What I know about cinema is like a fart in a hurricane compared to what Martin Scorsese understands. In Marty’s career, he’s doled out more crackers than a particularly unproductive Ritz factory, many of which reside amongst my personal favourites. However, writing about pop-culture all day – and hopefully celebrating the best of it as I go along – gives me a bit of leg up when considering how art is consumed, and I’d like to assure the worrywart gangster-phile that he need not fret over the seeming lycra-clad encroachment of buffering Hollywood on arthouse cinema, for thankfully it matters not.
Earlier this month, Martin Scorsese penned an article for Harpers Magazine entitled Il Maestro. What was intended as an ode to the great Italian arthouse director Federico ‘Il Maestro’ Fellini quickly departed from the province of eulogy and descended into the plashy depths of a diatribe about streaming services and the multifaceted threats to the quality of cinema in general. Besides the obvious irony that his latest movie, The Irishman, was hosted and funded by Netflix was a second, subtler sort of contradiction.
Upon the release of Scorsese’s article, some critics may have called him hypocritical, and whilst it’s true that the downsides of streaming might not have really been his point to make having just received $159million from Netflix, whether you can tout a philosophy that you contradict is another matter altogether. However, what was interesting while reading his article, from my perspective as somebody who covers culture all day, was the way in which he chose to perpetuate the argument that unless we’re very careful, the good cinema will be bludgeoned out by the bad.
Fellini, like Scorsese, was an undeniable master of his craft, truly brilliant in fact. The opening sequence to his 1963 release, 8½, is a triumph in of itself; the creative cojones behind its inception, the audacity of attempting it, and the stunning skill of pulling it off all deserve to eulogised, which Scorsese rightfully obliges. It would truly be a sin if the modern world let the next Fellini get drowned out by the high-octane silver-screen of harmless, cheap thrills.
However, if Scorsese had glanced at the US box office’s commercial revenue figures in 1963, he wouldn’t even find 8½ in the top 25. In fact, according to IMDb, 8½ grossed only $195,950 worldwide. Whereas the 1963 equivalent of a Marvel sequel, Son of Flubber, the long-awaited follow-up to beleaguered Professor Ned Brainard’s goofball antics in The Absent-Minded Professor, grossed $22,129,412 in the US alone, according to box office archive site The Numbers.
The point I’m making is that the fervent nostalgia with which Scorsese beautifully describes the billowing art scene of the 1960s has a hint of Kubrick’s one-point perspective about it and a solid splattering of Godard’s Kalopsia. Everywhere in culture, we see history play tricks on us time and time again. For instance, David Bowie’s big breakthrough single, ‘Space Oddity’, charted at a hardly earth-shattering number five in the UK. It was kept off the top off the top spot by Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’, which in retrospect is like Muhammad Ali being fended off by a light spring breeze. In literature, Herman Melville, the man who wrote one of the most famous and beloved works of fiction of all time with Moby Dick, died destitutely and out of print. It is clear that the rising battle between art and commercialism, one that seems at times to be wrapped around the fickle finger of fate, is nothing new. More often than not, though, the prevalent ratio is decided by public opinion, which has remained unchanged since a cave dweller got sick of carrying rocks, drew a mammoth on the wall, and told everyone that they were now an artist.
That cave painting, no doubt, would have been as polarising then as Federico Fellini or The Fantastic Four is now. Some people like The Incredible Hulk, others prefer the incomparable Herzog.
In short, to piteously lament the loss of art through the sinful ways of commercial streaming is like Michelangelo furiously begrudging the culture eviscerating rise of Hardwearing Acrylic Eggshell ‘ideal for decking’. So long as there is an appetite to read essays about Fellini and pithy articles like this in response, or to indulge in our cinema club feature, there will most certainly be a space for art cinema. The millions of donations that have been pledged to independent cinemas during the pandemic are testimony to this.
Whether it is under the cape-clad banner of Marvel or the old hat tomfoolery of Son of Flubber, the mainstream has always been shit to us pompous culture-philes, just as there are some hefty dumps of pretentious dog-dirt from so-called highbrow cinema too. The cream, however, usually rises to the top as all great artists find a way not just to adapt the constrictions of circumstance but to usurp the confines of commercialism with an assegai of unavoidable creative intent.
When you’ve got directors like Sean Baker innovating his way around budget problems with the rightfully acclaimed movie Tangerine, which was shot entirely on a trio of iPhone 5s, then the innovation of young artists will always be there to overcome any nefarious threats posed by the nebulous factor of ‘algorithms’ that Scorsese seems so worries about.
As the force behind some of the greatest movies in history, and one of the most profound creative influences in modern culture, his opinion obviously counts for a lot and many of the points he raises in his article are completely merited. But from a consumer’s point of view, the biggest threat to cinema most certainly comes from the fact that you almost need to re-mortgage the house just to get into one.