Martin Scorsese Explains the Difference Between Cinema and Movies

Image by “Sieb­bi,” Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

There is a bat­tle rag­ing on the inter­net, and you may count your­self lucky if you’ve heard noth­ing about it since it involves the usu­al unnec­es­sary esca­la­tions and knee-jerk reac­tions: the bat­tle of super­hero movies ver­sus the art form known as “cin­e­ma.” The first shot, one might say, was fired by Mar­tin Scors­ese, who has cer­tain­ly earned the right to make pro­nounce­ments on the sub­ject. Asked for his thoughts on the MCU (that’s Mar­vel Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse for the unini­ti­at­ed) dur­ing an inter­view with Empire mag­a­zine, Scors­ese opined, “that’s not cin­e­ma. Hon­est­ly, the clos­est I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the cir­cum­stances, is theme parks.”

This writer is of the opin­ion that one can enjoy film both as art and as pure spec­ta­cle, while rec­og­niz­ing clear dif­fer­ences between them. They share a medi­um, but they aim at and pro­duce dif­fer­ent effects. Com­par­ing the expe­ri­ence of watch­ing Avengers: Endgame or most any oth­er Mar­vel film to rid­ing a roller­coast­er seems per­fect­ly appo­site to me. Still, com­ic film fans went wild online, lob­bing all sorts of accu­sa­tions at Scors­ese and fel­low direc­tors who deliv­ered even less char­i­ta­ble takes on the Mar­vel movie phe­nom. Twit­ter memes and jokes pro­lif­er­at­ed; Disney’s CEO weighed in with what must sure­ly be a dis­in­ter­est­ed crit­i­cal opin­ion.

Let’s look past dis­tract­ing hot takes, mar­ket­ing strate­gies, and gen­er­a­tional war­fare. Scors­ese has elo­quent­ly clar­i­fied his posi­tion in a New York Times op-ed, and his argu­ments are worth our atten­tion. For one thing, the direc­tor approach­es the sub­ject with humil­i­ty, admit­ting his own bias­es. “The fact that [Mar­vel] films don’t them­selves inter­est me is a mat­ter of per­son­al taste and tem­pera­ment,” he writes. “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.”

He details his own sense of what cin­e­ma should be, one drawn prin­ci­pal­ly from his influ­ences: Bergman, Godard, Hitch­cock (whose movies might also be called theme parks in a way, Scors­ese grants, but rely more on char­ac­ter­i­za­tion than grand set pieces and spe­cial effects). He also lists cur­rent favorites: Ari Aster, Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Ander­son. As an auteur him­self, he has a clear bias in favor of oth­er auteurs. Yet there’s more at stake than taste or what some have seen as elit­ism. “Why not just let super­hero films and oth­er fran­chise films be?” he asks. “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.”

Super­hero movies have dom­i­nat­ed the mar­ket, edg­ing out oth­er kinds of films with oth­er kinds of aspi­ra­tions. The “finan­cial dom­i­nance” of what Scors­ese calls “world­wide audio­vi­su­al enter­tain­ment” is “being used to mar­gin­al­ize and even belit­tle the exis­tence” of cinema—of small­er films that take cre­ative risks and are not com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed prod­ucts of mar­ket research and audi­ence test­ing for max­i­mum box-office con­sump­tion. Hav­ing grown up him­self in the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem, Scors­ese doesn’t dis­miss film as a busi­ness, but he laments the loss of a “pro­duc­tive ten­sion” between “the artists and the peo­ple who ran the busi­ness.” With­out that ten­sion, the indus­try becomes an effi­cient, but inhu­man, machine.

It’s a prob­lem, in oth­er words, of a pow­er imbal­ance in which studios—vertically inte­grat­ed into mega-cor­po­ra­tions like Disney—push prof­it over most oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions. This severe­ly lim­its the risks they’re will­ing to take, and it push­es inde­pen­dent and exper­i­men­tal film­mak­ers fur­ther into the mar­gins, and out of the­aters alto­geth­er, where their works were meant to be seen. Net­flix and oth­er stream­ing ser­vices may open up unique oppor­tu­ni­ties, but they dimin­ish film by rel­e­gat­ing it to tele­vi­sion screens (and, worse, tablets and phones).

Scorsese’s argu­ment is only part­ly an aes­thet­ic one—he may object to Mar­vel movies on the grounds that they’re for­get­table and pre­dictable. But the pri­ma­ry con­cern he voic­es in his essay is a prob­lem of pro­por­tion. The Mar­vel Cin­e­mat­ic Universe—like the vil­lain in Avengers: Endgame (which Scors­ese hasn’t seen)—threatens to take over and half-destroy the uni­verse of cin­e­ma in all its vari­ety of forms and expres­sions. It is large­ly suc­ceed­ing. “For any­one who dreams of mak­ing movies or who is just start­ing out, the sit­u­a­tion at this moment is bru­tal and inhos­pitable to art,” Scors­ese writes. “And the act of sim­ply writ­ing those words fills me with ter­ri­ble sad­ness.” Read his essay here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Scors­ese to Teach His First Online Course on Film­mak­ing

Mar­tin Scors­ese Makes a List of 85 Films Every Aspir­ing Film­mak­er Needs to See

Frank Zap­pa Explains the Decline of the Music Busi­ness (1987)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Foxfier says:

    The pri­ma­ry take-away I got from his expla­na­tion is that he still has not watched the movies he is claim­ing to exam­ine, or pos­si­bly he was pay­ing so lit­tle atten­tion that he could­n’t notice what any­body who took the most basic of film class­es can see as bright as day.

    His state­ments respond to the super­fi­cial, and find that the movie func­tions as a mat­ter of enjoy­ment– and he then stops look­ing, on the assump­tion that if some­one can make a movie that peo­ple will watch for enjoy­ment, then there can’t be any­thing more to it.

    That is non­sense on stilts, which would have been obvi­ous to any­one read­ing the many, many defens­es of the movies. Iron­i­cal­ly enough, the quite ratio­nal argu­ments made by those who do not agree with Mr. Scors­ese’s asser­tions are dis­missed as knee-jerk, while his unsup­port­ed or counter-fac­tu­al asser­tions are sup­posed to stand based on an appeal to author­i­ty.

  • Mike says:

    The movies were a mag­i­cal place of won­der for me. My father man­aged movie the­atres for almost 50 years.. so my sense of self was def­i­nite­ly affect­ed by the medi­um. My home is adorned with orig­i­nal fim posters and filled with blu­rays. For ref­er­ence, I prob­a­bly saw the Empire Strikes Back more than 20 times in the cin­e­ma.

    I say this because Scors­ese is realy lament­ing the the pass­ing of cul­ture more than the change in the art. We live in an age where we are bom­bard­ed by video so the movies have lost their place as the cen­ter­piece for com­mu­nal expe­ri­ence.

    That guy who wrote Cloud Atlas was spot on about films in the future being called a “Dis­ney”. I would give any­thing for anoth­er cou­ple of hours in the 80s cin­e­ma of my youth..

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