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Scorsese’s Lament

Still from “Chronicle.”

In an upcoming interview with Empire magazine, Martin Scorsese gave Marvel films and superhero films in general the thumbs down: “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But 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. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Within a few days, his fellow legendary director Francis Ford Coppola concurred. At a press conference in Lyon, France, where he was being honored at the Lumiere festival, he was even more disparaging: “Martin was being kind when he said it wasn’t cinema. He didn’t say it was despicable, which is what I say.”

While not quite as prestigious and influential, the Marxist filmmaker and their fellow septuagenarian Ken Loach went the furthest in diagnosing the nature of the affliction. It was nothing less than capitalism itself as he told Sky News:

“I find them boring. They’re made as commodities … like hamburgers … It’s about making a commodity which will make profit for a big corporation – they’re a cynical exercise. They’re a market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”

Even Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who earned millions playing a Marvel Comics superhero Doctor Strange, agreed with them in an interview on SiriusXM.

“I know there’s been a lot of debate recently with some very fine filmmakers coming to the fore saying these film franchises are taking over everything. I agree, we don’t want one king to rule it all and have a monopoly and all that, and it’s hopefully not the case and we should really look into continuing to support auteur filmmakers at every level.”

I like what Cumberbatch said but I don’t know about “continuing to support auteur filmmakers”. Somehow I doubt that Sony or Disney ever considered allocating millions of dollars for an American version of the kind of raw working-class film Ken Loach directs.

Paul Schrader, another septuagenarian director whose “First Reformed” I consider the best American film of the decade, has a different take from Loach’s, probably reflecting the dim view of humanity he developed as a young man studying to be a Calvinist minister:

There are people who talk about the American cinema of the ‘70s as some halcyon period. It was to a degree but not because there were any more talented filmmakers. There’s probably, in fact, more talented filmmakers today than there was in the ‘70s. What there was in the ‘70s was better audiences.

When people take movies seriously it’s very easy to make a serious movie. When they don’t take it seriously, it’s very, very hard. We now have audiences that don’t take movies seriously so it’s hard to make a serious movie for them. It’s not that us filmmakers are letting you down, it’s you audiences are letting us down.

From their infancy, Hollywood films have always been both art and commodities. Unlike symphonies, novels or paintings, the film (and subsequently TV) required vast capital outlays. The men who made Hollywood were often Jews who probably would have been just as happy making money as real estate developers or investment bankers. Jack Warner was a typical figure, who after being bailed out by New Deal funding, made “socially aware” films like “Casablanca”. After WWII, he became a major backer of the McCarthyite attack on the film industry and even named names before Congress.

For most Americans, until television became a popular and affordable commodity in the late 50s, the movies were the primary form of entertainment alongside radio. In 1950, movies were the third-largest retail business after grocery stores and cars. Every week, 90 million Americans—60 percent of the country—went to the cinema, a popular culture phenomenon bigger than the Super Bowl.

When I was 14 years old in 1959, these were among the directors who made films that year: Frank Capra, Michael Curtiz, John Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kramer, Otto Preminger, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, John Cassavetes, Billy Wilder, Joseph Mankiewicz, King Vidor, John Ford, Sidney Lumet, and Edward Dmytryk. What should be obvious about all of them, especially Hitchcock, was their ability to resolve the contradiction between art and commodification. They made entertaining films that also honored the fundamentals of the art: character development, plot, dialogue, and visual/musical magic-making. Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” was made that year and regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

The industry began to decline under the impact of television. In the past, families would go to the local cinema on a Friday or Saturday night. Now they would stay home and watch Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers or a quiz show. But there was still a market for serious films, which came in two waves. In the mid-70s, Scorsese and Coppola, as well as other brash and ambitious young directors like Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma, made brilliant films that drew in mass audiences.

Building on their success, a new wave kept the momentum going, starting in the 1990s with Quentin Tarantino and others who became part of the Weinstein brothers studio. Young audiences especially gravitated to filmmakers like Stephen Soderberg, who seemed to understand the world they were living in, with old norms dissolving but new ones not yet formed.

Throughout this period, Hollywood not only remained profitable but was headlong into a worldwide expansion that left many national film industries in a state of collapse in the face of competition from both the good films and the junk made by Sylvester Stallone. England, France and Italy—one-time centers of great filmmaking—stumbled along under the shadow of the American behemoth.

If Hollywood transformed the film industry globally, it was the VHS/DVD rental industry that began to undermine its host parasitically. Starting in 1985, Blockbuster became the alternative to a trip to the local movie theater. This kind of bargain became an irresistible appeal to working-class families that were beginning to feel the pains of neoliberal austerity. For the price of one VHS, that might have been a Disney film the kids wouldn’t mind seeing repeatedly, you could stay at home and make your own popcorn.

Initially cashing in on the DVD rental business, Netflix became the premier source of VOD, joined eventually by iTunes and Amazon. Not only could you see movies for a rental fee of $7.99 per month; you could also see TV series as well. In 2017, movie theater attendance hit a 25-year low, the result of the growth of VOD and the ability of an inexpensive 64 inch flat-screen TV and accompanying soundbar to replicate the theater experience.

This year, a movie theater five blocks from my apartment building closed down. City Cinemas specialized in serious films of the sort that Scorsese and De Coppola made. It was in the middle tier of NY theaters that would show something like “First Reformed” but never a foreign-language film. Just one block closer to my building, another theater survives—the AMC Orpheum. It is the sort of place that shows Marvel Comics films that I studiously avoid. Unlike most people just looking for Saturday night escapist entertainment, I am duty-bound to write about films that open in arthouses such as documentaries about hospitals trying to survive in East Ghouta. At home, my wife and I enjoy something like a well-done Stephen King adaptation but there is no point in me writing about vampires or superheroes for that matter.

There was a time in which Marvel Comics meant all the world to me. When I was ten years old or so, I spent more time reading comic books than watching TV. Nothing thrilled me more than Batman, Captain Marvel, Superman, Plastic Man, and Wonder Woman comics. I used to stop by the magazine shop in my village every week to see if a new issue had arrived. I also loved Mad Magazine and Tales from the Crypt that rightwing authorities hated as much as Elvis Presley. What made reading these comic books so different from watching a Superman show on TV was their ability to allow your imagination to work with and embellish the material and make it an all-encompassing experience. Watching a film or a TV show is a passive experience by comparison. My good friend Paul Buhle had the same romance with comic books that never faded. For the past twenty years, he has been turning out one after another, with the late Harvey Pekar as an erstwhile partner.

Martin Scorsese likens the superhero movie to a theme park. I think there is a better analogy. Although I have never owned a video game, I suspect that what draws teen audiences, especially boys, to movies like Captain America, et al. is the kinetic energy that is supplied by CGI. With the advent of CGI, it became possible to depict the kind of violent mayhem you see in video games. In a bid to capture the largest revenues, there is always a video game to accompany such films. Marvel Comics has dozens that can keep a teen connected to the superhero until a new movie hits the theaters, usually as a summer blockbuster.

To keep Hollywood’s globalization project going, the superhero movie is the ideal turbo-charged engine. Writing for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson observed: “The necessity to create a single product for a global crowd encourages studios to produce the artistic equivalent of Rosetta Stones, interpretable for many tongues. There is no language in the world more universal than heroes destroying bad guys with explosions.”

As I stated in my review of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, I was less interested in the film’s politics than I was in it as film art. John Ford made reactionary films, but they were works of genius. I saw little of that in Tarantino’s film.

Film scholars have written many articles about the politics of superhero movies with the lead characters of Iron Man, Captain America and Christopher Nolan’s Batman symbolizing American imperialism. I, of course, have no interest in seeing this kind of dreck. On the other hand, films that critically examine the nature of the superhero character can rise above the ordinary. I appreciated “Deadpool” and “Logan”, the final installment in the X-Men franchise, although I wouldn’t dream of praising them to CounterPunch readers who don’t need the unrepentant Marxist to hear about such well-publicized films.

On FB, after I posted a comment about my intention to write a piece for CounterPunch on the Scorsese/Marvel Comics controversy, someone suggested that I check out “The Boys” on Amazon Prime. He described it as “based on a comic series that deconstructs super heroes: they’re depicted as amoral hedonists who all work for a giant corporation (they focus less on fighting crime than on collecting royalties for branding/merchandising).”

I have seen the first three episodes and can recommend it. The teleplay is an adaptation of the comic book of the same name by Garth Ennis whose background is in writing comic books much darker than the typical story about a good mutant saving humanity from evil mutants. Wikipedia states:

As a World War II aficionado, he finds characters like Captain America “borderline offensive, because to me the reality of World War II was very human people, ordinary flesh-and-blood guys who slogged it out in miserable, flooded foxholes. So adding some fantasy superhero narrative, that has always annoyed me a little bit.”

But I doubt that anything will resonate with me more than the 2012 “Chronicle” that told the story of three teens who develop superpowers after being exposed to radiation from a extraterrestrial rock that has landed in their Seattle neighborhood. Directed by Josh Trank, with a screenplay by Max Landis, it eschews the typical “saving humanity” themes of the genre. Instead, it shows how superpowers are used mainly to satisfy the petty needs of adolescent boys, just the kind of kids who flock to movies like Captain America. Andrew, the most insecure of the three, uses his newfound powers to simulate an impressive magic act to wow his fellow students and become a BMOC. As things develop, his insecurities are overcome but replaced by a malignant desire to dominate others. He begins to see himself as an apex predator, rationalizing that he should not feel guilty for using his powers to hurt those weaker than him. Imagine Leopold and Loeb with superpowers. Then, you will get an idea of what this minor masterpiece is all about. (Available as VOD for $3.99 on Amazon, YouTube, et al.)

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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