Martin Scorsese enraged Marvel fans last year when he labeled the franchise's films "not cinema."
"I tried, you know?" said the iconic director. "But that's not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn't the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being."
Naturally, the statement incensed fans of the superhero franchise and sparked many arguments about quality, pretension, and the media at large. But now Scorsese has come forward with a clearer and more persuasive argument about his problem with the state of the movies today.
In a new op-ed in Harper's entitled "Il Maestro," Scorsese makes an attempt to clarify his comments while making an important argument about the moneyed interests and algorithms that dictate what audiences see.
The article begins with a nostalgic depiction of someone walking through downtown New York, past theatres advertising Andy Warhol and Jean Luc Godard films. In this idealized memory, the viewer is exposed to a thousand great movies just by walking down the street.
But "flash forward to the present day, as the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, 'content,'" Scorsese writes.
Martin Scorsese says “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its l… https://t.co/iCNTrLrwe4— DiscussingFilm (@DiscussingFilm)1613503732.0
Content, as we know, is now an umbrella term for everything we see online and on screen. "Content creators'' make content meant to blow up online. "Content writers'' generate articles about anything. Content, as many a media executive has said, is king.
"As recently as fifteen 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,'" writes Scorsese. "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."
The media world's obsession with "content" — which essentially translates to releasing as much of anything as possible, no matter the quality, as long as it generates profit — shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. But Scorsese's op-ed illuminates just how damaging the "content" economy can be to quality, to variety, and even to the human perception of meaning and creativity itself.
In a world where everything is content and all content is viewed as potential profit, "Everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn't," writes Scorsese.
His critique of automation (and how it kills quality) is an adept one. "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?" he asks.
Social media algorithms — whether on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, or Netflix — present us with the opportunity to digest an endless loop of content that is similar to what we've already watched or clicked on. This traps us in feedback loops that reinforce one-sided world views, which might involve superhero tropes or QAnon.
Here's where Scorsese's arguments start to fracture. The movie business has always been dictated by money and profit, and there has never been a time where quality alone determined what got shown on screen. In some ways, it's easy to see Scorsese's argument as the typical cry of an aging artist lamenting how art was just "better" during bygone times. It's true that in Scorsese's day, white men typically made most of the movies and curated selections (as opposed to algorithmically dictated selections) are susceptible to racism, classism, and every other "-ism" in the book.
But there is a difference between clinging to bygone metrics of quality and asking that quality simply mean something — anything at all. "Curating isn't undemocratic or 'elitist,' a term that is now used so often that it's become meaningless," Scorsese writes. "It's an act of generosity — you're sharing what you love and what has inspired you." As someone who has dedicated much of his life to preserving film and encouraging the careers of young filmmakers, Scorsese is more qualified than most to argue that great films (not giant studios) should get more airtime.
After all, in many ways, quality no longer determines what we're shown online at all. Streaming services and platforms typically show us content based only on algorithms, which are in turn "based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else."
Scorsese goes on to make a lyrical argument for the greatness of Federico Fellini, whose movies, in his argument, defined great cinema.
But his strongest points are made when he's critiquing the hyper-capitalist forces that determine what movies and media can succeed (or appear next on our streaming queues) and what gets left in the dust.
"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," the Taxi Driver director continues.
He seems to be asking: In the world of content and algorithms, is there any space for great art — the kind that reminds us why we're alive and why we create?
Perhaps Scorsese is too hard on Marvel films, making them a scapegoat for a bigger issue. And there's nothing fundamentally wrong with lowbrow content that helps us get through the day. Plus, definitions of greatness constantly change, and clinging to dated ideas of greatness gets us nowhere.
But what else are we losing by sacrificing our free will, our taste, and our attention itself to the decision-making, attention-leaching power of the corporate movie studio and increasingly intelligent algorithms?
Thanks to giant corporations, their expert algorithms, and ever-more intelligent advertising, it's easier than ever to feel like you're choosing what you're actually being sold, 24/7. It's easy to feel that you're choosing to open Instagram, Netflix, YouTube, or the latest Marvel film.
But are you? And when you exit these apps or sift through this content, do you feel fulfilled or empty?
The solution, Scorsese seems to imply, is to actively break away from the algorithm and choose to engage with content that means something to you, that moves you, that makes you grow — like art should. Easier said than done in a world where endless low-quality content has a chokehold on us all, but perhaps still possible — though for how long?
Scorsese’s passion for preserving the art of film and the language around it is important. It goes beyond whether m… https://t.co/cRB2SYiPfP— monica rambeau's natural hair routine (@monica rambeau's natural hair routine)1613511365.0