Noah Berlatsky / November 12, 2019
This is a revision of a piece that originally ran on Noah Berlatsky’s Patreon.
“I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again,” 80-year-old auteur director Francis Ford Coppola recently sneered, speaking with the press after receiving the Prix Lumière in Lyon, France. “Martin [Scorsese] was kind when he said [the Marvel Cinematic Universe] is not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”
Scorsese’s disgruntled attack on the MCU a few weeks ago faithfully reproduced the usual predictable high-brow critique of low-brow genre predictability. Back in 1977, it was Pauline Kael who said that watching Star Wars was like “taking a pack of kids to the circus,” claiming the film had “no emotional grip.” 200 years before that, literary critics dismissed the novel as “a waste of time, as a relaxation enfeebling the mind, destructive of… common-sense views of life.” Scorsese was using similar tired tropes when he derided the Marvel films, lamenting the predominance of such shallow entertainment aimed at the groundlings. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” he insisted, and then compared MCU films to theme park rides.
It’s dryly humorous that Scorsese’s remarks were delivered while doing press for his new Netflix film, The Irishman, a mob movie starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Scorsese and Coppola have, of course, made various kinds of movies over the years, but their bread and butter brand is the gangster/crime film (Goodfellas, The Godfather franchise, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and so on) featuring Pacino and/or De Niro emoting seriously while shooting the fuck out of some less celebrated actor in a spray of blood: a gaudy display of bread and circuses. You could say they make the same shallow entertainment “over and over again.”
No doubt some will bristle at lumping Scorsese and Coppola together in this way, just as MCU fans might bristle at smooshing Ant Man and the Wasp and Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse into a single glob for purposes of easy dismissal. But the fact is that Scorsese and Coppola are both Italian-American filmmakers who were given the opportunity to mythologize their ethnic roots because they’re white men in a Hollywood industry that, while they were coming up, gave funding to virtually no one other than white men. They both attained a reputation for genius and daring by being the right sort of people in the right place, making films almost exclusively about white men like themselves. They were both brilliant at providing a dollop of narrative bravura sufficient to seem edgy without really upending any of the major assumptions of Hollywood, such as whose stories matter and how those stories can and should be told. Scorsese and Coppola’s films have a lot more in common with Spider-Man: Homecoming than with the work of Yoko Ono, or Trinh T. Minh-Ha, not least in terms of a budget that reflects who does and who does not have access to large piles of capital.
Scorsese has done a great deal of work promoting and preserving world films, so he’s certainly aware of Hollywood’s limited palette. He could have used the attention and outrage generated by his comments on MCU films to talk about that, and to promote lesser known works by directors who aren’t white men, if he’d wanted. But instead, his widely read New York Times op-ed laying out his thoughts more systematically uses as its primary example… Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock, of course, was a hugely successful director who made genre pictures, and whose name is still a household word. Scorsese praises him for making films that have “mystery or genuine emotional danger.” He doesn’t mention that Hitchcock generated emotional danger on the set of one film, The Birds, by allegedly stalking the star, Tippi Hedron, sexually assaulting her, and then using his influence to ruin her career. Hitchcock tried to control the private lives of quite a few of his leading ladies, in fact, and the director’s heroines were usually defined by their imperilment.
Perhaps Scorsese would respond that bad people can make good films. And that is partially true. Bad men, in Hollywood, can make good movies. Women, of whatever moral character, rarely get the chance. As we know from Harvey Weinstein, Alfred Hitchcock, and too many others, this is because men in power often exploit and harass and assault women, which makes it extremely difficult for women to form the social connections needed to access the vast amounts of money necessary to make films. Nor is it an accident that many of Scorsese’s own films—Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street—are seen as tough, unflinching, complex dramas because they realistically portray the inner lives of men who show their conflicted manliness in large part by stalking and/or abusing women.
Scorsese mentions in passing a handful of non-white guy directors, including Claire Denis and Spike Lee. But he groups them in with folks like Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, with no indication that the white guys have huge structural advantages. The effect is to suggest that Hollywood is as hostile (or welcoming) to people like Wes Anderson as it is to people like Spike Lee, which is, to put it mildly, inaccurate. Racism and sexism don’t appear to exist for Scorsese; the only relevant categories are the MCU franchise films he dislikes, and a more universal human cinema, epitomized first of all by a director who said, following the advice of playwright Victorien Sardou, “‘Torture the women!’ The trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough.”
The film industry is still extremely hostile to women, as the Me Too movement has demonstrated. Not coincidentally, Hollywood remains a really unadventurous and insular place. “The cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” is still mostly the cinema of straight cis white guys conveying to everyone else that straight cis white guy stories are the most important thing. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been centered on Iron Man (Rober Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Most MCU films are, as Coppola says, predictable. They have violent set pieces like Taxi Driver and ranting supervillains like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The MCU’s directors and stars have overwhelmingly been white guys like Scorsese and De Niro. It’s only in the last couple of years that the franchise, thanks to pressure from fans and activists, has tentatively branched out with Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnorak. Still, even those small steps are pretty substantial changes from the monochrome and mono-gender mainstream Hollywood cinema of Scorsese and Coppola’s day.
Some people like MCU films; some people like Scorsese and Coppola films. I’m not really a fan of any of them. But what individuals may like or dislike isn’t really the issue in this discussion. The issue is what is considered to be quality, serious art, what is not, and why. Scorsese and Coppola are denigrating MCU films in the name of what they see as a more serious, universal, and idiosyncratic older tradition: they want to make cinema great again. “For me… cinema was about revelation—aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation,” Scorsese enthuses. “It was about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”
Revelation, complex characters, humanity—who can argue against that? But most of these characters were (and are) white guys, and “complexity” for Scorsese in at least one notable instance (Taxi Driver) involved writing a cameo for himself in which he says the n-word on screen and talks about “what a .44 magnum does to a woman’s face” and other body parts. The supposedly universal and idiosyncratic older tradition was, if anything, less universal and less idiosyncratic, if you look at who got to produce movies and how. The appeal to a spiritual scale of aesthetic virtue functions to erase the material conditions of patriarchy and racism—material conditions that actually regulate who receives the money to make big honking Hollywood films. Those material conditions haven’t changed all that much since Scorsese and Coppola’s heyday. The same people are broadly in power, the same people broadly star in movies, and the same narrative conventions broadly apply. Scorsese and Coppola would have us believe that elitism is an alternative to bland sameness. But The Irishman sure looks like a film we’ve seen before.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.