Martin Scorsese’s Auteur Theory

By: Nathan Modlin

Martin and Marvel

A couple months ago, excerpts from an interview with director Martin Scorsese took the internet by storm. “Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies are ‘not cinema,’” reported The Guardian, referencing the Oscar-winning director’s dismissal of franchise superhero films, which he labelled as closer to “theme parks” than to cinema. These were strong words from the beloved director, known for a fifty-year career of blockbusters like Raging Bull (1980), The Departed (2006), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and they provoked arguments from both those who agreed and those who disagreed. Then, a month ago, Scorsese wrote a follow-up opinion piece for The New York Times, clarifying what he meant. Titled “I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain,” the piece reflects on the multitude of reactions to his interview. Scorsese’s Op-Ed is intriguing. At the same time an apologia and a clarification of his previous statement, it sheds light on the director’s definition of “cinema,” reintroduces the “auteur theory,” and, importantly, brings to light his confusion about film as a medium in the digital age. In this piece, I’d like to explore what Scorsese means by his dismissal of Marvel movies and why I think he’s missing something. There are three things I’d like to consider: Scorsese’s distinction between Marvel “movies” and what he calls “cinema”; his idea of the director and how this relates to auteur theory; and finally, why I think he’s underestimating modern filmgoers. 

Let me being by clarifying that I don’t necessarily disagree with everything Scorsese is saying. His piece is thought-provoking and makes several good points, but I also have a few specific problems with his line of thinking. Moreover, there’s no question that Scorsese knows what he’s doing, cinematically-speaking. I’ve seen almost a dozen of his films and liked most if not all of them. Several of them hold a special place in my heart, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call films like Goodfellas (1990) and Taxi Driver (1976) paragons of the medium. And although known primarily for gritty, crime dramas, Scorsese has also shown breadth with films like Hugo (2011), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and The Age of Innocence (1993). He’s a household name, a multi-millionaire, and, as Paste writer Tim Sheridan wrote back in 2005, “[p]robably the most lauded living director.” But his understanding of the medium is also flawed. 

“Movies” vs “Cinema” 

Scorsese’s Op-Ed begins by admitting that his issue with so-called franchise films is “a matter of personal taste and temperament” and attributes this taste in part to the era in which he came of age. This is surely incontrovertible – to each his own, after all – we are products of our circumstances, and it diplomatically allows room for genuine Marvel fans as well. This idea remains a theme throughout the piece, as Scorsese tries to justify his firmly-held belief while remaining loftily neutral enough to keep potential viewers who like Marvel films from boycotting his new Netflix release, The Irishman (2019). In this manner, Scorsese’s piece is pure advertisement. It was written weeks before the debut of his new film. It’s provocative. It’s written in simple language designed to be quoted and spread across the internet. It has a clear moral, an inflammatory battle cry, and ultimately, a call to arms: “Cinema is dying, and the only way to save it is by watching my new film!” 

The central argument of Scorsese’s piece is stated as early as the title of the Op-Ed: Marvel movies aren’t cinema. And this is where the problem begins. Scorsese’s opposition between “movies” and “cinema” is justified in brief, broad strokes, and as such, remains both vague and unconvincing. A short list of directors – among them Samuel Fuller, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard – fall into the lofty second camp. Cinema, for those directors, “was an art form,” writes Scorsese. But Scorsese’s elitist understanding of “cinema” comes with its perils: taken literally, Scorsese’s argument isn’t so much a critique or value judgment of the franchise, but a categorical refusal to acknowledge those films as objects worthy of comparison. That is, Scorsese does not claim that Marvel movies are bad; rather, he states that “Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema.” Perhaps this is a subtle differentiation at first glance, but Scorsese’s slip from movies to cinema is no innocent exchange of synonyms. Throughout the article, he uses “cinema” to describe the films he values and “movies” or “pictures” to describe Marvel films and other unworthies. The problem here is that Scorsese’s distinction isn’t based on an opinion, as he claims it is, rather, it’s based on an outdated, elitist sentiment.

Scorsese’s Auteur Theory

To understand Scorsese’s conception of “art,” it’s useful to understand that he’s borrowing a few ideas from older sources. Scorsese invokes a certain theory when he writes that directors of his era “stood up for cinema as an equal to literature or music or dance.” The auteur theory (French for “author”) imagines the director as the single creator of a film, the same way that we might call James Joyce the author of Ulysses or Hieronymous Bosch the creator of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Scorsese’s first invocation of this theory refers to its desire to elevate cinema to the same level of the other arts. The second use of the auteur theory comes at the moment that Scorsese attempts to define what makes Marvel films “movies” rather than “cinema,” and it is here that the argument becomes problematic. For Scorsese, what Marvel films lack – what prohibits their entrance to the pantheon of art – is a single creator. Many modern franchise films, he writes,

“are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”

For Scorsese, then, “movies” are mass-produced; “cinema” is the product of a single artist. And for Scorsese, that “individual artist” is the director.

Nor am I alone in focusing on Scorsese’s invocation of auteur theory here. In an excellent piece for The New Yorker, Richard Brody notes that the word “auteur” seems to lurk behind Scorsese’s entire Op-Ed. This, writes Brody, is a word “signifying the idea of the director as an artist who, though self-evidently not the sole artist working on most movies, is more than a conductor or stage manager.” Scorsese’s dream of the “individual artist” is of a director who can unite the disparate talents of a film into a single vision. The films and names he cites as examples of cinema as an “art form” – first Fuller, Bergman, Godard, Hitchcock, then Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, Spike Lee, and Wes Anderson – are, as Brody notes, all directors.

 Scorsese’s Op-Ed, moreover, frequently echoes the words of one of the ur-auteurs, François Truffaut, whose famous essay, “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” (1954), laid out the groundwork for future theorists and filmmakers. Truffaut’s essay dealt with a problem the young director saw in France’s studio film industry:

“There are only seven or eight scriptwriters who work regularly for the French cinema. Each of them has only one story to tell, and as each of them can dream of nothing but becoming as successful as the ‘two greats’ [i.e., Jean Aurenche and Jacques-Laurent Bost], it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the 100 or so French films made each year tell the same story: there is always a victim, usually a cuckold.”

Truffaut’s complaint is that the French films of the past few years start to blend together, that they “tell the same story.” As an antidote, Truffaut proposed that the director take more complete control over the film: “I believe it needs to be made perfectly clear that directors are and want to be responsible for the scripts and dialogue they illustrate.” In Truffaut’s ideal, then, a film would show the traces of the director in every shot, every line of dialogue: a film by Truffaut would never be confused with a film by Godard, for instance. 

Truffaut’s basic premise – that truly great cinema can only be made by a director who also writes his own scripts – promotes a kind of directorial tyranny over the film. If we look closely at Scorsese’s article, we see the same idea, updated for the modern era. Take, for instance, Scorsese’s remark about the “sameness” of franchise films:

“[T]he sameness of today’s franchise pictures is something else again. Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. […] 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.”

Like Truffaut, Scorsese’s complaint about his contemporaries is that their films start to blend together, that they are nothing more than “variations on a finite number of themes.” More provocatively, he suggests that they are, in fact, “remakes” of each other. It’s a well-made point and is perhaps the most true statement in the entire piece. Like Scorsese, I never saw Avengers: Endgame (2019) for the simple reason that I’ve gotten bored with what feels like the same plot: a somewhat regular person gets thrown into a difficult situation, then becomes a superhero, then fights the bad guy, and ultimately wins, or something like that. On a side note, a lot of films follow a similar trajectory: Hercules [1997], Star Wars [1977], and even Scorsese’s beloved North by Northwest [1959] all follow the so-called “hero’s journey” to the letter. Moreover, if you want to take about “sameness” in film, think back to 2016, when the “Oscars So White” controversy, decrying the Academy’s dearth of nominations for black actors, hit Hollywood. As of this year, only one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won an Oscar for Best Director, and only five have even been nominated.

 But let’s imagine Scorsese is right: Marvel films are boring, therefore they’re not cinema or art. The problem with this line of thinking arises when Scorsese suggests an alternative: the director as auteur. In juxtaposing the creations of a “teams of talented individuals” with the “unifying vision of an individual artist,” Scorsese styles himself a Truffautian auteur, the omnipotent creator of a film, responsible for not only the direction, but every aspect of the film. But this is a highly problematic distinction. The auteur, after all, is a chimera. Even in the French Nouvelle Vague, when filmmakers like Truffaut, Godard, and Agnès Varda exerted their control over small-budget, independent films (thereby producing some of the best films of the century), they were still working in a team. And focusing, as Scorsese does, on only the director’s name, ignores the brilliance of actors like Jean-Pierre Léaud, Anna Karina, and Bernadette Lafont, without whom the Nouvelle Vague would have been far duller. 

“But Scorsese isn’t denying the importance of De Niro or DiCaprio in his films, he’s only objecting to the control of the studios,” you might object. Brody, evidently less critical of Scorsese’s embrace of the auteur theory than I, takes a similar approach, writing that “Scorsese isn’t inveighing against fantasy but against a system of production that submerges directors’ authority in a network of dictates and decisions issued from the top down—a network in which the director is more of a functionary than a creator.” On one level, this is true; Scorsese’s issue seems to be with the stifling pervasiveness of the studios, not with the actors or screenwriters themselves. But the problem is that while he recognizes the importance of actors – as we will see in his discussion of Hitchcock –  Scorsese (as Brody notes but does not interrogate) only cites directors as paradigms of “cinema.”

The Hitchcock Paradox

To illustrate the difference between films created by “individual artists” and those created by teams, Scorsese turns to the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. For Scorsese, Hitchcock seems to represent something like the director par excellence, the omnipotent creator who captivated audiences in real theaters and exerted individuality in every film. “Every new Hitchcock picture was an event,” writes Scorsese. “To be in a packed house in one of the old theaters watching ‘Rear Window’ was an extraordinary experience.” Scorsese then makes two observations: (1) Hitchcock turned out audiences who “went to be surprised and thrilled, and they weren’t disappointed”; and (2) we’re still watching Hitchcock’s films seventy years later. 

As Rear Window (1959) is one of my favorite films, and I can only dream of what it would have been like to be there to see it when it was first released, it’s hard to argue with Scorsese on this point. Hitchcock is undeniably a master. But the argument that follows is more questionable: 

“But is it the thrills and the shocks that we keep going back to? I don’t think so. The set pieces in ‘North by Northwest’ are stunning, but they would be nothing more than a succession of dynamic and elegant compositions and cuts without the painful emotions at the center of the story or the absolute lostness of Cary Grant’s character.”

Scorsese’s point is that North by Northwest, beyond its elegance and ability to thrill, contains something more universal. It conveys some profound truth, some emotional core that can be transported from 1959 to 2019 without losing its hold. The same, Scorsese argues, can be said about Strangers on a Train (1951): “The climax […] is a feat, but it’s the interplay between the two principal characters and Robert Walker’s profoundly unsettling performance that resonate now.” Scorsese’s description of these films focuses on what he sees as timeless elements rather than their shock value. 

To some extent, Scorsese’s image of Hitchcock is true. But it’s also a classic mistake – one frequently made by directors and their sycophants – to assume that films are made by an individual. As Sheridan states in the review from 2005, “the phrase ‘a film by’ which typically precedes a director’s name in the credits essentially negates the contributions of writers, producers, editors and the other countless individuals who help make a movie.” Interestingly, the two elements that Scorsese chooses to highlight are not directorial choices so much as products of a talented team. Mentioning Cary Grant and Robert Walker, Scorsese points to an admiration of the screenwriting and the acting, not the direction. Now, it might be argued that Hitchcock, known for his tyrannical approach to direction, exerted control over both these elements and is therefore responsible for the success of these films, but this is also a bit of mythmaking. Ironically perhaps, Sheridan’s piece, titled “The Cult of the Master Auteur,” focuses precisely on Hitchcock and Scorsese, and, while identifying and lauding both directors for their unique styles (and implicitly comparing them), Sheridan also clarifies that Hitchcock did not write his films and that much of Scorsese’s best work came out of collaborations with actors. The point, then, is that Scorsese’s image of the “unifying vision of an individual artist” is more of a mirage than a definable quality. 

Hitchcock is also an interesting choice for Scorsese to invoke, since he’s frequently claimed by both sides of the Marvel debate. While Scorsese lionizes the Master of Suspense for his cinematic individuality, others have turned to the cult figure as a hero of entertainment. In an interview from a year ago, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige used Hitchcock’s legacy to point out that the MCU’s lack of Academy Awards doesn’t mean much: “Maybe it’s easy to dismiss VFX or flying people or spaceships or billion dollar grosses. Hitchcock never won best director, so it’s very nice, but it doesn’t mean everything. I would much rather be in a room full of engaged fans.” Feige’s argument, simplistic as it is, focuses on the fans. His point is not a rebuttal of Scorsese’s argument, but it does show that Hitchcock’s greatness lies in the eyes of the beholder. Feige points to Hitchcock’s lasting success as an example of a loftier ideal than awards; Scorsese uses that same success as an example of the director’s inherent, timeless quality. But who knows what films will be popular in another sixty or seventy years? It’s possible that by then Taxi Driver will be forgotten and Iron Man (2008) will live on.

Risk and Reward

As I wrote in a post earlier this year, there’s a common misconception that films either fall into the category of “art” or “entertainment.” Amateur critics love to throw around these words, assigning films like Bicycle Thieves (1948) to the first category and The Matrix (1999) to the latter. My problem, as I outlined in that post, is that this distinction rests on bourgeois values: 

“‘High’ art […] is traditionally assigned to forms of entertainment that require a certain knowledge of social codes and access to education (painting, opera, ‘classic’ literature, for example); ‘low’ art (and ‘entertainment’ films) is assigned to those media/genres that anyone can understand (genre fiction, TV series, and certain films).”

Scorsese’s piece reinforces precisely this idea: auteurs make art that can only be understood by the truly intelligent, Marvel makes entertainment that is meant to be enjoyed by the masses. 

Scorsese hammers this point home when he explains what he thinks is missing from Marvel films. At one point, he writes that “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.” But this is true of his films and, more importantly, all art. We watch films, read books, play video games, and go to art museums to satisfy a “set of demands.” These demands differ depending on the viewer, but ultimately, we’re just trying to be entertained. Moreover, Scorsese doesn’t seem to be able to imagine a viewer who can watch, enjoy, rewatch, and study both types of films. 

Scorsese ends his Op-Ed with just the sort of apocalyptic language one would expect from a Marvel character: “For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.” This is the endgame for Scorsese: the film industry represented by the MCU, in its over-produced banality, is not only threatening the financial status of independent film, but is threatening the medium itself. “In many places around this country and around the world,” he writes, “franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen.” The industry, then, is no longer capable of supporting “art”; it has ruined film for filmmakers and viewers alike. 

Even if Scorsese’s image of film’s halcyon days is true, and I’m not sure it is, his argument about the consequences of the “brutal” and “inhospitable” conditions of the cinematic world verges on the ridiculous. For Scorsese, Marvel represents the total annihilation of true cinematic enjoyment and the elimination of creative potential: “Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.” Socrsese does, fortunately, recognize the irony that his latest film is being released on Netflix, but I question why he even chose this route: it’s not as if he needs the money.

I think Scorsese is underestimating his viewers. He is limited by his imagination; he can only envision a moviegoer who looks and thinks and is entertained the same way he is. There are many of us out there who avoid the noisy, greasy, cramped confines of the physical theater like the plague. The type of viewing Scorsese is imagining – the “electrifying” experience of a midnight premiere – still exists. Film festivals still exist, as do independent movie theaters. (Somewhat ironically, Netflix just announced that they’re taking over the Paris Theater in New York.) Moreover, streaming services have hardly killed the independent film industry. Even ten years ago, the only way to see a film by Truffaut or Godard was to attend a film festival or take the risk of renting a film you don’t know anything about. And personally, I would much prefer renting or streaming a film at home than paying for it in the theater. If anything, these services made it easier for a wider range of viewers to access cinema. Streaming websites like Mubi and Kanopy are dedicated to “classic” cinema; Netflix and Amazon offer plenty of classics alongside their own specials. It’s easier than ever to study film, to watch and rewatch a scene, to pause and focus on the details. Many of my most memorable filmwatching experiences are from late-night library visits when I sat with my headphones in and pressed pause on scenes that delighted me. 

I’ll watch Scorsese’s new film. At home. With a pot of tea and a notebook. I’ll watch it and pause it and critique it and maybe even watch it again if I like it enough. Cinema isn’t dead, it just looks different, and the way we consume it looks different, too. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s