Scorsese vs Netflix: can streaming regain its artistic integrity?

Marty says 'content' has devalued cinema – but digital platforms may change his mind yet...

Art enriches, content distracts. Art is an event, content everyday. We travel to art; content floods upon us. Art is rare, content overabundant. Art surprises, content reassures. Art is appreciated, content thoughtlessly consumed. Art is priceless, content is trash.

That’s what Martin Scorsese would have you believe, anyway. He recently spent the opening sections of a Harper’s Magazine article on Italian cinema legend Federico Fellini bewailing the devaluing of cinema by the streaming revolution. Scorsese recalled an era when distributors and programmers such as Amos Vogel and Dal Talbot curated movie schedules out of bravery and generosity, allowing the likes of Fellini, Bertolucci, Bergman, Godard and Kubrick to reach widespread audiences, “reinventing cinema with each new camera movement and each new cut.”

The Irishman Scorsese

Today, in contrast, “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content’,” he argues. “‘Content’ became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores.”

As the director of Netflix’s awards magnet The Irishman, Scorsese is certainly inside the transition – and he’s not just shouting at digital clouds. Historically, streaming-only movies have had a distinct straight-to-video feel about them; low-budget genre flicks, glorified TV films or major star vehicles that flopped in the US or turned out a like Cats. Think The Cloverfield Paradox, The Dirt, Rebecca. In its early years, Netflix Originals’ movie output was a cinematic sweatshop, churning out an undistinguished slurry of Stephen King adaptations, Pee-Wee Herman reboots and forgettable war movies featuring a mildly embarrassed Brad Pitt.

Rebecca
Straight-to-streaming duds like ‘Rebecca’ don’t help Netflix’s credibility. CREDIT: Netflix

Gradually, social media sieved a few diamonds from the sludge – Annihilation, Bird Box, Uncut Gems, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Marriage Story, The Irishman – but we digested them with much the same disconnect as any up-next Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Besides the reductive experience of watching them on home devices – a film made for IMAX 4DX Stonkovision isn’t quite as immersive on your phone on the toilet – they actually suffered from their word-of-mouth stature. Because they came to our attention through Twitter chatter rather than side-of-the-bus advertising or cavern-voiced trailer we assumed them arthouse appeal and watched them not as a life enhancing treat but in reluctant duty to our FOMO – to see what the fuss was about and keep in step with the online conversation. They weren’t event movies, they were (brilliant) social obligations. Gripping annoyances.

These great movies were indeed devalued by streaming, not just because we naturally engage more with the things that cost us the most time and money but because they were simply dropped into the ceaseless torrent of ‘content’ and left to badger us like all the rest for our valuable time and sink or swim on their own merits. Oscars and Golden Globes never went their way; they were cinematic cast-offs. Ironically, films like Annihilation were released to streaming because they were too challenging or intelligent for mainstream US audiences – the very films that once pushed the boundaries of where cinema could take an audience were now being consigned to the digital B-movie racks alongside all the Breaking Bad movies, Shawn Mendes puff flicks and a variety of Meryl Streep’s lowest ever Rotten Tomatoes ratings.

I'm Thinking Of Ending Things
Jessie Buckley’ ‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things’ offered a more artistic approach to streaming. CREDIT: Netflix

Lockdown promised to be a turning point for streamed movies, as cinema closures forced films otherwise destined for the big screen to release online instead. Saint Maud, The Invisible Man and The Personal History Of David Copperfield all had predominantly online lives, while the spotlight was shifted firmly onto original films from Netflix and Amazon, who stepped up to the plate with the likes of Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, Borat 2, Mank, Tom Hanks western News Of The World and moving pre-war archivist drama The Dig. Yet with Tenet and Bond holding out for full cinema releases even in such a culture-shaking crisis, streaming is clearly still very much the fleapit of 2021’s cinematic Broadway, where those few under-the-radar classics suffer by association with so much chucked at the wall dross.

The answer isn’t to rewind to Scorsese’s golden age, but to learn its lessons. Curation, not algorithmic funnelling, is key to getting great streamed movies the respect they deserve and encouraging filmmakers to use the platforms to deliver the sort of ground-breaking works that allowed Fellini and his ilk to stretch the screen’s edges. Right now it’s the human touch that’s plucking these films from scrolling bar obscurity, whether by Twitterstorm or good old critical acclaim, so perhaps some trusted human voices recommending the very best new movies on the site wouldn’t go amiss. Films that might shock, surprise and challenge us, rather than some coding’s idea of the sort of thing we like based on the fact that we sat through the Downton Abbey movie because we lent our mum our password for her birthday. There’s art buried deep within the content – contart? Artent? – and the future of streaming as a respected medium depends on letting it shine.

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