Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 25, 2019

Martin Scorsese’s lament

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm


From their infancy, Hollywood films have always been both art and commodities. Unlike symphonies, novels or paintings, the film (and subsequently TV) required vast capital outlays. The men who made Hollywood were often Jews who probably would have been just as happy making money as real estate developers or investment bankers. Jack Warner was a typical figure, who after being bailed out by New Deal funding, made “socially aware” films like “Casablanca”. After WWII, he became a major backer of the McCarthyite attack on the film industry and even named names before Congress.

For most Americans, until television became a popular and affordable commodity in the late 50s, the movies were the primary form of entertainment alongside radio. In 1950, movies were the third-largest retail business after grocery stores and cars. Every week, 90 million Americans—60 percent of the country—went to the cinema, a popular culture phenomenon bigger than the Super Bowl.

When I was 14 years old in 1959, these were among the directors who made films that year: Frank Capra, Michael Curtiz, John Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kramer, Otto Preminger, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, John Cassavetes, Billy Wilder, Joseph Mankiewicz, King Vidor, John Ford, Sidney Lumet, and Edward Dmytryk. What should be obvious about all of them, especially Hitchcock, was their ability to resolve the contradiction between art and commodification. They made entertaining films that also honored the fundamentals of the art: character development, plot, dialogue, and visual/musical magic-making. Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” was made that year and regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

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  1. Good evening, Louis.
    I’ve just finished reading your Friday, October 25 piece posted to CounterPunch. Like you, I was 14 years old in 1959, read comics and took serious films seriously. I spend my working career as a daily newspaper journalist, the better part of it as a film critic. A retiree, I’ve kept active building a (non-commercial) archive of my entertainment reporting online at https://reelingback.com/. I enjoyed “Scorsese’s Lament” a great deal, and will commend it to my daughter, who enjoys Marvel Movies far too much. I hope you will find something to enjoy on my website, a look back at the cinema world I covered from 1964 to 1995.

    Comment by Michael Walsh — October 26, 2019 @ 3:28 am

  2. Superhero movies are the worst! I agree with everything Scorsese, Coppola, Loach and you have said about them here, Lou. Have you seen Joker yet? I’d love to here your take on it. For my money, it’s probably the best movie I’ve seen in ten years. It’s definitely not going to sell any video games!

    Comment by Matt — October 26, 2019 @ 12:20 pm

  3. I like superhero movies. I just don’t like the direction they’re heading. They killed off many good characters in Endgame, to make room for what? Glitterman? Dinowoman?

    Comment by Janet Avery — October 26, 2019 @ 1:20 pm

  4. Every commodity has a use value and an exchange value. This is true of movies from the past as well as movies from today.

    Comment by Robert Green — October 26, 2019 @ 4:56 pm

  5. Ahem … Sorry to be the plebeian here, but … Errr …

    Martin Scorsese is reportedly worth a $100 million dollars in wealth, accrued by making *gangster* movies.

    Plebs like me wouldn’t mind some escapist tuning out, especially since our own lives are filled with violence, treachery, backstabbing, unfairness, prejudice and all sorts of shit we’d like to forget about for a few hours by watching mindless superhero movies, or totally stupid comedies (my favorite, Soul Plane), instead of watching realistic portrayal of miseries (some of it, our own miseries) fed back to us by a movie maker making millions of dollars.

    Comment by Reza — October 26, 2019 @ 5:51 pm

  6. At the risk of being expelled from the ranks of cinephiles, I’ve always though Scorsese was a little overrated, and lost interest in him over the years. It could be an East Coast/West Coast thing, but his films didn’t engage me any more. And I agree with Reza, he got rich off gangster films that gratified many of the same escapist desires of the audience, but with the gloss of auteurism. My initial response to Scorsese was, where does he get off acting so superior?

    If you strip away the excessive, out of control CGI, the superhero movies mine many of the same stories and themes present in cop, World War II and western films for decades,with the exceptions of Black Panther and Doctor Strange, which are actually quite good. Black Panther is one of the best US films of this century, noteworthy for its explorations of black radicalism, the black experience of slavery and colonization. Killmonger’s decision to be buried “with those who jumped from the ships” is a great moment, one that is hard to imagine being filmed with such sensitivity by a white director.

    Anyway, in terms of the narratives of superhero films, they are the sort of thing cranked out by Hollywood for decades, updated by Marvel with a cultural hipness. Nothing new about that either. The real problem with these films is ideological, Marvel, with the exception of Black Panther, presents the US military industrial complex, represented by SHIELD, as violent, cynical, but ultimately necessary for our protection. In other words, cultural propaganda for perpetual war. DC’s “The Dark Knight” was straight out WASP supremacy, which Marvel replaced with a MIC that included token African Americans and POC.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 27, 2019 @ 10:04 pm

  7. The first ever ‘superhero’ story I know of in the western literature is the one penned by François Rabelais, “The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gargantua_and_Pantagruel). I had great fun reading it some years back. It’s basically a long rant against everything sacred (in France) around 1532. Mikhail Bakhtin, the great Russian linguist and literary critic, called it one of the founding texts of western novelistic tradition. But, when you read it, the *form* is total escapism. It’s a rebellion against its own contemporary society by using ‘escapist’ form, language and thoughts and put it to print.

    Older than that, I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh that dates back to late second millennium BC (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh). Lots of historical data, but told in very escapist sounding storytelling.

    So, I fundamentally don’t understand this ‘escapist’ label being used to classify certain artistic products as having a lower quality, as something that ‘fools’ or ‘numbs’ the audience, when it comes to fictional artifacts, be they musical, paintings, poems, a novel or a film/movie. All these art forms are an ‘escape’ from reality in the sense that they are a reaction to, a dialogue with, a counterpoint to, a condemnation or approval of the social reality. Each in their own way.

    Hero or superhero stories actually share a fundamentally common experience of daily social life: they portray reactions to perceived injustice (their continued attractiveness is a reflection of this), going way back to, as mentioned above, stories of Gargantua and Pantegruel (1530s) as well as that of Epic of Gilgamesh (second millennium BC).

    All hero stories also follow a common structure, where there are four distinct phases to the story: 1) the awakening and getting the hero to leave (metaphorically or physically) their home to embark on a journey; 2) the hero is mentored in a lot of cases along their path to seek justice; 3) the hero overcomes a gigantic challenge; 4) hero returns home, benefiting the community.

    All those phases of a hero’s journey reflect back onto, and are dialogues with, the daily struggles of everyday people, with the added huge exaggerations of course, for dramatic effects. But that’s why hero and superhero stories are so popular. And have been for thousands of years.

    Comment by Reza — October 28, 2019 @ 3:25 am

  8. “Journey to the West” is another example of the literature described by Reza:


    Comment by Richard Estes — October 28, 2019 @ 4:23 am

  9. Thank you Richard Estes for the introduction to ‘Journey to the West’.

    In our own country, we have the example of Ferdosi, who wrote ‘Shahnameh’ more than one thousand years ago. Shahnameh is “the world’s longest epic poem written by a single poet,” and it’s all about the adventures and conquests of one superhero named Rostam, along with his trusted white stallion, Rakhsh (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shahnameh).

    Comment by Reza — October 28, 2019 @ 8:47 pm

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