Dirt: Martin Scorsese hates algorithms

The banality of "content."

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Martin Scorsese — a director who also writes essays in literary magazines, you may have heard of him — published a great piece in Harper’s yesterday, about his love of Fellini films but really meditating on the dangers of algorithmic feeds and the way the term “content” flattens all audiovisual experiences into one boring box.

Scorsese’s problem is that streaming is deadening the experience of consuming film — the peak of which he obviously describes in his own youth, mail-ordering movie tickets and lining up outside of theaters for appointment viewing:

‘Content’ became a business term for all moving images… everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t. If further viewing is “suggested” by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema?

Independent distributors and theater operators formed important parts of the cultural ecosystem: They would pick out valuable films and show and promote them even though they might be challenging, like Fellini or other Italian Neorealists. They helped educate viewers in a way that streaming platforms don’t, in the name of passively feeding us more content. For Scorsese, such care-taking of culture falls under the label of “curation”:

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. (The best streaming platforms, such as the Criterion Channel and MUBI and traditional outlets such as TCM, are based on curating—they’re actually curated.) Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.

I have to agree with most of Scorsese’s diagnoses, but the overall decline of culture in the streaming era is maybe a complaint too far. Has the director been on TikTok? As far as creators being in conversation with each other and evolving new form of cinema, there’s a ton going on, even if it’s not 1960s Europe.

The weirdness of art film that Scorsese is seeking, which he lined up to experience half a century ago, is now more easily found outside of theaters, on smaller screens. Streaming might not prioritize innovative content — that terrible term — but it can still be found if you know where to look. That takes curators, too. — By Kyle Chayka

The Dirt: Algorithms bad; human curation good.