VVoices is a free-to-read Vague Visages critics survey.
A March 2021 Harpers essay by Martin Scorsese sparked online discussions about the relationship between cinema and content in the Streaming Era. In the second Vague Visages’ VVoices survey, various film critics offer their opinions on “gatekeeping.”
Scorsese points out in his essay that the film business is somehow only now a business, and has never been such before — especially not when he started out making films in the 1960s. The reality is that filmmaking has always been a business, it’s only the demand that has changed. The moviegoing experience was fatally ruined by mobile phones. There is simply no way to recover that collective magic in the darkened theater when people constantly pull out their devices and everyone’s eyes go from the screen right to the iPhone. That leaves watching movies at home as the primary way to discover films. While nearly any film is available to download illegally, people should not have to risk getting a computer virus if they are simply curious about cinema.
It never fails to amuse me when seeing the word “gatekeeping” used in tandem with a filmmaker who has spent his entire career using his clout to support young filmmakers, and make hidden gems of world cinema more accessible to the masses. The accusations of gatekeeping levelled at Scorsese all come from fans of superhero films he has repeatedly taken the time to articulate his disinterest towards, the word getting thrown around so much it has lost all meaning. A filmmaker willing to engage with his audience in this way, and expand their cinematic horizons in a manner that is accessible, couldn’t be further from how I perceive gatekeeping — a practice that, by its very definition, ensures art is only accessed and discussed by a privileged few, and not as the popular art form it was always designed to be. To suggest film writers should expand their horizons and step out of their cinematic comfort zones is not “gatekeeping,” especially not in a time with readily-accessible streaming services like Mubi, the Criterion Channel or the BFI Player. In fact, the very practice of “gatekeeping” should by definition be a thing of the past, with decades of film history now affordable and accessible at the click of a button — and in the few elitist critical circles where it does exist, it certainly does not draw parallels with the filmmaker who started a non-profit organisation to restore hidden classics, and spread his love of world cinema.
Gatekeeping is snobbery delivered with exclusionary language. Scorsese’s recent essay that began the latest brouhaha is the anthesis of gatekeeping — it’s measured, nuanced, inclusionary and inviting. The reason it and the discussions born from it have become an issue is because of people’s inherent desire to find empowerment and validation through and for their own personal tastes. Fans of arthouse cinema, classic films and superhero movies are no different in terms of the way they operate when they feel threatened, often choosing to lash out rather than lift up. It’s typical human behavior, amplified — literally — by the reach and echo chamber of social media. What’s important to keep in mind is that gatekeeping only becomes a literal problem when art is held back from a large portion of the public either through access or economic barriers. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened to the breadth of movie history — at least, not right now. Given the way corporations work via the rule of supply and demand, apathy toward cinema combined with obnoxious dismissal of any genre, style or era could result in the companies controlling such films letting them fall by the wayside. The reason snobbish gatekeeping should be shamed and stifled as much as possible is so that doesn’t end up becoming a reality — no portion of cinema deserves to be erased or forgotten, just as none of it should be elevated to a place of dominance.
The term “Gatekeeping,” when speaking about access, is representative of a force against upward or progressive mobility, whether it be physical, economic, social, academic or spiritual. On Twitter at least, I don’t think it means that anymore. I don’t think “gatekeeping” means anything on that website anymore.
One of the strangest twists in the use of this term over the past several years that I’ve seen is how it completely negates and even rejects the idea of access to knowledge. It rejects the opportunity for progress and access outright. This is especially strange when it is applied to art. In discussion of cinema, art, history and other subjects which contribute to culture, comprehensive knowledge and the access to it — which is readily available already in libraries and on the internet — is for some reason considered an elitist stance. The idea that one may have to read or watch or do anything to engage with art in order be taken seriously has been slapped across the chest with the word “gatekeeping.” It’s no longer about breaking down the gate to gain access to more information, more history, more art, more diversity. It’s about saying the art that lies beyond the proverbial gate is not worth having access to in the first place because it’s [insert any identity-politic buzzword here].
It’s gatekeeping to expect anyone to sit through a movie made before 1980. It’s gatekeeping to expect anyone to read Molly Haskell’s words on feminism in cinema or Jonathan Rosenbaum’s words on political films. It’s gatekeeping to be told that non-white and women filmmakers have been making films since the early 1900s. It’s gatekeeping to expect people to overcome that one-inch hurdle of reading subtitles that Bong Joon-ho spoke about. Here’s the reality: whatever structural gate may exist to preclude you from engaging with these things, it stands much smaller and frail than the formidable gate that your own incuriosity and misconceptions have already built in front of you.
When doing research for a piece on Edward Bland’s The Cry of Jazz (1959), I read an essay that the director had written for Film Culture in 1960, in response to the angry though justified criticism of his film — specifically, the contention that jazz was “dead.” By the end of 1959, this wild claim had been proven false — if that hadn’t already been clear. Bland, with his essay, was either trying to keep the doors shut on the wave of experimentalism that jazz was precipitating, or, more likely, he was trying to defend himself against an embittered opposition. In the future, Scorsese’s Il Maestro essay will hopefully be viewed favourably by the majority, as it is more prophetic than defensive. What he is criticising is not innovation but a lack thereof. However, these two artists wrote what they did because of a common grievance. Scorsese sees a changing world where his artform is being “devalued” by certain businesses, audiences and artists. People are calling his criticisms “gatekeeping,” but what he has said is much less threatening and ominous than that term suggests. Like Bland, Scorsese is acknowledging a shift which he believes is the wrong step forward. Unlike Bland, Scorsese is probably right. But are the furious online arguments and insults worth the hassle? What’s important is that those who really do value the art of cinema will continue to preserve, promote and fight for its relevance as the world evolves, regardless of how the wider culture engages with them. Whether or not monopolistic film studios will actually prevent this from happening, in one way or another, is a separate and more interesting consequence of referring to films as “content.”
The gatekeeping conversation draws lines on familiar cinephile battlegrounds. Young vs. old, the canon vs. the corners of ephemera, aesthetics vs. representation. But between the wealth of cinema content you can see via festivals, YouTube, dedicated streaming services and, dare I say it, torrents, all of which are better advertised than ever via social media, I see no material substance to “gatekeeping” in cinephilia. As Scorsese points out in his essay, curation by the likes of Mubi expands one’s field of view, it doesn’t shrink it.
The Marvel/Star Wars-industrial complex, however, keeps the industry gates by swallowing up-and-coming filmmakers and actors into their endless cycle. Remember when bright young talent Brie Larson won an Oscar for Room and was then never seen again outside of a supersuit? That seems more like keeping the gates to me. But equally, no one likes to see an old man shaking his fist at the clouds. It’s tough not to roll one’s eyes at Scorsese’s depiction of New York’s movie scene in the late-1950s, listing the great movies that you won’t see today. We can’t go to the cinema at all now, and the last time I did, I caught a double bill of Le Doulos and Eraserhead at the BFI, where tickets for under-25s are £3. Cost is the biggest barrier to entry, not curation.
Gatekeeping in film criticism on the other hand…
Scorsese’s wistfully recollects Federico Fellini’s filmography as he contends that technology and the business of film have driven the final nail in the casket of future artistic auteurs. Perhaps nostalgia and paranoia are driving Scorsese’s perspective more than actual circumstance. I, too, worry about the prospects for the continued and widespread public exhibition of film. The COVID-19 crisis, as well as the pressure of streaming, are testing the limits of this model. Yet, I see film as the resilient heir to a tradition of public mass communication that threads through human history: from the shaman storyteller around the prehistoric fire to the stage upon where William Shakespeare’s plays shined. There is something in the human condition that calls us to experience some art forms as a collective community. For me, and many others, film only fulfills its full artistic mission when viewing it in a public forum, en masse. I would remind Scorsese that film has endured considerable economic challenges since its infancy a la Thomas Edison’s brazen attempt to monopolize the industry. And technology has turned the business upside down several times, with the advent of talkies, color, VHS, digitalization, et al. These previous upheavals were not gentle on the artists, but they did not deter them. It may ease Scorsese’s mind to ponder the Netflix streaming conundrum in the context of what occurred in the Japanese film industry. Amidst a crushing decade long recession in the 1990s, Japan’s studios were hurting badly and desperately trying to stimulate the box office. In spite of the block-booking and advanced sales of tickets, nothing appeared to be stopping the inevitable collapse. The Toei Company seized the moment to introduce direct-to-video genre pictures. This smaller screen stage did not last forever. The Japanese direct-to-video market eventually subsided, but it did not kill creativity nor the cultural interest in highlighting the best directors of that era. They gained a spotlight and recognition in the form of film festival invitations. Though initially a paint-by-numbers cash grab, a new line of artistic voices with loyal fans eventually emerged. Have faith that a similar scenario unfolds at Netflix. Genre picks flood their site weekly. Yet, similar to the 1930s, alongside the vast number of “B” movies a small group of offerings from visionary directors will stand out. Social media and podcasts by cinema enthusiasts will take care of the rest. Algorithms be damned. Sleep easy, Mr. Scorsese.
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