Siskel and Ebert defend Star Wars as real cinema

A few weeks ago I wrote about director Martin Scorsese’s comments that Marvel movies are “not cinema.” As I said at the time, I like Scorsese as a director and a commentator on film but his comments about Marvel movies were way off base.

Rather than argue about the merits of the individual Marvel films I took a different tack and pointed to three films from the 1930s that were very popular in their day and are widely acknowledged as classics decades later: King Kong, A Night at the Opera, and Adventures of Robin Hood. My argument was simply that films that feature action or comedy or horror or spectacle have always been wildly popular with audiences even if they aren’t realistic explorations of the human condition. In fact, I think they are popular because they are an escape from realism.

Today the Hollywood Reporter noticed that this same argument about what is and isn’t cinema has been going on for a long time. Back in 1983 when Return of the Jedi was released, ABC’s Nightline featured a segment in which critic John Simon trashed the Star Wars films while Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert argued they were tremendous entertainment:

“I feel they are so bad because [Star Wars movies] are completely dehumanizing,” said Simon, who at the time was the film critic for National Review and drama critic for New York Magazine. “Special effects are the tail of the dog, which should not wag the whole animal. When you have a film that is 90 percent special effects … you might as well be watching an animated cartoon, because finally, all those special effects begin to look unreal.”

Calling stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford “three lousy actors,” Simon argued the films were solely made for children and those should be the only people who got joy from them. But even then, Simon said Star Wars was not good for kids…

“I totally disagree with Mr. Simon,” began Ebert, long-time critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. “I don’t know what he did as a child, but I spent a lot of my Saturday matinees watching science fiction movies and serials and having a great time and being stimulated and having my imagination stimulated and having all sorts of visions take place in my mind that would help me to become an adult and to still stay young at heart.”…

Ebert continued, “I also enjoy films by Ingmar Bergman and people like that. I share that taste with Mr. Simon, but I try, I think in my own moviegoing taste, to be broad enough to try and understand why a bunch of people would want to get together and see a Star Wars movie and enjoy it.”

Ebert connected Star Wars to all the fun science fiction and fantasy that had come before it. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you probably already know that the inspiration for the films (and for the Indiana Jones movies) came from serials George Lucas had seen as a child.

Like Ebert, I enjoy films by Ingmar Bergman, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Akira Kurosawa to name a few. If you want some depressing insight into humanity I’d recommend The Bicycle Thief or Aguirre, the Wrath of God. But there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a Marvel movie because movies have never been just about what we are. They’ve always been about what we hope, and fear, and what makes us laugh.

The grand figures of Hollywood have never liked popular entertainment. The films that make all the money rarely get any love at the Academy Awards. I think it’s largely because a lot of Academy voters are simply snobs. The audience may not always be right about any particular film (I still can’t understand how anyone thought Prometheus was a good movie), but in general, the audience is right to love science fiction, horror, comedy, rom coms, and all the other genre films that someone somewhere has probably derided as “not cinema.”

If Roger Ebert were still around I think he’d be disagreeing with Martin Scorsese. Indeed, Ebert gave Iron Man a four-star review back in 2008.