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We heard a lot of hubbub a while back when one of the most revered directors of all time, Martin Scorsese, compared the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to amusement park rides rather than true cinema. Now, he talks about what DOES qualify as cinema — and that is Ari Aster's Midsommar.
In a new introduction written for the film's special collector's edition of the Blu-ray release of the director's cut, and revealed by Entertainment Weekly, Scorsese explains that he was initially impressed by Aster's debut film Hereditary, convinced that the young director "obviously knew cinema. The formal control, the precision of the framing and the movement within the frame, the pacing of the action, the sound — it was all there, immediately evident."
He also says that very early on in Midsommar, he could tell that Aster wasn't going to suffer through any kind of sophomore slump, praising its striking and unsettling visuals. "I can tell you that the formal control is just as impressive as that of Hereditary, maybe more so, and that it digs into emotions that are just as real and deeply uncomfortable as the ones shared between the characters in the earlier picture. I can also tell you that there are true visions in this picture, particularly in the final stretch, that you are not likely to forget. I certainly haven’t."
Scorsese also notes some of the qualifications necessary for his approval when watching new films. "What am I looking for? I’m looking for people with a need to express something. 'I need you to experience this…' Not an idea or a theme as much as a whole experience, or a recollection, or a profound emotional impression from which the ideas and the themes emerge organically, so to speak. It’s difficult to put into words for a reason: because it can be expressed in moving images and sounds — in other words, cinema."
That seems to jibe with his reasoning for tuning out of the MCU. "That’s not cinema," Scorsese told Empire last year. "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.”
Whether that's actually true of the MCU or not is certainly debatable. There are ups and downs (that quiet, profound sense of loss and devastating failure at the end of Infinity War versus the incoherent cartoon monster fight at the end of The Incredible Hulk), and one could argue that spreading Tony Stark's erratic character development over 23 films dilutes its emotional impact in any particular one of those films. Yet one could also counter that 23 films gives the audience an abundance of opportunity to get truly emotionally invested in what happens to these characters.
A month or so after those initial comments, Scorsese wrote an op-ed for the New York Times to further elaborate that he meant no insult, and that his opinions are a result of his own "personal taste and temperament. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri."
Scorsese's take seems to boil down to the argument that the over-reliance on franchise films crafted by well-oiled teams diminishes the avenues for the individual artist by minimizing the risk of trusting one person's vision over the focus group's approval, and thus eventually minimizing the avenues that those directors have to showcase their work on the big screen.
"Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures," he admits. "What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes. They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption."
Then he name-dropped Aster in his list of A-list artists in his personal pantheon. "Another way of putting it would be that they are everything that the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Claire Denis or Spike Lee or Ari Aster or Kathryn Bigelow or Wes Anderson are not. When I watch a movie by any of those filmmakers, I know I’m going to see something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience. My sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded."
Scorsese apparently isn't trying to Marvel-shame anyone. He'd just rather we all expand our boundaries to include stuff off the beaten path, and stuff that might challenge you to think about life beyond the hero fantasy... and stuff that just weirds you right the hell out.
Case in point: Midsommar. Incidentally, the director's cut runs 171 minutes, which is only 10 minutes shorter than Avengers: Endgame. You've got time for it.