No one is quite certain what Martin Scorsese meant when he said a couple of weeks back, referring to the experience of seeing a Marvel film, “It’s not cinema.” That is because no one is quite certain what Scorsese’s definition of “cinema” is. At first glance, it may have been easy to take his remark as simply a gratuitous swipe at the world’s most popular movies in advance of the release of his own, latest film, The Irishman; and that’s the way I took it. Robert Downey, Jr. handled Scorsese’s comment with grace on The Howard Stern Show, mostly by sidestepping Scorsese’s words entirely, and reminding all of us that the 76-year-old Queens native is, arguably, America’s greatest living film director.
On the other hand, Scorsese’s follow-up comments didn’t clarify his definition of cinema much at all, and the status most of us grant him as America’s finest living director may be challenged by some. (Coppola–a friend of Scorsese’s–and Spielberg come to mind.) In any case, only the most ardent Scorsese fan would be willing to let his remarks go by unquestioned, and thereby lose an opportunity to express an idea of what cinema may be.
To begin with, let me disagree with the notion that the Marvel films from 2008’s Iron Man through 2019’s Avengers: Endgame are not cinema. They most assuredly are. The films tell a story, a complicated one, over twenty-two separate installments, with hints of characters and events to come spread out all along the way. Taken together, the Marvel films represent quite an accomplishment in writing, acting, and special effects, a far greater accomplishment than, say, the old Saturday-morning serials were, or even the Marvel films’ immediate ancestors, the Star Wars films.
If one objects by saying, “But the Marvel characters aren’t real,” I would agree; they’re not–at least not when they’re flying around or leaping around as superheroes. But they’re only superheroes half the time. The rest of the time, they’re fictional people, wrestling with the same problems we all do–illness, infirmity, anxiety, lost love, guilt, and the heaviest possible sense of responsibility toward the extraordinary powers they’ve been given or have created for themselves. They deal with these problems within a moral framework clearly set forth for us in Captain America: Civil War. Do men and women with such remarkable abilities have the inherent freedom to act unilaterally, or ought they subject their talents to the service of the state? This particular Marvel film is, in my view, one of the weaker ones of the series because it does not answer the question just posed, or even hint at a direction from which an answer might come; yet, it was not lost upon me as I watched it in the theater that Civil War frames for us the very real and very fierce struggle this country is now having between those who favor individual liberties and those who favor socialism, and the rule of the state. If that is not a relevant topic for the cinema, I do not know what else would be.
Scorsese objects to the Marvel movies in part because they turn the theater into a kind of amusement park. Perhaps the theaters in Queens are like that, but every Marvel film I’ve ever attended has been watched by both children and adults, all of whom have been well-behaved. But if some theaters are amusement parks for the run of a Marvel film, what of it? Scorsese knows that spectacle has been at the very heart of cinema since 1902’s A Trip to the Moon by Georges Milies and the later silent films of Cecil B. DeMille, including that director’s first crack at The Ten Commandments (1923). Indeed, I would claim that to experience spectacle is why any of us go to movies in the first place. A film like Metropolis (1927) or The Seventh Seal (1950) may offer us something more–exploration of an idea, or a glimpse at how people in the past may have behaved–but the desire for spectacle is the reason we go. Theaters have always been, in one way or another, amusement parks.
The notion of spectacle at the heart of cinema may be distressing to a man of Scorsese’s talent and aims, but it need not be. By spectacle, I do not mean the ancient bread-and-circuses, keep-the-people-amused exhibitions of lions and slaves in the Coliseum which developed (and doubtless scarred) the Roman psyche for hundreds of years. I mean, rather, spectacle as part of the larger human purpose of play. Human beings, both children and adults, must play. As the historians Johan Huizinga and Phillipe Aries have traced out the behavior for us, play is essential for creativity, and the tools of the filmmaker are the tools of play. For a long time, humans in Western culture did not play. Children were treated as little adults, and societies were the worse for it. But we have allowed children to play for the last five hundred years or so, and the general result has been an explosion for the better in the expression of the human imagination, and the solving of problems.
I might, by the by, suggest that these last remarks constitute a response to the judgments of filmmaker Terry Gilliam, who objects to the modern tendency of movies to offer viewers solutions to our problems and comfort to our souls. He would prefer that movies simply ask the best questions possible, and leave solutions and comfort out of it. Based on my own experience, Gilliam’s objections are an academic’s response. Academics prize above all the asking of good questions, because if one asks a good question, she’s part way to finding a good answer. For various reasons, however, some having to do with the desire to maintain one’s employment, others having to do with the solutions to problems being difficult, the asking of questions has become an end in itself, to the great detriment of academia and Western society. A question, properly formed, is a means to an end. It is not higher or better than the end which is sought. We may ask a question in wonder, of course; but we ask a question mostly to push ourselves toward a solution to our problems. Had humans contented ourselves with just asking questions without applying solutions, we’d still be living the lives we had five centuries ago, and our children would still be little adults.
In a way, I’m deeply glad for the Marvel movies. They have demonstrated, once and for all, that a genre film–or a set of them–can be hugely successful. We forget, these days, just how difficult it was for the genre of science fiction to get a foothold within the popular imagination. The 1950s are dotted with classics: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1953); Forbidden Planet (1956); and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957); but, even so, one still can’t help hearing Patricia Neal giggle all the way through production of The Day; and if a viewer winces at some of the dialogue in Forbidden Planet, who could blame him? And who has not found it just a little hard to suspend his disbelief at the idea of a shrinking man? Scorsese has built an entire career out of making genre films (with occasional brilliant forays outside it, such as The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988), so perhaps some of his discontent with the Marvel films has to do with a narrowing of what a genre film can be. I hesitate to call any of Scorsese’s movies–Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Departed— film noir. They aren’t filmed that way, and an attempt to compare Scorsese’s films to the classics of film noir (like Out of the Past or Detour or Double Indemnity) simply wouldn’t work. But the gangster film is a genre of its own, and Scorsese is a master of it.
I have to ask, though, are any of Scorsese’s movies “cinema” in the sense that he means it? His movies deal with crime and punishment, retribution, and guilt, but I gotta tell you, I’m not thinking about any of those themes at the end of his movies the way I am thinking about the guilt Michael Corleone is feeling as he sits alone in the boathouse at the end of The Godfather II (1974). That isolation, that despair, is not something any of us should envy or wish upon another, and it is a fitting punishment for Michael’s destruction of the five families and the murder of his own brother. When I think of The Godfather II, I think of it as the last great film of the 1950s, the last of the film noir, and the last of the great studio films in the old Hollywood style. By comparison, Scorsese’s films are slick, often gritty and involving, but ultimately trapped within their genre. They are gangster films, but little more. Watching them, I imbibe the sense of a bookish little boy from Queens getting his multi-million dollar revenge on all the tough guys who pushed him around in school. He wanted to be like them, but couldn’t. The best he could do was watch them, and mimic them. To his credit, Scorsese is one of the best mimes around, but, sadly, to find a full and complete work of his art, I often have to go outside it, to a film that doesn’t explore the New York world he knew so well, to a film that doesn’t use the cinematic shorthand his genre audiences carry with them into the theater. I have to go to The Last Temptation of Christ or The Age of Innocence (1993).
If by cinema Scorsese means, in part, a shared film experience, even he knows we’re far past that day, now. For most us, watching a movie in a theater is a solitary experience, even if we are with someone, or with a group of friends. The last cinematic experience I had in Scorsese’s sense was watching American Hustle (2013) with a large group of strangers at a cineplex. None of us knew what to expect; the film had barely been advertised in the paper or on TV. But as we watched, every single one of us was delighted by the blend of comedy, drama, farce, satire, and philosophy we were watching. The Abscam scandal happened during my high school years in the 1970s, so I was familiar with the actual events when they occurred, and the irony of using con artists to catch con artists was not lost on me, even back then. But to have it brought back so forcefully, with such sympathy for the principals, despite their folly and pain, was quite an experience. At the end of the film, an amazing thing happened: we stayed in our seats and talked to each other about what we had seen. Some of us were deeply impressed by the script; others by the period accuracy of the costuming and scenery; still others mentioned the ethical dilemmas the whole affair raised. We left, having resolved nothing, but we knew we’d been supremely entertained and even enlightened about how resilient human beings can be even under the most trying of circumstances.
That kind of experience is rare, and it will grow rarer still as video streaming continues to increase in both quality and its number of subscribers. Some of the best movies I’ve ever seen–Ran (1986), The Seventh Seal (1950), Rust and Bone (2012), Dark City (1998), and Sunrise (1927) I saw alone, and at home, and I am the better for it. There is no substitute for the training of one’s own mind upon a film without the interference of others or the distractions of a strange environment. We find the communal experience helpful at times, but if it is dying away at the expense of films with mass popularity, that does not mean we are witnessing the death of film itself.
If Scorsese means by cinema some kind of shared communal experience, we may be losing that, and we may be losing as well the authority of the director as part of that experience, too. The age of the director began in the 1960s in Europe, and it has lasted until the present day. If this age is fading, it wouldn’t be the first time power has shifted in cinema or in Hollywood. By the time the late 1950s rolled around, DeMille, who had ruled Hollywood spectacle for forty years, had become an old, cantankerous man. One of the young lions of the Directors Guild finally stood up to him during a meeting one day: “Mr. DeMille,” he said, “you’re a great director and you’ve made some great films, but we don’t like your politics.” Such sentiments signaled a long, leftward shift in the politics of movie making, but nothing lasts forever.
If Scorsese is lamenting, as I think he is, the loss of films that explore how we live and how we should live, then Hollywood has only itself to blame. The shared crucible of World War II gave a lot of writers and directors and actors the moral strength to write a lot of socially-conscious and morally-persuasive films like the The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Crossfire (1947), and The Blackboard Jungle (1955). But that same Hollywood was, at the same time, covering up crime, drug addiction, and even the sexual orientation of some of its major stars and had been doing it for years. Today, we’ve witnessed the spectacle of Hollywood turning on itself, as it did in the McCarthy Era, accusing each other of crimes–sometimes justly, sometimes not. While absolutely no one can claim personal perfection, such activity has to be eroding the moral base upon which every piece of art has to stand. I wonder if, in flocking to see the Marvel films in such numbers and letting those costumed, fully-fictional heroes elaborate the arguments of our time for us, we have not validated the message that the Age of the Moral Film is now over, as well? Is it not possible that, without a shared moral base, Hollywood has lost the moral authority it takes to tell the serious cinematic tale Scorsese would like to see? The last such film I saw was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), a good show, with complex characters, but even so fine an actress as Frances McDormand couldn’t quite make me believe that firebombing a police station was fully justified by the rape and murder of her daughter, or that going after a man who did not do that crime would somehow ease her pain. As problematic as the film is (and it intends to raise problems for its audience), it, too, is a rare film these days, and it might become even more so.
Perhaps Scorsese is just a cranky old man for making all of us think of these things. Or perhaps he truly does think valuable elements of the movie-going experience are being lost and he wanted to warn us. Either way, an old man’s gotta be an old man; the sea’s gotta be the sea; the sky is bright enough some days, ya gotta shake your fist at it. We do lose things of value now and again, without ever realizing we lost them. We do lose our moral compass from time to time, even the best of us. To cry out against the vulgarity–that is, the commonness–of the age in which one lives is something we’ve been doing for a very long time. The cry is not always evidence of a sour spirit, but is instead a shout in the direction where something better resides, or used to. That’s a valuable service for anyone of any age to perform for us. The reminder of the glory of what was beckons us to see it again, and it is often the first step in creating what is new and fresh and vital to us now.