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Old Kings Yelling at Clouds: Art vs. Commerce in the Battle for Box-Office Relevance

Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and other members of the old guard might be battling with the MCU about the quality of superhero movies, but the business of how we consume film is changing, like it or not.


Film Strip by joseph_alban (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Consider this premise for a limited series Netflix special about the changing of the moviemaker guards. On one side is a fast-talking Italian-American New York-based film director. He’s 50 years into a career that has spanned many forms (feature films, commercials, documentaries, TV productions). Known primarily for great modern gangster and wiseguy epics, he has also proved equally adept at period costume dramas, high-minded and respectable literary adaptations where the drama is about repressed desires and the only bloodshed is from the wounds of broken hearts.

The other character in this scenario is a director slightly older, also Italian-American. He, too, is known for gangster epics and literary adaptations. He also has a lucrative wine business, and a daughter who seems to be carrying on in his filmmaking legacy.

Who are these two men? What have they been saying of late that’s so incensed a certain legion of filmgoers who proudly wear their coats of allegiance no matter the wounds they might suffer? Those of us who prioritize taking sides in pop culture debates are enjoying this debate.

On one side we see Martin Scorsese, on a publicity tour for the release of his film,
The Irishman. His early October 2019 comments to The Guardian about Marvel films as “theme parks… [Not] the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” proved so incendiary to legions of Marvel movie creators and fans that he issued a clarification that probably wasn’t enough to calm the frazzled nerves of the blockbuster fanboys and fangirls:

“They’re a new art form…my concern is losing the screen to massive theme park films…Cinema is now changing…there are so many ways to make films…it’s great to go to an event like an amusement park, but don’t crowd out Greta Gerwig…Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach…”

On Scorsese’s side of the debate stand Francis Ford Coppola. He’s not selling anything this season except his esteemed legacy as the auteur of such films as The Godfather series, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation.

Apparently, Coppola was the victim of bad translation when he initially was quoted by a French media outlet calling Marvel films “despicable”.The dividing line between film as entertainment and cinema as edification and life-changing enrichment has always been with us. The recent comments from Scorsese and Coppola are nothing new. Other anti-Marvel (or “comic book franchise”) sentiments have come from Directors Ken Loach (these films are a “…market exercise”) and Pedro Almodovar (superheroes are “neutered”).

Jodie Foster, no stranger to the special effect blockbuster as an actor for hire, pre-dated her Taxi Driver director by two years in equating the act of attending movies now to attending theme parks. Consider her comments to the British Radio Times magazine as recounted in early 2018. For the two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker, it was simply an appeal to the masses:

“[It is] like fracking. You get the best return right now but you wreck the earth…It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world.”

The questions Scorsese, Coppola, Foster, and others have been considering for the duration of their creative careers remain vital today: Is art meant to inspire, or is it best when catering to the demands of an audience? The business may no longer allow auteurs to make one film for the masses and an artistic or dream project for themselves. That seems to have been what gave us Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, and George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck. But the blockbusters pay the bills. Robert Downey, Jr. rehabilitated himself personally and artistically when he first put on Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit. Whether or not he’ll be entering a more prestigious phase in his career now that Tony is gone, and whether the same masses who followed him in that manifestation will follow him into future, possibly more artistic films, remains to be seen.

Who has the right to call themselves auteurs? Who can legitimately hold the mantle of visionary art in a world where streaming services and exclusive movie house “experiences” with 4k sound and 3D mean any superhero blockbuster title will automatically screen in probably 75% of the screens in any given 20 screen movie chain? It’s this reality of the business that makes comments from Scorsese, Coppola, and a few other filmmakers (in front of or behind the camera) understandable.

Scorsese’s The Irishman uses the same de-aging technology on its actors seen to good effect in Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame and poor effect in Ang Lee’s non-Marvel release Gemini Man. Scorsese’s stable of actors has recently included a Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield), a Stars Wars villain (Adam Driver), Tony Stark’s best pal (Jon Favreau), and a Captain Marvel stalwart (Jude Law.) The Irishman will have its initial release on the big screen before it takes its permanent place in Netflix’s streaming library. Late October reports of Netflix flirting with the idea of allowing customers the potential to “speed binge” (literally speed up the film, which is similar to features available for audio podcasts) is enough to make even the most open-minded viewer cringe.

Here’s a simple question with unfortunate likely answers: Is speed binging the logical next evolution in the way we relate to the cinematic art form? We no longer consistently go out to movies; we consume product. We no longer watch one episode at a time of a given program; we binge-watch entire seasons at a time. What do we want from our experience absorbing cinema? We willingly surrender ourselves not to what the market demands but rather what it offers, and the quality of most chain movie theaters these days is, well, despicable. Do you want to hear the movie? Pay extra for a Dolby screening. Do you want to see it without any chance at an obstructed view? Pay extra for stadium seating. If your film choice is not showing in at least half of the 20 screens at your local multiplex, sound will spill through the walls, audio will be muffled, and seats will not recline.

Return to the initial premise of our discussion and fill in the missing content, but this time understand that this is not a life or death mission. Many stars of Marvel films (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jon Favreau, and Robert Downey, Jr. among them) have carefully weighed their words in responding to Scorsese’s initial criticism of the movie form. Is it because they want to eventually star in a future Scorsese film, or that their respect for his legacy outweighs their need for consistent employment? Members of the old guard might be shaking their fists at clouds or yelling at kids to get off their lawns and turn down their Bluetooth speakers, but the business of how we consume film is changing, like it or not.

Considering motivations is futile because that ignores the bigger issues. The older generation of filmmakers is trying its best to adapt to new platforms and changing tastes. Most of the movie palaces are gone. Instead of adding new screens to their locations, movie chain businesses have sliced their original screens into smaller portions, and the sticky floors that might make some of us feel nostalgic have long since proven to be unbearable.

Summer blockbusters, franchise superhero hits, and narratives dependent on CGI will never go away. Will they evolve to provide substantial resonance and feeling deeper than a theme park experience? Stream a superhero Marvel film on your phone or laptop and the flimsiness of the plot becomes glaringly obvious. This form won’t develop into anything deeper if we dismiss the thoughts of Scorsese, Coppola, and others as the older generation, yelling into the void.

Sources Cited

Fleming, Jr., Mike. “Turns Out The Most Despicable Thing About Francis Coppola’s Superhero Movie Comments Was The Faulty Translation”. Deadline. 29 October 2019.

Heil, Emily. “Jodie Foster compares superhero movies to fracking (and she’s not a fan of either)”. The Washington Post. 2 January 2018.

Shoard, Catherine. “Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies are ‘not cinema'”. The Guardian. 4 October 2019

Steussy, Lauren. “Directors are livid about Netflix’s plan to speed up binge-watching”. New York Post. 28 October 2019.