Published on: November 27, 2019by Kevin Coupe
I've been fascinated over the past month or so by the debate that has sprung up about what cinema is, prompted by a statement by acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, who basically said that he didn't think that Marvel movies specifically, and comic book movies in general, qualify. He said that they are closer to being theme park rides than movies, and then Francis Ford Coppola doubled down, saying that Marvel movies are worse than that: "Despicable" is the exact word he used.
In a New York Times
op-ed piece that he wrote to explain himself, Scorsese conceded that some of it was a matter of age:
"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."
Marvel movies and their ilk, Scorsese is saying, are more of a business.
Needless to say, Marvel fans - not to mention the people who have invested a lot of time and money in the creation of these movies - were more than mildly annoyed.
I thought that Kevin Feige, Marvel's chief creative officer and the creative force behind all the Marvel movies, was restrained in his response. He called the comments "unfortunate," and simply noted that "everybody has a different definition of art."
I've thought a lot about this, for a number of reasons.
First, there is a part of me that agrees with Scorsese. I've gotten tired of comic book movies, though, to be honest, I go to many of them simply because I'm curious. I feel like I'm in a business where I need to know stuff, even stuff in which I have marginal interest.
I also don't want to be one of those guys who is yelling at kids to get off my lawn … which it sounds like, to some degree, Scorsese and Coppola are doing. "This is our art form," they seem to be saying. "Why are you diminishing it?"
But I also don't think that's entirely fair. There is art I like, and art I don't. There is art that I understand, and art I don't. And, to be clear, there is art - whether it be theater or painting or sculpture or film - that is not aimed at my sensibility. That's okay. In fact, it is a good thing.
And let's face it - the Marvel movies may be comic book movies, but they generally are really, really good comic book movies, made with care for the characters and a real appreciation of the audience. They may not be The Godfather
or Raging Bull
, but few movies are. In fact, there are a lot of movies that Scorsese and Coppola have made that aren't The Godfather
or Raging Bull
. (I'm not sure Jack
or Cape Fear
would make anyone's top 10 list.)
Think of this in terms of retailing. For me, there are food stores that are as much about art as commerce. Dorothy Lane Market. Westborn Market. Zupan's. Those are just three that immediately come to mind, three companies that aim for the highest common denominator at every turn. In their own way, stores like these, to use Scorsese's words, enlarge the sense of what is possible.
Think of Central Market … and then of H-E-B's more traditional stores. Is an H-E-B store any less a food store than a Central Market, which admittedly has higher aspirations? I don't think so … I just think they are different, with different goals and delivery mechanisms and a different target audience/consumer.
It is important to keep all this in context. Scorsese, with some justification, may be just a little bit bitter. After all, he wanted to direct The Irishman
, a mob movie with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci … but nobody would give him the $150 million he needed to make it. (A portion of that money was needed to use technology that would de-age the main actors for scenes in which they are decades younger than their current seventy-something selves.) Nobody would give him the money - except Netflix, which agreed to do so, with the caveat that The Irishman
will only play exclusively in theaters for a month before going to the streaming service.
Early reviews for The Irishman
have been extraordinary, but I'm sure Scorsese feels at some level let down by a system that he has played in for close to 50 years, and in which he has been extraordinarily successful. Same goes for Coppola. They're upset, and I don't blame them.
It would've been nice if the folks who make all the Marvel movies - and have banked billions of dollars in the process - could've said, "Y'know, let's give Marty $150 million to make his movie. We can afford it, he's one of the great cinematic talents in history … and it'll be good for our souls."
But they didn't. (I'm looking at you, Disney, which owns not just Marvel, but also the Star Wars franchise. They probably have $150 million lying around in petty cash.)
I guess that's one of the lessons I take from the Scorsese-Marvel contretemps. There's art and there's commerce, and there can be a lot of overlap between the two.
I think it is important for people who make aspirational art to a) not diminish those who may not aim as high as they do, and b) be given the resources to continue to make art.
And for people who may be better at commerce than art? Nothing wrong with that - I'm a capitalist. But maybe, just maybe, they should put a little something aside for the people who need their help if they are going to continue to swing for the fences.
It'd be good for everybody's souls.
It is worth noting that Netflix has decided to lease the Paris Theater in New York City - a seven-decade old movie theater with a proud history, but that was recently closed because fewer people are going to the movies these days - as a place where it can screen the movies it is producing. Like The Irishman
. Or Marriage Story
. Or other movies on which it is spending untold millions of dollars.
Now, there's an ulterior motive here. In order to be considered for Academy Award nominations, movies have to play in theaters, even if only for a few days. That's a pretty good reason for Netflix to have a place to play its movies. (It also reportedly is in negotiations to lease The Egyptian, a Hollywood movie theater of some renown.)
But it also is an investment in an art form. Whatever the motives, I think that's a good thing. It is where art and commerce mix, as opposed to collide. Which can be an Eye-Opener.