Our scene opens in a New York Diner—the kind that would have been bustling at 3:00am only a few years ago, but in our rent-hiked, COVID-ravaged city only a few people are sitting. They’re engaged in a heated discussion—or at any rate, two of them are, while a third seems to shrink into a corner of their shared booth. One man is short, boisterous, flinging his hands with each word. When he laughs his whole body shakes as if he’s being electrocuted. The person he’s yelling at is taller and broader, leans back laconically against the naugahyde, his mouth in a permanent smirk. Their companion is lean, soft-spoken. For some reason, his face is nearly always obscured. Sometimes he appears to be listening to another conversation entirely.
[The following totally real conversation contains spoilers for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania]
Paul Schrader: You know they’re blurring out MODOK’s ass in some theaters. That’s how puritanical this new generation has become—they’re afraid of an ass!
Martin Scorsese: Have you seen Eo yet? Remarkable picture. Just heartbreaking. Of course humanity can only see itself through the eyes of a—now me I was a puffer fish in that movie I did for Katzenberg, Sykes, Sykes the Puffer, but I don’t know how much of the human cond—
Schrader: Why do people do things—because you have a great need, a great hunger to see yourself up there on the screen. To shout your existence. Or you do them because you want to get famous or you want to get laid. Most of the people in this movie are already famous, and I don’t believe anyone’s getting laid anymore. I simply don’t believe it. So where was the need in this film?
Scorsese: You see what I mean though? This isn’t cinema, they’re, they’re amusement parks! Spectacles! Throwing visuals at you and dazzling you with, well, with marvels, you see, and—
Schrader: Well, but they are movies, Marty. They’re what the audience wants now. They may not be what you want. What’s the point of an amusement park? To amuse. The park is meant to give you an experience, and this was an experience. You can’t expect—if you’re in a culture with no real center, you can’t expect everyone to agree on what’s amusing or interesting.
Scorsese: The ants were good, though—like Them! You remember Them! A classic picture, a great example of a B-picture commenting on society, I remember it came out the year after Father Principe joined Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (laughs) Giant ants! But they were also a way for children to process the terror of nuclear threat, y’see. You could just imagine a giant ant marching down Elizabeth Street! Those were great pictures, those big bug pictures, and the… Black Lagoon, The Wolf Man, of course to me Sunset Boulevard even was a horror picture. Did you see those—oh, of course you didn’t.
Schrader: I wasn’t allowed to watch movies, Marty. Never saw a movie until I was 17.
(A voice speaks up from behind the menu.)
Terrence Malick: Why was that, Paul?
Schrader: Calvinism, Terry. We’ve been over this.
Malick: Oh, oh yes. The austerity of that faith…
(The other two men wait for him to go on, but Malick, behind his menu, has subsided.)
Scorsese: But where is the—in this Quantum Realm where is the life, the society? When my family had to move back to Elizabeth Street there was all manner of stores—candy stores, green grocers, the pork store, the fish market, and the kids, like dead end kids or east side kids, with-with stickball, and fighting with trashcan lids, and the people on the Bowery a few blocks over—it was life, is what I’m saying. Where are the pork stores in the Quantum Realm? Where are the children turning trashcan lids into shields?
(Both men shake their heads in disappointment. Outside, an ambulance flashes down the avenue at breakneck speed.)
Scorsese: And even in that scene with, with Murray, we could have gotten a sense of the culture of the Quantum Realm from how these beings ate. It’s the most basic way to show a culture. But instead—
Schrader: Well instead, we get a sense of the Bill Murray character—if you can call it that—that he’s willing to eat these creatures alive, like Oldboy, I suppose. Which is then meant to tell us something about his willingness to harm others for his own designs, but of course how is that any different than the wreckage Janet left in her wake? So we’re left with, what—Pym is supposed to be a vegetarian, or a socialist, or something, but the film won’t commit to anything beyond a few hints of an ethos.
For me I thought the main flaw—and of course there are many—but the main flaw was that the characters would announce a problem, and then boom, there’s the problem on the screen, and then here are the characters commenting on the problem again. They don’t trust us to put the pieces together for ourselves. They won’t allow us the slower, quieter moments, for us to simply exist with the characters. And they even hint toward it, in the one scene that stood out for me, when Scott Lang realizes that he’s doomed humanity.
Scorsese: Yes! That moment! For that one moment a whole other picture opened up. But it was like the didn’t have the confidence even in that moment—they show us Scott at the birthday party—I did like the idea that people who got blipped get extra birthday parties—and it’s clear that he’s haunted by this, this revelation that he’s had, but rather than just leaving us there, in a close-up on his face, for instance—
Schrader: It has to show us all the Kangs celebrating their inevitable invasion, which will presumably come along down the factory line by 2026 or so.
Scorsese: Right. Right! Rudd was good though.
Schrader: Oh he was excellent. That was actually–
Scorsese: The picture seemed to be setting us up for a critique of mindless masculinity. We have the father who cares, who celebrates smallness rather than chasing after the sort of he-man ethos of a Captain America or a Thor, who reads to children, who’s happy to take a backseat to his wife. And we see early on that it’s the daughter who’s taking up the mantle. This will be her journey, and her father’s journey is to let her go. But then any critique of masculinity is lost in the final half, when instead he grows to his largest size and stomps around like Godzilla or Kong, crushing all the faceless followers of Kang. And we’re meant to exult in this violence, the film won’t stop for even a moment to consider that these are people who Scott’s killing. At least, I assume they’re people, the picture never makes that clear. They have minds that can be read, we’re shown that, but do they—it might be archaic of me to even say this—but do they have souls?
Schrader: Well. Do any of us?
(Malick clears his throat. the two men look at him expectantly, but they can’t see his expression, as it’s hidden behind a large copy of Sein und Zeit. From behind the book, he gestures the waiter over to refill his coffee.)
Schrader: I did like that both the father and the daughter were willing to be jailed for their beliefs. It was a nice, if shallow, stab at the idea that often the very people a society imprisons are the ones it ought to listen to. But I thought the filmmaker missed an excellent opportunity—if they’d been in cells beside each other, rather than across that nondescript hallway, then at least we could have gotten the stronger visual of them being united spiritually even as they were physically separated.
Scorsese: Like the Pickpocket ending.
Schrader: It’s a good ending!
Scorsese: It is a good ending.
Malick: If they had followed the rays.
Scorsese: The what?
Malick (still behind his book): The rays, the creatures that flew them to that doomed meeting with Bill Murray? If they had followed them on their flight. Let us live in that flight. OR… if you’re going to promise us ants in your film, then give us ants. Not anthropomorphized ants whose concerns align precisely with the human protagonists, but the ants themselves. We’re told that the ants went through thousands of years of developments during their fall into the Quantum Realm—imagine that film. The film of their evolution, simultaneously falling spatially and rising intellectually, learning new forms of community and communion. Imagine that film.
Schrader: And I suppose you want the film to be four hours long.
Malick: And why only make one film? You could make many different versions of that story. Break free of the cage of time, as Kang would say.
Scorsese: They should keep the camera with the ants, give us a sense of the size. The way the camera had to be in the ring in Raging Bull, you gotta follow the ball in The Color of Money, follow the nurse in The Irishman—that’s where your story is, the camera is part of the story. It’s not just recording the action, it’s part of it—
Malick: The camera is the Spirit.
(Scorsese and Schrader look over at Malick, but his face is obscured by the steam from his coffee, great clouds of steam. The fluorescent light of the diner catches in the steam and tumbles back up toward the stamped tin ceiling, almost as though it were a living thing, a delicate winged insect seeking a current of air to carry it aloft.)
Scorsese: There were three, four, maybe five times when this picture came right up to the edge of meaning, and the last one, well, of course I’ll say this—
Schrader: The final fight with Kang.
Scorsese: The final fight with Kang! After all the hints that the picture is going to talk about masculinity in a different way, they present us with this story—one of the oldest stories, in many ways, of this man sacrificing himself for those he loves. This father, who failed, in a sense, when he agreed to go after the core to save his daughter’s life, now understands true sacrifice, what is truly expected of him as a father and a man, and stays behind to fight Kang after ensuring his family has gone safely back to earth. And they show us this brutal beating, and then…
Schrader: They take it back.
Scorsese: They take it back! They give us this ticking clock that the portal will close, and Scott has to keep Kang from going through. But then Hope van Dyne can just go back for him, and suddenly the two of them together can overpower Kang, even though he was too strong only a moment ago—
Schrader: Well, he was weakened by the ants.
Scorsese (waving him away): Yes, of course, the ants! But Scott’s noble sacrifice is negated, y’see, and then in the way of these pictures as soon as Hope comes back he’s able to stand, he’s able to talk, and think, and smile. He takes a beating that would have kept Jake LaMotta down, but he can just shake it off. This idea that they almost get to, that perhaps the ultimate form of masculinity, and of fatherhood, is to be willing to be defeated, to accept that you’re mortal, that perhaps there is great strength to be found in that type of willing submission—the film gets too close to a certain type of truth and backs away from it.
Schrader: You’re unwilling to accept the resurrection of Scott Lang.
Scorsese: I’m saying the picture would have been stronger if he’d died. Really died. No one stays dead in these pictures anyway, but give us something to care about!
Malick: Except Aunt May.
(The men murmur their respect for Aunt May; the door jangles open, and all three look up to see Brian De Palma hunched in the doorway. Schrader slides over to make room.)
Brian De Palma: Hey, you three finally saw Quantumania?
(Scorsese and Schrader nod, Malick waves his Heidegger.)
De Palma: So, uh, Janet and Kang for sure boned, right?
Scorsese: Absolutely, absolutely.
Schrader: Without a doubt.
Malick: It’s the only conclusion you can draw.
Martin Scorsese is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, film historian, and voice actor living and working in New York City. His latest project, Killers of the Flower Moon, should release this year.
Paul Schrader is a filmmaker, former film critic, and #1 Taylor Swift fan, whose works include Taxi Driver, Cat People, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and First Reformed. His latest film (WHICH WILL NOT BE PROBLEMATIC AT ALL) is Master Gardener, which is set for a May, 2023 release date in the U.S.
Terrence Malick prefers his privacy and does not give interviews, a fact which is nearly as miraculous as his filmography. He’s said to be working on an allegorical film about the life of Jesus.
Leah Schnelbach saw Goodfellas in the theater when they were a kid, and everything since has been a little disappointing. Come yell at them on Twitter.