Man vs machine

February 28, 2021

Machine learning is changing the way film and TV content is reviewed

The pandemic has changed the face of the film and television industry, and those belonging to the old school do not approve of it. Martin Scorsese, a much respected film person, has pointed to the greater role of the machine in determining choices that a viewer is supposed to make.

In other words, the way the popularity of a programme is determined is changing. This has been particularly poignant where choices about streaming seasons and television serials respond to the rating game and change their direction, content and characters accordingly. At the back of every director/writer’s mind is the response of the audience and the sensitivity to it influences the way it progresses. The team, thus, is not totally free of the influence while the programme is being shot, made or produced.

Martin Scorsese fears that machine-learning simplifies the user’s experience. Algorithms, he says, are reducing everything to “subject matter or genre”, rendering any kind of curation and understanding of artistic worth meaningless. There are exceptions, he says, such as the Criterion Channel and other outlets that are “actually curated”.

Content, he says in his essay, is now “a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode”.

Now the rating, which was always a benchmark in the making of films, is shifting to another level. The commercial cinema - for all cinema is commercial not in the derogatory sense but in the sense that it has to sell to be affordable - is dovetailed to the response that it receives. The marketability of the product is always an unseen variable that haunts producers/ directors, if they happen to want to make films that do not have a ready receptivity among the cine audience.

It appears that the critical edge is now provided by the machine taking over more firmly and decisively than before. The human element appears to be on the decline as the computer takes charge. The destiny is in the hand of the cold logical calculations of artificial intelligence. The algorithms are taking over our world at a rate that is faster than we can comprehend. According to Scorsese the AI is holding our hand and taking us on a path that it has chosen for us in the name of our preferences and liking.

Scorsese may also be baffled because there existed in the past a distinction between the big and small screen. Films were made for the big screens installed in cinema houses where audience stepped out of their houses to join in after paying at the box office. However, the television has been chipping away at the difference. The two are seen by the younger generation as interchangeable. Ever since the pandemic, films are being viewed on the screens at home and these have been streamed through the various services that have been monopolising the online time.

A few months ago, Scorsese had expressed his views about Marvel films. These represent larger-than-life figures, great heroic presences that totally dominate action and see the ultimate resolution in black-and-white terms. These films, he said, did not account for the great complexity that lies embedded in the human character and situation. It was an attempt to simply things and present a world that had no serious issues and problems. It was big enough to sweep everything under the carpet placing the humans fully in control. These spectacles were visually very opulent and the use of technology exaggerated the element of the marvel, but did little to understand the multilayered nature of existence and how to cope with it.

It is apparent that the famed director sees more significance in the art of the moving image than mere spectacle and an escape in the narrow sense. For him, cinema is meant for greater things and reducing it to a programme on the media does not meet his approval.

For him, cinema as is, as indeed all art is, not meant to follow a popular taste, but should be bold enough to challenge and question it. It should not abandon and forego the truth which is the director’s or the team’s prerogative to spell out.

Martin Scorsese’s views should be taken seriously for his films have won an Academy Award, a Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement; and the AFI Life Achievement Award. The American Film Institute has placed three Scorsese films on their list of the greatest American movies: Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. At a ceremony in Paris, he was awarded the French Legion of Honour in recognition of his contribution to cinema. He was listed in 2007, among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in The World. In August 2007, Scorsese was named the second-greatest director of all time in a poll by Total Film magazine, in front of Steven Spielberg and behind Alfred Hitchcock. In 2007, Scorsese was honoured by the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) at the non-profit’s thirty-second Anniversary Gala. Scorsese has been the recipient of the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award as well.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Man vs machine