Film & TV

Martin Scorsese’s Misplaced Nostalgia

Director Martin Scorsese arrives for the premiere of The Irishman in Los Angeles, Calif., October 24, 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
The flip side of Scorsese’s pessimism about the state of cinema today is a longing for good old days that weren’t actually all that good.

For a filmmaker who has repeatedly proved able to attract large budgets to make obviously uncommercial projects on his own terms, Martin Scorsese does a lot of complaining about the state of cinema. I think I can diagnose the source of his dyspepsia: He isn’t 17 anymore.

Scorsese’s latest broadside — following his smackdown of comic-book movies, which was first widely publicized the same day Joker was released, as if to rebut every false and reductive idea he holds about the possibilities of the genre — is an unfocused essay in Harper’s called “Il Maestro.” Most of the piece is a delightfully enthusiastic appreciation of his exemplar, Federico Fellini. Wrapped around the Fellini praise, though, are a few paragraphs at the beginning and end that rebuke certain characteristics of today’s cinema, or rather how that cinema is mediated by media and tech companies.

The opening of the essay is a giveaway: It takes us back to 1959, which Scorsese recalls as a ripe and resplendent moment for cinema. But the key bit of information here is that Scorsese was 17 at the time. Everyone thinks the world was bright and gorgeous when they were 17. People go through their whole lives trying to maintain, or regain, their grip on what everything felt like at 17. To age well, we should be aware of this tendency, and guard against it. Rather than turn sour and nostalgic, we should always make a point to seek out new experience, new artists, new art forms, new kinds of . . . content.

What’s strangest about Scorsese’s piece is his lengthy objection to the use of this last word by, I suppose, the suits he hates to talk to at media companies. Content, Scorsese grouses, used to be used cinematically to indicate the internal meaning of a work of art (as opposed to form, which is how it is presented). Today, he says, people use the word as “a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.” But so what? Just because there exists a catchall term that encompasses everything from cat videos to Taxi Driver, that doesn’t mean viewers, even the “people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form,” are confused about the differences between brief videos for kids and towering works of cinema. Would Scorsese object to using the term “books” to describe the output of Sandra Boynton, James Patterson, and Toni Morrison?

It seems to me that Scorsese must have heard someone describe his Netflix effort The Irishman as “content,” which it indisputably is, and took this as a slight. Netflix airs everything from cartoons to Roma because it wants to appeal to everybody, just as when Scorsese was a boy the movie palaces he reveres would typically offer a daily program that presented, in sequence, everything from Bugs Bunny toons to short subject documentaries to newsreels to slapdash B movies to John Ford masterpieces. Experiencing all of this content would be lumped together and termed “going to the movies.” An error nostalgists often make is to be blinded to how much things have stayed the same by their alarm at how much things have changed.

Scorsese grew up in downtown Manhattan, which, then as now, is one of the finest spots on earth for seeing challenging cinema on the big screen, and he marvels at the options Greenwich Village presented moviegoers in 1959. But even today, there remain (or did, pre-pandemic) five art-house multiplexes in that neighborhood showing a mix of current and classic films. True, they don’t show as many foreign movies as they did when Scorsese was young, but they all show lots of interesting American independent films, a category that barely existed in the 1950s. Sixty years from now, a famous 77-year-old director who is today 17 will be writing a piece extolling the downtown-Manhattan film scene of his youth and lamenting the departed giants. Kelly Reichardt! Spike Lee!  Chloé Zhao! Todd Haynes! The Safdie Brothers! To paraphrase Wordsworth, to be young is very heaven. True today, true in 1959, true in 1805.

Scorsese draws a distinction between the valuable curation by programmers at art-house cinemas and the blunt-force algorithms of the streaming services. The existence of these algorithms should not unduly trouble him given that, with a subscription to The Criterion Channel or access to the Turner Classic Movies app, a young film enthusiast can spend 100 hours a week marinating in classic cinema for pennies a day, or perhaps at no cost whatsoever, if he can cadge a login from his parents. Scorsese’s warning that streaming services are treating cinema as “mere property to be exploited and then locked away” is utter nonsense. Great cinema is far more accessible to the average person today than ever before. As recently as the early 1990s, the average cinephile in the average suburb could not find most of the art-house classics in his area for any price. If the local Blockbuster didn’t have Bicycle Thieves — and it probably didn’t — your best hope was that it would pop up on public television or be offered by your local library. If you lived in a college town or a big city, maybe there was one funky video store that carried these kinds of films. Then, in 1994, came TCM, the greatest gift movie lovers had ever gotten. Now there are Netflix and Amazon Prime and Kanopy and Hoopla (which offer art-house movies and are available at no cost through many public libraries) and the much-adored Criterion Channel. Scorsese should direct a little of his enthusiasm at the innovations that have opened up the film vaults like never before.

True, films are best enjoyed in a theater, but on the other hand, today’s high-definition monitors and sophisticated sound systems are more than acceptable. Besides, virtually everyone in the United States who doesn’t live near downtown Manhattan enjoys very limited access to the kinds of challenging art-house theaters Scorsese champions in this piece. Should he not be ecstatic that the Criterion Channel is presenting hundreds of masterpieces of cinema on demand?

Scorsese concedes in his essay that he initially saw La Strada on television, at a time when that meant an inferior viewing experience, and yet the film still had a profound impact on him. Today’s young Fellinis and Rossellinis and Antonionis and Scorseses are learning about cinema at home, and that’s fine. That the Netflix algorithm may not necessarily point them in the right direction matters not at all. There are all sorts of paths to the greatest works. Young viewers might, for instance, turn to film essayists such as Scorsese himself for guidance on what to watch, starting with his rapturous four-hour documentary A Personal Journey through American Cinema with Martin Scorsese (1995), a sort of visual diary of his feelings about dozens of films that shaped him. Or they might dip into the colossal quantities of film criticism being published free online every day.

Martin Scorsese may be a genius of film, but he faces the same danger as any other 78-year-old of becoming calcified in his thinking, overly attached to the past, and resistant to change. Cinema has evolved, and in a great many ways it has improved. But even those who believe it hasn’t must concede that it’s easier than ever for young people to gain access to its most glorious treasures.

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