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Reflection: Capitalism's influence on modern cinema doesn't detract from its value

Over the decades, the pursuit of profit in the film industry has lead to the commodification of films. That being said, just because a film is mainstream doesn't mean it doesn't have depth or creative value.  – Photo by Unsplash.com

Discourse surrounding film — and the sometimes pretentious critiques that come from white guys about it — is nothing new. Instances of Hollywood elitism (or frankly, just elitism) with directors and actors who only consider slow, boring movies full of white men to be real cinema are abound in all film critic spaces.

They’re also basically anywhere you utter the word “movie.” Martin Scorsese is a film legend, but he’s also a fan favorite of these same men.

Scorsese is no stranger to controversy surrounding his alleged "pretentiousness," considering all the Twitter memes that flooded the internet after he said modern superhero movies were the cinematic equivalent of theme park rides.

I loathe agreeing with someone who might give me flack for having never watched a movie of theirs or tell me I haven’t experienced real film until I’ve sat through their artful 3 hours of smoke-filled rooms.

And yet, recently, Scorsese came under fire on the internet for an essay he penned for Harper’s Magazine titled, “Il Maestro: Federico Fellini and the lost magic of cinema.” The title might immediately set off alarms in the heads of people who've seen plenty of artful films recently and reject the bounced-around idea among, again, primarily white men, that anything post the turn of the millennium is nonsense.

But the piece itself is more nuanced than that. The original goal of Scorsese’s essay was to pay tribute to the influential Italian film director Fellini, but the part of Scorsese’s essay that went viral was its first three paragraphs.

They criticized the number games of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu as well as the box office for the lack of creativity that’s abound under capitalism. Another great example of commentary on this is Ursula Le Guin’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. 

It’s too long to place all of Scorsese’s words here, but the gist of the excerpt is that the branding of film as “content” — something Scorsese said places it among things like cat videos and Super Bowl commercials — frames cinema as something about money and algorithm-perfecting rather than about what filmmakers want to actually make and what art truly is.

“The art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content,'” he said.

The amount of films being made and promoted on streaming platforms is good for filmmakers, including himself, Scorsese concedes (he does, after all, have deals with Netflix), but that the best “curating isn’t undemocratic or ‘elitist,’ a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. It’s an act of generosity — you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you.”

The argument that Scorsese is making is that opening the door to seemingly democratic platforms like Netflix and Hulu with the argument that if "it’s good, people will watch it" doesn’t work its magic on diversifying the playing field by opening the door to new directors nor does it for creating loads of new, good art.

I’m not arguing that Scorsese is inherently critical of the film industry under capitalism or of any movies that make money. He’s done perfectly fine — millions of dollars worth of fine — for himself. But his idea that money is being valued over art fits in perfectly with the argument that box office blockbusters are the result of a lack of creativity spawned under both a social and literal need for material gain.

When it comes to said material gain, it’s not just about streaming either. Scorsese’s critique of money being valued over art is also reflected at the box office, where things aren't faring any better. Of the top 50 highest-grossing films of all time, many of the films were from either Disney, major franchises or both.

If you think that numbers do anything for diversification of Hollywood hegemony, or do much for directors of color and female directors, think again. Only 3 of the 46 movies that made more than $1 billion in the worldwide box office in 2019 were directed by women, with one Marvel movie and two Disney movies directed by the same woman.

All three of those films were co-directed by men. Racial diversity is also lacking, with only four films in the top 100 in 2019 being directed by people of color, according to a study done by Stacy L. Smith and USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

It isn’t just a complaint of white men who are tired of being elbowed out by diverse films when someone like Scorsese says films are dead or dying — it’s the last cry before creativity is fully stifled by money-hungry studio heads.

As far as pretentiousness goes, sure. Saying the intensely popular Marvel movies are the cinematic equivalent of junk food can seem like it’s reflective of the largely classist distinctions between high-brow and low-brow media.

But the idea of rejecting independent filmmakers while Disney monopolizes the film industry and claiming that it is somehow "going against the grain of things" is almost laughable. The conversation surrounding films is constantly dominated by high-grossing, non-diverse A-lists with incredibly low cinematic stakes.

The story is timeless: Bad things happen, explosions happen, but the good guy always wins. The frustration among people who have watched the industry change is understandable, and not for the better as they’d hoped.

No one is saying there’s no value in sitting down and watching a movie that’s fun and engaging nor that the special effects of these movies aren’t anything marvelous. No one is saying the acting or the directing is weak. No one is saying they aren’t enjoyable.

But movies, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose and where there’s no question of "who’s who," don’t exactly make insightful comments on the human condition and aren’t terribly relatable to viewers who can’t fly and don’t have to save the world.

It isn’t that these movie franchises have nothing to offer. “The Hunger Games," for example, was a box office smash hit primarily loved by teen girls — a group of people notoriously made fun of for their cinematic taste (see “Twilight” and any romantic comedy ever).

And yet, it offered valuable critiques of modern capitalist society and the way that people viewed both violence and the exploitation of children by media industries as consumable products rather than something abhorrent.

But when the concern of major studios is making money and having one Marvel movie's earnings top the next and then top the next again, cinema suffers. Each time there’s a “Parasite” that wins an Oscar, there’s an "Avengers: Endgame" blowing it out of the water financially, and then, there are people watching one over the other because they can't stand the idea of a subtitled film.

For what it’s worth, “real cinema” doesn’t have to be boring or serious or hegemonic to be real. For every “The Irishman” that Scorsese directs himself, there’s a “Moonlight” to combat the straight, white male narrative. For every gritty crime film, there’s a romance movie with enough love to make anyone’s heart patter. For every drama that sweeps awards shows, there’s a comedy making theaters full of people laugh.

These films aren’t always winning at the box office or being recommended on Netflix or Hulu (or Amazon, or Disney+, or AppleTV, or … ). They don’t have viral fan pages or multi-million-dollar marketing deals or TV shows being spawned off of them.

But these films don’t have to be irrelevant — there’s something valuable, too, about critics raving or an award in hand. All they need is heart and something valuable to say. 

What Scorsese means, and what I mean about film, is what Le Guin said best about the publishing industry in that acceptance speech, even if the opinion isn’t popular: “Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship ... The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.”

She was met with very reluctant applause.

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