Another year, another round of debates that foreground entirely the wrong aspect of some words from Martin Scorsese. In his new essay for Harper’s, the director bemoans what he sees as the art of cinema being reduced to its basest commercial elements, at the expense of more serious filmmaking. He rails against the idea of “content” as a term leveling all culture—film, pop music, TikToks—into a pernicious and false equivalency that removes the “art” from art in favor of the universal ideology of capitalism and consumerism. More personally, he champions curation over algorithms: the combination of passion and expertise that leads to sharing what you love. “An act of generosity,” as he puts it. This is in contrast to algorithms, code that impersonally treats the audience as consumer and the content (as opposed to “content”) of a film as an assemblage of discernible units—meaning, if you liked one movie about a tempestuous romantic relationship (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) you may enjoy some other ones, too. Have you seen The Ugly Truth? An algorithm a few years back thought I might want to after seeing the former.
Anyone who can recall the halcyon days of 14 months ago remembers the last time some mild complaints from Scorsese ignited a barrage of online debates—i.e., noting that he didn’t really consider Marvel movies to be “cinema.” Which, in turn, was just another salvo in his ongoing critique of business-minded Hollywood decision-making, something he’s been doing since his fellow movie brats Steven Spielberg and George Lucas started breaking the bank in the 1970s. Those quick to label Scorsese as out of touch with the changing world of entertainment seemed to miss this larger argument.
Worse, the ensuing cultural debates largely obscure the issue that lay at the root of Scorsese’s comments. Instead, it’s eclipsed by partisans focusing on the actual quality of Marvel films (in the case of 2019), and by accusations of cultural “gatekeeping” in the current brouhaha—the predictable charge of “Oh, yeah? Who decides what’s quality and what isn’t? You, Mr. Bigshot Movie Director?” The latter charge misreads his “act of generosity” as some outmoded form of scolding, the idea that cultural gatekeepers are busily shooing us away from our beloved popcorn entertainment. And the former is presumably of little interest to the longtime director, and was never really Scorsese’s larger concern (he himself admits he’s barely seen any of the MCU films). The MCU was merely a stand-in for a sort of predictable mass-market entertainment of the kind he sees in opposition to a more artistically provocative cinema, one we might term a more “elitist” standard of art. In his latest writing, we can substitute the nefarious “content” for the MCU—a fair association, I’d wager, in Scorsese’s eyes.
But as we forge ahead into a young decade, it may be time to acknowledge that the leveling of all popular culture into some middlebrow standard—in which everything is judged as meritorious on the same critical grounds—has glossed over a profound fissure that never really went away: the one between highbrow and lowbrow pop culture, or “art” vs. “entertainment.” This isn’t a call to return to some faux-objective singular standard of evaluation; that’s not even possible, let alone desirable. Rather, after years of debate over the new model of critical assessment, in which all popular culture is seen as equally valuable, it may be time to reconsider how to set new parameters for elitism—a recipe for a culture that never really shook off the distinctions it tried so hard to bury, only to resurface once Martin Scorsese had to promote The Irishman.
Postmodernism has ridden the culture into its current state, in which the former elite control of art has ceded to the collective populist notion of art being essentially equivalent to media: Because…