Martin Scorsese critiques streaming platforms, modern film industry in new essay

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Martin Scorsese is at it again — and by “it” we mean dropping nuanced thoughts on the current state of the film industry.

The legendary director (most recently of The Irishman) wrote an essay for the March 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine honoring the late Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini (director of such revered classics as and La Dolce Vita). In the essay, Scorsese critiques the modern media industry, including streaming platforms, for what he views as “the art of cinema… being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content.'”

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“As recently as 15 years ago, the term ‘content’ was heard only when people were discussing the cinema on a serious level, and it was contrasted with and measured against ‘form,'” the filmmaker wrote. “Then, gradually, it was used more and more by the people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should. ‘Content’ became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores. On the one hand, this has been good for filmmakers, myself included. On the other hand, it has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t. If further viewing is ‘suggested’ by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema?

“Curating isn’t undemocratic or ‘elitist,’ a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless,” Scorsese continues. “It’s an act of generosity — you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you. (The best streaming platforms, such as the Criterion Channel and MUBI and traditional outlets such as TCM, are based on curating — they’re actually curated.) Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.”

Scorsese, it should be noted, has spent much of his career “curating” in the sense he describes, attempting to make the films he loved in his youth more accessible to modern audiences. In 1990, the director founded the nonprofit The Film Foundation, which works to restore and preserve films from around the world.

Also, as he alludes, Scorsese has struggled to get movies made at traditional studios in recent years; The Irishman was ultimately funded and distributed by Netflix after Paramount balked at the $100 million-plus budget. His next project, Killers of the Flower Moon, will be financed by Apple TV+. Before that, he struggled within the studio system for many years, often battling executives over his films’ lengthy runtimes.

“It’s like being in a bunker and you’re firing out in all directions,” Scorsese told The New York Times in a January 2020 profile. “You begin to realize you’re not speaking the same language anymore, so you can’t make pictures anymore.”

The director further critiques the film industry in the Harper’s essay, writing, “We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word ‘business,’ and value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property.”

“I suppose we also have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it isn’t,” he concludes. “Federico Fellini is a good place to start. You can say a lot of things about Fellini’s movies, but here’s one thing that is incontestable: they are cinema. Fellini’s work goes a long way toward defining the art form.”

Of course, Scorsese’s ideas of what constitutes “cinema” landed him on the receiving end of the internet’s ire in late 2019, when he repeatedly criticized the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “not cinema.” In an interview with Empire, the filmmaker said, “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Scorsese later expanded on those comments in a New York Times op-ed, writing, “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”

You can read his latest treatise in full at Harper’s.

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