Despite Martin Scorsese’s best efforts to distinguish films from movies, studios still make low-brow, crowd-pleasers in bulk to help pay for the cinema Scorsese loves and makes. For every superhero reboot and sequel there’s a handful of arthouse dramas that will inevitably either be long, hooked foul balls or deep home runs. Cinephiles want as many of these made as possible, even if the majority of them are Green Book and not The Green Mile. We want creative chain lightning, but we’ll take the trash heap too. I take Scorsese at his word. He’s certainly earned the right to be cranky in public without reproach.
The truth that I know Martin Scorsese knows is that moviemaking is a business and no producer puts together a movie—or a film—on a promise that it will lose money. Intellectual property is expensive, however, and making a movie is lumpy; one cannot make half a movie to sell, seriously. Development and talent are expensive. That’s why movie studios make sequels—long character and dramatic arcs that span multiple movies are an added bonus that dovetail nicely with the economies of scale a serialized franchise brings. Screenwriters don’t have to teach audiences how to understand characters they’ve seen before and dev time shrinks; set pieces can be reused (or in the case of animation, frames, if at all possible).
Action movies are often begrudged with subpar scripts for no good reason. It makes little sense, to be honest. If an audience is collectively feeble-minded, it would seem that the screenwriter and director’s job would be to subvert that notion. (Everyone gets treated stupid in an election year). Even if the director just wanted to blow things up on screen and race fast cars down empty roads (totally valid and fun), there’s no reason why the script has to be laughably bad. I’m looking at you Wonder Woman 84.
Yet, there was a time when serialized fiction wasn’t pure spectacle. There was once The Thin Man.
There are six Thin Man movies and a television series to boot. Lots of serialized IP, a caper-du-jour hour, and infectious and wildly charismatic William Powell cast as Sherlock Holmes define this series. Is it art? The studio system dominated Hollywood through its first few decades, and studio heads and investors were surely interested in printing money with Powell’s face on it. The sequels, from the few I’ve since tracked down, are fun and unique because of Powell’s characterization of dick Nick Charles. Not much different, actually, than Robert Downey, Jr. as dickish Iron Man.
But, for what it’s worth, would Scorsese call The Thin Man‘s fifth sequel, Song Of The Thin Man, a movie with stale IP, a pure profit flick, art? Sure, if there’s money for him to make Silence 2.
Bury The Thin Man to captive HBOMax subscribers, because there is no chance this movie beats It Happened One Night at the 1934 Oscars. An otherwise strong year for nominees (except you, Viva Villa!), The Thin Man lives on through its various entry points, 80 years on as a fun laugh with probably too many sequels.