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Martin Scorsese doesn't like comic book movies. He doesn't think they are "cinema."

I don't like most comic book movies either. To be more precise, I don't like how most comic movies end--in noise and explosions. In some ways this is a purely personal reaction, a matter of taste.

My preference is for superheroes who would take pains to disguise superhero powers to fit into the world. They would exploit those powers: my Superman would play basketball a little better than anyone else in the world. He would set records, but not demolish them. He would purposefully miss shots, purposefully lose games. He wouldn't want anyone to suspect he could fly.

This subterfuge would cause him great emotional pain. He would not be able to be his authentic self. He would always be play-acting, would never be trying his hardest and doing his best. He would achieve great wealth and fame, but would always understand the ultimate phoniness of what the world understood as his unprecedented career.

My Superman would be immortal, impervious to physical damage, but not unbreakable. He would have no exit from the realm, though eventually he would have to fly off to some remote space rock and watch the world from afar.

And he would watch, for lack of anything else to do.

Even if he could muster something like love for the puny humans, my Superman could not make any lasting connection to them. Generations would bloom and dither and blow away as he thought his long morning thoughts.

My Superman would have to look for others of his kind; maybe this is where my movie would really begin, though I see it as the beginning of the third act. He would look for something more, something greater than himself. There are two ways the story could end. Either he passes through his suffering and finds others of his kind or he wanders forever, dreaming of the extinction he can never achieve.

Would you give me $30 million to make my movie?

I'm not going to defend Martin Scorsese. The point is that it's always difficult to make art that succeeds as a business venture. People will pay to be diverted, entertained, reassured and flattered. This is something we understand quite well, to the point that advertising has become a science. (None of that stuff works on you; it just works on the weak-minded herd. You are strong-willed and clear-eyed and smart. Here, take a look at this prospectus.)

It is hard to make people pay for experiences that make them feel confused or sad in a kind of hopeless way (rather than the cathartic sentiment we feel when someone in a made-up thing like a movie or a song sacrifices something for love or "the greater good" -- like the poor boy doomed to hang in "The Long Black Veil"). A lot of people don't get the point of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu or Scorsese's Silence.

And I'm not going to make their argument for them, but certainly understand their perspective and often share it. The point of investing time and attention into meaningless things is that they are meaningless, which affords us a safe space where we can feel as hard as we want to without any consequences. There's no risk.

Which was precisely Martin Scorsese's point about superhero movies. Just like there's no risk involved in following sports or pop music, to name a couple of silly things that I care about.

People get exercised about sports and pop music and superhero movies, and acts of violence and ugliness are committed all the time by those who take these things too seriously. There's not much we can do about that. The world is a hard place; some people are wired badly, and some sustain damage. Hurt people tend to hurt people; the lure of tribalism is strong.

But the world is also beautiful. Things like electric guitars, puppies and ice cream exist. We needn't be 24/7 serious. We can have spectacles and circuses and Popeyes chicken sandwiches. It doesn't have to be broccoli and Bergman films all the time.

What I worry about is how the circuses can crowd out other things. Superhero movies are fine, but there are a lot of people out there who think that superhero movies are what cinema is for, who wouldn't recognize some of the movies that Martin Scorsese and I dearly love as movies.

We did this to ourselves because it is easier to eat ice cream than do pull-ups, and a lot of the art I think is important is like doing pull-ups: hard to start and easy to quit.

And it's easy to believe that in the real world, nobody does the hard thing. And that anyone who pretends to do the hard thing is pretentious.

In this country, we've acclimated ourselves to a way of life that requires very little. There are plenty of people volunteering to think for you, to do the hard work while you watch entertaining videos of things blowing up or grown people shouting red-facedly at one another.

We think the "news" is supposed to be what we watch on TV. We think movies are supposed to be these big overt melodramas that leaving us feeling vindicated. We think everything is supposed to make us feel good, or, if not good, at least validated.

That would be pretty, wouldn't it?

But it's not true. We shouldn't feel good all the time; there are serious questions about whether everything is going to be OK. Some of what you believe down deep in your soul is just wrong. Some of what I believe is just wrong. Maybe we have a moral duty to constantly investigate and interrogate our own beliefs; maybe we shouldn't listen only to voices that soothe, praise and titillate us.

Think about Superman, lonely as God, watching us all die. We'll shoot on real film, in black and white.

Editorial on 11/10/2019


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