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Scorsese and the argument against "content"

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perc2100:
A lot of people this post-Valentine's Day week are a buzz over Martin Scorsese: one of the greatest American film directors in the history of the medium (that's objective, whether you generally like his films or not).  The nearly 80 year old has riled up genre fans in the past speaking out against the seeming quest to turn every comic book property into big film studio profit margins: he initially said he wasn't that into comic book movies (again, nearly 80 years old) and when that drew the ire of comic fans he explained in an essay that he thinks the business model of 'exploiting intellectual property for maximum profit margins are not high art, though there are phenomenal artists who do indeed make comic book/Marvel films" (you can read the original thoughts about comic films here: You are not allowed to view links. Register or Login and his follow-up essay expanding on his thoughts here: You are not allowed to view links. Register or Login ).  In his essay about comic/Marvel films, he even prefaces his thoughts with essentially saying "yeah, I'm old and if I were of a younger generation I may be into this stuff."  Those thoughts, all published when he was promoting THE IRISHMAN, blew up the internet and ticked off a lot of Marvel movie fans who maybe (oddly?) took his personal preference too personally.

He's all over movie twitter/social media again with people flipping out over an essay he wrote for Harper's (Harper's, mind you, isn't exactly Gen X/Y/Millennial generation must-read material) that is mostly about the brilliant art of Italian film director Federico Fellini (a GOAT who died my senior year of high school in fall 1993 - before many folks upset over his words were born).  Throughout his essay (here You are not allowed to view links. Register or Login ), Scorsese spends A LOT of time (rightfully) championing the amazing art of Il Maestro: talking about his visual flair and many films Fellini directed, why certain films resonated with him, anecdotes from various productions, etc. 

Out of an almost 35 _paragraph_ essay, people flipped out about the first couple and last couple.  He says
--- Quote ---“the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator”
--- End quote ---
due to the naming of films as
--- Quote ---“content.”
--- End quote ---
. He discusses in his opening paragraphs how back in the day "content" was used to describe film, often _challenging_ film; nowadays 'content' is typically used by executives to mean everything from "Academy Award Nominated Film" (such as Scorsese's own THE IRISHMAN or Alfonso Cuarón's Spanish-language Black & White film ROMA), series ("Stranger Things") or even Super Bowl commercials.  He further talks about the devaluing of film when different movies can be whittled down as 'recommendations' based off of nothing other than algorithms based solely on films you've already seen via a specific service (as Netflix and Amazon, two I can think of off the top of my head, do).

People have (falsely, IMO) done gymnastics to circle back around to his "anti-MCU" sentiments from a year or two ago, OR have taken exception with him decided what is or isn't art (he was a bit more explicit in his 2019 Times article about his standards for what is art when it comes to film).  But BOTH articles essentially highlight the same complaint that seems to get lost in the shuffle by many: executives are not valuing film any more than which ones make the largest profit margins.  BOTH of his essays come from his own viewpoint: a nearly 80 year old who grew up in Little Italy in NYC asthmatic and spending lots of time watching film because he couldn't go outside and play with his friends.  Being Italian American/the son of an immigrant from Italy (his father was born in Palermo) he naturally had interest in Italian films and wasn't intimidated by other foreign-language film; he grew up adoring (I'd say "worshipping" but he is a fairly devout Catholic) art films.  He went to NYU and studied filmmaking, and as a young man in the late 1960's he was part of the wave of filmmakers during what's called the "New Hollywood" era: a time when studios were investing in directors who brought challenging films to the studios and audiences were responding.  The 1970's were truly a new golden era for film in America, where so many GOATs were making films they wanted to THEIR way: Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (who kind of broke the 'New Hollywood' era and brought us to the 'Blockbuster' era of filmmaking).  Directors like Brian DePalma, William Friedkin, and others were making challenging adult films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Night of the Living Dead, The Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver, Blow Out, The Exorcist, and Easy Rider.  Heck, Midnight Cowboy, a 1969 X-rated film that won Best Picture kicked off the New Hollywood era.
This is when Scorsese really broke into Hollywood and built his reputation.  During that era, he made such all-timers like: Mean Streets (his first 'real,' personal film), Alive Doesn't Live Here Anymore (which one Oscars of acting and is an example of him showcasing strong female actors in a feminist-themed film), Taxi Driver, New York New York (one of his true "misses," a post-modern musical that I admire for its bold ideas but undoubtedly does not succeed), and ending the era/beginning the 1980's with Raging Bull - a film many critiques and scholars deem the best film of the 1980's.

Scorsese is a filmmaker who worked and thrived in an era where big studios (all of the above are from major studios) bankrolled directors purely for their vision: they got interference and 'notes,' of course, but were often left to give us what they felt was their vision.  The 1980's saw Scorsese struggle to adjust to the Blockbuster era, though he did give us gems; besides Raging Bull we got The King of Comedy (HUGE influence of last year's THE JOKER), After Hours, The Color of Money (an early Tom Cruise starring vehicle), and The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese's true passion project that is the most beautiful and moving religious movie I've ever experienced).  He had found his stride a bit and hit the 1990's HARD with his undisputed masterpiece Goodfellas and followed it up with the low-key studio film Cape Fear remake, pseudo-art picture The Age of Innocence, etc.  And while he's thrived making films over 6 different decades (with his first of decade #7 in pre-production - an adaptation of "Killers of the Flower Moon" that's ironically bankrolled by Apple TV+).  Not only that, he's won Oscars as a Director & Producer and has spent a LOT of money and his Hollywood clout forming two companies that restore old films so they can be enjoyed for generations to come.

I point all of this out to remind us of two things: 1) again, he's old - almost 80 and 2) the man's accomplishments MORE than speak for themselves: Scorsese knows FAR more about film and its history than most mere mortals will ever learn in multiple lifetimes.  If we want to be dismissive and simplistic, we can say "dude is old and not into streaming because he's more into old fashioned art films in beautiful old movie theaters that mostly don't exist anymore" and that wouldn't necessarily be false.  Going deeper, he's ranting about The Hollywood studio system nowadays that is owned by huge companies conglomerates and executives who make decisions based solely on profit margins.  He doesn't say it here, but I'm sure he's thinking about Warner Bros studios who bankrolled Zach Snyder re-editing, finishing FX work, and having some reshoots for a movie that unperformed at the box office and was critically despised by many: that $70 million isn't too much less than what he made The Wolf of Wall Street for in 2013 (about $100 million) and could have financed what he likely would've considered a smaller, more artistic venture.  It's well known "The Snyder Cut" was solely bankrolled because HBO Max is way losing the streaming battles to Disney+, Netflix, and Amazon Prime and thought adding this hyped "content" would bring subscribers in droves - at the expense of a smaller filmmaker's art-house independent film.

He talks about how he himself has indeed been benefitted by streaming services: Netflix bankrolled The Irishman when other studios didn't want to drop the expense of de-aging DeNiro and Joe Pesci, and again his next film was partially funded by Apple+.  He's by no means saying streaming services are bad for the industry: he's saying that films are being more and more devalued as art and are being more and more looked at as mere disposable product.  Heck, Netflix is infamous for being horrible at promoting its own product it bankrolls!  I think it's indisputable at this point that Scorsese is right in his assessment here, and executives care mostly about churning out product in order to be able to brag that they have a new movie ready to stream every week of the year, and only if a film has the prestige of being an awards contender does a studio/company cherish a more artistic venture. 

I know a lot of folks will read the small sound bites of Scorsese's lengthy essay and miss the beautiful forrest of admiration for film (Fellini specifically, in this recent case) for the trees of criticizing current trends.  Many of the same folks may even naively write-off Scorsese's work as "gangster only" work which is laughably naive.  But when his essay is taken in its entirety, you'll more see an older GOAT filmmaker lamenting the disposable attitude modern young executives exhibit towards films as merely "content" and not the cherished works of art they should be heralded as.

I'm clearly a bit biased as I feel Scorsese on his best days makes mostly-good films, with many greats and a few all-time greats.  Even his "failures" are at least interesting failures that just didn't speak to _me_, but I always appreciate the craft put into bringing his artistic vision to us.  I can't say the same for a lot of other directors: many of whom also dabble in only creating and focusing on "content" vs actual art.  I don't have anything against any of that, and obviously tastes vary: if you adore Michael Bay's Transformers film, good for you - love what you love!!  What do you think about Scorsese's thoughts here: agree or disagree with the great filmmaker? 

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