The Difference Between Cinema And Content: Why Martin Scorsese is right, why there is a problem here, and why it really, really does matter.
When Martin Scorsese made his comments last year about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, more broadly, the movie studios’ focus on franchises and blockbuster films, it sparked a debate in the land of filmdom that I felt like I’d been having for a while. I thought the discourse would ultimately just die down, but now we’re a good year or so on and still talking about it, I felt like I wanted to just get my thoughts down and try to make sense of everything.
Scorsese’s comments clearly articulated thoughts I’d been having for a few years at that point; namely that the MCU and other franchise films of that kind aren’t really the type of thing I mean when I talk about films. It’s an argument that’s been raging for decades, as far as I can tell. What constitutes “art” and what’s the difference, if any, between art and entertainment? But I think Scorsese’s comments were more thoughtful than the headlines and twitter mob would have you believe, because when he refers to one kind of movie as “cinema” he’s not dismissing the other kind of movie, which he likened to “theme-park rides”, he’s just observing that there is a clear distinction between the two.
With WandaVision currently dominating the discourse, I’ve been seeing a lot of references to what Scorsese said reappear, and I feel like it’s important to have this conversation in a more mature and reasoned way than simply arguing. But, before we go any further, I want to clear a couple of things up. I have been critical of Marvel and Disney in the past (although mostly because I find it funny – yes, I’m a troll), but that doesn’t strictly mean that I don’t get pleasure from their output. I actually quite enjoy the MCU, despite its flaws, and while I can’t say I’ve been all that taken with the new brand of Star Wars, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look forward to returning to that galaxy far, far away. But it is true that I suffer greatly from what I would dub “blockbuster fatigue”, that I long for something more when I step into the cinema. I’ve made no secret of that, but until recently I don’t think I’ve been able to fully understand just why I’ve felt like that. Scorsese’s comments helped me to understand why.
When I watch films, I watch them for different reasons. Sometimes I want something mindless and fun, sometimes I want something that will make me laugh, sometimes I want to be scared, sometimes I want to be put in awe, and sometimes I want to be made to think. Different movies offer different things, and part of the thrill of watching films, for me at least, is being able to digest, discuss, and mull over what I’ve just seen. However, there is an increasing frustration I have toward films like the Marvel movies whereby I am no longer able to enjoy them on that level. Such is the problem with a formulaic approach to storytelling. To pretend that Marvel somehow offers up new or interesting ideas with each entry into their ever-expanding universe is just silly. You may enjoy the films, and you’re well within your rights to enjoy them, but to claim that watching Infinity War or Winter Soldier gives you the same level of thoughtful introspection or thematic discussion as, say, Taxi Driver is absurd. I feel no threat when I watch a Marvel film, I don’t worry about the characters, I don’t relate to the villains, I don’t see a different or new viewpoint from which to look at the world… I get to enjoy cool fight scenes and funny quips and characters I am fond of doing their thing, but there’s nothing really there for me to mull over after the credits roll – or after the post-credit scene – outside of what the next entry might bring.
Black Panther perhaps bucks this trend, as I did find myself reconsidering my own understanding of certain social issues, but it stands alone in a saga of twenty-plus movies, and ultimately it still winds up falling into the final act trap of so many blockbusters that have come before it.
Now look, you may not see things this way, and that’s absolutely fine, but for me a big part of “cinema” is seeing a story told from a differing perspective. This is true of literature and music and pretty much any other art form I can think of too. I want to be made to think. I want to see themes and ideas tackled in a way I perhaps would not have thought about them. Of course, I want to be entertained as well, but part of that entertainment is the discussion and the afterthoughts of viewing. We seem to have become so hung up on the idea of plot speculation as discussion that it’s almost as if we’ve lost the ability to critique, evaluate, or even read anything beyond the surface. Debating what you think is going to happen next is not the same as discussing what you think something meant or what someone was trying to say, and I really do believe that maybe it’s the overabundance of studio-led franchise flicks that has put us on this path. Not to get all “TV melts your brain” about it, but if you’re only ever exposed to a single type of thing then your ability to appreciate other versions of that thing will ultimately suffer.
Of course, there is room for these different kinds of movies, and it used to be that they both sat happily side-by-side in the theatres. Now, unfortunately, the theatres are dominated by the films the studio perceives as the safe bets – the franchise films, the remakes, the sequels, and so on – while the smaller films, the original films, the films that are by nature more interesting in things outside of simple crowd pleasing, are being left to fend for themselves without the help of million-dollar marketing campaigns or cinematic releases. The problem then becomes that so long as these “bigger” flicks are taking up the space in the theatres then the likelihood of your average movie-goer even hearing about some “smaller” movie, let alone being able to watch it, is decreased exponentially, which is why we find ourselves in this situation where someone like Martin Scorsese has to turn to Netflix or Apple to get a movie produced, despite a proven track record of high-quality critically and commercially successful movies while the overwhelming majority of the top earning films of the last year – or 2019, because 2020 doesn’t count, right? – were produced by a single studio and were made-up entirely of remakes, franchise films, or sequels.
It would be easy at this point to slam Disney for their monopolizing of the industry and point to the failures of free market capitalism as creating this problem, and while all of that is likely true, that’s not really what I want to talk about. Disney’s frightening hold on the entertainment of the masses does come into play, because while everyone plays catchup their output is so refined and so perfectly executed for broad consumption that it quite literally doesn’t leave much room for anything else. And while we’re here, let’s not forget that between Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Disney Animation Studios, and now 20th Century Fox, they basically own not only your entire childhood, but also your teens and your twenties and thirties as well. That’s a lot of power for a single company to be wielding, especially one that is so focused on broad appeal that they are never going to take any meaningful risk.
This is in part what I think Scorsese means when he referred to the worrying trend of movies as “content”. Disney aren’t producing “cinema”, they’re producing a product that they can sell to the most possible people. Now, I’m not claiming Disney are wrong for doing this – they’re a company and ultimately their end goal is money – and nor am I claiming anyone is wrong for enjoying or buying that product – after all, it’s a very, very good product – I’m just pointing out that that is what it is, a product. And Disney aren’t the only ones, they’re just the biggest.
I’m reminded now of Kevin Fiege, Marvel Studios’ head honcho, who, in response to Scorsese’s comments a couple of years back claimed that Marvel do take risks because they “killed half our characters at the end of Infinity War”. Now, this at first might seem like it’s a sensible response, but the truth is that its emblematic of the problem. The risk is there on the surface, but in reality, we all knew that Spider-Man 2 was coming, that Endgame was coming, that Black Panther and Doctor Strange and Ant-Man were all getting sequels. We knew it wasn’t a real risk. So, while that moment at the end of Infinity War is undeniably powerful, it serves more as a cliffhanger for the next installment (that “I wonder what happens next” thing again) than it does any proper exploration of complex emotional ideas or themes.
Of course, WandaVision actually does do this to a certain degree, which it deserves praise for, but it’s also worth pointing out that, well… WandaVision isn’t a film, and the extended runtime afforded to it thanks to its position as a series on Disney+ means that not only does it have the time to explore and develop some of these ideas in a little more detail, but also that it’s kind of expected from it. It is also, though, the broadest version of what is admittedly quite a weird premise, and anyone who has ever watched a film by David Lynch will be able to tell you just how broad WandaVision can actually be. Again, these aren’t strictly criticisms – I actually quite like WandaVision, and I’ve really enjoyed watching it with my daughter, who absolutely loves it (and there is something exciting about the idea of a bunch of people potentially discovering The Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks off the back of it) – they’re just observations.
People have a tendency to try to argue and refute observations like the one above and make grand claims about stuff like Marvel as being just as deep or thought-provoking as *inset classic movie here”. That seems silly to me. To pretend that these things aren’t true is kind of to deny what it is that also makes them work. Marvel works because it is broad, because the appeal is wide, and the concepts are easily digestible. In fact, it’s bloody impressive just how well the studio manages to take totally “out-there” ideas like WandaVision or Guardians of the Galaxy and turn them into crowd pleasing mega-hits. But crowd-pleasing mega-hits they are, and thought-provoking “cinema” they ain’t.
At this point, assuming you’re not raging and shaking, and your blood isn’t boiling to the point where you want to rip my head off in the comments, you might be reading all of this and wondering why any of it matters. Well, let me try to finish off then by explaining why it matters to me.
I see films as talking points. For me, as I already said, they’re an opportunity to watch and listen and learn. To see a story told from a different perspective. They are a way for me take on this perspective and consider how some of the ideas present in them relate to me and my life and my perspective. They are a conversation between the filmmakers and the audience. Cinema is an opportunity to learn, and it offers this in a way no other medium does. It can be appreciated by almost anyone and can make is relate to someone completely different to us. This is partly why it’s so important to have real diversity both in front of and behind the camera. Different experiences are different and as such the way we tell a story to each other, through mediums like film, changes depending on who is telling that story and what they have to say. When we watch a film, we’re involved in a dialogue with the filmmaker, whether we realize it or not, and it’s in listening to a wide range of voices that we can truly grow, and learn, and understand more about one another.
Basically, it’s how we become better.
But while there is merit in the broad appeal of something like the MCU to simply chill out and enjoy some fun spectacle and entertainment, there isn’t a singular voice. There is not a discussion. There is a studio approved, carefully construct outline designed to appeal to the broadest possible range of people and designed to both adhere to and sell a brand. So, while the “smaller” movies are edged out in favor of the “bigger” ones, so too does the conversation become narrowed, stunted, and ultimately empty. And that’s why it matters. To me, anyway.
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