What if Martin Scorsese is Right?

Surely a work of art

“But is it art?” If you were making a list of history’s most overused questions, this one would be near the top. Nonetheless, there’s a reason why we ask it. Humans have RAM memory, but deep learning is linked to pattern recognition. Once we have patterns, we tend to assign labels to those patterns and the next thing you know, we develop genres and argue over whether Genre A is superior to Genre B.

Those influenced by postmodernism often tell us that judgments are subjective and that all genres are artificial constructs. They’re not necessarily wrong, but they do swim against the tide of pattern recognition. If someone tells me I should check out a particular YouTube musical video, the first thing I ask is, “What kind of music is it?” And don’t you do the same? And somewhere along the line, don’t you also make subjective judgments that elevate your favorite genres over those you don’t like?

Film director Martin Scorsese–who gave us films such as “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), and “Goodfellas” (1990)–recently raised ire when he declared that superhero movies, even when “well made,” were “not cinema.” They are, in his estimation,” “basically theme parks” and cannot be taken seriously as art. Those who love and make such films trashed Scorsese with such vitriol that another famed auteur, Francis Ford Coppola–known for films such as “Patton” and “The Godfather” trilogy–rushed to defend his colleague. In his mind, one simply cannot compare “X-Men” or “Spider-Man” to Scorsese’s oeuvre–and by extension, his own. He went so far as to call Marvel films and their ilk “despicable.”

Ouch! Both should have known better. When it comes to evaluating such things, the rule that generally prevails is: “I don’t know if it’s art, but I know what I like.” Most of us are fine with that until someone–a Scorsese or a Coppola–tries to tell us that what we like is not art. But what if Scorsese is right?

For years I have held to a distinction that has been around since Hollywood came into its own. That is, I divide theater offerings into the categories of “movies” and “cinema.” The first seeks to entertain us, the second to provoke or enlighten us. In other words, “cinema” is art and movies are not. Have you seen “Taxi Driver?” How about Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979), which I would rate as the greatest American film ever made. (And, of course the second statement provokes an argument!) I thought “The Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” were wonderful movies, but I don’t think they are in the same category as the aforementioned.

Hollywood has been of little help in the discernment game. If you don’t already know, the Academy Awards celebrate the industry, not the product you see on the screen. For every certified masterpiece it honors as Best Picture–such as “Gone with the Wind” (1940), “Casablanca” (1943), “A Man For All Seasons” (1967), “The Deer Hunter” (1979), or “Schindler’s List” (1994)–it has doled out hardware to pap such as “Rocky” (1977), “Terms of Endearment” (1984), “Forrest Gump” (1995), and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2009). I actually liked most of those of these, but they are movies, not cinema. In this century, I could make a case that of its Oscar winners only “Moonlight” (2017) is a great film–and this from a guy who ranks “Lord of the Rings” as among his favorite books and movies ever.

Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr recently came up with a third way of looking at things. Instead of movies versus cinema, Burr suggests that we put the flicks “into one of three baskets: Art, Craft, and Product.” Burr acknowledges that there is overlap, but he sees Art as “less interested in the comfort of the viewer than the truth of the experience,” whereas Craft is “more interested in the aesthetic and organic pleasure of the ride.” He cites “Chinatown” (1974) as an example of an art film and “Alien” (1979) as great craft. I’d add that 21st century films such “The Artist” (2012) and “Lord of the Rings” are wonderful works of craft. But what of superhero films? Burr argues that “Product” has a “market imperative to fill and doesn’t care how it gets there.” Another way of saying that is that they are designed to make money–like “La La Land” (2016) for instance. In my view, Venn diagram overlap happens with products/craft such as “Birdman” (2015) and “The Shape of Water” (2018), which were both well-done and box office boffo. (I loved both of them.)

I like Burr’s formulation as it basically says that we should judge movies/films according to what they set out to be. But let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking the debate ends here. In any given year the very best films are often neither American-made nor smash hits. I could write volumes about films most Americans don’t see because they are subtitled, but let’s stay in the English-speaking world. Consider that the following did not win Best Picture Oscars: “Citizen Kane” (1941), “Vertigo” (1958), “Psycho” (1960), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Usual Suspects” (1995), or “American Beauty” (1999). To this I’d add that a Martin Scorsese film has never won and that is a travesty.

Let me end on another note of controversy. “Star Wars” isn’t art, but “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) surely is. Watch the first “Star Wars” and then view Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.” If you can’t see the difference, stick with Product. 

Not art

Rob Weir


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