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Martin Scorsese vehemently defends Fellini and foreign films in a letter from 1993

Martin Scorsese may have made waves a few years ago when he claimed that the recent influx of blockbuster superhero movies was more akin to visual theme parks than they were the art form of cinema, but he didn’t just do it for the shock factor. The acclaimed director, who was in charge of mammoth hits like Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, has always thought of cinema as the crowning achievement of film and has often been the man to defend its credibility.

The same can be said of foreign films too. Scorsese has always lauded the importance of cultural diversity and, in this letter to the New York Times back in 1993, sees Scorsese vehemently defend the need for more foreign films. Scorsese’s opportunity to become cinema’s own kind of superhero arose when he read an article by New York Times writer Bruce Weber. Weber proclaimed his lack of appreciation for what he saw as deliberately obtuse foreign language films, noting the late, great Federico Fellini.

By many classic cinema lovers, Fellini is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of his day and Scorsese is certainly one of them. Given the article’s timing, written just a week after Fellini’s death, Scorsese saw fit to respond to the article, and it is a truly scathing and scything assessment — the kind of letter that confirms just how highly Scorsese held the old masters of his art.

The article aimed at Fellini initially but then moved forward to loop in other notable figures in their field such as James Joyce, Andy Warhol, John Cage among other notable artists who all tried to move their creativity forward by creating work that was rich and dense in texture, something Weber claims was style getting in the way of substance.

“It’s not the opinion I find distressing,” writes Scorsese in response. “But the underlying attitude toward artistic expression that is different, difficult or demanding.” Scorsese also noted the timing of the piece: “Was it necessary to publish this article only a few days after Fellini’s death? I feel it’s a dangerous attitude, limiting, intolerant. If this is the attitude toward Fellini, one of the old masters, and the most accessible at that, imagine what chance new foreign films and filmmakers have in this country.”

Ever the storyteller, Scorsese provides a searing allegory to illuminate his argument: “It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: “Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?” The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.”

Scorsese is quick to point out the issues with this seemingly harmless advert: “It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories?

The issue here is not “film theory,” but cultural diversity and openness. Diversity guarantees our cultural survival. When the world is fragmenting into groups of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, film is a powerful tool to knowledge and understanding. To our shame, your article was cited at length by the European press.”

In essence, Scorsese’s letter, which you can read in full below, asks: “Is this closed-mindedness something we want to pass along to future generations? […] Ultimately, who will decide who ‘we’ are?” It’s not a question we’re sure anyone could or should be able to answer but it is a question we must ask.

New York,
19 Nov 1993

To the Editor:

“Excuse Me; I Must Have Missed Part of the Movie” (The Week in Review, 7 November) cites Federico Fellini as an example of a filmmaker whose style gets in the way of his storytelling and whose films, as a result, are not easily accessible to audiences. Broadening that argument, it includes other artists: Ingmar Bergman, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Cage, Alain Resnais and Andy Warhol.

It’s not the opinion I find distressing, but the underlying attitude toward artistic expression that is different, difficult or demanding. Was it necessary to publish this article only a few days after Fellini’s death? I feel it’s a dangerous attitude, limiting, intolerant. If this is the attitude toward Fellini, one of the old masters, and the most accessible at that, imagine what chance new foreign films and filmmakers have in this country.

It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: “Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?” The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.
It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories?

The issue here is not “film theory,” but cultural diversity and openness. Diversity guarantees our cultural survival. When the world is fragmenting into groups of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, film is a powerful tool to knowledge and understanding. To our shame, your article was cited at length by the European press.

The attitude that I’ve been describing celebrates ignorance. It also unfortunately confirms the worst fears of European filmmakers.

Is this closed-mindedness something we want to pass along to future generations?

If you accept the answer in the commercial, why not take it to its natural progression:

Why don’t they make movies like ours?
Why don’t they tell stories as we do?
Why don’t they dress as we do?
Why don’t they eat as we do?
Why don’t they talk as we do?
Why don’t they think as we do?
Why don’t they worship as we do?
Why don’t they look like us?

Ultimately, who will decide who “we” are?

—Martin Scorsese