What was Cinema?

The outrage on Twitter after Martin Scorsese declared that Marvel movies are not “cinema” has been predictably cringe but interesting nonetheless. It begs the question: “What is cinema?” Or maybe, “What was it?” Does anyone make “cinema” anymore?

On closer inspection, Scorsese’s comments seem quite innocuous:

I don’t see [Marvel movies]. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

But there are still many people who loudly disagree. Indeed, his definition of Cinema is so vague that it is easily ridiculed but I’d like to unpack it all the same.

In the innumerable replies to articles about Scorsese’s statement that I saw online, discussions turned to the more generic issue of “What is art?” Anything anyone makes is art, said the many to the few — that’s the only valid democratic response. Examples were given along the lines of: “Whether someone paints pictures or makes big buildings or kooky spoon sculptures, it’s all art.” But I don’t think that’s true.

This great melting pot of cultural oneness does nothing but turn all art the colour of pathetic liberal beige and, many years ago, it was once my one-man shitpost mission to point this out at every opportunity. Even today, I’d love to see any posing of the question “What is art?” that isn’t wholly flaccid and inconsequential, whether it is uttered by keyboard critics or big art institutions on an embarrassingly banal public engagement kick. Submissions in my inbox!

Below are two instances I came across way back in 2013. One is from a fight I got into with the social media intern at London’s ICA when they did the whole “Ooo, but is it art though?” thing as a lazy and patronising way to stoke audience engagement, encouraging a criticality wholly without teeth. (I wiped my old Twitter account ages ago so my original tweets are lost to the ether but you get the idea.)

This irritation came from the fact that the ICA were not alone in this practice that was already tired and not in any way “new”.

I remember I was also living in Hull at that time, probably picking that fight with their poor social media intern on the same day I discovered that Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery had installed this inane monstrosity in their main gallery, reducing sociocultural engagement to the level of picking a local charity to donate to when you finishing your big boujie Waitrose shop.

Detached, banal and pointless.

My issue is that saying everything is art is as useful as saying nothing is art, and arguing the point doesn’t produce anything of critical value for anyone. Instead, if we want to take Scorsese seriously, or Marvel seriously for that matter, what constitutes art does not come down to a question of aesthetics or form or some vague notion of validity but down to a question of purpose.

This too is vague and so I want to make clear that this is not an attempt to tread that other tired floor that has already stalked literature for many decades. Scorsese’s comments are about 40 years too late to provoke a conversation about “high and low” cinema. The real question today is: When does “art” become nothing more than a “product”?

This is a question that has already been asked of Joker but it betrays a cynicism that sticks in its critics’ own collective maw.

If this is true of Joker or the MCU, isn’t it true of all films today?

This is a difficult question to ask because capital is so deeply entwined with all forms of production but this is already a question entangled up with how Scorsese’s comments have so far been discussed in the media. As the Metro put: “Martin Scorsese claims Marvel films are ‘not cinema’ — despite Avengers: Endgame becoming highest grossing film in history.” But what do either of those two statements have to do with each other? Everything or nothing at all?

I was reminded of Marcuse’s comments on these issues in his book One Dimensional Man. For him — speaking of literature instead of cinema but in a way that is nonetheless still relevant for us here — literature is defined for him by an “estrangement-effect” — an internal principle of alienation that refutes and “refuses” to comply with normative and populist aesthetics so as to conjure up another world. He writes:

The “estrangement-effect” is not superimposed on literature. It is rather literature’s own answer to the threat of total behaviorism — the attempt to rescue the rationality of the negative. In this attempt, the great “conservative” of literature joins forces with the radical activist. […] They speak of that which, though absent, haunts the established universe of discourse and behavior as its most tabooed possibility — neither heaven nor hell, neither good nor evil but simply “le bonheur.” Thus the poetic language speaks of that which is of this world, which is visible, tangible, audible in man and nature — and of that which is not seen, not touched, not heard.

It is in this sense that “the truly avant-garde works of literature communicate the break with communication.” He continues: “With Rimbaud, and then with dadaism and surrealism, literature rejects the very structure of discourse which, throughout the history of culture, has linked artistic and ordinary language.”

It’s an interesting way of framing the matter because, turning to Scorsese’s comment that Avengers: Endgame doesn’t really communicate on a human level, this concluding chapter of the latest saga from the MCU becomes avant-garde cinema par excellence.

It is also interesting for this to come full circle in this way. After all, for all of Marcuse’s insightfulness, he too was terrified of pop as that genre tailor-made for capitalism’s inherent expansionism. Marcuse warns explicitly of capitalism’s tentacular spread and its “efforts to recapture the Great Refusal”, leading to avant-garde artists suffering “the fate of being absorbed by what they refute. “

Mark Fisher writes about Marcuse’s Great Refusal in his introduction to Acid Communism, noting instead how Marcuse’s mourning over “the popularisation of the avant-garde” was not borne of “anxieties that the democratisation of culture would corrupt the purity of art, but because the absorption of art into the administered spaces of capitalist commerce would gloss over its incompatibility with capitalist culture.” And Mark mourned this often and explicitly, albeit extending Marcuse’s critiques, repeatedly calling for the return of a “popular modernism”, defined for him by an experimentation that crosses boundaries of high and low, where punks who can’t play their instruments enter into the same space as jazz masters who want to push beyond the modes of expression they know so well. Mark mourned the loss of this kind of cultural horseshoe theory, where there was a gap between these two points of high and low where things could still escape into the radically new. The question of whether something is or isn’t art, is or isn’t music, is or isn’t cinema, seeks nothing more than to close this gap and trap us all within an ultimate discourse. To ask that question is to try to reel things back in rather than allow them to flow outwards.

This is what Scorsese fails to grasp but also, in his own self-defensive pretension, he embarrassingly ignores his own complicity in this same cycle. (And who isn’t complicit?) Not only does the latest Joker movie heavily ape Scorsese’s own film, Taxi Driver, but Scorsese’s last film to garner widespread attention was The Wolf of Wall Street — his award-winning account of capitalist decadence and financial crime that paints as punk the very value system he is now decrying. At the time, it seemed like Scorsese’s intention was to capture the alienating immoral and decadent spirit of the heyday of early market capitalist excess, making something new out of the finished spectacle, but he failed because he was already so wrapped up in the mechanisms he was trying to refute. His latest comments do nothing to assuage this. It only demonstrates how out of touch he is — not with “cinema” or “Hollywood” per se but with his own place within its past and present.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a fitting last hurrah for Scorsese in this regard. We might ask ourselves if the film alienates in that way that great cinema, following Marcuse, perhaps should? Scorsese and the film’s star Leonardo DiCaprio may have argued that it was “punk rock” but no one seemed capable of swallowing that suggestion without gagging. My memory is that Scorsese even faced off accusations of romanticising the excess he depicted.

Michael Laurence has written an interesting essay on The Wolf of Wall Street and the uneasy complicity of any anti-capitalist ethics. One passage in particular, which begins with a Mark Fisher quotation, sticks out here:

“So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.” Yet we do not even need to go that far for ideology to work. We do not need to disavow capitalism as a totality. All we really need to do is believe that the excesses of capitalism are bad, that the few predators at the top of the food chain are evil, that the cold corporate monsters ought to be put behind bars, that the big banks are the real problem, and that greed is not good, so that we can continue to participate in a much more humane, morally acceptable, and less greedy capitalism. Of course, no such thing exists. Even more, the belief that it does exist effectively works to preclude from consciousness the existing structural violence of capitalism: that ever-present and largely invisible violence which proceeds by structuring fields of possible being and experience while discharging modes of being and thinking that cannot be absorbed into its circuitry.

Scorsese seems to encapsulate this entirely. He knows capitalism is bad and he even made a film about how bad it once got but it is a pious punch that fails to land when we consider it cost $100million to make and became Scorsese’s highest grossing film ever, raking in almost $400million worldwide at the box office. This isn’t just a cheap shot to call Scorsese a sell-out, however. What is more important is our consideration that he was once associated with the Hollywood Brat Pack — Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — who arguably gave us the cinematic world of pop blockbusters he is now decrying. Scorsese isn’t a sell-out. He’s a Dr. Frankenstein denying his own bastard paternity.

To return to the question I initially wanted to ask, “What was cinema?”, considering all of the above, I should take the opportunity to nod to that book which is making me consider everything in the past tense at the moment: Leslie Fiedler’s What Was Literature?

Fiedler’s book is great because it is not a cynical dismissal of a time gone by but rather a consideration of how we ended up in this mess of static capitalist hauntography and how he, as a self-described “crypto-pop critic”, has inadvertently helped bring it all about by trying to erase elitism from the field of criticism that he inadvertently fell into, by way of his own subversive acts of criticisms later becoming pop cultural reference points in their own right.

He too was subsumed within the system he had initially set out to refuse.

As he wrestles with how this all happened, he finds the obvious common denominator: money.

He writes:

money, (the one fiction of universal currency) is the only, and indeed always remains the most reliable token that one has in fact touched, moved, shared one’s most private fantasies with the faceless, nameless “you” to whom the writer’s all-too-familiar “I” longs to be joined in mutual pleasure. “I stop somewhere waiting for you” is a sentence not just from Walt Whitman’s but from every writer’s love letter to the world. It is only when the first royalty check arrives in the mail (an answer as palpable as a poem) that the writer begins to suspect that the “you” he has invented in his lonely chamber, in order to begin writing at all, is real, and that therefore his “I” (not the “I” to which like everyone else he is born, but that fictive “I” which he, in order to be a writer, must create simultaneously with the “you”) is somehow real too.

But this means, as all writers know, though most of us (including me) find it hard to confess, that literature, the literary work, remains incomplete until it has passed from the desk to the marketplace; which is to say, until it has been packaged, huckstered, hyped and sold. Moreover, writers themselves (as they are also aware) are reluctant virgins, crying to the world, “Love me! Love me!” until, as the revealing phrase of the trade has it, they have “sold their first piece.”

It is money that exists as the great fuel for the engine of cultural paradox and the sort of elitist cultural cannibalism that Scorsese demonstrates here anew but unchanged.

This cultural warfare may seem at first glance a struggle of the poor against the rich, the failed against the successful. But the situation is more complex than this, since, in terms of culture rather than economics, art novelists and their audience, “fit thought few,” constitute a privileged, educationally advantaged minority, while popular novelists and their mass readership remain a despised lumpen majority, whose cultural insecurity is further shaken when their kids learn in school to question their taste.

Through turns of autobiography and critical self-reflection, considerations of banned books and banned comics, Fiedler very gradually builds towards the necessity of his title’s past tense, which denotes a settling of cultural conflicts by way of the academy. Literature turned from a present concern to a past one as soon as the latest slue of new works have been adopted by curriculums. Literature, then, like an ouroboros, is defined by that which is taught as such — which is to say, literature is determined by literary studies. What is taught is what is literature is what is taught. Nothing is new until it is past.

Within that closed definitional circle, we perform the rituals by which we cast out unworthy pretenders to our ranks and induct true initiates, guardians of the “standards” by which all song and story are presumably to be judged.

Fiedler made this claim decades ago but still we are yet to learn from it and Scorcese’s comments demonstrate this all too depressingly, but so do the actions of those pop lovers now attempting to begin academic careers, raising discussions of the popular to the s. What is cinema is what is taught on film studies courses is what is cinema. Very soon the same will true of “graphic novels” and video games. It’s already starting to happen. And these courses for the new pulp media already seem as lifeless as their earlier High Art counterparts. Cultural critique ignores its own potential for cultural production and renders itself hardened but impotent. (It would be interesting to consider to what extent this is likewise true of an academic study of “politics” today.)

As such, it is not only Scorsese who is at fault here, deeming the MCU to be insufficient when placed before a canonical capital-c Cinema. The defenders of the MCU are just as clueless, showing how the MCU is inspired by or dealing with the same issues as the tragedies and dramas of antiquity. They place their works within the same standards, inflating what they have to hand to fill in the gaps. Rather than levelling the playing field, they try to raise themselves to the same standard, only diluting what they once had. Nobody wins. Pop cultural studies appear hollow whilst high art studies appear bitter. Communication falters. Nothing new emerges.

Fiedler had already witnessed this happening way back when, skewering Scorsese and the standards of contemporary cultural studies departments from beyond the grave, noting how

in recent years [there have been] attempts by academic critics of cinema (they do not like to say “movies”) to kidnap that vulgar form for classroom analysis, even to “teach” how to read it properly. But such cinéastes merely repeat — in a kind of unwitting parody — the old errors of literary criticism: on the one hand, losing sight, in the midst of jargonizing about “montage”, “tracking shots” and “auteur theory,” of the fact that movies tell stories and embody myths, and on the other, making untenable distinctions between “box-office trash” and “art films,” which turn out to be more often than not “experimental” and “non-narrative.”

To stop myself typing out the entirely of Fiedler’s book, I will stop here and simply defer to his partial part-one conclusion.

His is not an attempt to forestall judgement or kill criticism, which he writes is a drive as old and powerful and human as the stories and songs that brought it into existence, but rather to build a new criticism that eschews the hierarchical judgements of capitalist competition. It is to do away with the pre-judgements of prejudice, category and elitism.

Once we have made ekstasis rather than instruction and delight our chief evaluative criterion, we will be well on our way to abandoning all formalist, elitist, methodological criticism, and will have started to invent an eclectic, amateur, neo-Romantic, populist one that will be enable us to read what was once popular literature not as popular but as literature, even as it enables us to read what was once High Literature not as high but as literature. By the same token, we will find ourselves speaking less of theme and purport, structure and texture, signified and signifier, metaphor and metonymy, and more of myth, fable, archetype, fantasy, magic and wonder. Even more important, we will be speaking for ourselves, as ourselves, rather than ex cathedra in the name of some “tradition.”

The key to this — under-acknowledged in his own conclusions — is the acknowledgement that all that is solid melts into air. Accepting this allows us to critique culture without ignoring its biggest driver: capital. It allows us to view these pointless battles between high and low as nothing more than echoes of capitalism’s internal dynamics of class struggle. To sidestep this, wholly aware of its impotence, is to imagine a criticism that can assist in the building towards something new.

Criticism can build worlds as well as the fictions it considers, if used correctly.

This has already been happening. This was the strength of the early cultural blogosphere and remains its strength today, alebit in a few instances. It would be a shame to lose sight of that. We had a good thing going. And there are still potentials yet unreached.

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