Scorsese Isn’t Just Correct—His Passion Feels More Urgent Than Ever

martin scorsese il maestro harpers essay content cinema

INT: ANONYMOUS BEDROOM OF A SUBURBAN HOUSE (c. 2021). Camera glacially peruses film posters on the whitewashed walls.

Cut to: tripod shot as a man, late teens, opens his laptop and logs on to Netflix. POV – lists of genres scroll down the screen, the latest glitzy hate-watch spectacular rammed alongside recent Baumbach and Safdie Bros. efforts, all sporting the same red logo on the poster.

He closes the tab, releasing a sigh of exhaustion. An endless montage of the same daily routine spools on.

When attempting to picture the updated flash-forward of the vignette with which Scorsese opens his latest thinkpiece, it’s hard to share the same romantic appreciation of a time and place. The article, ‘Il Maestro’, was recently released in Harper’s Magazine to a flurry of reactions, most of which addressed the first few paragraphs where the director lays out a downbeat view of the film business in its current state. But to view it as just that is a huge reduction of the writing at work: not only is Scorsese perceptive in his analysis, but his exploration of Fellini broadens into an argument for nostalgia and for the individuality of cinema itself.

In the post-pandemic landscape, the film industry (as with all sectors of the arts) has been left bruised and battered, and streaming has been forced to become the sole distribution tactic out of necessity. This has exposed—more starkly than ever before—the differences between cultural behemoths like Netflix and bespoke, curated sites such as MUBI. In itself this is not a problem, as they demonstrably serve different functions. However, the inarguable conclusion is that the curation process, having people select films to be shown rather than an algorithm, enhances the system of viewing on both sides of the screen.

One of the most shared excerpts of ‘Il Maestro’ has been a breakdown of the term ‘content’ and its shifting into an umbrella to cover most visual media: a conflation defined by Scorsese as “a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial” and everything in between. This commodification of cinema is pretty inarguable, but what makes the piece even more persuasive is the emotional aspect. You can feel Scorsese’s passion and even anger flowing through the piece, separating the “business” of amalgamated content from the “art of cinema”, in a way that feels churlish to argue with.

Read more: Of Mobsters And Men: Why ‘Goodfellas’ Remains A Scorsese Masterpiece At 30

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people finding fault with the article. It can’t be forgotten that Scorsese has worked with the biggest of the streaming giants before, distributing 2019’s The Irishman through Netflix, which could render his argument hypocritical. On the other hand, it serves as an indication of the growing power of these businesses—and he has made a point of keeping on top of these trends, moving from gritty street-level pictures in the 1970s to 3D stereoscopy and digital de-aging in the present day. Also, these kinds of comments typically flock around the buzzy quotes instantly clipped from the article’s release about his fears for the industry’s future. We’ve seen this all before with Scorsese’s notorious comments about Marvel in 2019; such an approach totally removes the force of the writing by trying to fit its longueurs into 280 characters.

Fundamentally, the piece is about nostalgia: for the director’s own youth, for a time and a place where film culture was specific to Scorsese’s tastes, and even for a certain definition of cinema. It moves on from streaming services pretty quickly, outlining a time in the 1960s when “[every film director] seemed to be responding to and feeding off everybody else.” The distinction of cinema from TV and box-sets is not a snobbish one, rather a recognition of the fact that cinema’s unique strengths give a self-reflexive bent that is truly its own: that these media share a screen is purely coincidence.

This all-encompassing tone is especially interesting as it brings together the many traits of Martin Scorsese himself. As the prototypical director of the so-called ‘movie brat’ generation in the 1970s, his undeniable directorial skill is twinned with (and inspired by) a voracious cinephilia. Paving the way for directors like Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino in the next generation, his outspoken passion for global film viewing has been vital—even the home video specialist Criterion has released ‘World Cinema Project’ box-sets under his name and guidance—and it is this that unites the piece. The whole Fellini segment is nothing but a joyous demonstration of just why the curated streaming sites, in their dedication, are setting the right example in the present situation.

Read more: Martin Scorsese Shares 50 British Film Recommendations

If there is an area where Scorsese’s essay could be seen as lacking, it is in the omission of reference to the breadth of audiences. These smaller sites like MUBI serve the adventurous viewers well, but there are likely many more who will be perfectly happy with whatever Netflix’s algorithm throws up based on past viewing, let alone even care that it wasn’t a human who selected it for their viewing pleasure. An apparent dismissal of the broader consumption understandably gave rise to accusations of elitism, although I think that it works in favour of emphasising a need to share these collective fascinations, in just the way that the writing demonstrates.

Re-reading the article, I found myself returning to that brilliant scene outside the movie theatre in Annie Hall: as Alvy says of the man soliloquising about Fellini, “the key word here is indulgent.” This may be a sure indication of a criticism that could too easily be levelled at Scorsese here, but indulgence is vital—without it, the emotion in which the article’s pessimism takes root would not be so passionately demonstrated. It is a melancholy that sums up feelings in the current film culture, as things inevitably change and shift to keep up with regulations. But, looking forward, Scorsese’s ultimate call to take cinema into our hands and “share our love and our knowledge” has never been so moving or necessary.

Words by Max King

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