interview, Scorsese denounced big-budget superhero movies, saying, “That’s not cinema….It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” In a New York Times op-ed published Monday, Scorsese expanded on his attack on contemporary blockbusters, making an invidious comparison between “franchise films” (e.g., all those Marvel blockbusters) and an “art form” (such as movies by Hitchcock, even though he concedes that they may have a tedious “sameness to them”). Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, Scorsese recalls a time when movies were still dismissed as mere entertainment. “There was some debate about that at the time, so we stood up for cinema as an equal to literature or music or dance,” he writes. That argument was of course settled long ago, in favor of movies (and TV, rock music, and other forms of popular culture), but Scorsese, apparently scarred by the battle, just can’t take the win. Yet nobody seriously claims anymore that film is not as worthy of study as literature (which only fought its way into the college curriculum for real in the 20th century). Gatekeepers have now moved on to questioning whether video games are art (the short answer is, yes, they are, and will become even more interesting and compelling over time as their creators self-consciously develop their aesthetics).

Even as Scorsese repeatedly says that his dislike of superhero movies is simply his personal taste, he can’t stop himself from dismissing them as something more sinister, a marketing ploy designed to placate both corporate overlords and what H.L. Mencken called “the great boob public.” “Everything in [superhero movies 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,” he writes. “Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption.”

That’s an uninformed take at best, especially when considering films such as 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and this year’s Avengers: Endgame, in which a number of major characters (not to mention “half of all life in the universe”) are killed off. On the face of it, that hardly seems like the move a calculating studio head would greenlight. Consider, too, Joker, the controversial film based on the Batman archvillain and filled with homages to Scorsese’s own King of Comedy. This moody, violent tale—made for about one-third of the budget of Scorsese’s latest, which cost a reported $159 million!—stretches audiences in all sorts of emotional and aesthetic directions. The same can and should be said about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which is easily as profound a meditation on violence, social decay, and justice as anything Scorsese has produced.

I’d like to suggest Scorsese’s aesthetic critique—which by his own admission is uninformed—is simply mere snobbism. Despite film being a relatively modern medium, it’s a very old and unconvincing canard to oppose commercial culture with “real” art. The funding of a particular piece of creative expression ultimately says precious little about its aesthetic value or cultural meaning. I’m happy to stipulate that many—most, actually—superhero movies are terrible. The same can also rightly be said about “serious” films (defined however you see fit). From the audience’s viewpoint, whether a film is produced in the name of making a buck or trying to be the next Citizen Kane is beside the point.

Scorsese further argues that the success of franchises such as The Avengers or The X-Men comes at the expense of worthier films, squeezing them out of a dwindling number of theaters:

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.

As it happens, there are more movie screens in America—41,172, according to the latest count—today than 20 years ago. And the number of movies released annually has been climbing too—from 478 in 2000 to 871 last year. It’s hard to find data on the distribution of non-franchise films per se, but my experience runs counter to Scorsese’s supposition that such movies are harder and harder to come by. For almost all of the past two decades, I lived full- or part-time in Oxford, Ohio, a small college town (home to Miami University) situated about 30 miles north of Cincinnati. In my experience, which I think is representative, it has only became easier to see what used to be called art house movies in a theater, especially outside big cities. For chunks of time when I lived there, Oxford was home to a small four-screen theater, which typically reserved one of its screens for something other than a blockbuster. More relevantly, bigger and better theaters popped up both in Cincinnati proper and its suburbs. Theater chains such as AMC and Cinemark may not be “independent” in the way Scorsese prefers, but they have revivified the moviegoing experience by offering better sound, projection, and amenities while showing more types of movies than used to be available in the sticks. After three decades away, I moved back to New York City a year ago and it seems easier than ever to see all sorts of films.

Then, of course, there is the streaming revolution, which builds upon the rise (and fall) of video-rental stores that brought the world’s film archives to everyone with a few dollars and a VCR. Blockbuster and other chains and independent video stores gave way to the early iteration of Netflix, in which subscribers received DVDs in the mail. Now Netflix and Amazon, among others, are major film studios, underwriting all sorts of projects that never would have seen the light of day even a few years ago.

Indeed, as Scorsese emphasizes, The Irishman is itself a Netflix production. He is, he avers, “thankful” for the collaboration, which “allowed us to make The Irishman the way we needed to.” Still, he grouses that his movie will not have as long a run in theaters as he would like, and that watching video on streaming services is not how any “filmmaker intended her or his picture to be seen.”

As it happens, ticket sales in the United States have been flat over the past 25 years, despite the increase in screens. If the bottom-line-driven heads of studios were actually so great at manipulating our behavior, that wouldn’t be happening, would it? A better explanation for flat box office is that consumers—including those of us who spend a hell of a lot of time watching films and other forms of visual art—have changed their habits. We’re more likely to view things on demand and at home, where our TVs are bigger and better than ever. This isn’t because we’re philistines or imbeciles who only want juvenile action flicks. It’s simply more convenient for us. And if the incredible array of movies, series, comedy specials, online videos, you name it that we’re consuming every day is any indication, Scorsese’s conviction that “this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art” is patently absurd.

And it’s not necessarily shared by his peers either. Last week, I interviewed Errol Morris, the Academy Award-winning documentarian whom Roger Ebert called the equal of Hitchcock and Fellini, for an upcoming video and Reason Interview podcast (subscribe here!). Morris said the current moment is absolutely the best moment in history to be making documentaries, a genre that has always had difficulty finding theatrical distribution (in fact, Morris had to wait a year after its initial festival release to get his Steve Bannon doc, American Dharma, into theaters).

I sympathize that Scorsese can no longer dictate the exact terms on which his films are consumed these days. But when he inveighs against the marketplace, the public’s taste, and the loss of a particular cinematic experience that he grew up with, he’s mistaking the passing of his time in the sun for the end of the world.

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