The director’s director up against the comic book heroes
By © Jane Freebury
Every city has to have one. A film festival.
Just about every region on earth hosts a film festival, including Oceania where there’s one for very short films in Vanuatu, and one for documentaries in French Polynesia. Antarctica has claimed one too, for filmmakers ‘left out in the cold’.
The festival and the space it makes is great for film creatives to open, and say what they think.
Film festivals happening everywhere yet superheroes dominate box office
Fall in the north marks the start of the season of international film festivals. Venice, Montreal and Toronto have been and gone, and New York and London have recently wrapped. It’s different Down Under, of course, where the superhero movies are out in force at the same time as the venerable big two, Melbourne and Sydney.
In 2019 movie studios outdid themselves, again, as Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, became the highest grossing film of all time
The names of marquee events roll off the tongue. It’s no surprise that the United States has the most, Seattle, Sundance, Telluride, Tribeca, SXSW and all the rest. Making movies on an industrial scale began in New York, before the entrepreneurs decamped to the West Coast for the sunshine and freedom from interference, from where today they still dominate the international box office.
Despite it all, the festivals known as the big three – Berlin, Venice and Cannes – take place over on the other side of the Atlantic. In Europe, filmmakers have more scope to make movies the way they want to, putting a stretch of ocean between themselves and the home of blockbusters.
This year the movie studios outdid themselves, again. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, broke box office records to become the highest grossing film of all time, beating Avatar and Titanic. Its sister film, released last year, Avengers: Infinity War is the fifth highest earner ever, and one of a handful that have grossed in excess of two billion in cinemas worldwide.
After endgame and apocalypse, where to from here?
This year the movie studios outdid themselves, again. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, broke box office records to become the highest grossing film of all timesuperhero apocalypse of endgames and wars into the ever after has won, hands down, but, honestly, where to from here?
Before this century when they began to appear in earnest, the movie superhero made an occasional appearance. Their goofy, impossible heroes could be treated with indulgence, but the explosion in pseudo-serious superhero in the 21st century is something entirely new, where plot and character driven by technology rather than story-tellers interested in human drama.
Why so? It’s a question for the sociologists, but interesting that they first appeared early in the early years of the Second World War when superheroes like Superman, a Batman, and Captain Marvel joined the war effort, one way or other.
As another summer of blockbusters draws to a close, the guardians of film culture have the opportunity to nurse serious cinema back to health. With injections of new work by the ingenue directors, with a selection of classics digitally restored, and with the latest work from the established auteurs.
The red carpet rolls for films in competition, fans throng to see the talent in the flesh, and cineastes hang out to hear what the filmmakers have to say for themselves. This year we have heard from Martin Scorsese, whose new film The Irishman opened the festival in New York (that I was able to attend in 2019), and closed the festival in London.
It is a rare treat to hear from filmmakers directly. Too often, new work is introduced to us by the marketers, by the jargon of the business, or by fragmented reviews that try to tell a complimentary story. When filmmakers with serious intent articulate what they were doing in their own words it is an altogether different matter.
A new outing from Martin Scorsese, generally considered one of the world’s greatest living directors, is a big event in any filmgoer’s calendar.
His Irishman takes place in New York, of course. The city that has been the set for more film and television than any other in the world, where, on any given day, New Yorkers can feel that they are on a film set. They can play it up and revel in the theatre of life in one of the world’s great megapolises, or play it down.
In an interview with Empire magazine at the time, Scorsese was drawn on the subject of superhero movies. The living godfather of modern cinema said what he thought, and then doubled down on it in London.
He had tried to watch them, really he had, but found he couldn’t. They were theme park experiences, they were not cinema, didn’t tell stories, and didn’t communicate emotional and psychological experience. With that, Scorsese drew a line in the sand.
The superhero movie industry may not much like what he said. Some like New Zealand director, Taika Waititi, who had the helm for Thor: Ragnarok and will direct Thor: Love and Thunder), have spoken up. Of course it’s cinema, you see it at the theatre, don’t you?
Fans of superheroes won’t be bothered, though they did Scorsese in media studies
Fans of the genre may not be much bothered by Scorsese’s views, even though his classics such as Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Cape Fear and The Departed will have been on their media studies curriculum.
Waititi is of course also the creator of the terrific indie hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It has been an interesting crossover. Why did the moguls ask him to direct? What were they looking for?
He is not the only one, either. Talented indie writer-director originally from Canberra, Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore), has also been scooped up by the superhero industry. She is directing MCU’s Black Widow with Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Weisz, due out next year.
In interview, Scorsese is a beguiling, mild-mannered man. Mild mannered for a man whose powerful, disturbing and beautifully made films about brooding, conflicted men have shaken us up, and he has stuck his neck out here.
The Irishman, a three hour thirty minute epic delving into the familiar subjects of organised crime, family and corruption, and is distributed by Netflix, the movie juggernaut for the small screen. The director’s latest film has benefited somewhat from this behemoth and other developments, like ‘de-aging’ visual effects, but no one could counter that his films skate the surface.
Reporting what Scorsese thinks about the competition at the box office for the movie dollar is a bit of a beat-up, but sincerity is a powerful tool these days. After all, there is only that much that you can say about movie superheroes, hey.
First published in the Canberra Times on 15 November 2019
* Featured image: Chris Hemsworth in Thor (2011)