Never one to shy away from airing his opinions on cinema (and nor should he be) Martin Scorsese has penned an essay for Harper’s Magazine in which he offered up a string of criticisms about streaming services.
It wasn’t the entire intent of his piece, which was instead about his admiration for Italian film icon Federico Fellini, but since we doubt most of you are interested in Fellini (not that you’re not cultured) we’ll stick to Scorsese’s thoughts on streaming. In either case anyone who’s interested in reading the whole thing is free to do so.
As the 20-time Oscar winner sees it (talking Scorsese here), “The art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content.”
Scorsese goes on to admit that he’s benefitted from streaming services seeking “content,” but that the catch-all label is being too broadly used to include “all moving images.” As Scorsese puts it, a lot of unsophisticated things are getting tagged with that label.
“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.”
He shared his belief that placing all movies on the same level “has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t.” Scorsese continued, “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.”
He also wondered “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 returns to the idea of streaming after heaping praise upon Fellini, and also issued a warning to those within the industry who assume the “movie business” will fix the trend.
“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 said. “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.”
Before developing opinions on it, especially passionate ones, read the whole thing at Harper’s. After all, it’s always possible we pulled the unhelpful quotes.