Film Commentary

Scorsese, Camus, Movies, and the Death Penalty

November 30, 2011

Director Martin Scorsese recently spoke to the BBC and declared his distaste for one of modern cinema’s most quixotic achievements–what he calls “theme park films”.

There are six or seven myths around which all our literature is based. I think there is an anxiety amongst certain filmmakers that the thread that connects what we do to these ancient, life-affirming myths is going to snap […] And once that disconnect happens, the film is drifting.

You know the ones. They are the those that nearly break blockbuster records of money earned, despite suffering from drab sequelitis, from overly-burnt-out explosions, or whatever happens to be the latest cinema fad. And these films do so despite being mostly reviled by critics. This type of lazy storytelling eventually leads to movies that Scorsese deems “a series of noises and effects.”

If you’re reading anything on this website, then it is very likely you are in agreement with Mr. Scorsese, so I don’t really intend to preach to the choir. It is likely, though, that from time to time, one of us may actually enjoy a good old-fashioned, mindless romp, regardless of whether the story has any staying power or not. And no matter what we say, the masses are never going to agree with us anyway.  These “theme park films” are going to keep getting made–that’s where the money is.

Here’s some anecdotal evidence:

Scorsese’s newest film, Hugo, which opened this past weekend, came in fifth at the box office, earning a little over $11 million in its first weekend.  The film has been almost universally praised for its cinematography, story, and impressive use of 3D technology (news flash: it’s not a gimmick when used properly). Meanwhile, the weekend of 11/11 saw the opening of Immortals, a poorly reviewed film, which grossed nearly $41 million that weekend.  Concurrently, Adam Sandler’s newest “effort,” Jack and Jill earned a little over $29 million. I’m not saying that Rotten Tomatoes should be the Holy Grail of assessing film quality, but that film has an atrocious (as of this post) 4% positive rating–compared to Hugo’s 96%.

I know, this is nothing new, and neither is my brand of idealism. It is a necessary evil, is it not?

In 1957, Albert Camus wrote an essay entitled Reflections on the Guillotine, in which he condemned the death penalty as a form of capital punishment.  He argued that the death penalty was an ineffective way at preventing crime.  He also insisted that no one had the absolute right to deliver an absolute judgment, as no man possesses absolute innocence.

In his essay, he writes:

But precisely because he is not absolutely good, no one among us can pose as an absolute judge and pronounce the definitive elimination of the worst among the guilty, because no one of us can lay claim to the absolute innocence.

There are echoes here of the Christian adage, “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

So what am I getting at? How does the modern-day movie business relate at all to Camus’ view on the death penalty?

While I could write more about Camus’ Anarchist tendencies, or his quasi-existential absurdities — to the point where this article would have kittens die the world over (and Lord knows I’m tempted) — my main focus is on his reflection on the nature of man. Namely, that no one can lay claim to innocence — that we are all in need of some form of atonement.

This is a sentiment I am used to hearing from religious circles, but hardly ever from intellectual atheists. But it rings true, doesn’t it? Whenever we are told what to do, what to think, what to believe — we hope it comes from some form of authority that can stand above the fine line of fact or fiction.

Scorsese is not a god, and I don’t believe him to be perfect. But he’s pretty close to blameless when it comes to creating interesting and varied films. (If you only know him for his gangster movies, check out this article on Fast Company).

It’s one thing for a high-talking, yet ordinary plebeian as myself to criticize the film industry and the direction it is heading in. And while Scorsese’s word doesn’t carry the weight of Pharaoh’s “so let it be written, so let it be done,” I do wish studio executives as well as other ordinary cinemagoers were more willing to listen.

As a concession, the fact that bad movies get made (which make millions of dollars) isn’t necessarily the same thing as the guillotine. Actually, it’s not even in the same theme park (if you will). But as time moves on and art becomes highly commercialized, how far are we willing to go before our own souls lose their heads?

Twenty four years after Camus’ essay was published, France abolished the death penalty. It is very doubtful that studio executives the world over would listen to one of the heralds of our time (namely Mr. Scorsese). But it would be nice, wouldn’t it? Or is it too late? Has our perverse desire for hackneyed storylines, long action sequences, and flashy special effects become our own cultural death sentence?

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  • Reply Lindsey November 30, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    “Whenever we are told what to do, what to think, what to believe — we hope it comes from some form of authority that can stand above the fine line of fact or fiction.”

    Well Said, Sir!

  • Reply Richard Sanchez December 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Indeed. Good show, Mr. Munoz. Also, from the BBC article:

    “Scorsese, a passionate cineaste, was part of the “new wave” of American movies in the 1970s, a movement which produced gritty, heavyweight classics such as The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter.”

    I want a new-new wave, dammit.

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