The director who, this fall, has most frankly and effectively confronted the current crisis in the art of filmmaking is Martin Scorsese. He has done so not only with “The Irishman,” now playing in theatres, but, more polemically, in a series of spoken and written texts. First, he told Empire magazine that Marvel movies are “not cinema” but are, rather, more like “theme parks.” A commotion resulted, with directors and actors who work on Marvel’s films, such as James Gunn and Natalie Portman, pushing back respectfully. Francis Ford Coppola picked up the cudgel and struck harder at the superhero-industrial complex, calling its films “despicable.” Robert Iger, the head of Disney, the studio that produces the Marvel movies, responded to both directors. And, lest the issues at stake merely disperse, like ashes in the breeze, Scorsese delivered an Op-Ed in the Times, on Monday, that outlined his view of the threats that the current commercial environment of superhero-centric Hollywood imposes on the kind of movies that he makes and loves.
In the Times piece, Scorsese, who was born in 1942, explains that his distaste for Marvel movies may be generational—and he defines the cinematic battle that he and his generation fought. He reminds readers that, when his devotion to movies was formed, in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, he and his peers argued that the cinema “was an art form.” He continues, “There was some debate about that at the time, so we stood up for cinema as an equal to literature or music or dance.” Few people, at least in the United States, thought as much (the vanguard of critics who forged the idea of cinema as art was in France). Scorsese outlines the range of movies in which he has found aesthetic peaks and delights: a hard-nosed, low-budget B-movie directed by Samuel Fuller; a splashy, high-budget, mass-entertainment musical by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; a brash and brutal made-for-TV movie by Don Siegel; the art-house films of Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman; an avant-garde film by Kenneth Anger; and the high-profile suspense of Alfred Hitchcock.
The two main points of Scorsese’s essay are, first, that the industrial context and commercial results of the movies that he fought for were simply irrelevant—the greatness of cinema is potentially to be found wherever movies are made and shown. But he goes on to define that potential for greatness in very specific terms, which are already suggested in his brief list of early inspirations, to make his second point: that all great movies reflect “the unifying vision of an individual artist.” What’s more, all the exemplary film artists he cites—alongside those of his early days, he adds some from younger generations, such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Claire Denis—are directors.
There’s a word that’s lurking within the Op-Ed, one that Scorsese doesn’t use but that might as well be emblazoned in the headline with a cruel irony, like the lighted sign beaming “The World Is Yours” at the end of Howard Hawks’s “Scarface.” The word is “auteur,” signifying the idea of the director as an artist who, though self-evidently not the sole artist working on most movies, is more than a conductor or stage manager. The director, first of all, is responsible for the essential aspects of the composition of images but does far more. The director provides actors with the crucial guidance—or the decisive environment—that makes the performances what they are. He or she may not do the editing hands-on but makes basic decisions that influence it. Above all, even if few directors in Hollywood’s classic era had screen credit for writing the scripts, the best ones usually were crucially involved in their creation. (This practical sense of power regarding not just the style but also the content of the best movies was part of the original critical discourse regarding the auteur in the seminal writings of François Truffaut, in the fifties.)
What Scorsese is decrying is not the use of fantasy characters in movies. (A few days ago, he said that he even considered making “Joker,” though I wonder whether he was joking.) There’s a word in the first sentence of the piece that, clearly but subtly, propels the through line of his argument. He doesn’t complain about “superhero” movies; he says that, in Empire, he was speaking of “Marvel movies.” He repeats “Marvel” in the second paragraph, and then, in the third paragraph, specifies what he’s talking about: “franchise films.” Scorsese isn’t inveighing against fantasy but against a system of production that submerges directors’ authority in a network of dictates and decisions issued from the top down—a network in which the director is more of a functionary than a creator.
Scorsese doesn’t so much lament the existence of such a corporatized and impersonal mode of production as decry its dominance. He contends that this system is rooted in “the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption.” For an example of what he means, it’s worth comparing most of the superhero movies made by Marvel with another superhero movie—indeed, the ultimate superhero movie—one that Scorsese himself made, in the nineteen-eighties: “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Whereas Marvel movies are conceived in terms of fan service, to gratify the affinity and the devotion of their acolytes to the characters and the series, Scorsese made a movie, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, that challenged the tradition and the orthodoxy surrounding its characters. In doing so, he encountered grave risks, risks far greater than financial matters—and so did the studio, Universal, that produced the film. When it was released in 1988, “Last Temptation” was met with furious nationwide protests ahead of its release and also calls to boycott theatres that showed it; the theatres faced threats of violence and, in France, actual violence, and the movie was banned in some countries (some of those bans are in effect to this day).
The Bible, of course, is in the public domain; the only thing that gets in the way of directors with strong and bold ideas making superhero movies is the control exerted by the studio that owns rights to Spider-Man or whomever. Scorsese never suggests that a movie featuring Marvel characters be made with the directorial freedom that he considers essential would be anything other than cinema, a movie that could stand alongside those he loves. The subject in question regarding the very nature of Marvel movies is institutional, a matter of a system of production that encourages and fosters personal directorial creation. (Also, in fairness, Scorsese does grant that “worldwide audiovisual entertainment” and “cinema” do “still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare.”)
When Scorsese’s remarks first broke, a month ago, many film critics weighed in, notably on Twitter, to endorse his distinction between Marvel movies and cinema. In response, I half-joked on Twitter, “Wait till he says that TV series aren’t cinema either.” I meant it, and Scorsese’s Times piece, without saying so directly, also takes on this other dominant system of production, the one by which TV series, for the most part, are made: a showrunner oversees a series closely and hires a variety of directors to realize its episodes. Of course, “TV” doesn’t mean a television set but, mainly, streaming, and Scorsese implicitly laments its dominance of the current mediascape—the watching of movies on computers and cell phones. The success of streaming has turned home video, which used to be a secondary market for movies, into a primary one. In his article, Scorsese challenges today’s bent toward production that neutralizes directors’ artistry and toward exhibition in which “franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen” and “streaming has become the primary delivery system.”
Scorsese doesn’t overlook the fact that Netflix produced “The Irishman,” yet he nonetheless insists that movies are best seen on “the big screen, where the filmmaker intended her or his picture to be seen.” I have my doubts about this stated directorial desire. In many theatres, both multiplexes and art houses, the screen isn’t especially big, and where viewers tend to sit—toward the back—the angle of view that the movie occupies can be far smaller than that of a laptop screen on a lap or desk, smaller even than that of a cell phone at reading distance. What’s more, many of the movies of the sort that Scorsese reveres would never have received anything like a wide theatrical release. Before worrying about how a movie is seen, a filmmaker is likely to worry whether it’s seen, and the wide availability of streaming services gives (at least for now) viewers in places far from specialty theatres a great variety of independent films and international films to watch at any given time.
Whether viewers ever will venture beyond the most ballyhooed novelties to discover such films remains in doubt; what’s also in doubt is the interest that streaming services and, even more, franchise-oriented studios have in maintaining such a diverse cinematic ecosystem. That’s where another paradox of the current movie environment—and of its history—arises. The power of Netflix both to produce “The Irishman” and to distribute the movie on its own site—and to do the same for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat”—has a strange and troubling precedent in the history of cinema: movie studios’ ownership of movie theatres from the nineteen-twenties through the forties, a practice known as “vertical integration,” which was banned by the Supreme Court in an antitrust case in 1948, a decision that led to drastic changes in the movie business.
The case, United States v. Paramount Pictures, et al., was cheered by independent producers—including Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and, yes, Walt Disney—and it led to increased access to theatres for their films and to a wide range of independent productions being made and distributed by studios. If the Hollywood of Scorsese’s youth was such a playground for the imagination—with an outpouring of creativity from such directors as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Vincente Minnelli, Ida Lupino (herself an independent producer) and Douglas Sirk—it’s in large measure a result of the breakup of the previously dominant form of the studio system.
The synergy of streaming giants and concentrated franchise-bound studios represents a new and perhaps even more oppressive and totalizing centralization of movie production, an even more thoroughgoing corporate control of filmmaking and film distribution than what existed in the age of the almighty studios. Without mentioning the name of Disney, Scorsese deftly casts some unambiguous and defiant shade in its direction. Disney, which is about to integrate itself vertically with the launch of its streaming service, Disney+, recently expanded horizontally, with the purchase of Fox; grave concerns have surfaced regarding its stewardship of the Fox catalogue (which, of course, reaches back to the nineteen-twenties and includes classics ranging from films by Ford and F. W. Murnau to ones by Terrence Malick and Wes Anderson).
As Matt Zoller Seitz recently reported in an indispensable piece at Vulture, Disney has placed stringent restrictions on the screening of classic Fox titles, granting primacy to nonprofit venues (such as Film Forum and the Museum of the Moving Image). Seitz paraphrases the remarks of one industry professional, who asked to remain anonymous, regarding Disney’s apparent motive: “Disney considers any screen that’s taken up by an older movie, even one that’s owned by Disney, to be a screen that could be showing the new Marvel or ‘Star Wars’ title instead. Or showing ‘Orangutans 4’ to an audience of three.”
Scorsese calls out such restrictive practices, all but naming Disney: “There are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary—a lethal combination.” And, given—as Seitz says—that Disney’s share of ticket sales is inching up toward fifty per cent of the market, the power to control both the vital past of the art and the present state of the industry is terrifying.
That terror, that first-person sense of a world out of joint, infuses Scorsese’s piece with its energy and its apocalyptic tone. It also spotlights the metaphorical power of his key idea. I confess that, when Scorsese distinguishes between the non-cinema of audience-tailored franchise films and the cinema of director-driven projects, I’m tempted to retort that there are better and worse movies, but they’re all movies. What’s more, his distinction reminds me that, when it comes to fan service, directors are far from immune: there’s no shortage of movies made by name-brand directors (who even make their name with such movies) that appear designed to flatter the assumptions and tastes of critics and urbane viewers—movies that enter the art-house consensus. Yet Scorsese’s distinction is a stark line drawn not merely on the basis of intention but also of power. He envisions the changes in the industry resulting from the upward concentration and narrowing of control as threatening not merely production and distribution but society at large—the psychology of moviegoers, the life of the mind. The Times essay isn’t Scorsese’s first foray into the subject. After all, the best movie of the decade (the envelope, please), Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is far more than a study of financial chicanery and greed. It’s a story of desire and its framework: its rhetoric, its performance, and its transmission. Like a footnote to that great movie, Scorsese’s new essay isn’t a practical prescription; it’s a personal and profound vision of a social order distorted by greed.