Commentary: Scorsese right about what’s wrong with movies – The Columbian

Martin Scorsese has sparked a Hollywood controversy over the past few weeks, launched by his comments to Empire magazine about how Marvel movies are “not cinema,” as so many headlines blared. In an op-ed published Monday night in the New York Times, he tried to explain his position, stating that people have interpreted his comments “as insulting, or as evidence of hatred for Marvel on my part.”

As suggested in the op-ed, the larger issue we should be paying attention to is not Scorsese’s thoughts on only Marvel movies. Rather, it’s his thoughts on the health of the film business as a whole.

“It’s a perilous time for film exhibition,” Scorsese says poignantly in the essay, which is as personal as one of his films. He adds: “The situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art.”

As so often the case with Scorsese as an artist, his instinct is not wrong.

What comes through most in his words is a tremendous sense of longing. Even as Scorsese opens his new Netflix-backed film “The Irishman,” he pines for a time decades ago when personal, high-art “cinema” and significant commercial success overlapped more often than now. Beating throughout the piece is a warm nostalgia as powerful as listening to Scorsese’s own parents reminisce in his rich 1974 documentary “Italianamerican.”

Yet Scorsese is up to something else, too — something more intellectually rugged and upending than soft-glow nostalgia. The director is shaking a clenched fist at the multiplex marquee and questioning why the crazy circus of modern Hollywood must be so consumed with the tentpole “theme park” franchise — a trend that has only grown in the quarter-century since his ol’ colleague Steven Spielberg launched a literal theme-park plot of a franchise with “Jurassic Park.”

In the op-ed, Scorsese references his beloved icon Bob Dylan, who a half-century ago starred in the documentary “Don’t Look Back.” But Scorsese, once a New Hollywood trailblazer, is determined to look back and try to reanimate an old Hollywood largely frozen in amber. That seems to partly motivate why he spent years considering whether to direct this year’s big hit “Joker” — Todd Phillips’ Scorsese-homage movie in superhero-universe clothing.

Scorsese now appears impressively determined to bring about a watershed conversation about Where We Stand as film fans.

Toward that end, he wants to direct our eyes not only the big screen, but also to the Big Picture.

Film enthusiasts can quibble about the criteria of “cinema” vs. popcorn movies. Scorsese writes that a crucial ingredient missing these days from mega-franchises like the Marvel universe is risk — absent, he says, from characters as well as the filmmaking process itself.

Scorsese longs, too, for the interplay he sees between characters, such as in the 1951 film “Strangers on a Train,” featuring Robert Walker’s “profoundly unsettling performance.” Walker’s character Bruno is a murderous trickster, and a true Marvel fan might contend that Michael B. Jordan’s villainous Killmonger early in “Black Panther” matches Walker’s depth of sly menace (less so tonally for the over-the-top Marvel trickster Loki).

But in the big picture, such conversational herrings are as red as the crimson-headed baddie in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

What Scorsese gets absolutely right is his op-ed’s haymaker: it’s a brutal time for auteurs to try to succeed on the big screen, especially given market forces, including risk aversion by studios that leads to a reliance on sequels, remakes and existing intellectual properties (which can still bomb, like the latest “Terminator” release). Is the system so broken that it’s blocking or inhibiting the next Scorsese?

Scorsese cites three sublime Hitchcock thrillers — “Strangers,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho” — that focus on the uncomfortable outsider or, through misunderstanding, a sudden shift in a character’s identity. Scorsese is a cinema god, but industry reverence does not guarantee you thousands of big screens or major studio financing these days. In this “dark world” ruled by Thor’s universe, Scorsese must again feel like a bit of a commercial outsider, cast in a somewhat different role as far as the economics go.

Yet given Scorsese’s profound understanding of Hollywood arts and ledgers, it is curious that his essay downplays a central cause of these changes.The director writes: “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.”

“I fear that the financial dominance of one” — big tentpoles likesuperhero and action movies — “is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of” cinema, he continues with a melancholic tone.

The rub here, however, is that Scorsese notes the primacy of streaming services as a “primary delivery system” without making clear just how detrimental their impact has been upon theaters. For many theater owners, the reliance on “worldwide audiovisual entertainment” has become a financial survival tactic more than an aesthetic choice.

Yes, it might be wonderful not to have “two separate fields,” as he writes, but the reality of the current marketplace is: Who can afford going to the movies every week anymore? Audiences often turn out for superheroic special effects — and then try to save money streaming or renting the rest. Yes, hardly ideal for art’s sake, with so many great cinematic visualists working today. Yet consider: A month’s service of most of the top streaming platforms will soon run about $50 collectively — pricey, but still often less than a single 3D night showing for two at the theater.

Scorsese writes with bittersweet longing of better commercial times for auteurs, but there is one crucial thing he doesn’t mention pining for: the cheaper admission charge of decades ago, even relative to inflation. The reality is, the economics of the average modern moviegoer have shifted so massively that even many Scorsese fans will simply wait for “The Irishman” to come on Netflix after its run in theaters.

What we miss in communal experience and large-screen viewing, we gain in the wallet.

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