Il Maestro and the Scorsese Controversy

Once again film legend Martin Scorsese is making the outrage rounds. A year after the Goodfellas director took pains to clarify off-hand comments about superhero movies being theme park rides instead of “real” cinema, he is amidst a swirling conversation about the future of film. His latest foray into the conversation is printed in Harper’s BAZAAR, titled “Il Maestro.” In this essay, Scorsese sketches his fascination with the Italian master Federico Fellini in his trademark spare and realistic style, self-reflection without a hint of self-conceit. Scorsese mentions friendship and familiarity with Fellini without pride and the halcyon days of his own early career as a filmmaker with a wistful longing that is palpable. Scorsese is frank about his decades-long fascination with Fellini and the inspiration he took from the director of 8 ½, La Dolce Vita and other classics. The essay is a tour of greatness, guided by legend, and yes, Scorsese takes some potshots at algorithms, streaming, and that seven-letter word “content.”  

Federico Fellino, Isabella Rossellini and Martin Scorsese

Interestingly enough the arguments about streaming are not the bulk of the article, they almost seem like afterthoughts. Martin’s heart shines through his soaring description of the opening of 8 ½ , and never dims. The “controversial” portions of the essay are nothing like the clueless, angry ranting that some want to portray them as. His tone is full of regret, passion and earnest truth-telling about the future of the world he loves. That anger and cluelessness seem to be the main takeaways from Scorsese’s essay instead of passion and wisdom say nothing good about the intellectual acumen of critical society. Not to mention that the vehemence of the opposition says uncomfortable things about the state of our self-identification with corporate media. We should take Scorsese seriously even if we do not believe him. 

The most intriguing part of this conversation is seeing a legend working out his idea of legacy in public. Scorsese is now old enough to realize that he is at the point where his death would be a loss but not a tragedy. He is closer to eternity than he is to meeting Ray Liotta in that hallway or beginning Taxi Driver. Like every man, he questions if the ideals he dedicated himself to will continue on long after he dies. The fact this is an open question is a reason for empathy and understanding, not derision and anger. To disagree with Scorsese is to pity him and the palpable sense of loss that permeates these outbursts should give us all pause. Even if he is off base, to see the passion of his craft animate him even after fame and fortune is humbling. To agree with Scorsese is to be gradually emboldened — not to elitism or condescension — but to the generosity of spirit and intense love of the medium that he embodies. Commensurate with that is the acknowledgment that the state of cinema is dire.

Courtesy of BBC News

And that is obvious now, isn’t it? Scorsese is arguing nothing near as boring or plainly false as “all the good movies were made 50 years ago”, or “Hollywood is out of ideas”. Instead he joins a number of filmmakers in pointing out the obvious that both corporate interests and audiences have fallen down on the job. Both are forsaking their responsibilities as curators and critics in a world of ceaseless “content”. That this would be remotely controversial in the present day is shocking. What makes the “content” mindset dangerous is that anything can be considered “content” — Hitchcock, Fate: The Winx Saga, Goodfellas. Churning out replaceable placeholder art is corrupting.  

The responses to the obvious thus far have been so farcical that one could be persuaded that they are personal, psychological defense mechanisms against harsh truths. We do not inhabit a world where streaming or superhero movies or whatever Scorsese mildly critiques next are anything less than wildly praised or widely available. Why the vitriol? Our ego demands we pretend the world has started with us and everything before is in black and white. We wish to be the technicolor generation. How disconcerting it is then for our ironic, democratized tastes to be met by a figure like Scorsese. 

A young Scorsese on set

Scorsese is enraptured by cinema — he cares for it with the zeal of an adept, devotee or a convert. These words are perhaps too tame, even the description “convert” or “adept” seems unsubstantial. Scorsese loves film like a lover past the first bloom adores a worthy partner after time has passed. He doesn’t love film as a consumer, a nerd, or even a fan — strip-mining it for the pieces of content that tickle his fancy — ultimately he loves cinema as an artist. In the great two-way communion/conversation of art, Scorsese is an active participant. He is an example of this great truth: to commune deeply and truly with someone or something is to freely offer up part of yourself in the creation of a completely unique entity formed from both parties called “us.” Ironically, it is just this artistic loss of self that his critics lack. The arrogant, grasping id is too often revealed in the actions of critics who so desperately avoid speaking about “art” and use the offensively corporate “content” instead. Scorsese’s obsession and pursuit is nearly erotic (in the non-prurient sense) in direct opposition to the prosaic bean counters of today. Interestingly enough this description of myopic bean counters applies to corporate media interests and the critics that give them cover.

For them, far better to instead retreat to counting tropes, reciting plot points, and taking refuge in irony and sarcasm — bloodlessly dissecting artifacts for their most titillating portions and discarding everything else. This is selfishness and moral cowardice. In risking nothing, critics have lost everything. The irrelevance they feared is now upon them even after they hastily discarded their principles for profit.  We have allowed criticism to be deaf and blind. 

Scorsese shows us that this path of obsolescence is not set in stone and that perhaps there is still a place for the lover, the aesthete in the world. However, love is not the only insight. Scorsese is also devoted. He approaches art reverently, dutifully. In this posture, he cannot demand or Apollo will demur. The essence of art precedes its instances and its instantiators. In the face of this truth the only response is humility and duty — concepts offensive in our democratic age.  We cannot abide the idea that we owe something to art. Yet we do. The legacy of the legends is our generation’s birthright to be won or lost by our actions. Sadly, too many critics today are ultimately contemptuous of the validity of their own art form. They’re too interested in appearing to have access to celebrity culture and being in the know, that they destroy their own usefulness. Perhaps this is the unconscious reasoning behind the lemming-like quality of critics banding together and saying that film is foremost a business. “We know how the sausage really gets made.” A devastating insight… were anyone making sausage. 

Courtesy of The New York Times

The idea that you can grind down the art of film to statistics, figures, budgets, and box office is appealing to those who are intimidated by or uninterested in art as anything other than pre-packaged entertainment units. Of course, every single one of those things matters immensely and there is no shame in being more interested in those things than some ephemeral, inchoate “art” (historically the stomping grounds for odd fellows like this author). That is not the point, the point is that art as a model, a goal, or lifestyle precedes those things and is ultimately more important. There is a world of difference between art as simply the extension of celebrity obsession, and celebrity contributing to the world of art. Scorsese is wise enough to mention this in his discussion of Fellini — a subtle reminder that the problems of today are not new or overwhelming. 

General audiences may not be able to put their fingers on the issue precisely but they can feel its presence and that uneasiness is just one of the reasons people don’t care about what critics say. An entire guild unwilling to shift itself to defend the most basic of its responsibilities, curation, and critique is a group that is destined to lose cultural ground forever. Long live the hypebeasts! 

We can do better, we must. Together we must accept the legacy offered to us and do our best to engage the films that have shaped and made us on their own terms with humility. We must require more from those in the business of film, rejecting the cynical temptation in ourselves and in our business models. Finally, we must introduce others to the most sublime feeling in film, the moment when the portrayal is of such meaning and value that the conversation is no longer theoretical, it becomes personal. Man to man with an immediacy that can only be felt, a conversation across ages… As it moves and inspires us the question becomes inescapable, inevitable. 

“You talking to me?”

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