More to the point: Does it want to be?
Scorsese’s own version of “Is it art?” has been all over the news lately, first in an interview accusing Marvel comic-book movies of being closer to theme parks than true cinema, then doubling and tripling down, most recently by way of a New York Times op-ed in which he sought to clarify his position and champion the daring, emotionally high-stakes movies he likes to watch and seeks to make.
“For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation,” he wrote. “It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form. And that was the key for us: it was an art form.”
Now on the cusp of turning 77, Scorsese is part of a generation that came of age during the postwar cinematic boom, when films from Europe, Asia and the American avant-garde met receptive audiences, many of them college-educated thanks to the G.I. Bill. Tutored both in schools and in art-house theaters, some of these fans became filmmakers themselves, taking their aesthetic tastes to the New Hollywood, where movies like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Easy Rider” and “The Graduate” defined the sensibility of a generation.
For Scorsese and his peers — Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola — cinema was an art form, and it has continued to evolve as such. But it has also evolved as an industrial practice and mass entertainment. Virtually since the medium’s inception, American cinema has been a three-legged stool, propped up by artistic creativity, highly rationalized production and distribution, and broad-based commercial appeal.
Sometimes, those values are hopelessly at odds. Sometimes they come together in surprising and delightful ways. And sometimes even the most felicitous convergences result in a cascade of unintended consequences. For every masterpiece like Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” — which was not just aesthetically groundbreaking but also became a box office hit — there’s been a “Jaws,” Spielberg’s masterfully constructed thriller that was one of the gateway drugs to Hollywood’s current addiction to blockbusters, sequels and franchise pictures.
It’s possible to feel a little whipsawed by the argument that Scorsese has ignited. On one hand, it’s admittedly gratifying to see rabid comic-book fans, whose tastes have so thoroughly colonized movie culture, be reminded that their obsessions aren’t always as meaningful or aesthetically amazing as they’ve been led to believe (despite being shamelessly pandered to by studios and endless ComicCons). For too long, the press — yes, including critics — has been prone to grade the Comic Book Industrial Complex on a curve, hungry for clicks, cowed by the genre’s popularity with readers and worn out by hyper-defensive fans. It’s refreshing to witness an otherwise invincible cultural cohort get a reality check about film’s humanist fundamentals from a respected elder.
On the other hand, as films from “Batman Begins” to “Black Panther” have proved, those fundamentals can often be expressed in comic-book movies with vision, artistry and genuine emotion. And Scorsese himself could stand accused of committing his own version of the sins he sees in Marvel movies.
His new film, “The Irishman,” is just as much an exercise in satisfying “a specific set of demands” — his term for fan service — as “Avengers: Endgame,” with Scorsese reuniting his cherished band of actors-cum-antiheroes (“Goodfellas, assemble!”), engaging in ritualized tropes of convulsive violence and tough-guy patois, going on at self-indulgent length, and even using expensive special effects (in this case, de-aging Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino through a process that brought the budget to nearly $160 million).
Coincidentally, Scorsese has remained noncommittal when asked about the DC Comics-inspired origin story “Joker,” which he once considered directing himself, and which owes many of its signature visual and thematic references to his own classics, most notably “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” “Joker,” which won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is now poised to break $1 billion at the worldwide box office and to earn at least a few Oscar nominations, including for lead actor Joaquin Phoenix.
Is “Joker” art? Is it entertainment? Is it Hollywood product?
Why can’t it be all three?
That question is particularly germane during awards season, when filmgoers can see movies that aspire to be smart, stylish, human-scale and audience-friendly. While edgy indies like “Uncut Gems” and “Waves” push cinematic grammar to its edges, movies like “Ford v. Ferrari,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and “The Two Popes” prove that mainstream and artfulness aren’t mutually exclusive. Scorsese’s own “Irishman” is part of the Oscar economy, with Netflix (the only studio willing to underwrite its expensive production and marketing budget) leveraging the awards campaign to drive subscribers to its site.
Although filmgoers lucky enough to live in select markets will be able to see “The Irishman” on the big screen when it goes wide over the next two weeks, many others will need to wait until Nov. 27 to see it at home — a disappointment to die-hard purists, no doubt, but also a concession to how movies are being consumed in the 21st century. Although every year has its surprise hits, for the most part filmgoers reserve their moviegoing dollars for films they feel they must see in theaters to get the full experience, whether that means special-effects extravaganzas, cartoons the whole family can enjoy, horror flicks with gotta-be-there jump scares or laugh-along comedies. This is truer than ever in an increasingly globalized industry, in which simplistic spectacles are the easiest export of all.
When Scorsese bemoans the Marvel monoculture, what many of us hear is a dirge for the kind of midrange, character-driven stories that more viewers are enjoying at home, and not just because they don’t have an art house in their neighborhood. Why leave the comfort of our theater-like home entertainment systems for actual theaters, especially when the kind of “risk” that Scorsese extols may not be worth the cost of parking, tickets and snacks (not to mention the prospect of sticky floors, loud talking and incessant texting)?
Still, there are filmgoers — not just teenagers, parents of toddlers or superhero fans — who would like to see a movie once in a while in an old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar theater. That’s Scorsese’s tribe, and their core anxiety isn’t that Marvel movies are being legitimized, but that there may soon come a day when there will be nothing to see on screen except a bombastic blur of Spandex and CGI. Now that Disney has bought Twentieth Century Fox to become the industry’s biggest studio (and profit center), those fears are more justified than ever.
I share those misgivings. But nearly every year I see reason for optimism.
This year, it came in the form of movies like “The Farewell,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Parasite” — all of which have found healthy audiences and proved yet again that there are profitable markets across a wide range of stories, styles and sensibilities. As art, entertainment and commercial successes, they prove that the three-legged stool is still the sturdiest kind. Focus on one leg at the expense of the others, and you cut the entire medium off at the knees.