Martin Scorsese on the current state of film and the loss of artistic risk


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  1. #1

    Martin Scorsese on the current state of film and the loss of artistic risk

    Martin Scorsese, one of the best filmmakers and storytellers of a generation, was called out for saying the current wave of Marvel movies were, in his words, 'not cinema'. In a new opinion article in the New York Times, he clarifies his statement and expounds on the state of cinema as a whole.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/o...se-marvel.html

    I enjoyed this article, because I believe that his thoughts just as easily apply to literature and I think it's a positive conversation to be had.

    From what Scorsese is saying, he laments for gritty, individual artistic storytelling in films. Today's blockbusters, such as contained in the Marvel conglomerate, are much like boy bands were in music, manufactured to precisely hit all the sugary saccharine cravings that hit people in all the right places. He says, 'Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.'

    These films are made my committee, all the pieces stitched together to achieve a single goal of being, in my opinion, the fast food of cinema.

    Now, I think there will be those who will claim that these thoughts are simply the opining of a generation essentially telling people to 'get off my lawn' and that everything was better 'in our day'. I don't believe that. I think it's easy to get lulled into a coma of overly-comedic stories and films. Of course there are exceptions, but they are are becoming fewer and fewer.

    In the literary world, I believe this trend is a lagging indicator. As novels become less consumed, the desire to squeeze the maximum profit from a book will increase, and risk will become a four-letter word.

    People love happy endings. It's a universal truism. However, I think that shows such as Game of Thrones, where the 'good guys' were often killed off, I believe people began to remember that tragedies are just as good, if not sometimes better than comedies. I remember back in 2016, when my wife and I went to see La La Land on our date night. As we are both fans of musicals and theater, we really enjoyed the movie. However, the movie is not a comedy. The guy doesn't get the girl, and the movie does an amazing job of showing that, just like in real life, our choices take us to where we are, even if it isn't where we thought we wanted to go. I remember how I felt after watching that movie. It's a unique feeling, and one I don't feel very often watching the latest Iron Man movie.

    I thought I would share my thoughts on this as a writer, because storytelling crosses many mediums and societal trends seem to span all mediums.

    Cheers.

    ~ J. J. Maxx
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    "He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher... or, as his wife would have it, an idiot." - Douglas Adams


  2. #2
    Global Moderator Squalid Glass's Avatar
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    Good post, J.J.

    I appreciate both cinema and popcorn flicks. Marvel movies work in the same tradition as older stuff like Flash Gordon and my favorite movie, Star Wars.

    Why can't we appreciate the fact that there is room for both highbrow and lowbrow work? Even as studios pump money into franchises, quality film is still being made. Look at The Lighthouse.
    "I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision."

    "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing."

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Squalid Glass View Post
    Why can't we appreciate the fact that there is room for both highbrow and lowbrow work? Even as studios pump money into franchises, quality film is still being made. Look at The Lighthouse.
    Possibly because (and, by the way, I'm not so much making this argument myself as suggesting it for for discussion) there is a strong correlation between the cultural domination of lowbrow art and the artistic illiteracy/general stupidity of the consuming public.

    What I mean is this. There is nothing inherently wrong with popcorn movies. There is nothing inherently wrong with the equivalents either: Reality TV, trashy magazines, boy bands, etc. All these things have their obvious reasons for sparking satisfaction and far be it from anybody to dictate what can or cannot be enjoyed.

    But...let's think a moment: It costs money to see a movie. It costs money to buy a new book. Most of this stuff costs money, they're rather expensive pastimes. Money aside, it also costs time. Personally, I see maybe one movie at the theater every other month (kids are a killer for that) so, when I am picking out a movie with my wife, my choice of movie is less about choosing what I want to see and more about choosing what I think will make for the best 'bang for the buck' in terms of the occasion. Subsequently I don't take huge risks on whether what I am about to spend my time and money on is actually worth seeing.

    Fortunately I happen to like things like The Lighthouse, so I like to think I'm okay. But for the average folks, the guys who consider The Fifth Element and Blade Runner to be about as avant garde as it gets? They aren't as likely to go see some artsy French movie or some shit about two weird dudes in a lighthouse filmed in black and white. Because their time is important too and Transformers 10 is playing. It becomes about making a choice in a world where there are too many choices of books, movies, plays, movies, pieces of art, etc to ever be seen.

    Consequently, Scorsese's 'unifying and risky vision of an individual artist' doesn't get seen by the vast majority of people and those people, assuming we believe that such movies are beneficial, suffer from not seeing them. You know, I listen to a lot of these people yammer on about all these esoteric and obscure TV shows and I wonder how they possibly have enough hours in the day to do it all.

    Then I come to understand, hey, probably because they don't have children, they don't have responsibilities, perhaps not all of them have full-time jobs, and I can kind of see how it's possible in a life of time and leisure to experience highbrow and lowbrow in equal, luxurious portions. But most of us normal schmucks don't have time to fill our heads with whatever- we barely have time to sleep - and so the small slices of art we can grab where we can become the entirety of our intellectual selves.

    I can't watch Marvel movies because fundamentally it's something that I cannot justify the time to sit there and watch knowing that it's essentially middling popcorn cinema and choosing it will mean I won't get to see The Lighthouse or read Faulkner or some shit. If I make a different choice, Marvel is all I will see this week and, over time, yeah...I think that would make me pretty stupid, honestly. They aren't smart movies.
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

    "Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow."

    “Remember this: Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him. ”

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  4. #4
    Global Moderator Squalid Glass's Avatar
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    Lucky, the issue of time is a good point. I suppose because I don't have children, I have a bit more freedom. My wife and I invest a lot of time in low and high art, so we're pretty lucky.

    But I would also caution us to not be historical revisionists. The masses and the deep thinkers have always engaged in this dance, and who's to say the pop culture of today won't be the Shakespeare of tomorrow. I would argue that the MCU actually possesses some of the same deep themes and dives into human nature that great literature has. For example, the MCU can be read as one long analysis of the role of fatherhood. I'm sure the graduate courses have already been offered.

    Here's another good read on this subject, specifically in regard to the evolution of Shakespeare in popular culture. https://psmag.com/social-justice/wil...-lowbrow-94733
    "I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision."

    "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing."

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Squalid Glass View Post
    Lucky, the issue of time is a good point. I suppose because I don't have children, I have a bit more freedom. My wife and I invest a lot of time in low and high art, so we're pretty lucky.

    But I would also caution us to not be historical revisionists. The masses and the deep thinkers have always engaged in this dance, and who's to say the pop culture of today won't be the Shakespeare of tomorrow. I would argue that the MCU actually possesses some of the same deep themes and dives into human nature that great literature has. For example, the MCU can be read as one long analysis of the role of fatherhood. I'm sure the graduate courses have already been offered.

    Here's another good read on this subject, specifically in regard to the evolution of Shakespeare in popular culture. https://psmag.com/social-justice/wil...-lowbrow-94733
    It's not just time, Squalid. It's also resources and platform.

    These are the highest grossing movies of the 2010's (so far):

    1 Avengers: Endgame
    2 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
    3 Avengers: Infinity War
    4 Jurassic World
    5 The Lion King

    These were the highest grossing movies of the 1960's"

    1. The Sound of Music
    2. The Graduate
    3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
    4. The Jungle Book
    5. My Fair Lady

    I'm not going to say which of these two lists contain 'better' movies, that is subjective and irrelevant, only that when I look at the second list, from the 1960's, I see a common thread in that all contain some level of creative risk (with maybe the only exception being The Jungle Book). To Scorsese's point, they all contain 'artistic vision' and speak to an industry that was genuinely interested in innovation. These movies have 'character': We have an original musical, a romantic comedy-drama, a western, a Disney cartoon and another musical, all highly regarded, all hugely popular even now. These are the 'highest grossing', these were the 'popcorn' movies.

    But then we come to the 2010's list where 4/5 of those are action/sci-fi and 4/5 of them come from the same studio (Disney). More terrifyingly, all of them are spin-offs or remakes of previous material (two of them are sequels of each other).

    What does that mean? It seems to mean that the tastes of the mainstream public are, largely, becoming more fixated on franchises, on serialization of single ideas, of nostalgia and remaining in a comfort zone in some respects. The very nature of financing sequels is, by definition, that of mitigating risk. Sequels are a relatively new thing in movies, and in literature too.

    The emphasis on sci-fi implies that probably a compensatory element for seeing the same shit time after time is to use stories that lend themselves to innovation. Each Jurassic World movie has bigger, more freaky dinosaurs, etc. But there's no real challenge in this.

    All these big, modern movies are basically action bonanzas and you can talk about the 'deep themes' of the MCU all you want, I don't believe for a moment the average viewer is watching a Marvel movie and thinking about 'the role of fatherhood'. I do believe that some of the more intellectual, typically rather discerning, types (like yourself) might watch it through that frame, not least because you could hardly stand to watch a Marvel movie that was only about a bunch of mutants roundhouse-kicking the crap out of each other, because that is obviously idiotic. In short, I believe the intellectual crop of Marvel Movies is exaggerated and overstated to compensate for its otherwise cynically-meaningless shell. Anybody may feel free to disagree with that, that's fine.

    Yes, in 2019 we are still getting great movies (and great books, and great TV) but there is no doubt in my mind that the prevalence of manufactured turds still massively eclipses and/or contaminates the good stuff. We are seeing that with Star Wars. We recently saw it with Breaking Bad. We will shortly be seeing it with Game Of Thrones. We have seen it for years with superheroes and Alien/Predator and Freddy/Jason and whatever else. We came close to seeing it with JK Rowling. The whole model of the modern creative industry is to find a good idea and hump it dry.
    Last edited by luckyscars; November 6th, 2019 at 08:18 AM.
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

    "Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow."

    “Remember this: Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him. ”

    Hidden Content


  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Sustrai View Post
    I carried a laptop with me to a popular pizza place, drank draft beer at a corner of the bar and worked on my writing. One Saturday night the place was filled with middle class families. A person called over to me and asked what I was doing, "I'm working on a book," I replied. All of a sudden every person in the place was up in arms. One man said rather loudly, "Why don't you writers write any better books than you do? All we get is this Tom Clancy crap!" The rest of the room started in with, "Yeah! Yeah! How come! Why don't you guys do your jobs?!"
    Attachment 24867
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

    "Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow."

    “Remember this: Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him. ”

    Hidden Content


  7. #7
    Sticking to Marvel (and avoiding the slippery debate slope of Hollywood franchises in general), I'd say it's tough to make a superhero film that's not a popcorn flick.

    Sure, you could frame the subject matter through a serious/artistic/literary lens, but then you're at risk of straying too far from the core elements (and the core tone) that fans of the genre want.

    I do agree that superhero films are currently on the ... sillier end of the spectrum. But I'd say we've come a long way from the day when Superman reversed the spin of the earth to turn back time (lol what?).

    Nowadays, if our superheroes need to travel back in time, at least they know well enough to make a fancy-looking machine with lots of impressive buttons and tangled wires, and to throw around words like "quantum" and "energy" a lot.

    And sure, I suppose the argument could be made that superhero films haven't evolved much, aside from glitzier effects and catchier dialogue, but I'd have to disagree. I think some good strides have been made in both the writing and the directing.

    Maybe not whole masterpieces—but there have been little glimpses of excellence, here and there, amidst all the punching and zapping.

  8. #8
    Global Moderator Squalid Glass's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    It's not just time, Squalid. It's also resources and platform.

    These are the highest grossing movies of the 2010's (so far):

    1 Avengers: Endgame
    2 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
    3 Avengers: Infinity War
    4 Jurassic World
    5 The Lion King

    These were the highest grossing movies of the 1960's"

    1. The Sound of Music
    2. The Graduate
    3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
    4. The Jungle Book
    5. My Fair Lady

    I'm not going to say which of these two lists contain 'better' movies, that is subjective and irrelevant, only that when I look at the second list, from the 1960's, I see a common thread in that all contain some level of creative risk (with maybe the only exception being The Jungle Book). To Scorsese's point, they all contain 'artistic vision' and speak to an industry that was genuinely interested in innovation. These movies have 'character': We have an original musical, a romantic comedy-drama, a western, a Disney cartoon and another musical, all highly regarded, all hugely popular even now. These are the 'highest grossing', these were the 'popcorn' movies.

    But then we come to the 2010's list where 4/5 of those are action/sci-fi and 4/5 of them come from the same studio (Disney). More terrifyingly, all of them are spin-offs or remakes of previous material (two of them are sequels of each other).

    What does that mean? It seems to mean that the tastes of the mainstream public are, largely, becoming more fixated on franchises, on serialization of single ideas, of nostalgia and remaining in a comfort zone in some respects. The very nature of financing sequels is, by definition, that of mitigating risk. Sequels are a relatively new thing in movies, and in literature too.

    The emphasis on sci-fi implies that probably a compensatory element for seeing the same shit time after time is to use stories that lend themselves to innovation. Each Jurassic World movie has bigger, more freaky dinosaurs, etc. But there's no real challenge in this.

    All these big, modern movies are basically action bonanzas and you can talk about the 'deep themes' of the MCU all you want, I don't believe for a moment the average viewer is watching a Marvel movie and thinking about 'the role of fatherhood'. I do believe that some of the more intellectual, typically rather discerning, types (like yourself) might watch it through that frame, not least because you could hardly stand to watch a Marvel movie that was only about a bunch of mutants roundhouse-kicking the crap out of each other, because that is obviously idiotic. In short, I believe the intellectual crop of Marvel Movies is exaggerated and overstated to compensate for its otherwise cynically-meaningless shell. Anybody may feel free to disagree with that, that's fine.

    Yes, in 2019 we are still getting great movies (and great books, and great TV) but there is no doubt in my mind that the prevalence of manufactured turds still massively eclipses and/or contaminates the good stuff. We are seeing that with Star Wars. We recently saw it with Breaking Bad. We will shortly be seeing it with Game Of Thrones. We have seen it for years with superheroes and Alien/Predator and Freddy/Jason and whatever else. We came close to seeing it with JK Rowling. The whole model of the modern creative industry is to find a good idea and hump it dry.
    We are certainly in an era of cultural recycling. There are a million reasons why that has happened. I would argue a main reason is the ability these franchises and sequels have to create communities and engagement beyond the movie, which is a sure fire way to make craploads of money.

    But it seems disingenuous to me to say the proliferation of specific genre films mostly comprised of bad movies is anything new. Trends change, but trends are always going to dominate eras. Scorsese might believe the old trends were visionary, but he’s making a rose colored glasses kind of argument.

    You can’t point to the good old days of the 40s-60s without acknowledging that hundreds of crappy westerns and noir movies dominated the cultural landscape. Scorsese himself has made a living within genre.

    And within genre trends, there will be deeper movies that rise to the top of the artistic crop. The Searchers and Shane. And now we have movies like The Dark Knight and even a movie like Joker.

    I just think “the good stuff” has always been more niche than “the crappy stuff.” Hell, in early America, seduction novels like Charlotte Temple and Wieland were all the rage.

    Ultimately, we have to think about what matters to us in art. I think most people want emotional connections to characters, and that explains a lot of the appeal of popular media. Art that challenges thinking is never going to be the most popular source of media.

    But this is the same debate Plato was having thousands of years ago. What else is new?
    "I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision."

    "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing."

  9. #9
    Scorsese's argument would hold more weight (for me) if he were an active screenwriter, rather than a director.

    As it stands, he's built most of his career handpicking well-written screenplays, scripts that've been created by other writers—then putting his own directorial stamp on the end product (often with a big "A MARTIN SCORSESE FILM" badge plastered over the screen).

    Which isn't to knock his accomplishments—he's clearly proven himself to be a masterful director. Credit where credit is due. But he hasn't been an "individual artist" for decades now, despite how urgently he champions the idea.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Squalid Glass View Post
    But it seems disingenuous to me to say the proliferation of specific genre films mostly comprised of bad movies is anything new. Trends change, but trends are always going to dominate eras. Scorsese might believe the old trends were visionary, but he’s making a rose colored glasses kind of argument.

    You can’t point to the good old days of the 40s-60s without acknowledging that hundreds of crappy westerns and noir movies dominated the cultural landscape. Scorsese himself has made a living within genre.

    And within genre trends, there will be deeper movies that rise to the top of the artistic crop. The Searchers and Shane. And now we have movies like The Dark Knight and even a movie like Joker.

    I just think “the good stuff” has always been more niche than “the crappy stuff.” Hell, in early America, seduction novels like Charlotte Temple and Wieland were all the rage.

    Ultimately, we have to think about what matters to us in art. I think most people want emotional connections to characters, and that explains a lot of the appeal of popular media. Art that challenges thinking is never going to be the most popular source of media.

    But this is the same debate Plato was having thousands of years ago. What else is new?
    You are mischaracterizing or misunderstanding my point (and, I think, the point of the thread) somewhat. This isn’t about movies today being crappier than movies in earlier times. There’s nothing about The Force Awakens that is of demonstrably worse quality than Butch Cassidy. Certainly I wouldn’t want to “go there”. Preferring one over the other is therefore a matter of taste.

    The point is solely about creative risk. Working within the franchise scope of Star Wars or comic books is inherently less risky than coming up with a new story. Most really big (in terms of box office) movies this decade have not been creatively risky. Even the crappiest, most derivative forties western still had a degree of vision behind it, still came with the risk of failure, even if it didn’t work. Ed Wood movies all sucked but nobody can argue that the man didn’t put his heart and soul into trying to put across his creative vision. They are distinct. They are personal.

    What I particularly notice in newer movies is the increasing reliance on visual awe and less reliance on dialogue. I see a huge difference in the time spent between characters talking in old movies compared to now. A lot of these big blockbusters you could condense the actual dialogue (not screams or one liners) into probably 5 minutes or so. Again, that’s another sign of less creative risk. Because talking in movies can be (and often is) boring. Carrying an audiences interest via dialogue over a period of time requires a skill set that nowadays is harder to find than just commissioning a lobby of design nerds to create explosive battles. It used to be the other way around, of course. Special effects used to be insanely difficult and expensive.
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

    "Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow."

    “Remember this: Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him. ”

    Hidden Content


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