What are movies? What makes one movie “cinema” and another a “theme park ride”? These clickbait questions have been on everyone’s mind lately. Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola have been asked to comment on Marvel Movies recently, and their answers have caused quite a stir. As such, it feels like a good time to wade into the muck in order to make some sense of what cinema really is.
The Dictionary Definition
Merriam-Webster defines cinema as “movies” or “motion pictures”. By this standard, nearly everything counts as a movie. If it was shot with a camera, it is “cinema”. However, the dictionary isn’t known for its ability to evaluate art, and this is clearly at the center of this conversation. Therefore, the real distinction between “cinema” and “theme park rides” boils down to the distinction between art and entertainment.
Generally, Art is designed to provoke thought. This provocation is typically geared towards the exploration of the human condition, a political statement, or some form of specific social commentary. When art is “good” it makes us realize something about ourselves, the environment, or the system. When art is “bad”, the statements a work makes are broad, non-specific, and don’t provide a satisfactory answer or ask a question that provokes any real thought.
Entertainment is more escapist than art. It exists primarily to distract, rather than to draw attention to something as art does. Entertainment is fun, light-hearted, and typically surface level. Entertainment is much more straightforward than art and typically deals with more relatable nuances that every audience can engage with. Or, entertainment exists just for the hell of it. It can be nothing more than a distraction.
Art vs. Entertainment
The real question here is whether the difference between art and entertainment matters. And, if so, which one is superior to the other? This becomes even more convoluted of a debate when you consider the differences in genre, style, and quality.
It’s incredibly difficult to rank something like The Godfather in comparison to something like Grown Ups 2. Both movies exist for polar opposite reasons and set out to achieve commensurately different results. The Godfather is the superior film by these standards. It is superior not because it tells a very intense character drama, but because its purpose is to tell that drama and it succeeds at that. Grown Ups 2, on the other hand, exists for the purpose of making its audience laugh while telling a heartfelt family story, yet it succeeds at neither of these goals. The evaluation of a movie should stem from whether or not it achieves its individual purpose.
Understanding Movie Criticism
Any person can watch a movie and say “this movie is good” or “this movie is bad”. What makes a review or analysis mean something is the reason why that person says Insert Movie Title Here is good or bad. The other truth of the matter is that not every movie can be evaluated by the same standards. This contradicts the typical review format, in which the critic observes consistency across all reviews rather than individualizing the experience of each movie and its evaluation.
The Godfather Pt. 2 vs. The Room
Since Coppola is at the center of this argument, I’m going to keep using his films for example. I’ve given The Godfather Pt. 2 a 5-Star review. I’ve also given Tommy Wiseau’s The Room a 5-Star review. Does this mean that I think Johnny’s story of love and betrayal is as well constructed as Michael Corleone’s story of seclusion and isolation? No. Not at all. Not in the slightest. The Room has one of the most broken, uninteresting stories ever put to page and then screen. The difference is that I don’t look for the same thing when I watch either of those movies. When I want to see intense family stories played out over a crime drama that provides commentary on Post-World War America, I watch The Godfather Pt. 2. When I want to laugh at terrible acting, corny dialogue, and a bunch of memes, I watch The Room. I don’t evaluate these movies on the same scale, and that’s the key to legitimate criticism. One of these movies is art, the other entertainment, but that does not mean that one invalidates the other.
“If You’re Not First, You’re Last”
There is no universal scale for film criticism. There never has been and there never will be. Unfortunately, most people fail to understand this when evaluating a movie. Take a look at Twitter, and you will see 8/10 reviews base the quality of Movie A off of the successes and failures of Movie B. Instead of evaluating a movie for what it is and whether or not it fulfills its intended purpose, people base their evaluation over whether they liked it more or less than something they saw last week.
There’s a belief that something must be the best, or at the least better, to matter. This is ridiculous because film is such a diverse medium. Any evaluation of a film that builds its argument off of this belief is flawed from the first sentence, which leads us directly into the MCU vs. Scorsese debate.
The People of the Marvel Universe v Martin Scorsese (2019)
First of all, this whole debate stemmed from clickbait headlines designed to cause controversy and boost web traffic. As the aqueous Admiral Ackbar once put it, “It’s a Trap!“. This was never meant to be a conversation or an attempt to get people to explore more of what artists had to offer, this debate was meant to cause arguments and distribute article links. This is unfortunate because that conversation needs to be had, on both sides of the debate.
In layman’s terms, the arguments presented by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have been that Marvel Movies (and the like) are inferior forms of movies. The arguments presented by everyone with a comic book character as their profile picture have been that Marvel Movies (and the like) make more money and are therefore better than anything “those old guys” have ever made. Both of these arguments are one-sided, but they are rooted in real issues that plague cinema.
Martin Scorsese is wrong, but more on that later. What Martin Scorsese is right about, however, is that Marvel movies (and the like) are boxing out other aspects of cinema. The sad fact is that blockbusters (entertainment films) typically make more money than “artsy” films, even when those blockbusters are critical and commercial flops. This encourages studios to make more films like them and fewer films like those made by Scorsese and likeminded artists. This is why studios balked at the $150 million price tag of The Irishman but spent $150 million developing the dumpster fire that was The Mortal Engines. The potential returns were greater, even if the movie was inferior in the eyes of critics. This is coupled by the fact that your local theater is likely to pass up showings of an indie feature in favor of a franchise film, regardless of either film’s quality.
Team Marvel Cinematic Universe
Marvel movies (and the like) are not as soulless and hollow as the other side perceives them. Circling back to James Gunn, his signature lack of cynicism and commitment to wackiness allows him to tell some very touching stories about parenthood through the lens of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Most blockbusters, at least those that people gravitate towards, do tell some semblance of a meaningful story in-between the car chases and gunfights. However, Marvel movies (and the like) also have a tendency to play it too safe. They don’t always explore the most relevant topics. Even when they do, as in the case of Black Panther, they stop short to give you that sweet, sweet CGI violence instead of pushing the issue further.
Both groups in this debate have valid points. However, they aren’t viewing the debate from a bird’s eye perspective. Rather they are viewing it as themselves, unaware of where the other side is coming from. The lack of communication is what has kept this debate heated and in the public eye. Instead of evaluating each film with a sliding scale, each side evaluates through its own entrenched lens. These films are being talked about as if only one style of film can be “good” or if Marvel counts as “cinema” then Martin Scorsese films do not (and vice versa).
Scorsese and Coppolla are endlings of an older generation of filmmakers. They grew up with different influences, different teachers, and different climates in which to tell their stories. They are always going to have a different opinion, but that makes then neither right or wrong nor better or worse. They are allowed to have their own tastes, just like you.
James Gunn, Rian Johnson, Taika Waititi, and others are part of a new generation that has learned and performed solely in this blockbuster environment. They are going to think and create differently. Again this makes them neither right or wrong nor better or worse. They are part of a different movement in filmmaking, and that’s okay.
Cinema is not a universal measurement. Rather, cinema must be evaluated based on the individual purpose of a movie. Is this movie in existence to show you something about the human experience? Does this movie change your opinion about a social issue? Is this movie just a solid two-hour distraction? Is it here as art or here as entertainment? If the movie achieves its purpose then it has succeeded. If it doesn’t achieve its purpose, then it has failed. That is the key between “cinema” and “despicable” movies, regardless of whether or not you would characterize something as art or entertainment. Just because you want films to have a social message, does not mean that those without it are “bad”. Each movie is an individual collaboration that cannot be adequately compared to another collaboration because there are none other just like it.
Let’s Play, “Is This Cinema?”
I’m going to list a movie and provide its purpose, then explain why or why not it isn’t cinema.
Purpose: A psychological thriller that explores the nature of insanity and societal detachment through the lens of the most iconic comic book villain of all time.
Joker is not “cinema”. Why? Because Joker does not live up to its purpose. It’s beautifully shot, well-acted, and tremendously scored. However, it never truly goes beneath the surface of its premise. It uses cheap shortcuts and pre-conceived notions of its protagonist to spin a narrative that never asks hard questions or provides satisfactory answers. It fails to truly explore the choices its protagonist makes or the society which it feigns holding a mirror too. What Joker is sold as is not what you’re buying.
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Purpose: A goofy tale about a shrinking superhero as he hopes to reconnect with his family, atone for past mistakes, and save his girlfriends’ mom before she disappears into the quantum realm forever.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is “cinema”. Why? Because, per my reasoning above, Ant-Man and the Wasp lives up to its purpose. It doesn’t have goals nearly as lofty as Joker. However, it achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve. It tells a simple story about Scott Lang and his superhero life that uses fun visuals and light-hearted banter to keep you entertained for two hours. It doesn’t do anything more than that because it never set out to. You’re getting exactly what you paid for.
Measuring Ant-Man and the Wasp and Joker
These movies cannot be compared and contrasted by the same merits. They were made by different collaborations to achieve different purposes. One movie succeeds at achieving its goals and the other falls short. The thing to take away here is that they are different and basing the quality of one off the other is asinine.
“Cinema” CANNOT be evaluated by comparison. It must be done on an individual level and a case by case bases. One movie does not invalidate the other, neither does one voice invalidate another. If a movie achieves its purpose, then it is “cinema”. If a movie falls short of its purpose then it is not “cinema”, or at least not wholly so.
Black Panther = Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver is a much deeper movie than Black Panther. It’s also shot better, acted better, and has a tighter script. That being said, Black Panther is just as important today as Taxi Driver was upon its release in 1976. Why? Because Black Panther is a cultural phenomenon that empowered a marginalized and often sidelined group. An overlooked asset to these “despicable” movies is their cultural impact. These movies can accomplish cultural influence in a way that “cinema” will never be able to. While Taxi Driver was able to bring PTSD to the forefront of the American consciousness, its scale of impact is relatively small compared to that of Black Panther today. Not only does Black Panther exemplify a much larger group of marginalized people, but it was seen by a much larger general audience as well. The cultural and social clout of these films is not something to be taken lightly.
Marvel Movies (and the like) Equip Directors
Whether you believe Marvel movies to be “cinema” or not, it’s hard to ignore their influence on cinema. For example, take a look at the upcoming Jojo Rabbit. This movie is arguably “cinema” by Scorsese’s definition, it’s set out to tell a social message and analyze the current political climate. However, it most likely would not have been made, or at least promoted this heavily, without Director Taika Waititi’s success with Thor: Ragnarok. The fact of the matter is that blockbusters give auteur directors the status and funds to create more cinema, even if those blockbusters aren’t cinema themselves.
One Last Thing
Watch more movies. One thing that has become abundantly clear is that most people only watch one style of movie. The “cinema” and “art” fans don’t watch enough “entertainment”. The “entertainment” people need to pass on watching Captain Marvel for the 140th time and go watch something to expand their horizons.
Many moviegoers do not have a very large film vocabulary, and that is the real danger here. If film is to continue to be as diverse exploratory as it has been in the past, people need to step outside their own comfort zone and watch things they aren’t familiar with. They need to watch things they aren’t comfortable with or that they don’t naturally gravitate towards. That is the only genuine way to deepen your appreciation and understanding of the medium. It is also the only way to give yourself a voice in the matter. You cannot comment on Martin Scorcese’s movies if you’ve never seen them, same as Martin Scorsese’s opinion on movies he hasn’t seen is equally irrelevant.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Cinema and the Martin Scorsese debate? Comment down below!
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