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Martin Scorsese NYT op-ed about cinema

Spanky

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Black Thorn
this is a great article, thought I'd share


When I was in England in early October, I gave an interview to Empire magazine. I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.
Some people seem to have seized on the last part of my answer as insulting, or as evidence of hatred for Marvel on my part. If anyone is intent on characterizing my words in that light, there’s nothing I can do to stand in the way.

Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen. The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri. For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.

It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form. And that was the key for us: it was an art form. There was some debate about that at the time, so we stood up for cinema as an equal to literature or music or dance. And we came to understand that the art could be found in many different places and in just as many forms — in “The Steel Helmet” by Sam Fuller and “Persona” by Ingmar Bergman, in “It’s Always Fair Weather” by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and “Scorpio Rising” by Kenneth Anger, in “Vivre Sa Vie” by Jean-Luc Godard and “The Killers” by Don Siegel. Or in the films of Alfred Hitchcock — I suppose you could say that Hitchcock was his own franchise. Or that he was our franchise. Every new Hitchcock picture was an event. To be in a packed house in one of the old theaters watching “Rear Window” was an extraordinary experience: It was an event created by the chemistry between the audience and the picture itself, and it was electrifying.

And in a way, certain Hitchcock films were also like theme parks. I’m thinking of “Strangers on a Train,” in which the climax takes place on a merry-go-round at a real amusement park, and “Psycho,” which I saw at a midnight show on its opening day, an experience I will never forget. People went to be surprised and thrilled, and they weren’t disappointed. Sixty or 70 years later, we’re still watching those pictures and marveling at them. But is it the thrills and the shocks that we keep going back to? I don’t think so. The set pieces in “North by Northwest” are stunning, but they would be nothing more than a succession of dynamic and elegant compositions and cuts without the painful emotions at the center of the story or the absolute lostness of Cary Grant’s character.

The climax of “Strangers on a Train” is a feat, but it’s the interplay between the two principal characters and Robert Walker’s profoundly unsettling performance that resonate now. Some say that Hitchcock’s pictures had a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true — Hitchcock himself wondered about it. But the sameness of today’s franchise pictures is something else again. Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.

They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them 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. Another way of putting it would be that they are everything that the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Claire Denis or Spike Lee or Ari Aster or Kathryn Bigelow or Wes Anderson are not. When I watch a movie by any of those filmmakers, I know I’m going to see something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience. My sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.

So, you might ask, what’s my problem? 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. That includes me, and I’m speaking as someone who just completed a picture for Netflix. It, and it alone, allowed us to make “The Irishman” the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful. We have a theatrical window, which is great. Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would. But no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.

And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing. But, you might argue, can’t they just go home and watch anything else they want on Netflix or iTunes or Hulu? Sure — anywhere but on the big screen, where the filmmaker intended her or his picture to be seen.

In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all. I’m certainly not implying that movies should be a subsidized art form, or that they ever were. When the Hollywood studio system was still alive and well, the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made — in the words of Bob Dylan, the best of them were “heroic and visionary.”

Today, that tension is gone, and 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. The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.

For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.
 
AnthonyCordova
AnthonyCordova
Thanks for sharing Spanky

white avenger

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Put with somewhat less verbiage, today's "junk" is tomorrow's "art." When Shakespeare was writing his plays, he wasn't considered an artist by any of his peers. He produced a product that was designed to appeal to the people who were willing to spend their money to see it. As the immortal Edgar Rice Burroughs once said, "I write to escape. To escape poverty." He thought that his first literary effort, "Under The Moons Of Mars," was so bad that he published it under the pseudonym "Normal Bean," in an attempt to assure his audience that he wasn't crazy. The lead character of that story, John Carter, has been the inspiration for so many fictional characters in the last century that, when his movie was finally made, everyone thought that it was a ripoff of everything from Flash Gordon to Avatar, when the exact opposite was the truth. John Carter has inspired people in sa diverse fields as writers and astronauts, and some of the most famous men of their day were unabashed fans. And, ironically, John Carter might be considered the prototype superhero. But when he was first publishing his wonderful stories, Burroughs was considered by "legitimate" writers as nothing more than a hack.

Who's to say, maybe our grandchildren might see Captain America and Superman as the greatest fictional characters since Beowulf, Ulysses, and Sinbad the Sailor, and the Godfather series will be lost in the dust of the ages.

Not likely, I know, but you never can tell...
 

Ethan Reigns

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There is so much more that is wrong with the movie industry than what Martin Scorsese has said. He talks about "the unifying vision of an individual artist" and this is what made the films by Bergman and Hitchcock as good as they were - the screenwriter was the director. Both had enough credibility with their producers (the studio money men behind them) that they could afford to do things that would not be allowed of a lesser film maker.

"Scenes from a Marriage" was a Bergman classic about two people who get married, get divorced, marry other people but still long to be back together. Simple enough. But what wouldn't be allowed was, it was 181 minutes long - just over three hours. A director/writer with less credibility would never be allowed to pull off something like that. The screenplay is nowhere near as dark as the movie, so if the screenwriter was someone else, the movie would have been quite a bit different if the director had not been clued in to how the writer intended the scenes to look.

Similarly, in "North by Northwest", Cary Grant's character is standing out in the cornfield for five minutes while the biplane first goes by then turns around and opens fire on him. Five minutes! No other film maker would be allowed that kind of time because the more time it takes, the fewer movies can be shown in one day. But the Hitchcock name was so valuable that he was allowed to take liberties.

I have mentioned before, the battle between writer Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven about "Basic Instinct", where Paul thought the big story was the lesbian relationship between Roxy and Catherine rather than the suspicion that Catherine was going to get away with murdering a police detective. Joe threatened to take his name off the movie, a move that would have branded it as a troubled production where the director had insisted on doing a hack job. It helped that the screenplay had sold for $3 million, the highest price ever paid for a screenplay at the time, so it looked like the producers were willing to go with what Joe had to say. There was no unifying vision there. Finally, Paul capitulated and we got a movie that was among the best because it was shot as written. In most cases, the writer sells his script and "throws it over the transom" to the production team and has no further contact with the production. Not the way it should be.

The MCU and other comic book movies have one thing going for them: the moviegoers know the story, they know the universe and if the writer or director change anything, the viewing public will be all over them with complaints. The writer knows what he has to write. The producer knows what the public wants. The director knows he can't get away with much in the way of changes. So everybody is starting on the same page and to no one's surprise, the vision of the story is consistent across all the people involved in its creation.

Movies can fail at any point in the production, even the promotion after the movie is made. "Blue Collar" was written and directed by Paul Schrader about three guys who decide to steal from their union and the grisly fate that awaits them. But their idiot publicity team saw that it had Richard Pryor in it, so they marketed it as a comedy when it was anything but. Paul Schrader had made his mark with "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" (both directed by Scorsese), both of which made Robert De Niro a star, so he had credibility in the industry, but the unifying vision did not reach out to the publicity team so the project failed.
 

Taake

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Black Thorn
Put with somewhat less verbiage, today's "junk" is tomorrow's "art." When Shakespeare was writing his plays, he wasn't considered an artist by any of his peers. He produced a product that was designed to appeal to the people who were willing to spend their money to see it.
This is the second time I've seen you reference Shakespeare in regards to Marvel, and while it's true he wanted to get butts into seat and make money (so does Scorsese) the point of the article still stands

"In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all."

Shakespeare obviously was a risk taker. He's not remembered as a creative genius because he produced Romeo & Juliet and then 15 similar plays according to that formula because he knew tickets would sell. He broke all the rules of tragedy, which was why it was junk to some, rather than art (because there were very distinct rules to follow considered to be the "proper" form, most set out by Aristotle), and created and re-created plays in various, wholly separate, themes and genres.

So his artistry now comes from risk and productive tension rather than formulaic repetition in one genre. He was, in essence, doing the opposite of the Marvel/Superhero franchises who are slickly produced and safe bets. Maybe future generations will indeed consider it the height of art to watch Superman or Captain America do their thing, but the comparison to Shakespeare is strained.
 
AnthonyCordova
AnthonyCordova
Thanks for pointing that out

Spanky

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So his artistry now comes from risk and productive tension rather than formulaic repetition in one genre. He was, in essence, doing the opposite of the Marvel/Superhero franchises who are slickly produced and safe bets.
So you're saying he basically did the same thing that Warner Bros did with the Joker movie which was both critically acclaimed, unique (as far as superhero movies go) and sold massive tickets?
 
Taake
Taake
Lol, kind of

white avenger

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Your phrasing is a little odd. None of Shakespeare's peers were considered artists. It's not as if Shakespeare was the Michael Bay to some 16th century Ingmar Bergman.
Bad choice of words. I meant "fans," not "peers." He provided the same sort of cheap entertainment in his day as the old B westers, the space operas, and the conic book movies have for us.
 

Spanky

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He provided the same sort of cheap entertainment in his day as the old B westers, the space operas, and the conic book movies have for us.
I didn't think he had many fans because his histories weren't as popular as others. I thought it was only decades later when people started to discover his other works that his "fandom" really started. I was always under the impression in his day he was just viewed as one of the many versus someone that would actually have fans. I thought we was regarded as just an average playwright, which is why he had more renown at that time as a poet.
 

WillowFromBuffy

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Bad choice of words. I meant "fans," not "peers." He provided the same sort of cheap entertainment in his day as the old B westers, the space operas, and the conic book movies have for us.
You could also put it differently. Martin Scorsese is a big part of the reason why people now see the film medium as being suitable for creating "art," especially big budget Hollywood films. Shakespeare did the same for theatre.

Shakespeare was about as highly regarded as a theatre man could be at that time. The Queen Elizabeth of his day was an enthusiastic fan of his plays and patron of his work. I don't think our Queen Elizabeth watches The Avengers or uses the royal coffers to fund their production.
 

white avenger

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This is the second time I've seen you reference Shakespeare in regards to Marvel, and while it's true he wanted to get butts into seat and make money (so does Scorsese) the point of the article still stands
Martin Scorsese is a big part of the reason why people now see the film medium as being suitable for creating "art,"
I'll make you both a deal. I'll lay off of Scorsese if you'll just concede my point about Edgar Rice Burroughs. "Art" isn't always recognized as being so immediately, and how we define it can change totally over the span of years or the coming of a new generation. I never cared for "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas" was just another gangster movie to me, and I don't know what the heck "The Wolf Of Wall Street" was supposed to be. I'm just a member of the unwashed, unsophisticated masses who would rather watch "Avengers: Endgame" than "The Irishman." One man'r art is just another man's excuse to sit in the dark and eat popcorn.

For what it's worth, I did think that "The Last Temptation Of Christ" presented an interesting alternate view of the life of Jesus.
 

Mylie

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Very interesting article. I couldn’t help but think of this article while reading it :

I wonder if part of why DiCaprio has been such a muse to Scorsese is that maybe he thinks he allowed him to make movies that might not have been financed the way he wanted to otherwise.
 
Spanky
Spanky
I read that article before but didn't think about it when reading the Scorsese article, but it's a very good point. But the reverse is also true in that maybe that's why DiCaprio works with Scorsese so much.

white avenger

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I wonder if part of why DiCaprio has been such a muse to Scorsese is that maybe he thinks he allowed him to make movies that might not have been financed the way he wanted to otherwise.
I bet Scorsese will have a running duck fit when he finds out that DiCaprio is scheduled to play one of the Eternals in Marvel's Phase 6 films.
 
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