Published on March 25th, 2021 | by Douglas Rasmussen0
Cinema Versus Content: Martin Scorsese’s Views on Film
Scorsese once again elaborates on his controversial statements on superhero movies in Harper’s Monthly and we take a look at where he’s right and wrong.
In the March 2021 issue of Harper’s Monthly director Martin Scorsese writes in praise of Italian director Frederico Fellini. The essay, called ‘Il Maestro: Federico Fellini and the Lost Magic of Cinema’ Scorsese extrapolates on previous statements he made regarding the state of the film industry, in particular Marvel movies, summer blockbusters, and franchised properties. Last time around that inspired a controversy and a verbal war between cinephiles, with colleague Francis Ford Coppola cursing the hyperbolic term “despicable” to describe superhero films, and various internet chat shows expressing anger and frustration over Scorsese’s arrogant dismissal of the genre. A controversy which had Scorsese contributing to a New York Times editorial elaborating on his views, arguing that while Marvel movies are technically well-made, they lack emotional nuance and complexity, psychological insight, and revelation. Everything in them, according to Scorsese, is formulaic.
Scorsese continues that line of thinking in this essay, writing that the “art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, content.” Scorsese is making a clear distinction between cinema as the true expression of art and content, which is consumer-based and driven by the profit motive. The end goal of content is merchandising opportunities and acquiring views on Netflix or Disney+.
As Scorsese writes, “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.” Content, then, forms an undifferentiated mass where the only consideration is the bottom line. Worse yet, according to Scorsese, this need for constant content, “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.” In a time when every studio/broadcast channel/production company has their own streaming service, I cannot say I entirely disagree with Scorsese. Quality is often sacrificed for quantity in order to provide enough content that customers can access new material on a daily basis.
Scorsese admits that, “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.”
Scorsese is being somewhat idealistic. His basic argument is that “If further viewing is ‘suggested’ by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are only based on subject matter or genre, then what does that do for the art of cinema?” He’s not inherently wrong, and in fact, when everything seems to be devoured by Disney, this does raise some concerns about viewer choice.
I would not say Scorsese is necessarily wrong in his criticisms of streaming content, but there is also a legacy of underrepresentation of minorities in traditional film. Indeed, in the list of films provided by Scorsese at the beginning of the essay, the majority are by white male directors, mostly French, but with Russian, Polish, and Swedish directors as well. Only two of the films listed, Love at Twenty—an anthology film featuring Japanese director Shintarō Ishihara—and Pigs and Battleships are by Japanese directors. No African American directors or women directors are listed because African Americans and women were absent in the Hollywood system during Scorsese’s childhood and were mostly ignored by art theatres who would play European films.
What Scorsese is lamenting is the loss of discovery, and in that I do find myself somewhat in agreement. For cinephiles there will always be options to scrounge and find good quality films, but for families who are crowded in a house with their kids during a pandemic, of course they are going to go for the most convenient option available, and I cannot really blame them. I have no kids, and therefore all the time in the world to go hunting for these types of films, but for a family struggling through a pandemic, Netflix or Disney+ are the only real viable options. And as much as Scorsese admires the moviegoing experience, how does that play out in a pandemic when theatres are closed?
In regards to Scorsese’s views on cinema versus content,I do find myself in agreement that the move towards blockbuster entertainment can be seen as a troubling one, even as I myself have been known to enjoy comic book material from time to time, even if I am not predisposed to superhero films as a whole. While I have a distrust over gatekeepers of culture and hierarchies, such as the distinction between cinema and content, I do not think Scorsese’s comments can be easily dismissed, even if he appears to be arguing from a position of privilege. Scorsese is not entirely incorrect, despite the flaws in his argument, and it does lead us to question whether the superhero genre can transcend the limitations of the genre or if it is irrevocably locked into a stagnant cycle of empty spectacle.
There are examples of critically acclaimed films in the genre, such as The Dark Knight and Logan, so do these belong to the category of content or cinema? As much as I enjoyed Logan, I would not say that it compares to the expressionistic style and brilliance ofScorsese’s Goodfellas, but then again, it certainly fares better than the utterly vacuous and hollow The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese is correct in his assertion that media companies are indeed crowding the marketplace and how the drive for profit has edged out cinematic variety, with his own film The Irishman having to be relegated to Netflix. In this there is a validity to some of Scorsese’s arguments, even if some of his assertions seem aristocratic.