The current kerfuffle over Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming picture, The Irishman, raises a lot of questions about the future of movies. As described in today’s New York Times, it pits Scorsese and theater owners against the film’s producer and funder, Netflix, over the question of how the picture is to be distributed: widely on screen, or, as is the case with most elite Netflix productions, in a smaller number of theaters so it can be streamed more widely online.
I have nothing against streaming all manner of things online, but I don’t think that’s any way to treat—or the best way to experience—a real motion picture. Like all artistic media, movies have evolved and involved a distinct form of presentation—on a big screen, in the dark, as a way of creating a more immersive effect. Hitchcock isn’t really Hitchcock minus the sensual immersion that heightens the suspense; Ford isn’t really Ford minus the sensual immersion that heightens the mythic dimensions; and Scorsese isn’t really Scorsese minus the sensual immersion that heightens his characters’ brio and anxiety.
To be sure, the big studios have long since ceased funding anything as complex as Hitchcock, Ford, and Scorsese; the pressures of financialized capitalism have reduced them to turning out the 43rd remake of Batman. Today, it’s television and outfits like Netflix that put up the cash for non–comic book entertainment. But no matter how good or occasionally brilliant such products are, they’re displayed on media that can’t deliver the visual and experiential intensity of a great movie.
Hence the stakes in the fight over The Irishman. May the big screen win.
THE CURRENT FIGHT over The Irishman calls to mind the 2007–2008 writers’ strike against the motion picture and television studios—and the joke I unknowingly wrote for the 2008 Oscars.
In late 2007, the Writers Guild struck the studios, chiefly over the issues of whether they’d receive residuals when the films and shows they’d written were—and this was a new development then—streamed. For many years, their contracts had stipulated that when their pictures and shows were screened after their initial releases or rerun on TV, they were paid. At the time, streaming was the Next Big Thing, and the writers wanted similar contractual assurance that they’d be compensated when their work was streamed.
During the strike, I wrote one of my Washington Post columns about the strike, taking, as is my wont, the writers’ side, and explaining that at issue was whether writers would be paid when their work was streamed on computer screens or cellphones. I added, parenthetically, that something—the majesty of a stunningly beautiful picture—might get lost in that translation: “Lawrence of Arabia, I fear, would lose something if viewed on my cell, even if my mother didn’t call during the attack on Aqaba.” The Writers Guild reposted my column on its strike website, subjecting countless writers to my punditry.
The strike actually threatened to postpone Hollywood’s annual celebration of itself, the Oscars, but the studios and the Guild came to terms a few days before the show had been scheduled to go on, and on the show did go, hosted that year by Jon Stewart. I was at home, dutifully watching the show, as all longtime Angelenos or former longtime Angelenos are required to do, when Jon Stewart, returning from a commercial break, strode onstage, took a cellphone out of his pocket, looked at it, and said, “Naah—doesn’t do justice to Lawrence of Arabia.”
I doubt it’ll do justice to The Irishman, either.