That's Not Cinema: The good, the "good bad", and the awful
On Martin Scorsese, what is and isn't Cinema, and when a bad movie is "good bad" or simply bad.
Like a mummy monster in a movie from the golden age of Hollywood, the internet keeps all things in a state of suspended undeath that can be reanimated at any time. Look no further than the Empire interview with Martin Scorsese in which he confessed to not being a fan of superhero movies. Those five sentences in a modest paragraph buried in the middle of an in-depth article about a whole filmography are still being dredged from the depths of the internet years after first articulation, most recently by James Gunn, who had a superhero movie to sell.
This will not be one more piece of commentary about Scorsese’s comments, but it will take them as a launchpad, so a recap of the director’s position might be worthwhile. In the Empire interview, Scorsese revealed that he no longer watches Marvel movies, having watched a few of them and found them not to his taste – a damning indictment of the man, according to most of the responses to this confession, or the rational action of someone trying a thing, not liking the thing, then moving on to other things.
The most provocative thing he said of the Marvel movies was: “That’s not cinema.” He believes they are something more like theme-park rides. After this molehill was deliberately misidentified as a mountain by people incentivised by click counts to be upset over this opinion, Scorsese wrote a longer piece for the New York Times to explain in detail what he meant.
In his essay, Scorsese writes that many franchise films “are made by people of considerable talent and artistry”. He isn’t only complimenting the filmmakers here; he directs his admiration at the films too, writing that the talent and artistry can be seen “on the screen”. He also concedes that his disinterest in the Marvel movies “is a matter of personal taste and temperament”. This caveat shouldn’t be necessary, but it frequently seems required to preclude the inane comment that the opinions you are offering are just your opinions. Then, he clarifies that, for him (remember at every opportunity to acknowledge the subjectivity of what you’re saying, however well informed by a lifetime in the profession), “cinema [is] about revelation – aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation”.
After this functional if reductive definition of what he calls Cinema, Scorsese defines Marvel movies and their kind as being about thrills and spectacle – which is what theme-park rides aim at. No one chides a rollercoaster for not prompting deep reflection on the great existential questions of our time. It is either fun or it isn’t. So too with the MCU.
All of this subsequent controversy, then, stems from little more than an attempt at categorisation. To be upset that some of us draw distinctions between movies that aim primarily at entertainment and films interested in the human experience is like seeing something snooty and elitist in not calling a plumber when you need an electrician. Both are important, but they serve different purposes.
As I articulate this notion of “distinct but both important”, I feel an uneasy twinge, a suspicion that I am being tooequitable in my distribution of praise. After all, cinema at its best challenges audiences to know themselves and their world better, and knowledge of this kind is the beginning of human progress. The joys and rewards of films that centre complexity are almost axiomatic to anyone not poisoned by the borderline-nihilistic belief that things matter only as far as a person enjoys them – that merely “liking” a movie is all the consideration a viewer need give to what they’ve watched.
Then what about all those thrill-ride adventures more concerned with adrenaline and spectacle than nuance or thematic depth? What importance do such movies hold in a healthy culture and a cultured life? Thinking about this question, I recall a wonderful review by the late and yet ever present Roger Ebert of 1999’s The Mummy. In its opening paragraph, Ebert writes:
“There is within me an unslaked hunger for preposterous adventure movies ... “The Mummy” is a movie like that. There is hardly a thing I can say in its favour, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it ... There is a little immaturity stuck away in the crannies of even the most judicious of us, and we should treasure it.”
One of the treasures that these “preposterous adventure movies” hold is the way they allow us to rediscover the wonder of childhood. I am a sucker for indulging the movies and books that brought me so much joy when I was a kid. I am able to travel within myself back to an age when magic was within the immensely larger realm of possibility, and when the idea of “movie magic” seemed, frankly, more magical. This was a time before the answer to the awed question of “How did they do that?” became, always, “Computers”. Re-experiencing this kind of wonder is, I’m firmly convinced, a nourishing activity for the moral and emotional health of any adult.
It was my predilection for the joys of adventure and my soft spot for nostalgia that led me on my own preposterous journey – to the cinema to watch Jungle Cruise, one rainy Sunday at the end of a hard-worked week from which I needed relief. I didn’t hope for much, just a fix of the kind of wholesome joy I get on the rare Sunday afternoon when I need some downtime with my wife and can sit out the rain in the cosy, dark warmth of the cinema, popcorn in hand, ridiculous adventure on the screen.
But Jungle Cruise didn’t deliver.
As I was sitting in that cinema and watching Emily Blunt and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson give entertaining enough performances against unconvincing and uncompelling computer-generated backdrops, with the score reaching a crescendo every other note as if it worried I would forget that THIS IS AN ADVENTURE, and the plot plodded safely along to its inevitable resolution, I kept wondering why I wasn’t having the kind of fun I have when watching, for instance, Independence Day.
The answer came to me during the pedestrian final act. The scene was poorly lit, the frame bloated with computer-generated chaos, and most of the action squeezed into medium shots that made me wish the camera operator would take a big step back and turn on some lights so I could see what was happening. These were mistakes the Marvel directors never made. Say what you will about the MCU, but its filmmakers know how to put on a show. It may not always be ground-breaking or inspiring stuff, but the people making them know the craft well enough. And I realised: the Marvel movies might be theme-park rides, but this was fast food.
The point of a Big Mac is that it tastes like a Big Mac every single time, all over the world. Fast food chains have homogenised their food production so that there are never any surprises. This is not a flaw but a feature of the business plan. No one sensible goes into a McDonald’s for a gourmet experience; they eat there to taste the same thing they ate before, the flavours they already know they like.
This is also what most Disney movies are. (I am thinking here of the products – the most apt term – released by Walt Disney Pictures and no other subsidiary studios.) At the level of story, structure, and character, these movies have a brand “flavour” that their fans come back for every time. This is true even of those that make a gimmick of diversity, such as Moana or Frozen, which slap a veneer of novelty over the well-worn formula and still remain bland, insipid products compared to the more thoughtful, innovative movies of Pixar. The deep irony of movies like Jungle Cruise is that they’re adventure movies that are remarkably safe.
The really good adventure movies, on the other hand, are theme-park rides in that they all aim at the goal of entertainment but are each designed to entertain in their own ways. Ultimately, all rides go up and down, fast and slow, spinning, falling, and in a variety of ways catching you off-guard to get the adrenaline going – but their designers look for ways to play with the formulas to surprise the people on the ride.
Given the above, I want to alter Scorsese’s metaphor to include this third category I’ve been discussing. The films that he (and I) would consider “Cinema” are gourmet meals, creative and aesthetically pleasing dishes that supply healthy quantities of nutrition, and the rewards are greater for those who pay attention to the food as they eat; those “theme-park ride” movies are high-quality desserts – not much nutrition here, but they have direct access to our pleasure centres and are made with love and attention to craft; and the bad movies, the generic products put out by studios to shift other products – these are fast food, deliberately easy to digest, though entirely unnourishing and unmemorable.
I can find no reason to object to a world with no fast food and no fast-food movies. If they were Thanos-snapped out of existence, I see no real loss in the quality of all our lives. This would not be a world left with no joy or entertainment; Jungle Cruise may be gone, but we’d still have Back to the Future, the Mission Impossible movies, the MCU, and countless other “gourmet desserts” made with love for filmmaking and storytelling.
This is even true of kids’ movies. I’ve heard it protested that movies for children must constitute an exception to my problem with “bad” movies, because of the naivety and ignorance of their target audience. Well, I don’t feel like selling kids so short, and neither do the creators of the two Paddington movies, which are exceptionally well made, or the filmmakers who have gifted children the Pixar movies, or Alfonso Cuarón with his offering to the Harry Potter series, or the team behind the wonderfully unique Into the Spider-verse and The Mitchells vs. the Machines.
Just as a healthy diet need not sacrifice flavour, sweetness, and aesthetic pleasure at the altar of bland granola nutrition, and should be made up of a healthy proportion of good meals and some worthwhile desserts, our cinematic diets can offer the same kind of balance and variety in intellectual and emotional sustenance. We can have the substance and enjoy some treats without ever touching the boring and unfulfilling fast food.
Now, having finished the work of writing this essay, I’m going to treat myself to a re-watch of Marvel’s Avengers.
• “The Irishman” Week: Empire’s Martin Scorsese Interview, Nick de Semlyen, in Empire (2019)
• Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain, Martin Scorsese, in New York Times Opinion (2019)
• The Mummy, Roger Ebert, in rogerebert.com (orig. 1999)