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All Movies Are Art—Even the Bad Ones—Despite What Nearly Every Filmmaker and Film Critic May Tell You

By Alex Manugian:



In 2019, Martin Scorsese gave an interview to Empire magazine in which he differentiated between movie franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and true "cinema." This caused a bit of an uproar, so he took the time to write a clarification of his stance a few months later in an opinion piece in the New York Times. He said he didn’t intend to disparage the Marvel movies but rather that they weren’t for him. The movies he responds to are about “aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation.” And about characters. Speaking of the movies he fell in love with growing up, he says, "It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form. And that was the key for us: it was an art form."


Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is a legendary filmmaker and one of my favorites. The work he has done in the area of film preservation is downright heroic. I respectfully disagree with his position on movies versus cinema. He goes on to make other points in the piece, some of which I feel the same about, and more of which I’d dispute. To me, Scorsese perpetuates two misguided beliefs as old as film theory. The first: there are all sorts of movies, many enjoyable, but very few achieve the level of art. This leads to the second belief: film as a whole must be considered a lesser art form. 


My position on the second point is that all art forms are equal. Ranking them is a perfectly valid exercise to express one’s own taste, but I can’t see how anyone can suggest one art form is objectively superior to another. As for the first point, I think all movies are art. Many may be lousy art, but lousy art is still art. It can be constructive to compare movies and try to determine if one is more impactful, rewarding, or meaningful than another. It’s probably the subject that takes up more space in my brain than anything else. But just like every song, every sculpture, every drawing, it’s all art. What possible value can there be in arguing otherwise? 


Plenty of us feel that film is equal to any other art form, but plenty more don’t. And prominent among those who don’t are many of the most accomplished filmmakers and critics since the moving image first moved. To me, art is simply any creative endeavor made with the hope of eliciting a thought or feeling in the person experiencing it. Not every movie succeeds, but even the most poorly or disingenuously executed ones still carry that intent.



It’s probably safer to say there are an infinite number, with more—such as digital and AI art—arriving all the time. Do other art forms have this inferiority complex, especially among their most lauded practitioners? Isn’t it usually the other way around, where the great composers or poets might tend to prefer their own medium to the rest? 


I don’t remember a time I didn’t love movies obsessively. The first film I can remember seeing was a screening of the original 1932 King Kong. It played in a movie theater in Boston when I was four years old. (Do I actually remember this or have I done that thing where I’ve combined photos, fanciful memories, and a narrative I like into a so-called memory? Probably the latter. But if so, I’m fairly certain this is a victimless crime.) 



I couldn't believe my eyes, couldn’t get over how it made me feel to sit in that vast auditorium. Yet my awareness of the positioning of most movies as beneath true art most likely began that same day. The movie was being shown in part because a lumbering, modestly well-received new version of King Kong had just been released. No doubt most of those attending our Kong screening were actively bemoaning Hollywood’s insistence on remaking an artistic accomplishment as a piece of commerce. 


You could argue that film theory got off to a perfectly doomed start.

In 1896, French philosopher Henri Bergson possibly supplied the first published word on the brand-new medium. He recognized that the moving image—or as he coined it, the “movement image”—would need a new language to assess it. Yet, ten years later, he rejected movies as an example of what he had in mind. Presumably, they weren’t artistic enough to bother with. Early twentieth century American poet Vachel Lindsay was more willing to embrace movies, though he was a bit narrow in his definitions. He argued there were three kinds: action films (which he described as sculpture-in-motion), intimate films (painting-in-motion), and films of splendor (architecture-in-motion).


Now we were getting somewhere! 


But Lindsey was primarily a poet (and aspiring anti-racist). Though many credit him with publishing the first book on film criticism in 1915 (The Art of the Moving Picture) his disarming theories were soon overtaken by other, sterner voices. Though Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film was published in 1960, he first presented many of the concepts in the early 1930s. Here’s how the preface begins: 


"It would be fair to advise the reader at the outset that this book does not include all the things he may be looking for. It neglects the animated cartoon and avoids broaching problems of color. Certain recent developments and extensions of the medium are left undiscussed also. There are doubtless still other omissions; indeed, some of the topics which loom large in most writings on film have either been relegated to the background or completely dropped. But the reader himself will not be slow in discovering the gaps, if gaps they are.


What does the book deal with? Its exclusive concern is the normal black-and-white film, as it grows out of photography. The reason I confine myself to it is rather obvious: Film being a very complex medium, the best method of getting at its core is to disregard, at least temporarily, its less essential ingredients and varieties. I have adopted throughout this sensible procedure."


Siegfried Kracauer
Siegfried Kracauer

Kracauer is still considered one of the essential voices of film theory. His work is filled with invaluable perception and analysis. And my arbitrary cut-off point doesn’t do justice to the fact that he has practical reasons to stick solely to black-and-white films. But I’d argue that Kracauer is also the grandfather of the dismissive attitude toward so much of the art form. He describes color film—which some might argue represents the way things look in the actual world—as a "problem." Color films, animation, and movies utilizing special effects are sideshows of film that he doesn’t consider worth studying. So much for my transportive experience watching the original King Kong. More than 60 years after Kracauer first posited his theories, film students like me were still reading them. And we were firmly scolded for thinking that all filmed content might at the very least start out on equal footing. And by pronoun choice alone, Kracauer’s preface establishes clearly who has dominated the creation and critiquing of films since their creation—white men. 


When it comes to how most of us perceive the artform, the most prominent influencers have long been movie critics. Beginning in the 1930s, journalists Mordaunt Hall and then Bosley Crowther for the New York Times established the film review template of the next two decades. Hall and Crowther did not consider themselves theorists. Neither strove to position film as an art form in need of analysis. Yet, somehow, both managed to help ingrain the concept that there were junk movies, enjoyable Hollywood entertainment, and, on very rare occasions, a film one might classify as art.


Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael

The most influential of all film journalists arrived on the scene in 1952 and did more than anyone else to make us feel ashamed for loving a movie she looked down on. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael defined modern film criticism. She brought a conversational approach that freed critics to lend more of themselves to the role and to make reviews more accessible. She once explained: “I worked to loosen my style, to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice.” This was a welcomed step forward, and Kael is a skilled, deeply insightful writer with a true gift for turning a phrase. 


From my perspective, Kael loved film, but she didn’t love movies. And that set the tone for nearly all reviewers and "cineasts" (watch your back with anyone who describes themselves this way) who followed. Somehow she took Kracauer’s disdain for commercial aspects of the medium and doubled down. How dare the studios produce movies intended to please the masses? The number of delightful mainstream films that Kael disliked is much, much longer than the movies she loved. And, at least to me, it became apparent that she was somewhat intoxicated by her influence. Reviews became unnecessarily cruel. Pauline Kael invented the modern "pan."


Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert

I was a film critic for fifteen years. All critics learn quickly that it’s much easier to explain why a movie is bad than why it’s good. Luckily, another voice was arguably as prominent as Kael from the 1970s until his death in 2013; Roger Ebert wrote about movies with comparable skill and insight. And yes, he panned plenty of films. The difference is that he liked so, so many more movies than Kael. (For the record, Ebert thought Kael was nothing short of brilliant. Every film reviewer or filmmaker I’ve ever read about or spoken with thinks Kael is brilliant. But then again, most of them also agree that only a tiny portion of movies are art, so here we are again.) Ebert became the model for the kind of movie watcher I wanted to be. He made sure to find the positive even in the most mercenary of commercial projects, and struggled far less to differentiate between "movies" and "cinema." He was still susceptible to believing in this concept, but at least he managed to include a lot more accessible films in the "cinema" category.


Now, there are the post-Kael film critics and the post-Ebert critics. The proliferation of online critics mostly follow Ebert’s style, though certain pompously contrarian sites such as Slate and Salon bend over backward to avoid appreciating popular commercial movies. And Kael’s style has been passed mostly intact to successive New Yorker critics such as David Denby and Anthony Lane. Lane has perfected a particular pretention: when he finds himself actually enjoying a studio release that veers more toward commerce than artistic intentions, he makes sure to word it in a way of patronizing bafflement. Until his retirement in 2022, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern approached his segments on NPR with similar condescension. I think it’s their way of making sure we understand that these moments are the exceptions, not the rule. Apparently, even Hollywood gets it right every once in a while. 



What’s behind this love-shame relationship? My best guess is that it comes down to the insistence that true art in any form must never be too accessible. That if it doesn’t take some real work to comprehend, require deep reflection, or provoke a lively debate, it must fall short of the mark. I think this holds true in the assessment of most art forms. It’s the same ingrained reverence that ensures a bland symphony is on a higher pedestal than a great pop song, or a dazzling gourmet meal above a perfectly executed grilled cheese. It’s okay to feel and think differently about the symphony and gourmet meal, because they’re almost as unlike the pop song or grilled cheese as each other. It’s okay to argue that a symphony—ten times the length of an average song, with ten times as many instrumental parts—is a far greater accomplishment.


But that doesn’t mean one is art and one is not. 


Maybe the fear is that calling every movie, song, or grilled cheese a work of art diminishes the entire concept of art itself. I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s the age-old snobbish belief that the less we classify as art, the more discerning and clever we seem. This is the real shame—to appreciate less of the beauty of the world so we can feel more erudite than others. Whereas the more we embrace the artistry of any endeavor, the more fulfilled and better off we are. 


Art should not be defined by the amount of labor that seems to have been put into it or how complex it is. Those are all valid variations within an art form.


But art is simply a creative expression, no matter how small or large, how simple or sophisticated.

For Scorsese, it’s about aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation, and characters. I and many consumers of movies can find all of these in a vast range of movies that the Kracauers and Kaels would not dare call art. Including more than a few Marvel movies. 


 

Alex Munugian

Alex Manugian fell in love with movies at four years old, when his father took him to see a screening of the original King Kong. He has written original screenplays and adaptations for Walt Disney Pictures, Paramount, New Regency, and others. Alex co-wrote and co-starred in James Ward Byrkit's 2013 film Coherence, which has achieved worldwide cult status. In 2017, Alex joined the writing staff of Grey’s Anatomy for two seasons. Most recently, he began teaching Script Analysis at Pepperdine University. He has also been a film critic, development executive at Cartoon Network, and a highly sought-after housepainter on both sides of the country.

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