Eyebrows were raised recently when news broke that Martin Scorsese’s new project, The Irishman, left Paramount and was going to go to Netflix. After all, the maestro has had a devotion for the film medium since childhood. His passion has meant that he has defended the value of shooting on film instead of using digital cinematography, and also that he has fought staunchly for film preservation and restoration, through his organisation, The Film Foundation.
After all, why would such a man, one of the few maestros of the art form, one of the pillars of traditionalism, finally yield to the Goliath that is Netflix?
Let’s be clear: any studio would be lucky to get their hands on this project. Scorsese at the helm of a film written by Steven Zaillian and starring legends such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Joe Pesci? Yes, please. Paramount released Scorsese’s last few films, including the thirty-year-old passion project Silence, which was a commercial bomb (despite draws like Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver in the leads, a three-hour long poem about jesuit priests in 17th century Japan doesn’t scream box office success), now that the head of the studio left, it could be understandable that Scorsese would want to start a new relationship elsewhere.
But why Netflix? Why not Fox or Universal or any other traditional major? It could be that the free creative reign given to the content creators was an incentive. Perhaps, Netflix was more eager than its predecessors in the film business, because it has the data to know that the film will find its audience when the old ones are far too risk-adverse to gamble on a bunch of old white men in the age of #OscarsSoWhite. Nobody knows how to navigate the muddy waters of a film studio as well as Scorsese, and perhaps he’s grown tired of it.
This nonetheless raises the question of: is there such a thing as a film anymore? If a devotee of the art form in its purest tradition has surrendered, why should I or anyone else try?
One of the most divisive questions in the global film business, at the moment, is the fight between traditional film and digital cinematography. Since the beginning of the art form, and what created the art form, was that physical film capturing still images but projected at twenty-four frames per second on a screen created the illusion of movement. That is Quentin Tarantino’s argument: that this illusion is the reason for the magic of movies, and the raison d’être of the art.
It seems that digital has won, as most commercial releases are shot that way, and even films that are shot on film will be shown as a digital conversion on most screens around the world. While it may have lost its charm, shooting digitally has perks: it’s cost effective, you don’t need to change the rolls of film, you don’t need to wait until the next day for rushes and the editing is faster. And you can now make a film on your iPhone, for crying out loud, so why bother using the old ways?
Well, there is still such a thing as an aesthetic choice. Cinema is about the moving image, the movement and the composition, what’s in the frame and what’s out. Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas) still use 35mm film. Alex Ross Perry shoots on 16mm. Their argument is that digital cinematography hasn’t reached a point where it’s better looking than film. Mostly, I’d tend to say yes, but I’d also say look at what Roger Deakins has done on Skyfall. (Granted he is a master at his craft, and few could attempt to replicate what his work… for now.)
The digital revolution isn’t just about that fight between tradition and new technology. Any art is dependent on its technology: that’s craft. It is also about the market: the tools are now such that anyone can make a film and put it online. The moving image medium has now evolved to encompass something broader than just a movie.
Filmmakers have now branched into television or series that are exclusively watched online. I’d argue that the television series Looking had some of the finest cinematography I’ve seen recently (thank you Reed Morano). David Fincher has worked on House of Cards and Lisa Cholodenko made the deeply affecting four-episode Olive Kitteridge.
There was a time when for a television maker to branch into film was a consecration, now a filmmaker will find more freedom in television or online content. Dear White People broke new ground as a film, and it’s now going to be a Netflix series. Jane Fonda is on Netflix (and making sex toys for older women with arthritis, no less).
What’s your story?
What it boils down to is what many directors tend to forget, and also what most of us go to the movies or watch TV for: a good story. Would Gone With The Wind be a film nowadays? I’d bet that it would probably be a ten-episode HBO special.
Dustin Lance Black’s eight-hour epic about the history of the struggles of the LGBT community could have filled several seasons of a more elaborate series. It could have been condensed in a 150-minute film as well. Except that now, more people have been touched by this story than there are people who bought tickets to see his Oscar-winning effort Milk. And it’s timely too, as it seems that more people than ever need to know about the struggle of minorities.
When you come to think of it, how many films needed to be a film? How many features have you seen that made you think “I felt some parts of the story were worth exploring more”?
The films that Scorsese grew up on and that he reveres to this day are very specific experiences: Bicycle Thieves, or Duel in the Sun are very cohesive and complete aesthetic experiences. They are an entire story, with characters, emotional and moral arcs, setups and payoffs, told in a short length of time. Perhaps that is what a film is. A finite, limited piece of art, with cohesive aesthetics, that needs to be shown to as many people as possible. Perhaps what Scorsese has compromised is only how people enjoy it, but not the art itself.