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What IS “cinema”, Marty?

This is the question on a lot of minds since Martin Scorsese said the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films are not cinema. If we go by the dictionary definition, it’s clear that the MCU films are cinema. So that’s obviously not what Mr. Scorsese is talking about. He is really saying “There is cinema and there is cinema. And MCU films are not cinema”.

In this case, it doesn’t matter what the definition of cinema is. Marty has implied that there exists a definition of a higher class of films; a class that he can give any name he likes. “Cinemartin” even. Notable scholars are even agreeing with the notion of the MCU not exactly being ‘high art’.

The point is that no matter what the definition is, Marty has labeled a particular subgenre as not being ‘worthy’. He didn’t go all out to say this, but it can be reasonably implied that he has ascribed quantitative inferiority where a simple qualitative difference would have sufficed.

He eventually dug in to imply that movies like the MCU movies are suffocating other films. Again, notable scholars seem to be agreeing with him. If you’ve read my previous articles, you will understand why I feel this is misleading. Yes, I also referred to Disney’s approach as a theme park mindset, but I made the mistake of implying that their first business is the sale of toys and rides. Without a good story to hook the buyers, they’re not going to get the emotional investment in the characters to make the merch worth buying. This means Disney is still actually in the business of telling good stories.

Waaaaay before the MCU, there were films that cashed in on merchandising power. These films were not the norm, and in spite of the immense profitability of these films (depending on whom you ask), there was room for other types of film that didn’t depend heavily on spectacle. There was room for these films because back then, the cinemas were, more or less, the only way to watch high-quality entertainment within the early exclusive period.

Unfortunately, there is an ongoing drastic paradigm shift away from the theaters in their role as a first-viewing platform. Now, people can get more intimate audio and video with a comparable relative screen size (with a virtual reality headset, I can experience higher ‘screen resolutions’ than at a cinema). Viewers (many times happily) trade-in the highly-valued communal experience for the intimacy, comfort, and control of a home setting. There are too many options competing with non-spectacle films such that there is no urgency to see them in the cinemas.

With this shift, only merchandise-mindset films can thrive by default. These types of movies are keeping the cinemas afloat so it’s unfair to blame them for the gradual dearth of films that the cinema complex is struggling to keep showing.

Now to answer the question “What is Cinema?” (even though I suspect some people are not really interested in a definitive definition as much as the idea that there are definitions that absolve Scorsese):

Cinema is, very simply put, moving pictures on a screen wowing an audience.

Not all cinema succeeds in wowing the audience so I can actually remove the “wow” factor as a strong defining criterion.

Thus, we’re left with these three basic components:

  • Moving Pictures (you don’t even need a narrative)
  • Screen (or box, or interface, etc)
  • Audience (could be an audience of one)

Once you have these three, you have cinema in a broad sense. The most basic sense. You can then start introducing all sorts of contexts:

You can talk about “good cinema”. Then you may need to bring back that wow factor as a criterion. And the “wow” could range from excitement to awe, to deep introspection. “Wow” in this context could simply mean getting the audience to feel like you didn’t waste their time…that you made them feel something. You moved them. It’s literally in the word “movie”.

If we’re judging a movie strictly based on the ability of an actor to convey emotion and drama that moves a viewer, then the MCU has it in spades (please don’t be distracted by the explosions and spandex). This franchise has spent 11 years (and counting) getting people to really care about their characters such that they pay more to see them doing the same things that superheroes from other studios are doing.

If we’re judging based on some ability to touch on deeper more intellectual issues, the MCU has been touching on these (sacrifice, trust, long-term friendship, family, identity in diaspora, and redemption are a few topics they’ve attempted). A movie like Zootopia managed to entertain kids while getting adults to think further about bigotry and xenophobia. These Disney vehicles are beginning to kill two birds with one stone and I’m here for all of it!

“No other franchise has enjoyed this level of consistency, continuity, and interconnectedness…ever!”

Hearing that Mr. Scorsese hasn’t even really seen these films just gives me the impression that he just jumped to the conclusion that these movies are earning big bucks by cheaply selling a theme park experience.

Yes, they’re selling a theme park experience but nothing about it is cheap in the sense you’re implying sir. A lot of thought has obviously gone into these films more so than any other franchise ever. No other franchise has enjoyed this level of consistency, continuity, and interconnectedness …ever! That took some serious genius to pull off.

Even if they were cheap, they are still:

  • Moving Pictures.
  • Screened.
  • For an audience.
  • With an awesome wow factor to boot.

They’re more reminiscent of cinema in its purest form (in its initial context) than any character-driven drama can be.

The fact that they are more audience-driven than artist-driven should not invalidate them. If you go back to my bare-bones definition of cinema, you’ll notice that the artist is optional to the definition of cinema. A lucky random juxtaposition of pictures could still engage an audience (the earliest of film history corroborates this). The audience is more important to this basic definition of cinema. Yes, there is an artistic component to cinema and in fairness to Scorsese, without the art, there would be no cinema as we know it today. However, we cannot ignore the technical

and commercial side of cinema. Without the technological advancements, and without paying patrons, the industry cannot survive. The version of cinema that has thrived over the years is still the one where people come in droves and pay to be entertained. This the true essence of cinema that has endured. The theme park essence is the true essence. It’s the only essence that will be left once this paradigm shift completely strips the cineplex of its role as first-viewing platform. People now have a choice. They don’t need to see ‘high-art’ at the ‘theme parks’ because they can watch it in the comfort of their homes. The idea that such films alone define ‘true cinema’ is faulty. The idea that it is a tragedy for such films to be mainly enjoyed in avenues outside cinemas is outdated. Either that or the economic realities facing the industry are not being properly taken into account. I love Martin Scorsese’s movies and I highly respect his brilliance. This does not mean I can never disagree with him. PS: Just as I was about to hit “send” on this article, I heard that another of the greats, this time, Francis Ford Copolla, managed to one-up Scorsese. He went as far as implying that the MCU films are “despicable”. He said he expects to “…to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration…” from cinema. Ugh! I dare anyone to tell me (without using highfalutin jargon) some enlightenment, knowledge, and inspiration they gained from “The Godfather” (awesome awesome film that it is) that they can’t get from the MCU’s 22-movie-long epic saga. If you think all these films are the same, then you’re not really paying attention…or just be honest and say that you haven’t really watched them. I’m no longer accommodating this as “live and let live”. This is beginning to sound like an older generation having serious beef for new successful contenders in the industry. Since I can’t be arsed to write another article. I’ll leave you with this link to a post from James Gunn that summarizes a respectful agree-to-disagree sentiment way better than I’m currently disposed to do. To say I’m disappointed in my heroes is putting it mildly. Who’s next, James Cameron?


OlaWale Ajao View All

Artist who loves spreadsheets.

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