It’s happening again. For reasons beyond my understanding, you people can’t seem to keep Martin Scorsese’s name out of your mouth, and you continue to talk your shit. Last week, superhero movie director James Gunn claimed that when Scorsese famously criticized Marvel movies in 2019, it was out of a cynical need of press coverage for The Irishman, an interesting observation considering that Gunn’s latest comments happened on a press junket for his latest film (Marty, meanwhile, has said nothing further on the subject since).
While Scorsese has always come under fire as a filmmaker, things have been especially sludgy since 2019, the year The Irishman came out. Since then, people have claimed he only makes movies about gangsters (he’s made five), that he doesn’t understand the genius of the big superhero movies and that he’s jealous of their success. More prominently, there was also a controversy around how little dialogue The Irishman’s Anna Paquin got during the film. Despite receiving ample screen time, she only said seven words in the three-and-a-half hour movie, a criticism that completely missed the point that her silence was an intentional way to show disdain for her father.
It’s always like this now. Ever since Scorsese first compared Marvel movies to theme park rides — and criticized franchise films as an overwhelming, monopolizing force in the movie business founded more in market research than artistic expression — there has been a steady wave of anti-Scorsese discourse on social media. This is fomented every couple months with a new headline or viral tweet that woefully derides the 78-year-old icon.
And while my short king Scorsese is neither harmed nor bothered by any of this discourse (he’s preoccupied with shooting his upcoming film Killers of the Flower Moon as well as looking fly at the beach), it’s disheartening how many people willfully misunderstand and denigrate the words and works of a man who’s given so much to the medium he loves. What is this obsession with ragging on one of cinema’s greatest living legends?
Like Cara Cunningham before me, I am but a twink in a blanket fort, solemnly defending my diva. Leave Marty alone! I implore you to stop trying to come for him, not because he needs protection, but because you’re embarrassing yourself. And frankly, you don’t have the heat to come for my favorite Italian!
Take, for instance, this recent headline from The Telegraph: “Blame Martin Scorsese for Matt Damon’s ‘F-Slur’ Troubles” (a reference to Damon admitting he only recently quit saying a certain homophobic slur after his daughter lectured him on it). Right away, the headline is a baffling accusation on its own, but it becomes all the more ludicrous as it devolves into the following segment:
If we were to rewatch [The Departed] these days, it’s unlikely we’d find Scorsese’s film doing much to challenge toxic stereotypes, with its crowd-pleasing punchline moments including Damon calling firefighters “a bunch of homos” or [Leonardo] DiCaprio insulting him on the phone as a ‘two-faced f-ggot.’
The issue isn’t how accurately William Monahan’s script captures all this banter among Boston cops, but how chest-puffingly Scorsese’s direction revels in it to sustain the film’s brand of macho, hard-hitting energy. It gets a leg up, comedically and rhetorically, by trampling on the idea of being gay.
Now may not be the time to interrogate the whole of Scorsese’s generally magnificent CV through such an admittedly crude lens, but it’s possible to observe neutrally that homophobia has always been rife among his main characters. Plus, if you’ve ever watched After Hours, you’ll know that when he strays into a world where gay people actually exist, it’s feasible only as a detour into zany, paranoid farce.
Firstly, it feels disingenuous to blame Scorsese for the homophobic remarks of an actor who starred in a single one of his 25 feature films. And while the article admits that Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting features similarly homophobic language, it largely glosses over the fact that Damon actually wrote the screenplay to that film, not Van Sant or, as the title seems to imply, Scorsese. It’s also an unfortunate misreading of how The Departed explores the ways macho straight bros violently overcompensate out of fear of impotency (a theme prevalent in many of Scorsese’s films). Everyone has something they need to prove in this world — that they’re a good cop, that they’re a dangerous criminal, that they fuck — and will spew bigotry and go to sinister extremes to prove it. In fact, The Departed is most clearly a film about how Boston guys suck.
Likewise, the Telegraph writer’s characterization of After Hours feels equally askew. While the madcap comedic noir — focused on one night in SoHo where a data entry worker tries to get laid to disastrous results — is definitely “zany,” the butt of the joke is always its yuppy protagonist and his figurative castration at the hands of near every women he meets.
It’s just odd to remark on the homophobia and other bigotries of characters in Scorsese’s oeuvre as anything other than a reality of straight white men who seek power. The fact is, few filmmakers have explored the neuroses and fragility of the straight white American male with as much depth as Scorsese (with the exception of certain New Hollywood contemporaries like Elaine May and Hal Ashby). I’d argue that more than glorifying the actions of their unsavory characters, Martin Scorsese’s films endeavor to show you a Type of Guy. A guy who is obsessed with being cucked. A guy who has OCD and bad boundaries. A guy who murders Jimmy Hoffa.
And while there’s nothing wrong with loving Scorsese’s more crime-driven films — they’re amazing! — it’s also his less violent movies that best explore some of his most frequently recurring themes. Bringing Out the Dead feels like a more polished version of Taxi Driver, an exploration of the Christ figure, and a journey in search of absolution told through the eyes of a paramedic slowly losing his mind over a weekend of night shifts in Hell’s Kitchen. New York, New York captures the caddish entitlement and machismo in the aggressive whirlwind of Mean Streets by channeling it into a years-long romance between two musicians. And as we enter further into an age of social media, The King of Comedy’s story of parasocial obsession and the need to prove oneself worthy of adoration becomes ever more timely in its message.
Yes, with the exception of Kundun and Silence, Scorsese’s films are mostly composed of white dudes, but again, this is just the reality of power’s intersection with race and gender. As a brown queer person, I feel no need to see myself reflected in the work of straight white men who can’t understand my experience, nor do I care if someone gay is in a Marvel movie for 10 seconds. Conversations of need for more “representation in media” often leave me frustrated as they seem to miss the larger issue of giving more resources to diverse new artists.
In fact, one of Scorsese’s key criticisms of the franchise movie system is that it makes it much harder for new filmmakers to get funding for their original ideas. This is where he puts his money where his mouth is, having produced or executive-produced almost 50 films by rising directors — many of whom are women and people of color — over the course of the past three decades, including Shirley and the early Spike Lee joint Clockers.
Scorsese’s passionate film activism looks not only to the future but extends to the past, with the filmmaker having founded multiple groups dedicated to preserving and restoring classic cinema (via The Film Foundation) and films from around the globe (World Cinema Project). Most recently, he launched the African Film Heritage Fund with the express purpose of locating and restoring 50 classic pieces of African cinema.
If you’re asking why Scorsese does all this, the answer is simple: He’s an old guy who really loves movies. He cares about curation over content algorithms, not out of any sense of elitism, but because he is a custodian worried for the future of the medium he’s most passionate about. He tells us the trouble with Marvel movies not to shame viewers for enjoying them, but because he’s an elder statesman of cinema giving what knowledge he has accrued in his five decades of filmmaking experience to us as freely as he can. As a fellow movie lover and aspiring filmmaker myself, this has always touched me.
Along these lines, I subscribed to the Criterion Channel a few months ago. Though none of his features are included with the streaming service, it does offer hours of interviews with him about his work, as well as countless recorded introductions to the pictures by other filmmakers that matter to him most. He’s a nice film grandpa, and we should treat him with the respect he deserves.