The Case for Watching Great Movies – Opting Out


For what it’s worth, here’s my take on Martin Scorsese’s recent comments on comic books as not cinema: even if they’re in the same category of art, technically speaking, they’re not in the same ballpark aesthetically.

“Let me tell you a parable.”

Says legendary film critic Roger Ebert, in a television interview, lamenting the too little influence critical opinion has over the behavior of film-goers.

“It’s wrong to believe that people want to go to good movies. They’re very suspicious of good movies. They’re very willing to go to mid-stream movies.

And I got a call once at the Sun-Times, more than 20 years ago, from a reader who said “We’re going to the movies tonight, at the Wilmette Theater near our home. They’re playing Cries and Whispers by Ingmar Bergman. What can you tell us about that movie?”

And I said, “Well I think it’s the best movie of the year.” and the reader said, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like anything we’d like to see.” …

… You say, “Breaking the Waves is the strongest emotional experience I’ve had at the movies in six months, with a brilliant performance by Emily Watson.” and they’ll say, “Oh good, um… what do you think about Jerry Maguire?” In other words, they want a little less.

“I don’t feel like going to the French restaurant tonight, I just feel like Burger King.””

If you’re one of those that thought Scorsese was being a snob, you’ll probably respond that this is exemplary of the age-old elitism of film critics. “People like what they like”, “It’s all subjective anyway.” “Just let people enjoy things.”

Except this is not the issue of whether people enjoy these movies or not. It’s not that great movies are less enjoyable, per se, than mere “mindless” entertainment or less demanding drama. The great movies of all time are usually entertaining in the sense that they’re engaging. In fact, they’re engrossing. It is true that they’re not always going to make you feel good. Great movies have a tendency to make you uncomfortable. They put you in a state of unease emotionally and philosophically.

Let me just remind you that it’s “great” movies we’re talking about. We’re not concerned with mere good experiences here. Let’s look at that word “great” – in other words, these movies are a step above the rest, and with great importance. Now if you think back to the handful of most important experiences you’ve had in your life, objectively, they probably weren’t just a series of incidents that gave you an endorphin rush. Some experiences that you could never do without in a life are painful lessons born of struggle and toil.

Great movies, in contradistinction to merely good ones, test you on a fundamental level. The reason why I keep coming back to 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example of truly great filmmaking is that it’s life-changing. It disrupts your way of looking at the world. Whilst it’s happening, you’re not being pandered to, you’re being questioned. It’s compelling you to ponder your place in the universe.

Obviously, cinema and cinema criticism has changed a lot since that mid-90s interview. We’ve seen the rise of the internet and with it the democratization of opinion. It’s allowed nerd culture to rise from underground oddity to mainstream respectability, now to a point where the demands of nerds drive the industry. So when an established filmmaker shits on things that are dear to nerds, there’s going to be a huge backlash.

Remember that these comic movies exist for fan service. It’s a very straightforward transaction: you give me what I want and I’ll pay you. Great movies are also transactional, but they’re giving us something quite different. They’re giving us the chance to be fundamentally moved.

Let’s not disparage comic book movies, for they’re good at what they do. It’s just that what they do is not terribly significant in the grand story of human experience, nor do they challenge audiences. They give them what they want. A great movie might not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.