Fellini by Scorsese

Guignard, Still Life with Fish, 1933
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By GUSTAVO TORRECILHA*

The American filmmaker's critique of the content and form of contemporary cinema

After criticizing films such as Marvel superheroes or the use of cell phones to watch cinematographic works, Martin Scorsese now presents, in his tribute to Fellini in the article Il Maestro, recently published in Harper's Magazine, criticism of the content and form of contemporary cinema, or, in his view, the lack of true, substantial, artistic content – ​​which implies, in itself, questions and developments in the formal sphere. Despite possibly not having been his intention – after all, there is no bibliographical reference to a theoretical or philosophical text, in addition to the fact that the tribute is mainly dedicated to discussing how much Scorsese considers he owes to Fellini’s production –, some points contained his writing echoes arguments that have been worked on by aesthetics over the last two hundred years.

This is because Scorsese considers Fellini as a model of cinema as an art and not merely as a business. The characteristics of his work, as well as that of several of his contemporaries, especially those from the “new” and experimental periods, were responsible for shaping what cinema is, often based on attempts precisely to discuss the issues of form and content of that cinema. art. Such content (and consequently its form) suffer losses with the growth of cinema as an industry. It is precisely in relation to these discussions introduced by Scorsese that there are resonances with great thinkers, such as Hegel and Habermas.

Scorsese's debt to Fellini stems from his own training as a person and a filmmaker, which began during the period when the Italian director was beginning to flourish as an artist. If for directors like Bertolucci – as he confessed to Scorsese – La Dolce Vita had been the reason that led them to return to cinema, for the American director the great inspiration was 8'', a film in which Fellini's alter ego, Guido, also a director, suffers from blockage and seeks refuge, peace and guidance as an artist and human being. In this plot, Scorsese emphasizes how the audience basically sees Fellini creating the film, insofar as the creative process is the very structure of the work. The following excerpt is important for understanding the film and how it affected not only Scorsese, but cinema itself:

Gore Vidal once told me that he had told Fellini, "Fred, less dreams next time, you should tell one story." But in 8'', the lack of resolution is fair, because the artistic process doesn't have a resolution either – you just have to follow. When you're done, you're forced to start over, just like Sisyphus. And, as Sisyphus discovered, pushing the boulder up the mountain again and again becomes your life's purpose.

Fellini is considered by Scorsese as more than just a filmmaker, but as someone who, like Chaplin, Picasso and the Beatles, would have been much greater than his own art. With Fellini, a certain style emerges, a certain attitude towards the world – which results both in the adjective “fellineque” and in the incorporation of the author's name in the distribution of films as Fellini's Satyricon ou Fellini's Casanova: the director had become “a brand, a genre in itself”. This feature, however, raises Scorsese's criticism, as he considers it to be an aspect lost by cinema in the last thirty years. Despite not fully agreeing with his position, which seems a bit exaggerated (after all, even nowadays there are authors who invoke this aura of having their own genre, such as, for example, Tarantino and Sofia Coppola), it raises several discussions in which aesthetics can present interesting arguments for understanding the artistic and cinematographic phenomenon.

The core of his criticism concerns how cinema was, in the times of directors such as Godard, Bertolucci, Antonioni, Bergman, Imamura, Ray, Cassavetes, Kubrick, Varda and Warhol, in addition to the more established and renowned Welles, Bresson and Huston, more than just content. This concerns how, for Scorsese, until a few years ago, the term content was always opposed to the question of form. Such artists would be constantly struggling with the question “what is cinema?” and always using cinema itself, his next films, to try to answer this question. This results in the development of cinema as an art, both in terms of form and content. But starting in the seventies and eighties, something changed for several filmmakers, including Scorsese himself, with each one becoming his own island, isolated, struggling to make the next film.

This isolation occurs in present times, as the art of cinema would be “being systematically devalued, left aside, demoted and reduced to its lowest denominator”, the “content”. Scorsese points out how, nowadays, everything is content, especially for those who know nothing of the art form. “Content has become a trade term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero franchise, an episode of a series.” All this, combined with the replacement of cinema curation (although some platforms like MUBI still maintain it) by algorithmic suggestions based mainly on the viewer's preferences with regard to the theme or genre, which treat the public only as a consumer, would be constantly debasing the art of cinema.

The conclusion is that “everything has changed – cinema and the importance it has in our culture”. The film business is increasingly emphasizing the term business, with the value of each work determined by the amount of money the project will yield. Finally, concludes Scorsese: “I believe that we, too, have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it is not. Federico Fellini is a starting point. Many things can be said about Fellini's films, but there is one thing that is indisputable: they are movies. Fellini's work goes a long way towards defining the form of art”.

There are some reflections that can be made from Scorsese's considerations based on philosophical aesthetics. The issue of everything being content, an aspect that he himself admits has a positive side for him and other filmmakers, finds resonance in the aesthetics courses of Hegel offered in the 1820s at the University of Berlin. Hegelian aesthetics sees three forms of art. The symbolic art form occurs in a period in which art is being constituted, as pre-art[I], where there is still no complete adequacy of the spiritual content to the form. It is mainly oriental and Egyptian art.

The second form of art, classical, takes place in the Greek world, with the content perfectly suited to the form, given that it is a context where art is the highest means of expression in the spirit. With the loss of this position, a result of the spirit turning inwards from the Christian era onwards, the form of romantic art appears, in which the content of art is no longer able to represent the highest needs of the spirit, and may even become worldly.

The most notorious example of this worldly art is represented by the Dutch painting of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, an art that starts to have life itself as its content.[ii]. If before, art essentially had the function of religious representation, mainly with the Dutch – as a result, for example, of their economic conditions (development of bourgeois society) or religious and cultural conditions (the reform and flourishing of the Protestant religion) – now it gains a freedom of themes and subjects to go through.

It is at this moment that everything becomes content, like still lifes or a scene inside a tavern. Hegel also sees a positive side in this transformation of everything into content for art, and dedicates himself to the defense of Dutch painting and its triviality. But if, on the one hand, everything becomes content, on the other hand, there is the implication of the loss of the importance of spiritual content, as a representative of the totality of a people (as was the art of the Greeks) through art, which implies the rise of the subjectivity of the artist, characteristic of the art of modernity.

The transformation of everything into content for art has its consequences. Scorsese's thesis that cinema “has always been much more than content and always will be” can also be discussed from the perspective of Hegelian philosophy, and in this case not only aesthetics, but also logic. With this thesis, in opposition to the empty contents that he sees in contemporary cinema, he means that cinema is also form, having as its content the discussion of form itself. In the first volume of Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, Hegel discusses the issues of form and content, reaching the conclusion that form intrinsically belongs to content, and that certain content carries its form with it when it flourishes[iii], so that the form is not incidental, but carries within itself the very essence of the content.

That is why art assumes its forms, because “in the concrete content also properly resides the moment of the external and effective phenomenon and, equally, sensible”[iv]. In the case of those directors mentioned by Scorsese, the content of their works, guided by the understanding of and experimentation with cinematographic making itself, had as its argument precisely the questioning of forms, which allows its evolution, its development and experimentation with them.

But from the moment this content becomes empty, the form ceases to be questioned, also becoming empty. However, the questions already raised allowed the form several possibilities for flourishing, which are taken advantage of by the film industry, by the business. The directors mentioned by Scorsese are especially those from the avant-garde of mid-twentieth-century cinema.

At this point, it is important to recall Habermas's critique of postmodern, post-avant-garde art, which takes advantage of the free forms created by the avant-garde, but with empty content.[v]. If, for Scorsese, everything can be content (which has a positive dimension for the filmmaker, as it did for Hegel, where the end of art did not necessarily have a negative connotation, but on the contrary, which demonstrated the stage of the spiritual development of modernity), then this effervescence of more and more content without content becomes possible.

Of course, Scorsese's points are not necessarily new. The proof of this is that this discussion could still bring several other authors who think about modern art and postmodern art. In any case, the perception of a great director regarding issues of contemporary cinema is emblematic, not only from a purely nostalgic vision of the cinema of the past, but with a substantial critique that even finds support in philosophy.

*Gustavo Torrecilha is studying for a master's degree in philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP).

Reference


SCORSESE, Martin. Il Maestro: Federico Fellini and the lost magic of cinema. Harper's Magazine, March 2021.

Cited Works


HABERMAS, J. Modern and postmodern architecture. Translated by Carlos Eduardo Jordão Machado.  New CEBRAP Studies, nº 18, September 1987. p. 115-124.

HEGEL, GWF Aesthetics Courses, Volume I. Translated by Marco Aurélio Werle and Oliver Tolle. 2nd ed. 1st reprint São Paulo: Publisher of the University of São Paulo, 2015. 312 p.

______. Aesthetics Courses, Volume II. Translation by Marco Aurélio Werle and Oliver Tolle. 1st ed. 1st reprint São Paulo: Publisher of the University of São Paulo, 2014a. 360p.

______. Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences in Compendium: 1830, Volume I: The Science of Logic. Translation by Paulo Meneses with the collaboration of Fr. Jose Machado. 3rd ed. São Paulo: Edições Loyola, 2012. 444 p.

Notes


[I] HEGEL, GWF Est coursesética, volume II. Translation by Marco Aurélio Werle and Oliver Tolle. 1st ed. 1st reprint São Paulo: Publisher of the University of São Paulo, 2014, p. 25

[ii] HEGEL, GWF Aesthetics Courses, Volume I. Translated by Marco Aurélio Werle and Oliver Tolle. 2nd ed. 1st reprint São Paulo: Publisher of the University of São Paulo, 2015, p. 180.

[iii] Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences in Compendium: 1830, Volume I: The Science of Logic. Translation by Paulo Meneses with the collaboration of Fr. Jose Machado. 3rd ed. São Paulo: Edições Loyola, 2012, §§ 133 and 134.

[iv] HEGEL, GWF Aesthetics Courses, Volume I. Translated by Marco Aurélio Werle and Oliver Tolle. 2nd ed. 1st reprint São Paulo: Publisher of the University of São Paulo, 2015, p. 87.

[v] HABERMAS, J. Modern and postmodern architecture. Translated by Carlos Eduardo Jordão Machado.  New CEBRAP Studies, nº 18, September 1987. p. 116.

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