The beginning of Il Maestro paints a New Yorker's journey through the city, surrounded by art. The camera is in non-stop motion, Scorsese tells us - as is the city and the young man the scene follows. The New York that Scorsese creates appears to be characterised by excess - the young man passes "diners and more liquor stores and newsstands and a cigar store and crosses the street". It is not just the buildings of New York that are permeated with this surplus of culture - the people are part of it too— "poets and hustlers and musicians and winos".
Everyone has somewhere to be, and that somewhere has to be located in New York City.
We follow our guide, an unnamed young man in his late teens, equipped only with some books and a copy of The Village Voice, an American counter-cultural newspaper that ceased production in 2017 after 62 years of publishing. This serves for some entertainment while we queue for the Truffaut Film - our guide opens to the Film section of the magazine, providing us with "a cornucopia of riches', more art and culture, and the pinnacle of both— Fellini's 8 1/2. What we may presume from the inclusion of "the man with the threadbare suit" is that these riches are purely intellectual - they are not products, and do little to serve someone's physical needs.
His journey blossoms with culture and art, Scorsese tells us, peppering the names of classic films into his essay. The young man's appetite is satiated only by the screenings and talks in front of him. Some of these stand out when considering the year that the scene is set in (1959), as Pigs and Battleships and Le Doulos were both released at least a year later. This is most certainly intentional, for what the introduction to Il Maestro depicts is not a single person on a single day. As the young man reads, "the CAMERA RISES ABOVE HIM and the waiting crowd, as if on the waves of their excitement", depicting a city of people entranced in the art and culture of their era, most notably cinema.
Presumably, this is not the same New York City where we watch Tom Holland's Peter Parker rush to school.
The essay read to me as a love letter to Federico Fellini's work. Scorsese describes being bewitched by Fellini's work, as he first encountered it in watching La Strada at the age of thirteen. Scorsese notes that the film was popular everywhere around the world but Italy. Perhaps this may be attributed to the way it resonates with Italian immigrant families - Scorsese states that the story was familiar to the reality faced by his Grandparents prior to leaving Italy. It seems that Scorsese viewed La Strada in the perfect way - on a television, surrounded by his family, viewing a fable that represented the stories of his grandparents. Scorsese describes the unfolding of the story as "an emanation from the ancient world" - and to a thirteen-year-old Scorsese, this must have rang true as the nightmarish tales of post-war Italy travelled from the memories of his grandparents to the screen in front of him. Scorsese describes his intimate relationship with cinema, and later his own closeness with Fellini, lamenting the inability to obtain funding for his idol's later work.
This intimate view contrasts with what Scorsese argues cinema has been boiled down to - 'content'. The term 'content creator' is used by a myriad of different internet stars, and yet it remains vague. The issue, Scorsese argues, is it has become a "business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode...". It was the penultimate term in Scorsese's long list of what might be considered 'content' that created a prominent reaction - this, as well as his alleged distaste towards Marvel movies, that produced a spewing of insults and criticisms. While I feel that Scorsese has thick enough skin to remain unaffected by some teenager on Twitter calling to "put this fossil in a home already", I am slightly worried by this response. Il Maestro focused on Fellini, and the 'superhero sequel' was tucked away amidst many other terms— it felt odd that social media had fixated upon such a term. Perhaps this was because it was most recognisable to the reader - or because superhero sequels take up the same spaces in today’s thirteen-year-old’s hearts that Fellini did to a young Scorsese’s.
Much of the films Scorsese mentions are European. Fellini’s films were an important part of Post-War Italy - the Felliniesque chaos reflected the confusion of the country and the oddness of everyday life. It is comical, disorderly, and broken; to Scorsese, this must have illustrated a time period he had only heard about from the lips of his elders.
The children of the 2000s are brought up on a diet of endless, saturated remakes, in which cash cows are milked until the films become entirely unrecognisable to their initial forms.
Nobody wants an original story. We may look at the endless and seemingly unwanted slew of live action remakes as our example, or the cartoon reboots tailored to capture as many tiny eyes as possible. As Generation Z, the culture of our childhood is reflected in these superhero sequels just as the tales of Scorsese’s youth were reflected in Fellini’s work. This isn’t to say that superhero films are all mindless cash-grabs (I’m a major fan of Spider Man: Into the Spiderverse), but when looking at the Avengers: Infinity War poster I find myself asking: why are so many characters crammed together? It feels as though I am staring into an infinite sea of independent property, a bid to grab the attention of everyone and anyone. And this bid was successful, it seems that it was because I found myself wondering who everyone was and what the film’s outcome would be. If I return home to watch the film, I will be recommended more purely on the basis of subject matter and genre, Scorsese states. I am inclined to agree.
If we adhere to the manner in which I describe cinema, we might replace the scene at the beginning of Il Maestro, where the young man waddles along a street laden with fast food restaurants and chain chemists, enroute to view whatever prequel of a sequel of a series finale has come out next and demanded his attention instead. Actually - scratch that - he’d be heading home to view it on a streaming service. Said streaming service would be ‘curated’ by Scorsese’s despised algorithms, and would ensure that he kept sailing through the endless stream of content presented to him. But it is important to note that sooner or later, this young man would find a particular film or character that resonated with him. As criticised as it was, I did find the live action edition of Beauty and the Beast charming, and would consider it to be one of my favourite films. Despite not being Scorsese’s view of ‘cinema’, this endless slew still evokes emotion (this is evident from the angered reactions to Scorsese’s criticism of superhero films) from its audience. A false scene, constructed entirely from CGI, may still be heart-warming, however false it may be. No matter how many computer programs they were run-through, within the split second where information is transferred from the screen to the audience, these scenes are entirely real. So, although not art, and although made to capture our attention for a short span, ‘content’ may be much more impactful than Scorsese considers.
Perhaps the message of Il Maestro is that ‘cinema’ does not exist anymore.
It has certainly become less physical - it is now almost fully digital, with many scenes embellished or entirely created through computer effects. My A-Level History teacher once explained to us that when Sergei Eisenstein ran out of glue, he used his own saliva to stick strips of film together. Years later, Ralph Bakshi would rotoscope scenes from Eisenstein’s work to finish Wizards, unable to create entirely new animations as a result of exhausting his budget. Fellini features his wife, Giuletta Masina, in some of his films, although not in the most flattering way. These are indications of how personal— and at times desperate— cinema was. It seems this personality is void from the polished, virtual reality we watch on Netflix.
However, we may just be looking in the wrong places. Should we shirk the grip of the ‘algorithm’, we might just discover the same magic that Scorsese felt watching La Strada.
I am reminded of the intense emotion of Roma, the beauty of The Shape of Water created by CGI, and the deeply authentic costuming of The Phantom Thread. Cinema may still be deeply personal and even desperate— if only we resist the beckoning hand of these algorithms, instead venturing outside with the same appetite for art that the young man in the beginning of Il Maestro does.
Or perhaps the sequel to ‘content’ is just around the corner - and so too its redemption arc.