Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

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Why Martin Scorsese is Right About Marvel Movies

Acclaimed director, Martin Scorsese

Acclaimed director, Martin Scorsese

The Crisis in Modern Day Filmmaking

There’s a crisis facing movie making today. Everyone’s making movies, but no one is shooting cinema–in other words, the type of movie that has all the artistry and craft of a theatrically-released film. This crisis is why so many people are walking away from theaters with this hollow, cheap “it-didn’t-feel-like-a-movie” experience. That’s because they didn’t see a movie. They saw a MINO–or, Movie in Name Only.

The reason why we’re having this crisis is simple. For almost a century, generations of people grew up on movies. Even when other forms of media started to become more popular, movies were still first and foremost in everyone’s lives in the way of entertainment. Then, starting in the 1980s, that all changed. Instead of growing up primarily on movies, generations of kids started growing up mostly on other forms of visual media, such as TV shows, comic books, video games and music videos.

When some of the members of these generations decided to become filmmakers, you would think that they’d shoot actual movies. After all, how could they not if they went to film school or learned the trade from a Hollywood insider? Unfortunately, what happened is that having grown up consuming non-movies, they couldn’t get these lesser mediums out of their systems. As a result, they couldn’t help but shoot their movies without heavily relying on the visual language, storytelling techniques and limited format of the stuff they primarily grew up with. For example, if they grew up watching MTV videos, their movies will feel like music videos. Similarly, if they grew up on video games, their movies will feel like a string of video game cutscenes.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the films of directors like these will usually lack the emotional, intellectual and visual breadth that usually has audiences feeling as if they’ve been immersed in another time and place, dropped into a parallel universe, or nudged outside of their emotional and intellectual comfort zones. At best, what happens is that audiences are left feeling as if something vital is missing. In the worst-case scenario, a MINO may feel so cheap in the way of a movie-going experience that audience members may actually start forgetting what they saw as soon as the theater lights come on. The reason is that the movie they saw had a smallness about it that felt more suited to a lesser medium.

A perfect example of what I mean by all this are the Disney Star Wars sequels, which I complained about in Disney’s Star Wars Is Great, But There Is a Nagging Issue. There was nothing really wrong with the story, writing or characters in these films, per se. The problem is that they lacked the majestic feel of a George Lucas film because they were shot, edited and blocked like a TV show. There were few establishment shots. The sets were minimal both in terms of design and number. To make matters worse, the drama that unfolded felt more like a Conflict of the Week story in a He-Man: Masters of the Universe or She-Ra: Princess of Power episode, not an epic battle determining the fate of the universe. In short, the sequels were for all intents and purposes live action 1980s TV cartoon shows that may have had big budgets and big-name actors but not a big movie feel. 

So many MINOs are like this today that I’ve lost count: the action-adventure MINO that feels like a video game; the sci-fi MINO that feels like someone’s CGI demo reel; the MINO awash in Instagram colors and with a MTV/VEVO music video aesthetic. This is all technically proficient and visually dazzling to be sure, but none of them deliver anything remotely as compelling, sweeping or magical as an actual movie.

Now, let’s talk about someone who actually made movies–Martin Scorsese. Regardless of how positively or negatively you feel about Scorsese or whether you like or don’t like his films, the fact is that his movies–for better or for worse–were masterfully shot from a strictly cinematic standpoint. This is the one thing you can’t take away from him. He is a legendary director who mastered the craft of film making–and, more importantly, cinematic storytelling. 

For example, take Goodfellas (1990). There are two scenes from this movie that became iconic because of the way they were shot. The first one is of Henry Hill and his date entering a 1960s nightclub, The Copacabana. It’s all done in one steady, long take from when they first leave the car to when they finally get inside and are seated. The reason why this shot is so well remembered isn’t just because of how seamless it was; it was also because of how well it gave audiences a feeling of immersion. In watching this scene, viewers are able to feel as if they are literally following the characters as they enter The Copacabana.

The second iconic scene in Goodfellas is the one in which Henry Hill and Jimmy Conway are having a discussion at a diner. The reason why it became iconic is that it used what’s known as a dolly zoom. Again, like the steady cam scene above, it became celebrated for both its craftmanship and effectiveness in instilling a feeling of intense emotion in the audience. In this case, moviegoers were made to feel anxious, as if something bad was about to go down any moment, like a car in the background pulling up and putting a hit on Jimmy.

It’s these types of highly technical, yet subtle sophisticated camera techniques that Scorsese and others used that made films cinematic and therefore “real movies,” as opposed to the junk that’s passing for movies these days. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about so-called “gimmick shots” or “trick shots”, where the whole point of it is to make the audience go, “Cool! How did they do that?” (Case in point: the infamous “bullet time” from The Matrix.) I’m talking about specific techniques meant to pull an audience into a movie, as opposed to making it sit there and passively watch stuff move back and forth onscreen.

Now, I know what you’re saying about all this. “I get it. MINOs aren’t on the level of something that is ordinarily shot by legendary directors. But why gripe about them? Why not let MINOs be a niche and let Scorsese and elite filmmakers have their own niche? Why not live and let live?”

Here’s why: if today’s MINO filmmakers had any level of self-awareness and humility, they’d stick to making mindless popcorn films for the lowest common denominator and not even try to pretend that they were making “real” movies. But what’s been happening is that they’ve been using cheap tactics to dress up their video game cut scenes, MTV videos and live action cartoon shows as actual movies, to where the public is learning to accept their non-movies as actual films.

The first tactic is acquiring a massive budget, attracting A Listers and padding their project out to movie-length to give the illusion that they are making a real movie. You’ve probably encountered the limitations of this fake-out strategy more times than you could count but didn’t know enough about it to know how to complain about it. All you knew when the movie ended was that it was “40 minutes too long”, “felt like a half hour TV plot stretched out to two hours”, “could’ve been a lot shorter” or “had too many false endings.” You might have thought that this was all due to bad writing; the truth is that the big budget, all-star movie that left you feeling underwhelmed was a MINO padded out beyond reasonable lengths.

In addition, MINO filmmakers have also been using more subtle, underhanded tricks to gaslight moviegoers. One of them is to lift iconic scenes, sequences, set pieces and characters from classic films. The idea is to make audiences feel that because a MINO is invoking a more famous movie, they’re also watching a real film. There are so many MINOs to choose from that used this cheap sleight of hand, but if I had to pick a perfect example, it would have to be Sucker Punch (2011). This is not a movie by any stretch of the imagination. It is literally a string of CGI set pieces, 1990s-style MTV music videos and live-action video game cut scenes. However, people consider it a legitimate movie because it heavily borrowed from several older films, such as The Great Escape (1963) and Suspiria (1977).

Another example is American Beauty (1991). This is basically an over glorified sitcom with the pretensions of a serious drama. The characters are sitcom, the situations are sitcom, the dialogue is sitcom. Yet it passed as a movie because it took the framing device from the Billy Wilder movie, Sunset Boulevard (1950), had its main actor (Kevin Spacey) act exactly like legendary actor Jack Lemmon, and riffed several iconic moments from Lemmon movies like The Odd Couple (1968) and Save the Tiger (1973).

It’s bad enough that MINO makers are using cheap tactics to convince everyone that their non-movies are movies. They’re also using these tactics to get everyone to think that their non-movies are not only movies, but are actual cinema–in other words, are in the exact same league as a Scorsese, Coppola or Kubrick film. So, what’s happening now is that MINO makers are overstepping their bounds–i.e., not staying in their own lane.

Comic book movies–which are pure MINO–are getting the most flack in this regard, because their makers are the guiltiest of the bunch of current ones who are trying to convince everyone that they’re not only making movies but masterpieces in the league of what came before them. In the early days of the Man Baby Reboot, CBM filmmakers cynically made nods to classic 1940s film noir movies when that genre was at its peak. After milking film noir to hell and back, they started looking to another “dark and gritty” period style to base their manbaby movies around and discovered…gasp… 1970s American New Wave aka New Hollywood.

One thing led to another and before anyone knew it, manbaby movie directors were beginning to riff directors like Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola from their grittiest and grimiest periods. I emphasize, this wasn’t out of any real homage, but just a cynical tactic to get their MINOs seen as on the level of American New Wave. As unbelievable as it sounds, this tactic has actually worked because we now have people daring to mention a movie like Joker (2019) in the exact same breath as Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) just by virtue of reminding audiences of those films.

With that being said, let me see if I can figure out why Martin Scorsese was prompted to make comments about comic book movies.


  1. ary

    Agreed entirely. But I have to ask, and since I am but a film noob so no condescension intended, why does Joker not qualify as cinema? It’s could be a copy for sure but how is it a padded MINO? The point is sure it looks exactly like Taxi Driver but that means it’s at best an eyesore for experienced film viewers but how is it “padded”?

    I hope you get my point, writing wise it’s trash for sure.

    • Comment by post author

      Regarding Joker, it’s not that all MINOs are padded. Padding is a characteristic of MINOs, but a movie can be a MINO without being padded.

      For example, I talked about Disney’s Star Wars. These movies aren’t padded at all, but they’re MINOs because they’re shot and blocked like a TV series, and the storytelling played out like a children’s animated series, not a sweeping epic. The storytelling and direction, in other words, didn’t have the epic quality that separates cinema from a television show.

      It’s the same with Joker. It’s not that it was padded, but that the subject matter and story were not worthy of cinematic treatment. The fact that the Joker’s backstory wasn’t good enough to be made into a movie is why the film tried so hard to remind audiences of Scorsese’s works. Some are calling it homage, but it’s not so much homage as it is a self-consciousness that the story wasn’t really “movie” material.

    • Comment by post author

      I forgot to add one more thing: another reason why Joker is a MINO goes back to something that Martin Scorsese said when he complained about Marvel movies being “product”.

      Movies are a passion project. In other words, filmmakers shoot because they are driven by a creative vision, want to flex their creative muscles or want to do their part to change moviemaking for the better.

      “Joker” was not a passion project. It was both a cynical cash grab trying to capitalize on the “dark and gritty” comic book phenomenon, as well as a cynical attempt to give one of the most childish genres of all time–the comic book superhero–prestige. There was no personal vision in this movie, no real interest in the storyline or characters. It was a product.

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