The art house cinema finds its definition, firstly, in how its main imperative is the need to achieve expressive merit… as opposed to entertainment value or commercial gain. That is not say that art films cannot, like high concept Hollywood, provide entertainment sustenance, but this is secondary to the aim of the continuous re-invention of what the cinematic form can be. As a result, the art house film is less easy to define, in some respects, than genre cinemas that have aesthetic and narrative specificities.
So art house cinemas are perhaps best approached in terms of creative history and film movements. What constitutes an art film movement? Arguably the first art filmmakers were the Russian formalists. A group, mostly known by the works of Sergei Eisenstein, who helped re-invent film form via the utilisation of the ‘edit’. Soviet films like Strike and Battleship Potemkin, cinematic weaponry in service of the Soviets, employed editing techniques designed specifically for audience manipulation (it is worth noting that all forms of cinema have to degrees, employed their editing techniques ever since). Unlike previous cinemas, that imitated theatre techniques simply to ‘tell the story’, these films sliced shots together to ‘build a picture’.
It may seem obvious to us now, because we are so literate in cinematic language, but the early cinemas began by simply training the camera onto the subject or object and rolling the film. The camera was, then, a conduit for the ‘theatre spectator’. Eisenstein and his mates went their own way. They cut up the film reel and glued the shots back together into formed sequences. Instead of just watching the Tsarists forces crushing the proles, those scenes are spliced into shots of a bull being slaughtered. Two different events, no literal relationship, montaged together, and you have a new meaning. And because this is an incredibly insidiously emotive methodology, you can manipulate your audience into making them feel what you want them to feel. Often, and eventually, so subtly, that the don’t even know it is happening.
Spend any time at all consuming not only films, but advertisements, music videos even party political broadcasts, with this history in mind, and you will realize that Sergei and the Formalists have a lot to answer for.
So on the one hand, art film is about recreating what the form can do (which can then be later assimilated into commercial culture) but it is also about recreating, re-evaluating, how we view the world, people, relationships. Not simply a mode for telling dramatic tales, but for exploring the nature of storytelling itself. Not simply a method for introducing characters, but for investigating what it means to be a character, or human more generally.
David Bordwell suggests that art cinema follows the modernist literature of the 20th century in this respect. Makes sense, like time wise, and stuff. The author creates protagonists that are psychologically complex and stories which may not achieve a simplistic resolution. However unlike the author’s pen, the auteur utilizes the ‘camera pen’.
Influenced by the previous decade’s Italian neorealists, and Hollywood directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, members of the French New Wave, such as Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, wanted to move away from literary adaptations to realize the cinema as an art form in its own right. Not simply another way of telling old stories or bringing the theatre to the screen.
The New Wave’s work, in films such as Godard’s Breathless – an art house cult classic if there ever was one – and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, proved influential to the High Modernists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Auteurs such as Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini and Bergman created films that can be seen as the paragons of the art cinema. Bergman in particular, with his mode of high seriousness and philosophical inquisition, and Fellini with verbose tales of Italian society, sexuality and hypocrisy, were indeed the grand masters of the art cinema. Like the Hemingways and Scott-Fitzgeralds of literature, they weaved their creative worlds, employing distinctive styles recognizable across a body of work.
Since then, the auteur and the art house have been near inseparable. In the 1980s, this was as broad as Peter Greenaway’s theatre of debauchery and colour in films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, David Lynch’s surrealism in Blue Velvet, and Kieslowski theology in Dekalog.
In 1995, however, a group of Danish filmmakers, established The Vow of Chastity, a new set of rules for a new brand of filmmaking. The Dogme ’95 manifesto’s precepts included sole use of 35mm, on location shooting and handheld camera use, and, importantly, a lack of film credit for the director. However, although it sought to disavow the auteur as the harbinger of the work, its proponents, particularly Lars von Trier, were nonetheless strongly associated with the manifesto’s creative vision. His first film associated with the movement, The Idiots, based on a group of people who play act idiocy and instigate impulsive orgies, helped forge Trier’s reputation as a cinematic provocateur par excellence.
In the last twenty years, directors like Iranian Akira Kiarostami (with films such as Ten, set entirely within a woman’s car) and Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-Liang (with a film like Vive L’Amour, containing very longs sequences often totally devoid of dialogue) have continue to push the cinematic envelope.
The movements of cinematic art are, however, far from concise. Its influence has proven discursive, as art house cinema’s influence can be distinctly seen in the larger Hollywood productions. The indomitable Quentin Tarantino named his production company, A Band Apart, after the youthful Godard film of the same name, and Tim Burton’s aesthetic can be clearly traced back to the German expressionism of the 1920s. If you want to see Burton’s roots, watch The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari.
At the risk of over-simplification, then, art house is less a set of distinct visual and narrative specifications than it is the result of creative desire. The desire to constantly re-form and re-create what the medium can be and do. Like many artistic forms, then, the periphery is always one step ahead of the centre; the art films often (but not always) precede in style the more commercial films that are influenced by them. But it’s far from a one-way street. Head back to the New Wave and you’ll see a set of art house directors heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker who displayed with finesse a personal style that long outlasted the commercial considerations of the then film studios.
Five of my Favourites
F.W Murnau Nosferatu (1922)
Often cited as the first vampire film, Nosferatu was, in fact, preceded by several other films now out of print and lost to the cultural consciousness – and almost itself disappeared. F.W Murnau’s German Expressionist classic was almost destroyed when the courts ruled it an unauthorized adaptation of the Stoker novel.With its stark chiaroscuro lighting and oblique, gothic style, Nosferatu embodies the art film’s potential for visual creativity as a representation of psychological realism. In this case, the psychology is the fear of the seductive capabilities of the dreaded other/unknown.
Jean luc godard, Breathless (1960)
Godard’s most well regarded film by both critics and audiences, Breathless ranks in the British Film Institutes poll of films as the best work by a still living director. Despite its art film status, Breathless utilizes some of the themes and tropes of the Hollywood gangster and film noir genres. Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, is on the run from the Parisian law after shooting a police officer. Caddish, charming and whimsical, he refuses to leave the country for Italy, until Patricia, American Jean Seberg, leaves with him.The genre narrative is painted in a unique and creative style; Breathless is an example of jump cutting and fourth wall breaking interspersed with long and languorous conversations between the two title players. In this way, the film is a good example of the cross roads between art and entertainment cinema.
Ingmar Bergman, Persona (1966)
An ideal specimen of an art house picture if there ever was one, Persona is one of the most critically acclaimed of the Swedish directors oeuvre. David Bordwell specifies complex psychology as of major importance in art film and this Ingmar Bergman has it in bucket loads.A nurse and an actress come together in a beach house when the actress, Liv Ullman, relinquishes her power of speech. The nurse, Bibi Andersson, becomes enchanted by the muteness of the actress and, corrupted by the intensity of the circumstance, falling into a desperate desire for a contact that is unrequited. Identities merge whilst surrealist and horror imagery abounds. Persona is, then, as much a tale of the lady vampire, as it is of psychosomatic degradation, borne of the inevitable loneliness of being.
Abbas Kiarostami, Ten (2002)
Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten is set entirely within a young Iranian woman’s car in the capital Tehran, and is predicated around a set of ten conversations she – Mania – played by Mania Akbar, has with her passengers. In it, Mania talks with a friend, her sister, an old woman and a street prostitute she gives a lift. The conversations often considering the role of women in modern Iran. Her young, quite belligerent son also makes several inclusions in the film, and as the only male, it is arguably the case that Kiarostami is making a statement about the petulance and selfish self-aggrandisement of masculine society.
Even if not (and it is for the spectator to decide), a female focused film with a meandering, loose narrative and tightly interiorized setting goes against the American commercial grain, with its preference for exterior, male driven, action heavy and ‘resolvable’ narratives’.
Lars von Trier, The Idiots (1998)
A controversial remedy to more saccharine or simplistic cinemas, The Idiots is perhaps one of Lars von Trier’s most tendentious pictures. Seemingly splitting the critics down the middle, The Idiots deals in the performance of disability by a group of bohemians.
Trier’s film is both the tracing of its protagonist’s social discomfort and their sense of being on the borderline of society – as it is also a political manifesto arguing against the exclusive nature of Capitalism’s purported ‘meritocracy.’