‘There’s only content,’ distracting us to death.
It was in the 2005 documentary The American Ruling Class that Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy (Black Swan, Shutter Island, Zodiac, The Thin Red Line, U Turn) first articulated the game-changing term “content.” In director John Kirby and Harper’s Magazine essayist Lewis Lapham’s feature-length inquiry into the existence of an American ruling class, Medavoy specified how our entertainment culture affected our national consciousness. He astutely — unforgettably — explained, “There are no more movies, there’s only content.”
Martin Scorsese’s recent essay for Harper’s, “Il Maestro,” repeats Medavoy’s pronouncement, though disguised as paean to Federico Fellini. Overall, it is a cri de coeur for the current state of film culture that has dismissed the artistic legacy of 20th-century cinema. Scorsese reacts to the undeniable fact that the recent domination of blockbuster, comic-book, and Internet-streaming movies has led us to abandon our artistic and cultural legacy. Scorsese doesn’t go so far as Medavoy, Kirby, and Lapham did to explain how the new prominence of “content,” as opposed to storytelling and aesthetic experiment, is a social — even political — phenomenon. Scorsese only laments that our national sense of self has been irreparably altered.
When Scorsese writes, “I suppose we also have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it isn’t,” he is neither refining nor defining; he’s capitulating. By distinguishing old-school film curating from today’s viewing habits (driven by algorithms “based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else”), Scorsese helpfully states the obvious. Rather than challenge journalist shills for their dearth of critical thinking and for misleading the public, he emphasizes useless idolatry about his own golden age of filmgoing.
This first half of “Il Maestro” feels genuine, but the second half is worth taking issue with. Marty has his parochial filmmaker’s view; I have the critic’s view that must, by necessity, link what’s on the screen with what’s in the world, therefore taking into account not only an artisan’s confession but also seeing what cinema itself means: Fellini’s sensitivity to the needs of his autobiographical protagonist in 8 1/2 and the needs of all the seekers and beseechers around him (insight courtesy of Robert Altman’s own Fellini-inspired insight in Nashville). It’s wishful thinking on Scorsese’s part to suggest that the Marvel generation will respond to Fellini or Altman’s splendid humanism.
Scorsese’s spiel got attention from the fanboys he offended in 2019 when he compared Marvel movies to amusement-park rides. This essay, an apologia pro vita sua (defense of one’s life), seems designed to justify that offense. It supports Scorsese’s disdain with his own nerdy cineaste remembrance. His lament struggles to stand up as backlash but can’t locate professional principle — which Donald Trump’s resignation from the Screen Actors Guild zeroed in on — so Scorsese’s backlash doesn’t quite inspire a movement.
The New York Post was wrong to label “Il Maestro” as “snooty.” Scorsese is simply nostalgic for what used to be populist — the edification of uplifting, revelatory art. He knows we can’t long survive the pretense before our eyes, presented to us by a media elite that’s less honest than Medavoy but that has made pseudo-populism — cynical, nightmarish juvenilia, celebrations of monsters and wickedness and propagandized history — the prevailing style of entertainment. Scorsese’s self-pity (equating his artistic ambition to Fellini’s, asserting nostalgia for the ’50s–’60s cinematic era known as “high modernism”) dodges sociological inquiry. He avoids taking political sides. In fact, the only salvation of his recent down-sliding films is that he hasn’t made them as politically explicit as his colleagues Spielberg and De Palma have done.
Yet Scorsese has succumbed to the weakness of the cultural era. His own Netflix movie, The Irishman, followed the channel’s time-killing formula. The Irishman was nothing but “content” — an overlong rehash of ideas Scorsese had already overworked when he made Goodfellas, a Felliniesque soul-killer for wannabe thugs.
Reliance on “content” has led the mainstream media to ignore the best recent films: the social frustration that connects the races in Dragged across Concrete; the desire to communicate masked by sexual dysphoria in Straight Up; the inherent, inescapable family obligations of Mom and Dad and Loveless; the moral responsibility behind the pop artist’s pain in Vox Lux; and the yearning for faith that animates Julián Hernández and Zack Snyder’s sophisticated mythmaking.
Instead, we’re force-fed the naïve, genocidal delusions of Parasite, Green Book, Moonlight, The Shape of Water, and the dead-in-the-water Nomadland that fetishize disillusionment. Worse than propaganda that we can, with reason, see through is the “content” that Hollywood stuffs our heads with. Content has become the new bread and circuses; it’s how Hollywood placates the restless and deceives the ignorant, distracting them from their misery and pretending that their discontent has been satiated.