In a career glistening in Oscar gold, Martin Scorsese has been one of the few auteur directors who has also managed to beguile mainstream audiences. This unique position of straddling both commercial and critical success has made him a key voice over the years when it comes to tackling issues surrounding the future of film. Not so long ago he denounced Marvel movies, saying they were “not cinema”, now in an essay he has penned for Harper’s Magazine titled ‘Il Maestro’, he has turned his attention to streaming platforms.
The piece as a whole largely focusses on ‘Il Maestro’ himself, the legendary Italian director Federico Fellini, whom Scorsese speaks about in glowing tones. However, the Taxi Driver director also turns his attention to streaming services and their negative impact on cinema, or as he puts it: “[cinema is being] systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content.’”
He goes on in scathing tones, all but abandoning Fellini, to state: “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,’” Scorsese writes. “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.”
He later goes on to break down the semantics in which modern cinema is currently being described in, writing: “Content [is a] business term for all moving images: A David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.” Whilst it is rather amusing to know that cat videos are on Marty’s radar, the stark point he makes rings true and it stretches way beyond the simple word choice of ‘content’.
“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 — in that sense, everything from Sunrise to La Strada to 2001 is now pretty much wrung dry and ready for the ‘Art Film’ swim lane on a streaming platform.” He goes on to lambast this boxing-in of ‘art’ even further, vying against algorithms and their diluting effect on the rich variety of cinema.
The irony is not lost on the director that he has been a recent beneficiary of streaming services, his latest movie The Irishman was released on Netflix alongside its cinematic release. And posits that streaming services do not necessarily go hand in hand with bad cinema but rather that the heavy-handed ‘business-like’ treatment of the art form by the platforms is condemnable. Whether or not you feel that his argument is weakened by the fact he recently collaborated with the very thing he condemns is for you to decide.
Ultimately, he concludes, “I suppose we also have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it isn’t. Federico Fellini is a good place to start,” bring his essay back around to the brief. “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.”