Sunday 21 February 2021

Nerd Church - Popular Vs Pretentious: I Read Martin Scorsese's Essay So You Don't Have To


Why are popular films, and popular media in general, somehow seen as unworthy?

Who decides what counts as Art anyways? 

Cos being asked to locate the grand-high judge of all things artsy films would not have me running to call Martin Scorsese (...who would totally take my call, because let's face it, I'm awesome and stubborn as a mule persistent.)

'Popular Vs Pretentious: I Read Martin Scorsese's Essay So You Don't Have To' against a crinkled brown-paper background

In a pretentious burst of overly-descriptive prose, Martin Scorsese's essay in Harper's Magazine was published this week to the irritation of many fans of superhero blockbusters and popular films.


Well, Scorsese previously ran his mouth about Marvel movies in 2019, and it seems that even in this current piece about the artsy Italian director Federico Fellini, he couldn't resist some entitled barbs at films that people actually like watching.

It's titled, 'Il Maestro: Federico Fellini and the lost magic of cinema' because... why not? I guess?

If you feel the need to subject yourself to it, you can read Scorsese's entire essay here. I don't recommend you do, but to each his own.

I have read it, before I get the inevitable avalanche of 'but you haven't even read it!' objections.

And honestly? Unless you wanna practice rolling your eyes so much you worry you might roll 'em outta your head? Maybe don't read it. Again, up to you *shrugs*

This essay says more about Mr. Scorsese than it could ever say about film, cinema, content, media, or anything else.

While sneering at popular vs artsy films, Scorsese wants everyone to know how smart he is - because he appreciates art; he is a true artiste. 

His films are cinema, dontcha know, which for some reason only covers things that he has decided are artistic.

(Cue eye rolls, dearest nerdlets.)

Some of the most beautiful and artistic films I've ever seen would not come under Scorsese's definitions of Art or cinema.

Some of the most touching and emotionally poignant films I have ever seen were superhero movies.

I know, I know, a lot of pretentious a-holes who somehow made it this far down the post have now either left this blog entirely, or are preparing the inevitable Twitter rant that a woman has an opinion they don't agree with.

...And I'm OK with that. You do you, pretentious a-holes - I hope it brings you some happiness and you don't lash out at others.

Neither do I agree with reverse snobbery, though.

Just because something's artsy doesn't mean it's automatically boring or pretentious. And I try to judge things on their own context and merit.

I like some of Scorsese's films. A few are, imho, trash. Several I simply have no desire to watch because they look like boring male pi**ing matches. I also don't really consider Scorsese to be especially artsy or overly worthy. #TellingItLikeItIs

The brand of cinema that Scorsese is bemoaning the supposed devaluing of is mostly of the 'pale, male, and stale' variety.

Scorsese seems to want the old White men's club* to reign supreme, forever and ever, amen.

There are exceptions to this rule - but not many.

The type of Art Scorsese wants to be regarded as superior is the type of Art made by those in groups that are historically in positions of privilege and power.

Scorsese, to me, is scared of the erosion of the status quo and the levelling of the playing field.

*There's usually a distinct lack of other Diversity in this group too - they're mainly straight, Cisgender (i.e. not Trans,) able-bodied, middle-to-upper-class, Christian or culturally Christian, etc., etc. 

It's just easier to call them the 'old white men's club,' but they're usually even less diverse than the name suggests.

It's this levelling of the playing field, this opening up to marginalised groups, that Scorsese, knowingly or not, is decrying when he bemoans the rise of 'content' and streaming services.

A once closed-in world has left the back door open, and I think that Scorsese dislikes the riff-raff sneaking into the club. This is his club dammit! How dare they!

And no, Martin, criticising the supposed over-use of the word elitist doesn't make it any less true. Just because it's been levelled at you before doesn't make it any less true.

In fact, there's probably a reason for that, pal.

What I can't figure out is this: is this criticism of streaming services like Netflix ironic, or hypocritical?

Because Scorsese has a recent (fairly boring-looking, it must be said,) documentary series on Netflix.

So it's OK for you to work with streaming services, Mr Scorsese? It's not demeaning when you do it?

(Although, I will grant that Scorsese admits that he benefits from streaming service.)

That said, there are some decent points in Scorsese's essay.

When Scorsese actually gets into talking, in depth, about Federico Fellini, his passion for film and Fellini's work in particular starts to shine through.

Listen, Federico Fellini is hardly a household name, and I have him filed in my brain under 'weird pretentious films,' but I haven't actually seen any of his films so they might be awesome-sauce for all I know.

And I like how much Scorsese turns into a fanboy when he talks about Fellini's films. It shows he isn't completely lost to actually enjoying and/or engaging with films.

It doesn't matter whether or not I like Fellini's films - there are people who do, and that's awesome.

I also 100% agree that the creation of art and other creative projects is all too often hindered by commercial prospects, and that the film industry cares way more about money than it does about its actual product.

But... so?

It has always been like this. From Shakespeare to Dickens to Da Vinci, art had to sell. These were the 'popular media' of their ages.

The film industry has always been primarily about the money - that's why they usually don't give cinema tickets out for free.

Smaller players in the raging corporate behemoth may simply be interested in getting enough cash to pay the bills, and cover their costs.

But, the higher you get up the proverbial corporate ladder, the more commercialised you get.

It worries me that a seasoned director wouldn't know that.

With regards to the trap of algorithm-dictated viewing that Netflix and other streaming services fall into, I sort of  agree with Scorsese.

As I wrote, at length, in a post back in 2019 which you can read here, most of us are not aware of just how much of our media we are carefully nudged and prompted to consume by the vast machinery of media platforms.

But - my major concern then, as it is now, was and is not that pretentious artsy films won't be watched as much.

My concerns were, and are, mostly around diversity and avoiding a narrowing of perspective (and if you wanna watch pretentious artsy films as part of that, feel free,) as well as concerning side-effects of racial bias on the way that algorithms behave.

And as Scorsese's body of work is primarily White dudes struggling angstily... (and I mean that in the best possible way ofc!)

I also kind of feel sorry for Scorsese, though.

Because storytelling and film is mostly about emotional connection, and understanding and transforming the world and reality that we live in.

While it's not true in every case, the reason why most popular films become popular (in addition to the marketing budget, of course, I'm not naive,) are because they provide that emotional connection and/or understanding to large numbers of people.

That he can't see the beauty and value in that is... kind of sad, really.

Because despite its flaws, if you can't see the layers of depth to the Disney Channel's ZOMBIES films then you are missing out on so, so much.

What do you think?

Is cinema being devalued by blockbusters and streaming services?

Talk to me! 😎💬

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  1. Yeah, Martin Scorsese needs to keep his opinions to himself. I was actually having a similar conversation about this to my cousin last night. We were talking about how much we love the To All the Boy's I've Loved Before movies on Netflix. She had said that because we both have anxiety, those types of movies are perfect for us. And I couldn't agree more! Movies are supposed to make you feel positive emotions. When movies make you forget about your troubles, make you feel comforted, that is the most valuable thing. Not whether or not the movie is artsy.

    Also, totally agree with you on the diversity thing. For me, I mostly see this around Quentin Tarantino movies. Some of his movies are absolutely ridiculous, and completely problematic. And yet, he gets high praise because he's "artsy."

    1. I still need to watch #2-3 of the TATBILB films! While they're not something I'm uber-into, I do enjoy them, and I love that people feel comfort in them :)

      I think movies don't *always* have to be feel-good (not least because feel-good movies often make me feel the opposite!) but there's a place for films which explore all sorts of emotions - and simple positivity and happiness is most definitely a part of that! :)

      I openly admit that I've never seen a Tarantino movie - I've just never felt like it *shrugs* I think it comes back to the 'male pi**ing contest' vibe. Not that I'm saying it's not possible to find value and beauty in those films too! Even problematic media can be valuable and beautiful, but we need to be aware of the criticisms etc. too <3

  2. I've seen one of his films (not even the whole thing) and you know why? They're not for me. I dont find watching the old white men's club interesting and that's fine! I'm not going on a rant about the lack of diversity or how I don't find them fun (and my opinion obviously won't be regarded as high as his but you get what I mean.)

    In the end, I never really cared what he said. I know all the blockbusters aren't perfect and there's a formula some use (Marvel movies even a fan can admit) but if I like them and have fun and like you said, can get a connection or emotional over them, that's all that matters. But also the diversity as well.

    But big kudos to you for reading it :)

    1. Ha, fair enough!

      And *sometimes* Marvel movies can be a little formulaic - but I think that the really stand out ones (The Winter Soldier, Ragnarok, Homecoming, Black Panther, etc.) are truly incredible, sometimes even groundbreaking (although allowing Steve & Bucky their HEA or even HFN would have been even more groundbreaking #JustSaying)

      The thing is, artsy films aren't perfect either - sometimes in even more blatant and predictable ways than blockbusters - but everyone gets an Emperor's New Clothes vibe (and not of the Panic! at the Disco variety) and won't actually say it.

      Ha, I read it so you don't have to ;)


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