Martin Scorsese wrote a passionate essay published in Harper’s Magazine this month, critiquing streaming services as catalysts of the downfall of cinema as an art form. His piece acts as much as an ode to the creators, whose works he grew up watching, as it does a farewell to the medium he loves, as it succumbs further to the grip of the invisible hand amidst the pandemic. As one of the great moviemakers of our time (broadly speaking), the Wolf of Wall Street director makes several valid points. But although he specifically curses streaming platforms, I believe tech’s larger impact on society should shoulder much of the blame.
Streaming is to home video what ride-hailing apps were to the taxi business early on: an utterly convenient and much-needed improvement to an outdated way of doing things. For streaming, its simplicity is key: pay customary monthly fees to watch what you want, whenever you want, with significantly less advertising. Pure content, no fluff. But notice how ‘content’ is used here, instead of ‘shows’, ‘movies’, or ‘series’. This stands at the heart of Scorsese’s irking. He laments that movies, some of which are masterpieces, others which are rubbish, are presented in a virtual file one next to the other, which somewhat strips them of their artistic value. Still, the way films are categorized online isn’t the real problem. In a library, books are extensively classified per a variety of variables, meaning that a masterpiece might be found next to a run-of-the-mill collection of ink on paper. The difference with books is that, for most readers, books are a longer commitment than a movie is, for most viewers. Books also cannot be undertaken with the same passivity as movies – you are either reading or you are not; a book can’t be background noise. But background noise is precisely what a lot of content on streaming platforms deserves to be reduced to – that is, if one is judging cinema like Scorsese would. Nowadays, however, we aren’t. Broadly speaking, most of us press play on what the algorithm recommends to us, and then proceed to spend half of our time ‘watching’ scrolling on our phones. In this sense, ‘content’ is the only thing playing.
Take To all the Boys 3, which came out this Valentine’s Day. Personally, I thought its first instalment was reminiscent of a solid Disney Channel original film that was charming in its simplicity, but subtly comprehensive in its storyline. Importantly, it didn’t try to be anything more than that. The sequel, on the other hand, could have been a twenty-minute short; the storyline is shallow, and not even worthy of explanation. This year’s third and final instalment is a convincing conclusion, but I’m honestly just thankful it’s a conclusion. Although the films are based on novels, there needn’t be more of them on screen. I watched chapter 3 simply because of a powerful ‘Why not?’ at the end of a long day, spurred by Netflix’s computer system – which had detected that I had seen the previous movies. I wasn’t watching to satisfy a desire to know the end of the story, nor was to analyze the banal cinematographic elements. Those cravings and thought processes are lured and fulfilled only in cinema theatres, for the most part. As studios ink new deals with streaming services to ensure that their output gets played, fully appreciating a movie will thus require more personal effort than, I fear, I am willing to invest.
Scorsese refers to this phenomenon as a level playing field. Fairly, he admits that directors such as himself have pocketed generous sums from streaming platforms. But that comes at the cost of being compared and presented alongside the platitudes which populate this virtual space. And the algorithm can only sort it out so much. One hour, you’re listening to Sir David Attenborough’s passionate insights on the animal world, and in the next, it’s Joe Exotic telling you why you aren’t as straight as you think you are. To the computer, you’re just a fan of animals.
Now, there’s certainly much to be appreciated in the dichotomizing and juxtaposition of genres on a single platform. However, as Scorsese puts it, it “sounds democratic but isn’t”. As is customary to our modern online experiences, content is tailored to the point that we come to be at the mercy of algorithms. Most of the time, users only see, and thus watch, what the system thinks they want to watch. Contrast that with an outing to the cinema – a deliberate activity to see a quality piece of work – and you’ll understand the point the director is trying to make. There is a link between the erosion of cinema as a cultural activity and the quality of content we consume, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated cinema’s demise by enabling and encouraging home-viewing. Since home is often synonymous with relaxation and separateness, one can do something in their space whilst being totally detached from said thing, and streaming content is no exception. While going to the cinema is far from a stressful, energy-intensive activity, it does still require active participation, in the same way the restaurant demands a level of civility that is only optional when eating at home. Simplicity is often desired, which explains the success of streaming. With the pandemic, though, this simplicity has been imposed as the only option. This imposition results in a viewing experience in which the viewer is no longer forced to truly appreciate what is on-screen, as such dedication is no longer self-imposed by a true desire for viewing it.
Financially, cinemas were already on their way to bankruptcy in many places. If the price of popcorn is any indication, cinemas seem to be discernibly struggling to make money. For people who would rarely go to the cinema in normal times, such trips stopped being worthwhile a long time ago. A single cinema ticket buys you a month ‘s subscription to Netflix, with unlimited content for that period. Through that lens, the best choice is obvious. Scorsese, who’s last film, The Irishman, was funded by Netflix after big studios refused to meet his budget, seems quite rational about this ongoing paradigm shift. His next film, Killers of the Flower Moon, is funded by Apple. Whether he sees himself as a lone wolf vanguard of old-school cinema, or just a man grappling with nostalgia, the current modus operandi is enabling him fairly well.
One hour, you’re listening to Sir David Attenborough’s passionate insights on the animal world, and in the next it’s Joe Exotic telling you why you aren’t as straight as you think you are. To the computer, you’re just a fan of animals.