Martin Scorsese rails against the movie business in a powerful new essay on Federico Fellini, published in the March 2021 edition of Harper’s Magazine (read the full essay here). Titled “Il Maestro,” the essay finds Scorsese waxing poetic on Fellini’s filmography and using the Italian filmmaking icon to argue why the magic of cinema is now being lost among the onslaught of content being released by film studios and streaming companies. Scorsese acknowledges streamers benefit his career (without Netflix there would be no “The Irishman,” and without Apple there would be no “Killers of the Flower Moon” on the way), but writes “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator” by conceptualization of films as “content.”
“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. ‘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.”
The packaging of all moving images as equitable content “has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t,” Scorsese continues. “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?”
Scorsese adds, “Curating isn’t undemocratic or ‘elitist,’ a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. 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.”
Later in the essay, Scorsese writes “the cinema and the importance it holds in our culture” has changed and that cinephiles “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,” the essay reads. “Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly.”
Scorsese 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. 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.”
Next up for Scorsese is “Killers of the Flower Moon,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Lily Gladstone. The Apple-Paramount backed movie goes into production in the first half of 2021. Head over to Harper Magazine’s website to read Scorsese’s new essay in its entirety.