Readers Write In #342: Martin Scorsese degrades today’s Hollywood again, but it is not as bad he makes it sound

Posted on March 4, 2021


(by Alex John)

Martin Scorsese’s essay on Fellini was moving, nostalgic, and solemn, and gives a wonderful account of the Great Italian filmmaker’s life, his films, and his passion for cinema. He almost had me buying what he wrote in it entirely, but I started to feel indifferent when he continued on with what he had to say about the decline of art in cinema, and how business has taken over cinema in America, or may be worldwide, from his earlier interview and the explanation he gave for it in his NY article. Now, he has made this clear that this is his personal opinion, but anything that comes from a maestro like him has an undeniable appeal among the mortals like us which lends his lamentations on today’s cinema more depth than just being his perceptions about it. Now, let me tell you this; I am not a great fan of the trends in today’s commercial cinema; Indian, American, or anywhere else. I know cinema is being productized these days more than ever, I am almost scared when studios name a film ‘blockbuster’ even before it gets released and it actually becomes a blockbuster (just like the father worries about his kid in the 1976 horror flick ‘The omen’ when he realizes he’s never been sick ever since he was born. Why don’t these films freaking flop?), but is it actually as bad as he makes it sound? I don’t think so. Why? Well, let me tell you.

For one, I think he oscillates between mainstream and offbeat cinema as he compares the movies of his times with those of today’s. He complains that ‘content’ has taken over ‘form’ and ‘art’ in today’s films, but conveniently forgets that was the case of the older days too, when movie stars and studios took their turn in reigning cinema in the USA. Mainstream movies of those times were mostly driven by content rather than form and art. Remember the Sidney Poitier classics of the 60s and 70s? The countless summer blockbusters since Jaws? We know that even the uber-stylish Hitchcockian films were reliant on ‘blockbuster content’ to an extent. Now, let’s fast-forward to today’s films from America, or anywhere else in the world. Are all of them just content-driven, lacking in cinematic form and art? Do all those films lack the risk element of the golden years of cinema, as he puts it? Are Nolan’s movies just storytelling apparatus? What about the films of Guillermo Del Toro? Inarritu, Tarantino, Refn, anyone? What about the countless offbeat directors from Von Trier to Noah Baumbach?

Now, let’s get to the ‘theme park’ films that Scorsese doesn’t count as cinema. No matter how perplexed I am about them for being products that never go wrong with their target audience, I believe they still are cinema. They are often well written, efficiently directed and have complex enough characters to warrant serious attention, making them much more than just adrenaline pumping roller-coasters. They may lack the cynicism and temerity of the cold war era films, but still deal with the lofty themes of benevolence, fraternity, loss, necessity and existence. As much they are products designed for a legion of target audience from worldwide, so much they’re tangible movie experience too. If they are not, if they are just lifeless theme park equipment, the response would be ice-cold when an important character died at the end of a Marvel cinematic franchise. I was quite surprised how I was moved when Iron man died in Endgame, considering the general lack of interest I have for superhero movies., making me reconsider my belief that such films were inferior, lifeless means of entertainment. In fact, I realized it takes enormous amounts of skill and dedication to show what they show us on screen; taking us through no-holds-barred thrill rides and at the same time make us feel for the characters they present us with.

I was reminded of something when I mentioned the ‘cold war era’, something that Scorsese disregards when he says today’s mainstream films lack art and diversity-the times we live in. He spent his youth in the 1960s and 70s when a nuclear war loomed over the world, insecure youth largely resorted to drugs and anarchy, and a lot of people in the USA lined up for their last confession. I wouldn’t dare say we now, in the US or anywhere else, live in a peaceful world, but today’s world is far more consistent, prosperous and livable, especially in the west. Now, is there anything wrong if today’s films cater to the taste of the largely movie-going younger generation? Wasn’t this the case with the commercial films of his younger days too? Were the movie-going public heads-over-heels in love with the outlandish offbeat films he raves about? These were the questions I was asking myself when I read him write that today’s movie business can’t be trusted with taking care of cinema as an art form. Well, I would say it is being taken care of everywhere around the world by the enormous mainstream movie businesses of today and the offbeat assembly that flourishes parallel to it. They may not be the towering public figures that the yesteryear’s youth desperately needed to look up to, but today’s filmmakers, mainstream or parallel, are no less talented or intrepid than their predecessors; just that they are often overshadowed by the ill-conceived notion of 60 and 70s being some kind of ‘golden age’ of cinema all over the world.

Martin Scorsese is a living legend, and I understand him when he talks about the mediocrity of today’s blockbusters, but when he says they’re not cinema, I believe he is much more influenced by nostalgia than the current state of affairs. I am not going to commit the sin of saying these are the ramblings of a nostalgic old man, but he apparently misses the old times, the camaraderie among the then young revolutionaries and the pleasures and adventures of those tumultuous times. It’s funny how he uses Fellini, a non–US director, as the baseline to point out the shortcomings of the current American film industry, but forgets about the countless foreign directors who made it big in the US, in industrial or offbeat cinema (you want someone whose cinematic audacity wanders off so far out it often crosses the line of bizarreness, like Fellini? Yorgos Lanthimos is the one for you). Hollywood these days has its flaws like the Hollywood in Scorsese’s younger years (remember the rampant racial discrimination until the late 1960s), and a lot of its films are convivial to a fault, but to say those films are not cinema is doing injustice to the sheer amount of artistry and dedication behind them. Marvel movies are the products of their times, and the embodiment of the old saying, ‘the only constant in life is change’. Scorsese is reputed enough to call Marvel movies theme parks, but a lot of us have to jump on the bandwagon that goes the other way, and I am glad I am one of them.