Over the last few years, content has become a buzzword to sum up pretty much everything and anything in the entertainment world. Movies? Content. TV shows? Content. Stuff on YouTube? That’s content too, baby. It’s a form of shorthand that may make things easier for some people, but in many respects, it’s hurting certain mediums. When everything is reduced to simply being content, it starts to lose all meaning and becomes more akin to a brand than an art form. On top of that, algorithms in place on streaming services often prevent a rich world of movies made in the past from being easily seen. In a new essay primarily devoted to the work of Federico Fellini, legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese takes aim at the notion of “content,” and how it’s detrimental to “the lost magic of cinema,” especially in regards to streaming services.
Streaming services are, in theory, great things. They offer the chance to bring the world of movies and TV to viewers everywhere. Problems arise, however, when so many streaming services rely on algorithms. And Mr. Martin Scorsese is sick of it. Scorsese, one of our greatest living filmmakers, is a man who has devoted pretty much his entire life to the art of cinema.
In a great new essay over at Harper’s, Scorsese reflects on the modern era of content, and how it’s sapping the magic away from the movies. “‘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,” he writes. “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.”
Scorsese continues: “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. 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?”
So what’s the solution? In Scorsese’s eyes, it’s curation. “Curating isn’t undemocratic or ‘elitist,’ a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless,” he says. “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.”
There are bound to be naysayers who roll their eyes and act like Mr. Martin Scorsese, movie god, doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or that he’s just old and out of touch. People who say that are, of course, complete assholes who should probably shut the heck up. Scorsese’s point is absolutely valid, and it’s often frustrating and downright infuriating to see everything simply reduced to mere thoughtless, mindless content.
“We can’t take anything for granted,” Scorsese writes, going on to add that it’s important for those who own certain titles to make them more readily available instead of hoarding them away based on some content model:
“We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema…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.”
You can (and should) read the full essay here.
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