Martin Scorsese on “brutal judgmentalism”

Martin Scorsese recently penned an oped for The Hollywood Reporter where he expounds on the nature of criticism in the digital age, with particular scorn heaped on obsessing over box-office results, Cinemascore, and Rotten Tomatoes. There is, of course, a nugget of truth to what Scorsese is talking about here. Discussions of film are too often sidetracked by box-office numbers or aggregate scores. On the other hand, it’s 2017, and a lot of this article comes off like Scorsese has only now discovered that the internet is a thing that exists.

He even mentions that Cinemascore started in the 1970s (almost 40 years ago) and it’s worth noting that Rotten Tomatoes isn’t exactly a recent phenomenon (it began in 1998). And Scorsese isn’t alone. Hollywood had a really poor summer, with many big tentpoles flopping or at least underperforming. Their scapegoat? Rotten Tomatoes. This makes no sense. Several highly rated movies (War for the Planet of the Apes and Logan Lucky are both at 93% fresh) still managed to do poorly at the box office, while many “Rotten” films found audiences (The Hitman’s Bodyguard is at 39% and yet it’s the only film to be #1 at the box office for three weeks in a row).

Even Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious and divisive mother!, ostensibly the movie that drove Scorsese to write the oped in the first place, ends up certified “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes (albeit, not overwhelmingly so at 68%). Of course, Scorsese seizes on that film’s “F” Cinemascore in that instance, but most of what I’ve seen about this dreaded score is that while it’s devastating for a movie to get that grade (as it means the marketing wholly failed to represent the movie and thus pissed off audiences, usually resulting in poor box office), it’s also something of a badge of honor. If you look at why this movie received some polarizing scores, you find that most people are responding to exactly the sort of things Scorsese values in the film.

It was so tactile, so beautifully staged and acted — the subjective camera and the POV reverse angles, always in motion … the sound design, which comes at the viewer from around corners and leads you deeper and deeper into the nightmare … the unfolding of the story, which very gradually becomes more and more upsetting as the film goes forward. The horror, the dark comedy, the biblical elements, the cautionary fable — they’re all there, but they’re elements in the total experience, which engulfs the characters and the viewers along with them. Only a true, passionate filmmaker could have made this picture, which I’m still experiencing weeks after I saw it.

Most reviews, even the harsh bloodsport ones, don’t deny the skill and craft of the film. I certainly don’t! I’m super happy that the film got made at all, and that I got to see it at a local theater (rather than making the long and expensive trek to an art house theater). I have a lot of respect for a filmmaker who swings for the fences like this, and again, the skill on display is astounding, but the film still falls into the realm of “interesting failure” for me. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist or that you shouldn’t watch it though, and it’s probably worth checking out over many of the bland pixel stew blockbusters out there. It doesn’t surprise me one iota that this film did poorly. It’s a difficult film to watch, almost by design.

Much of this comes down to a matter of perspective. As a filmmaker, much of this data is used against someone like Scorsese. He mentions how preview screenings can give studios license to meddle, which must be frustrating. I assume he gets slapped with other aggregate measurements used to undermine his efforts too. I’m not sure if it’s still a thing, but there was a time when Video Game companies would actually judge their employees based on their game’s MetaCritic score, which seems like an awful idea. But as a viewer, I’m able to recognize the usefulness of something like Rotten Tomatoes. It’s true, those scores shouldn’t be treated as absolutes, but as a starting place, there is indeed some upside here. Similarly, people are interested in things like Box Office performance because they want to see more of what they like, and if a movie they like does well, it means that perhaps we’ll get more of that (or conversely, when a movie they don’t like does poorly, it hopefully means we’ll see less of that). This summer has been brutal for huge franchise efforts (that aren’t superheroes, which seemed to be the lone bright spot for Hollywood), but a lot of smaller or more ideosyncratic films like Dunkirk and Baby Driver found audiences. I think it would be great if we saw more of those sorts of movies next summer, rather than yet another Transformers or Pirates of the Carribean movie.

Scorsese’s rumblings are nothing new. Indeed, much of the current marketing landscape around films has evolved as a way to combat once-powerful critics. Back in the day, you could argue that movies were made or broken by the thumbs of two critics, Siskel and Ebert. Hollywood reacted to powerful criticism and growing online sentiment by front-loading movies and leaning heavily on marketing, so much so that many movies that severely disappoint audiences still manage to do well at the box office because the film was released in 3000 theaters and word of mouth couldn’t spread fast enough, even in the digital age. Rotten Tomatoes is partly a response to that, and Cinemascore is a purely marketing-focused metric.

Criticism has been around since the dawn of art itself. Find a 30,000 year old cave painting, and there was probably some moron named Grog who complained about it. The state of criticism today is probably different than it was ten or twenty or a hundred years ago, but there will always be great critics and worthless hacks who just want to tear things down. In the end, audiences just want to watch a movie they’ll enjoy. Scorsese doesn’t seem to care about audiences though:

Good films by real filmmakers aren’t made to be decoded, consumed or instantly comprehended. They’re not even made to be instantly liked. They’re just made, because the person behind the camera had to make them.

Personally, I don’t think you need to be so narrow in defining what is “good” in film. When I first consumed Taxi Driver (99% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!), I instantly liked it. That doesn’t mean that after years of rewatching it and decoding various aspects of the film, I didn’t find additional depth there. Yes, some of these things can’t be instantly comprehended (I had to decode them first!), but not everything needs to be that way, does it? There’s not one type of good movie, is there? It’s possible to make art with the audience in mind, right? Sometimes it feels like movies have bifurcated into Hollywood fluff and heavy, artistic slogs, with that middle ground of well-crafted entertainment suffering as a result. Of course, they’re still there, you just have to hunt them down. Hey, maybe if enough people supported those movies, we’d get more of them. Let’s go check Box Office Mojo

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