Make Cinema Great Again

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"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 sneered. "Martin [Scorsese] was kind when he said [the MCU] is not cinema. He didn't say it's despicable, which I just say it is."

Coppola and Scorsese's disgruntled attack on the Marvel Cinematic Universe a few weeks ago faithfully reproduced the usual predictable high -brow auteur critique of low-brow genre predictability. Scorsese was using similar tired tropes when he pilloried the Marvel films as shallow entertainment lacking psychological depth. "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 drily 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 DeNiro. 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, The Godfather 2, The Godfather 3, Taxi Driver) featuring Pacino and/or DeNiro emoting seriously while shooting the fuck out of some poor less celebrated actor in a spray of blood and gaudy bread and circuses. You could say they make the same shallow entertainment over and over.

No doubt some will bristle at lumping Scorsese and Coppola together in this way, just as MCU fans might bristle smooshing Ant Man and the Wasp and Black Panther into a single glob for purposes of easy dismissal. But the fact is that Scorsese and Coppola are, in many relevant respects, virtually the same person. They're 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 daring sufficient to seem edgy without really upending any of the major assumptions of Hollywood about whose stories matter and how to tell them. 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 which reflects who does and who does not have access to large piles of capital.

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, not especially adventurous. 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 DeNiro. It's only in the last couple years that pressure from fans and activists has caused the franchise to tentatively branch out with Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, Anna Boden/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. And those small steps have been enabled in part by the shift from an auteur-centered industry to an IP-centered one. Nobody but Scorsese can direct a Scorsese film; the fact that he's his own brand means that the assumption of quality, and the capital that goes with it, are inseparable from his white male body. The MCU, in contrast,  makes its money on the basis of its characters, not its creators, which allows more flexibility as to who those creators can be.  The MCU doesn't have nearly enough women or POC creators, and so far has not had a single women of color in the director's chair. But its more likely that a woman of color will helm a Marvel film than a Coppola one.

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 a more serious, universal, and idiosyncratic older tradition; they want to make cinema great again. But that supposedly universal and idiosyncratic older tradition was if anything less universal and idiosyncratic, if you look at who got to produce movies and how. The appeal to a spiritual scale of aesthetic virtue functions to erase material conditions of patriarchy and racism—material conditions which 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 heydey. 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.

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