In an interview with Empire in 2019, director Martin Scorsese stirred some controversy. When asked about his opinion on Marvel movies, the iconic American filmmaker deemed them as “not cinema” and equated them to “theme parks.”
The public reaction to this was explosive. It seemed every entertainment magazine in the world covered the story, and scores of angry Marvel fans stormed social media, lambasting Scorsese as some out-of-touch old man. Many other filmmakers and actors weighed in on the topic, and the meaning “cinema” was fiercely debated.
That was all back in 2019. After the dust settled for almost two years, the discourse reignited in February 2021 when Scorsese wrote a piece in Harper’s magazine, discussing his love for various filmmakers and for cinema in general.
The piece is an example of Scorsese’s profound passion for the art form. In it, he writes nostalgically about growing up in the 1950s and 60s, when prolific filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Ingmar Bergman, John Cassavetes, and Stanley Kubrick were “reinventing cinema with each new camera movement.”
Scorsese dedicates his essay to his love for the masterful Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini. Fellini—at the centre of cinematic innovation in the 50s and 60s—inspired an entire generation of budding cinephiles and filmmakers, Scorsese especially. Scorsese describes the power of his work, with films such as 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita being these unprecedented pieces of art that revolutionized his conception of cinema.
So why the controversy?
Well, in a small part of the article, Scorsese comments on the state of modern cinema amid streaming platforms and the corporations behind them—which readers focused on most. The famed director observes that streaming services and their algorithms are “systematically devaluing” films as “content” for cheap consumption, rather than more profoundly as art.
Many other filmmakers have previously expressed this concern, as a handful of major media and tech corporations exert almost monopolistic control over the media industry in pursuit of profit. Although Scorsese states that streaming platforms have benefited him (Netflix produced his most recent film, The Irishman), he worries about the viewer. Films are being pushed simply as content, and handpicked curation is being replaced by algorithms.
Regardless of his argument, it seems whenever Scorsese opens his mouth these days, people get angry. His newest remarks caused another social media frenzy, as many people, still upset about his comments surrounding Marvel, once again labelled him an old man yelling at people to get off his lawn. There were also accusations of him being some sort of “elitist” snob, made by people who don’t seem to know a lot about him or his career. For some reason, many rushed to defend the corporation over the artist.
Aside from him being one of the most celebrated and respected filmmakers alive, Scorsese has dedicated much of his career to redistributing and restoring overlooked films from around the world. Through his non-profits, The Film Foundation and The World Cinema Project, the director has helped preserve and celebrate cinematic expression from developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. This isn’t the work of an “elitist” but of someone passionate about cinema, its history, and its future.
As a deeply knowledgeable artist who reveres cinema, Scorsese is right to be concerned about the future of the medium. The industry, he argues, only values films for their earning potential. “We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema.”
While smaller curatorial companies such as The Criterion Collection and MUBI strive to keep curated cinema alive, they’re still small compared to the massive corporations that are pushing us into the “content” age.
Whether you enjoy Martin Scorsese’s films or whether you agree with him is beside the point. There are few people on this earth with a deeper love of cinema than the maestro himself, as his almost 60-year-long career can attest.
So, when Scorsese articulates his concern for cinema’s future, perhaps people should avoid the knee-jerk reaction of taking to Twitter to call him an out-of-touch boomer. Perhaps we should stop and listen to what he has to say.