Cinema Is Not Content – Based on ‘Il Maestro’ By Martin Scorsese

When The Lumière brothers made their first film, they were creating and not selling. An art that started as a form of expression was so magical that it was widely accepted by the audience. The film itself was the hero then but soon came the villain. After the arrival of Studios, Films were treated as a commodity to sell to the masses. The era of Sergei Eisenstein went down the drain, and we stopped experimenting and started selling films based on mass opinion. However, the utility of anything repetitive diminishes. The abundance of cliche films in the market ignited the need for the New Wave of Cinema, where films went back to the basics, the art of expression thrived again. This basic knowledge about films and the evolution of Cinema will be lost forever until we cherish the works of masters, or as Martin Scorsese wrote in his Essay, “Il Maestro”, curate the dying breed of Cinema.

“Curating isn’t undemocratic or “elitist,” a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. It’s an act of generosity—you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you.”

Martin Scorsese

David Fincher once said, “A movie is made for an audience and a film is made for both the audience and the film-makers.” These words can’t be more reasonable and accurate in our generation. A similar argumentative point laid down by Martin Scorsese in “Il Maestro” says, “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, content.

These two points hold the utmost importance relative to Cinema today because we have literally forgotten what Cinema is. A form of expression is long lost and has become a mass pleasing commodity.


Deterioration of Cinematic Arts

There was an era in films when studious were making only musicals and comedies because those were films that the audience wanted. War-stricken nations weren’t ready for realism but few makers still had the courage to fight against the popular notion. Cinema, like literature or music, isn’t all about entertainment and should never be. Today, we have deteriorated the art so much that it has become the latter part, the horrifying truth, a scary reality. Cinema is counted as content, and its subordinates are Youtube Videos, Super Bowl Commercials, Streaming Garbage Films, and Theme Park Movies, a repetition of sequels because the audience loved the first installment. The art of self-expression is lost forever.

Calling Films Content Devalues The Art Of Cinema - Martin Scorsese Il Maestro

The culprit of this degradation is the kind of films (called content) we are making today. They are nothing but the spoon-fed subject matter, robbing the audience, their ability to think. The meaning and layer of subtext are gone and forgotten. This is the reason, curating cinema by old masters is so important, not to feel elite about it, but to remind us that we were much more visually literate than we are today.

In Il Maestro, Martin Scorsese quotes the same thought.

“The cinema has always been much more than content, and it always will be, and the years when those films were coming out from all over the world, talking to each other and redefining the art form on a weekly basis, are the proof.”

Martin Scorsese

Cinema Is Not Content

Content basically meant subject matter. Content in cinema meant laying emphasis on the subject matter.

In 1996 Bill Gates used a phrase called “content is king.” He referred to the word “content” being something that makes real money. This changed the meaning of the word “content” in the Oxford dictionary forever. Strong content now meant whatever that could bring back opulent results. The problem arose when the same thing started getting applied in cinema too. Stripped of its real meaning the word was likely to cause havoc in the sensibilities and trends.

Cinema was more about appealing to the sensibilities of the masses. To feed them what they liked even if it meant compromising with the overall health.

There was a tried and tested business model that was giving the best results. Everybody wanted to follow that model itself. Nobody cared about the art and the innovative process. Money was given priority over everything. It was the reverse economics of supply and demand. The films, the writings knew how by applying minimum effort they could create an audience for cringe content. They knew they could overpower the mere need for “sensibility in entertainment.” They could entertain without being logical or cerebral. The term “senseless entertainment” was created and creators or I should say marketeers took pride in the fact that the cinema they made wouldn’t require any sort of understanding and that you could leave your brains at home before coming to the theatres. I hate to criticize anyone but that was not cinema. They were delusional. That was a good business model that gave returns, that’s it.

Streams were separated. There was a mainstream cinema and there was parallel cinema. Well, it was hilarious as the parallel cinema was about the general masses, the majority and the mainstream showcased a breed of people that were elitist of the elite. Cinema of film auteurs like Federico Fellini, Godard, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, and many others is labeled as art films, which in fact, in their time, was mainstream cinema.


What’s the Use of Being Innovative?

With mobile phones in our hands and everyone getting famous and viral, we have skipped the part of being innovative. Today, a TikTok star or even a Youtube star considers himself an artist and filmmaker but is it the cat video we see today that can be called Cinema or Films in general? It is sure labeled as Content and if you call Cinema, content too then you just erased the boundaries between art and commodity.

Now imagine what would have happened if we would have followed the same model throughout the world. We would have never broken the fourth wall as we did in Breathless, we wouldn’t have known what jump cuts are, we wouldn’t have known why in Casino there was a single tone narrative voice, we wouldn’t have known how to pan the camera over the tables as done in Citizen Kane.

Still from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless

Cinema reduced to content operates in a two-dimensional space. But films stood for something so immersive and absorbing that it cannot be described in words. It is like that wind that sometimes reminds you of a memory and fills you with nostalgia. Unpopular opinions are as important as “massy” ones. It is necessary to voice them. It is necessary to show weird characters who do not fit the definitions. It is necessary to go beyond a linear relationship and explore the depths of the same. It is important to cater to diverse thoughts and sensibilities.

Imagine a world without the perspective of Marla Singer, without the loyalty of Douglas Stamper, without the practical jokes of Tommy Devito, and without the rage of Jake LaMotta.

It would be a dull and uninteresting one indeed!


The Art of Cinema

Models and patterns don’t allow you to submerge yourself in the process. It maintains a practical approach where you are different from your product. Your product does not encumber your ideals and values. Instead, it has all the attributes that make it marketable. And that is where real cinema separates itself from this mad drive. The best cinema, writings, music composition, painting, etc are always created when you add a bit of yourself to the concoction. It hits the most when it is personal.

I understand that commerce has to be given importance. I am not so idealistic that I become impractical. And neither we aim to educate you about the basics of cinema. It is not our intention to sing you a lullaby. We operate at the fine line between the educational and commercial.

Cinema is meant for entertainment without compromising on sensibilities or curbing the urge to be innovative. Cinema is created when the filmmaker puts a piece of himself in it. It is personal, it is critical, it is brutal, it is unconventional, it builds, it demolishes but most of all it is an art form that entertains.


Il Maestro by Martin Scorsese

In his detailed essay, “Il Maestro,” Martin Scorsese pens down his eternal admiration for films and filmmakers. He writes about the magical films of Federico Fellini, and why they are so appalling to the audience. A studio head of today might tell you that Fellini’s film is an Art Film, which I literally fail to understand because Fellini made neo-realist films, meaning – films about the masses. His films were accepted by Masses but today our visual literacy is so bleak that we can’t stand art, for entertainment is only what we are fed. Now, the audience is not at the witness box, never will be. When Jobs launched the iPhone, the audience had no idea what an iPhone was. Cinema, similarly, has always thrived on its capability of innovation and experimentation. With studio projects, all films look-alike, a kind of formula that is being repeated over and over again. Have we lost track of ART? Or just making better detergents in a new packing with new actors?

When you watch a Fellini film or a Kurosawa film, you recognize the style instantly. These makers had a certain attitude towards the world and their world of art which wasn’t dictated by any heads. For example, with Fellini’s style of Filmmaking, Scorsese uses the world, “Felliniesque” a kind of magical madness in a surrealistic atmosphere.

Calling Films Content Devalues The Art Of Cinema - Martin Scorsese Il Maestro
Still from Federico Fellini’s

Martin Scorsese also writes how was Fellini’s most personal film but indeed his greatest masterpiece. It was an artistic piece of self-expression that portrayed the director himself in a dilemma, and that is why it was so real and so mesmerizing. In 2019, when Bong-Joon-Ho won an Oscar for Parasite, he quoted the same exact thing in Martin Scorsese’s words, “The most personal is the most creative.

However, when you are making a film for the studio or the audience, you have lost all concepts of self-expression because your motive is to please rather than to express and that is the reason why all films of today look-alike, like the content. I guess we have forgotten what Cinema was like. It is the only dying breed of artists like Alfonso Curran, Bong-Joon, David Fincher, and many other auteurs of today who are struggling hard to keep the art in films alive.

At the end of the essay, Martin Scorsese urges the viewers of today to keep curating Cinema because it is through history that we preserve our culture.

“Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than a mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly.”

Martin Scorsese

Il Maestro By Martin Scorsese is available on Harper’s Magazine.

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Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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