Older Hollywood directors really seem to enjoy causing a stir with their divisive opinions about what is and isn’t cinema, or what really qualifies a movie experience. Steven Spielberg hates Netflix, Quentin Tarantino hates Netflix, and on a regular basis they’ll both happily tell you about why it’s the worst thing to happen to movies ever.
The most recent clickbait in this vain is that Martin Scorsese, director of such classics as Goodfellas and Raging Bull, said that Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are not what he would call “Cinema.” He explained at length, saying:
“Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
It seems to be an argument which is not exactly new – can things that make a profit have critical value? For me, the answer is pretty clearly – yes. I could point to Chris Pratt in Guardians Vol. 2, or Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther or the character arcs that Captain America and Iron Man go on – all of these performances do have an emphasis on conveying emotions and experiences to other human beings.
But in terms of what is and isn’t “Cinema,” I find it more useful to look a little further back in time.
Take a survey asking everyone what the greatest movies of the 1960’s are – I’m willing to bet that anything that comes up more frequently than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly are movies by Hitchcock and Kubrick. Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti-western is known as being incredibly influential among directors today, and it’s easy to see why; it had
one of the most iconic scores in the western genre the most iconic score in the western genre and some of the most spectacular cinematography ever. One could easily argue that Clint Eastwood’s character in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy (or Dollars trilogy, whichever name you prefer) has had just as lasting an impact as any character played by John Wayne (perhaps all characters played by John Wayne).
Contemporary reviews of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly were not too favorable. The eternal king of movie critics, Roger Ebert, had been a movie critic for less than a year when he reviewed The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. He would later write, “Looking up my old review, I see I described a four-star movie but only gave it three stars, perhaps because it was a “spaghetti Western” and so could not be art.” For the New York Times, Renata Adler slammed the movie, saying “must be the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” Critic Pauline Kael for the New Yorker called the movie “garish,” and “stupid,” she criticized the broader theme: “although this huge Italian Western … imitates the externals of American Westerns, it makes those externals so much bigger that what the American Western hero stands for, everything that audiences are supposed to identify with … [American men] probably hardly notice — and wouldn’t care anyway — that the Western theme is missing.”
I don’t write this as if to say “Man, look at these critics who were proven wrong with time,” but instead to draw attention to how views and reviews change over time. And the high-brow definition of “cinema” changes over time too. I’m sure if you asked these critics in 1966 if The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly qualified as “Cinema,” they might have said no. And I’m sure with his d i s c e r n i n g opinion of movies today, Mr. Scorsese would have agreed and categorized this schlock spaghetti western as “Not Cinema.” Except – in 2003, Scorsese assisted with the remastering and re-release of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with new scenes. At the time, he was quoted as saying, that it was “one of the most influential Westerns ever made,” and he called Sergio Leone “one of the greatest directors.”
Martin Scorsese probably realizes this, but no single person gets to decide what is and what isn’t “cinema.” Only the course of time does. Not every MCU movie will stand the test of time – but I imagine history will be kind to The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and Winter Soldier in particular.