Martin Scorsese’s lament that cinema is “being systematically devalued” to mere “content”, decided by algorithms, dictated by studios and streaming companies, is not new. What’s changed is that since Scorsese described Marvel films as “theme parks” in 2019, lightly glowing screens in the solitude of rooms have become our constant companions in a darkened by COVID-19 world.
In his Harper’s Magazine essay on Federico Fellini, where he lashed out at studios and streaming services, Scorsese suggests elitism is not all bad, nor are connoisseur viewers, particularly if the alternative is people who are “consumers and nothing else”. In the same essay, Scorsese notes how Fellini broke new ground with neo-realistic films and then with his fabulism came to symbolise the exact opposite. Isn’t that the one story that holds true — for all times? That change is the only constant. Scorsese himself acknowledges that his mega Irishman couldn’t have been conceived without Netflix.
To many hoping to be the next Scorsese, in corners of the world he may not be aware of, the mini men and women of their stories would not find a stage without that streaming platform. Yes, an estimated 80 per cent of Netflix views originate from “automated recommendations”, while Amazon Prime has perfected “collaborative filtering” — but whether a film gets a theatrical release or not is hardly a factor of “art” alone. When you flop down at the end of the day before your screen, you are grateful for that search option, the rows divided into choices such as “Top Trending”, the knowledge that an alternative is just a flick of button away, and that too much choice comes with its own paradox. As director James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy put it, every genre has had its detractors, including Scorsese’s favourite, the gangster film: “Some superhero films are awful, some beautiful. Like westerns and gangster movies… not everyone appreciates them, even some geniuses. And that’s okay.”