I’m often asked by younger filmmakers, ‘Why do I need to look at old movies?’ I’ve made a number of pictures in the past 20 years and the response I find that I have to give them is I still consider myself a student. The more pictures I’ve made in the past 20 years, the more I realize I don’t know. And I’m always looking for something or someone I can learn from. I tell the younger filmmakers, the young students that they should do it like painters used to do it—painters do it—study the old masters. Enrich your palette. Expand the canvas. There’s always so much more to learn.
The thing I admire most about Martin Scorsese is the same thing I tend to admire in most of my faves; like Quentin Tarantino, Bob Dylan, and others, he obsessively soaks up examples of his preferred medium. But out of all them, I believe he is best at articulating the sensibility I want to cultivate in myself as both a fan and creator. Whenever Scorsese talks about movies and how to be a good filmmaker, he talks about himself as a student of film, and I am struck by how he continues to do this right into his eighties. In promoting The Killers Of The Flower Moon (as of writing, not yet released), he talks as if he is finally, after all this time, figuring out how to actually make movies. I saw some people respond to this as if he’s whining about movies being hard to make, and found myself feeling moral outrage; his actual point is that filmmaking is beyond anyone’s control – that filmmaking is a magic you can only hope to tap into. That is to say, he is trying to convey that he is in awe of the process.
I too think that movies are a thing to be in awe of. Lately, I find myself having contempt for shallow snark. I don’t mean all snark – I specifically mean reflexive rejection of something one has at best a superficial understanding of, and it find it raising my hackles even when I don’t care about the thing being mocked in a shallow fashion. I don’t mind people not being interested in things (no way of wording it is gonna compel me to dive deep into Bluey, South Park, American football, or slam poetry), but pretending lack of interest in a particular topic makes one morally superior is fucking stupid. Incuriosity can be benign, but it’s never a fucking virtue.
Basically, you make another movie, and another, and hopefully you feel good about every picture you make. And you say, “My name is on that. I did that. It’s okay.” But don’t get me wrong, I still get excited by it all. That, I hope, will never disappear.
Awe is the opposite. Awe is about surprise, which by definition means a recognition of lack of control. I would be very surprised if Scorsese actually sees himself as a teacher, even when he’s in the literal position as such – rather, he must see himself as a student at a different point in the journey. He doesn’t watch a movie under the assumption that it’ll fit some pre-determined theory of how a movie is supposed to work – he loses himself to the movie and, if he enjoys it, works to understand why he enjoys it so that he can apply it later. For a concrete example, my belief in drama is not rooted in it being the objectively superior structure for a work, my belief in drama comes from the fact that most of the time, my enjoyment of a work can be traced back to it having dramatic structure (and even then I’ve enjoyed mystery stories and stories running on pure vibes). I think it’s easy to fall back on some belief that you do, can, and should have a 100% clear understanding of the world (and thus, complete control over it). I also think this is one cause of unnecessary unhappiness.
The thing about this, though, is that one can make the mistake of getting caught up in the spiritual journey of other people. Something I notice about other Marty fans who also disdain the MCU is how hard a lot of them are riding the ‘MCU is not cinema’ comments that Scorsese made in 2019; doubling down on elaborate and less-than-elaborate insults against ‘capeshit’ and the people who enjoy them. At best, this is simply continuing a conversation I don’t want to have. At worst, this is – and please forgive me for this morally necessary insult – dragging me down to the MCU’s level. It’s a trite cliche at this point, but I have come to believe that ‘whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster’ is, alongside dramatic structure and the Dunning-Kruger effect, one of the fundamental axioms that can be trusted in all situations, and that if one spends the majority of one’s time battling trite bullshit, one becomes a trite bullshitter.
Part of the reason I believe this is because of Scorsese’s example. The big thing that really struck me and inspired me to write this was thinking about someone I saw who celebrated Scorsese and his spirituality and the way he happily lived his life through the lens of how much smarter he was than those stupid MCU fans, gnashing their teeth and wailing years after he had probably forgotten the whole thing. I couldn’t help but think: aren’t you failing to live up to his example? Like, they had convinced me so fully that he was doing the right thing that I could recognise how they were not. And obviously I’m failing to as well – this is as much an admission of personal weakness (that what I’m describing is something extraordinary enough to be worth noting in the first place) as it is an expression of admiration. It’s very easy and very fun to shoot fish in a barrel; to find the dumbest and whiniest MCU fans and provoke them into revealing how stupid they are. But what about it inspires awe?
It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: “Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?” The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories?The issue here is not “film theory,” but cultural diversity and openness. Diversity guarantees our cultural survival. When the world is fragmenting into groups of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, film is a powerful tool to knowledge and understanding. To our shame, your article was cited at length by the European press.The attitude that I’ve been describing celebrates ignorance. It also unfortunately confirms the worst fears of European filmmakers.Is this closed-mindedness something we want to pass along to future generations?