When Martin Scorsese takes the time to write a critical piece on legitimating film culture disguised as a reflection on the language of cinema, not only do you read it, but you read it twice for good measure. That’s precisely what happened this past week, as Scorsese joined Steven Soderbergh to deliver the second, excellent “state of cinema” address of 2013. Scorsese’s prose is packed with an expected degree of passion, reverence, and Romanticism, such as when he lovingly calls cinema “the invocation of life…an ongoing dialogue with life,” and on that premise, he laments the decline of cinema associated with cinephilia, a lack of visual literacy being taught in schools, and the rise of box-office culture as “a kind of sport—and really, a form of judgment,” where “the cycles of popularity are down to a matter of hours, minutes, seconds, and the work that’s been created out of seriousness and real passion is lumped together with the work that hasn’t.”
To Scorsese’s claims I say: absolutely. Box office is indeed used as a form of judgment to determine what films audiences are interested in seeing. Thus, studios act accordingly and try to replicate success through like-minded projects with stars that have a proven pedigree. Nevertheless, the cinema, as a form of popular culture has, more or less, always been a democratic medium, contingent on viewers showing up in support. I think of Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! when reading this argument; in that film, Van Peebles plays his father Melvin, whose new film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, is opening in a single Los Angeles theater. A dejected Melvin sits in the theater as no one fills the auditorium on opening night. Suddenly, the doors burst open, and people start flooding in. He’s elated because people want to see his film.