Wednesday 9 March 2022

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Bruce Hodsdon begins a major new series on the history of art cinema

Editor’s Note: This is the first in  a major new series by Bruce Hodsdon which will examine the history of art cinema as it manifests around the world. Bruce is a long time critic and scholar who has written extensively including many contributions to the Film Alert 101 blog. As alluded to by Bruce below, those contributions are too wide-ranging to list in detail here but they include detailed studies of authorship in Hollywood, screen acting and, in 2017, an eighteen part series on the cinema of Douglas Sirk. If you CLICK HERE you can go through to the final Sirk post and find links to all of the others. To find other pieces by Bruce type "Hodsdon" into the bar with the orange letter B at the top left of this page and the search engine will take you to them.






In May 2020 my summary review for the AFI Research Library of the 48 annual issues of the International Film Guide's annual world production surveys, 1964 - 2012, was placed on the library's web site with a link from Film Alert 101. I had been asked to focus on an aspect of the collection and chose the IFG as I also had a complete collection of the 48 volumes.


In 2010 what appears to be the first book length study on the subject, Global Art Cinema, was published featuring a series of essaysfocusing on the postwar art feature film revival beginning with neo realism, gathering strength in the 1960s with the European new waves and its subsequent global spread. The book outlines “new shapes and boundaries for art cinema rejecting the commercial logic of ever-burgeoning markets, as well as conventional histories of style and the myths of transmission from the [European] core to the periphery.” The IFG surveys, generally written on an on-going basis by a local observer mapping, year-by-year, (art) cinema's development as “a geographically organised force field,” initially centred around a Euro-American cultural axis and industrial infrastructure and including only a few exemplary filmmakers from beyond that axis.


My initial intention was to draw up lists of art film's auteur directors based on a more clearly defined if still necessarily loosely prescribed response to what the term “art film” might encompass than appears to have been applied in the selection of the IFG's 5 directors of the Year, for example. Art films here are grouped together by nation states into a timeline of six decades from 1960 in overall geo-political blocks. This data has been summarised in tabular form so that the distribution of activity in aggregate over the 7 decades can be seen at a glance.


This project is not of a pre-conceived design but has been developed incrementally over 5 years prefaced by a monograph on the cinema of Douglas Sirk appearing in 18 parts in the blog Film Alert 101 from 22/4 to mid-July 2017 followed by a number of essays on writer-director relationships in classical and post classical Hollywood and specifically the IFG survey referred to above. By degrees I had come to realise that I'd made only passing use of many of the books on cinema I'd accumulated over the years and now had more time to revisit. In addition I had access to the AFI research library, where I had found Global Art Cinema, and also could access books and magazines I'd prematurely, in some cases regretfully, discarded in various moves over the years. The internet through data bases like Wikipedia and IMDB and their linkages, has made it ever more feasible to initially identify to date more than 800 individual art film auteurs in 87 countries.


This project also has a kind of autobiographical aspect, if once or twice removed, in bringing together some of the work of others – critical and historical – to better understand what was happening globally in my formative decade as a cinephile. The sixties is a watershed in the modernisation of the cinema, particularly of film narrative as an art form. What follows I see as a chronicle more than an integrated history of the of international art cinema at that time, a mix of found contextual information and critical insight informed by emergent film theory. It begins with a brief outline of the history of 'art film before art film' and then looks at some responses to the question: what constitutes an art cinema?


For over fifty years, art cinema has provided an essential model for audiences, filmmakers, and critics to imagine cinema outside Hollywood. At various points it has intersected with popular genres, national cinemas, revolutionary film, and the avant-garde, and has mixed corporate, state and independent capital. An elastically hybrid category, art cinema has nonetheless sustained an astonishing discursive currency in contemporary film culture...Despite its  more conservative connotations, art cinema retains at its core both a comparativist impulse and an internationalist scope that might productively be brought to bear on globalized culture  - Rosalind Galt & Karl Schoonover (2010)


Art cinema rejects the commercial logic of ever-expanding markets, conventional histories of style and “myths of transmission from the core to the periphery.” The publication of the 'International Film Guide' in 1964 provided a point of entry to a complex concept. Without using the term “art cinema,” it clearly outlined the category's institutional terrain: overt artistic textuality, art-house theatre exhibition, and international circulation of foreign films.” Described as “a geographically organized force field, centred around a Euro-American critical and industrial infrastructure” IFG having demonstrated  its foundational  Eurocentrism goes on to chart the expansion of its global reach beyond Satyajit Ray and a small group of Japanese directors. In 1964 the “World Survey” included only 13 countries which had expanded nearly ten-fold to 123 in the final issue in 2012, the IFG having been reduced to non-viability rather than actual irrelevance by the expansion of the internet.


Part 1 Art Cinema Chronology 1908-1960:  


1908-11 Film d'Art (France and Russia) ;1918-30 French impressionism and Surrealism; 1919-26 German expressionism; 1924-30 Soviet montage; 1924-39 Japanese classicism;  1930-43 French classicism; 1943-51 Italian neo-realism; 1959-64 French new wave


Until about 1903 most films showed scenic places or noteworthy events. The exception was George Méliès who in1896 began exploring special effects in fantasy worlds building his own film studio in 1897, progressing from single shots to longer narratives which were extremely popular and widely imitated. During this time a French phonograph company Pathé Freres established production and distribution branches in many countries, its leading position retained until World War 1. From 1904 narrative form became the most prominent type of filmmaking in the commercial industry, and the worldwide success of the cinema continued to grow. French, Italian, and American films dominated world markets.


Joan of Arc (Prod: Film D'Art, Dir: Albert Capellani,1909)

Film d'Art refers to both an early genre of filmmaking and a Paris company founded in 1907 with the sole purpose of filming famous players from the Comédie Francaise and the boulevarde stage in recognisably high brow subjects. The press coverage anticipated modern publicity methods. While there was only motion in the frame with no editing within the scene, the acting is restrained and expressive, and effective use is made of depth of field (Williams 64-6). The film d'art style also  exercised complete sway over the first period of Russian filmmaking until 1911 coinciding with the foreign policy of Pathé Freres adding touches of local colour for the international market but also various more authentic versions of Russian classical literature by the Russian Khanzhonkov company for the domestic market. The company also employed Yevgeny Bauer 1914-16 whose highly original taste, intuition and genius for Art Noveau set design formed a style that, as was remarked by a reviewer, “does not recognize realism on the screen” (Tsivian 160).


Yevgeni Bauer

The successes of films in more naturalistic style in the late teens by Swedish filmmakers Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjostrom fed into the notion of a national cinema of quality making an international impact with their technical mastery, relatively restrained acting, luminous use of natural landscapes drawing on national literature. The Danes initially led the move from c1910 into longer narratives from 1916, lifting cinema's cultural status. Although it made an international impact Carl Dreyer's perfectionism could not be easily accommodated. After Danish and Swedish productions showing the stylistic influence of Sjostrom, Stiller and then DW Griffith, Dreyer made six films in four different countries including Michael(1924) the first film to reveal his intent “in analysing the inner life of his characters in their environment ” (Paolo Usai), culminating with what was an immediately acclaimed apex of silent cinema, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Dreyer employed the full resources of the French film industry in reaching a peak of achievement in the threatened art of the silent film which “thrust us into a no-man's land between historical document and abstract pictorial association” (Bordwell in 'Film : the Critics Choice' ed. Geoff Andrew).  Dreyer made only 5 more features in the next four decades.

Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Th Dreyer, France, 1928)

At the same time filmmakers sought expressive stylistic alternatives to closed romantic realism (see below) dominant in Hollywood. In Germany film expressionism was born as a movement through the international impact made with a style heavily dependent on distorted set design and the actor's make-up to convey the ambiguity of film point-of-view outside and inside a character's consciousness first realised in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).Extreme stylisation of the mise-en-scene immersed the viewer in what is, in effect, an Expressionist painting in movement, the designer becoming the key factor in the film's success.  The most influential history of cinema in English at the time, Paul Rotha's  'The Film Until Now' (1930), identified the dynamic and fluid camera movements of Der Letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (1924), as breaking through the limitations previously imposed on the viewer'e gaze “definitely establish(ing) the film as an independent medium of expression.” The German and French cinemas at this time provided a rare example of the confluence for several years of the avant garde and the mainstream. The formal radicalism of Caligari in merging a character's consciousness into the setting was, however, soon modified with the stylisation becoming more in the nature of a background for the playing out of fantasy and horror stories.


Filmmakers from the avant-garde in France deployed cinematography and editing in intimate psychological narratives free of literary and theatrical influences, in a style influenced by Impressionist painting in seeking to intensify subjective experience.  Precarious competition for audiences with Hollywood remained in mainstream feature film production. The effect of the war was to establish the dominance of Hollywood films in the French market by 1917. The industry's response was to try and compete through imitation of Hollywood production methods and genres. Production companies were also more receptive to encouraging narrative experimentation by younger directors: Abel Gance, Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Marcel L'Herbier, Jean Epstein et al constituted a movement to put the impressionist aesthetic into film practice. While psychological causes remained central to the narrative, as in Hollywood, the Impressionists were so-called because they were interested in giving the narrative  psychological depth by more intimate play on a character's consciousness. “The interest falls not on external physical behaviour but on inneraction...through manipulation of plot time [eg with flashbacks] and subjectivity [dreams, mental states]” (Bordwell & Thompson]. At the same time within a Paris - based Surrealist movement,1924-29, anti-narrative films were made, dependent on patronage for financing, often influenced by Surrealist painting, “causality evasive as in a dream,” characterisation  non-existent.


Faithful Heart/Coeur Fidèle (Jean Epstein, France,1923)

While the impressionist filmmakers such as Gance and L'Herbier became free spending, their films such as Napoléon (1927) and L'Argent/Money (1928) for differing reasons failed to capture sufficient audiences in France and internationally, ending the impressionist experiment. Large scale multi-lingual production units were established in Paris in the 30s to augment the international competitiveness of French films. The collapse of the two major studios in the mid 30s actually encouraged the further growth of a French art cinema through small financially unstable production companies which nevertheless opened the way for filmmakers - Renoir, Carné, Prevért, Feyder, Chenal, Duvivier and Grémillon - whose films from the mid thirties became internationally synonomous with “art cinema”.


Napoleon (Abel Gance, France, 1927)

In their theoretical writings and film practice a number of film theorists and directors in the Soviet Union “leaning towards innovative scholarship or an avant garde art movement' (1925-30) as Tsivian puts it, ”treated shots as lines in a poem,” (or in the case of Dziga Vertov “a catalogue poem”) to constitute an art movement in Soviet cinema (1925-30). None of the most important filmmakers of the montage style - Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzenko, Vertov - had worked in the pre-revolutionary industry where scene transitions were required to be as smooth as possible . Lev Kuleshov, teaching in the newly founded State School of Cinema Art, was writing essays and grounding students in the principles of the new art and producing montage-based films as entertaining as Hollywood slapstick, cut even faster to render continuity irrelevant. American films continued to circulate after the Revolution, those of Griffith, particularly Intolerance,were a major influence on the thought and practice of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. The latter understood montage as a linkage of pieces forming a chain or bricks in expounding an idea. Eisenstein's theory and practice were dialectically based: two shots colliding to form a third concept. Soviet narrative films tend to downplay the causal role of character psychology with social forces being given a major role. The decline of the montage style was attributable to government policy rather than industry and economic factors.  Accused of excessive formalism, the experiments of the montage school had to be discarded in the thirties in conformity with the dictates of Stalinist Socialist Realism.

Intolerance (D W Griffith, USA, 1916)

What is most commonly referred to as the beginnings of the “classical” phase of cinema in Hollywood c1918, by 1930 was on the brink of technical maturity requiring the integration of sound technology into the stylistic priorities of classical storytelling as described by Bordwell and Thompson, in which narrative features attain what Mark Cousins terms “an emotional amplitude greater than that of everyday life...a phenomenally successful brand of emotional excess, against which other branches of world cinema would be defined” ( Cousins 67). In 'The Story of Film' Cousins proposes the term “closed romantic realism” as being more descriptive of the characteristics of so-called classical film narratives which “tend to create worlds that do not acknowledge that they are being watched” and which have closure. Realism is applicable because these worlds are recognisably relatable to everyday experience. “Classicism in art refers to balance between form and content, a state of order where intellectual and emotional values are in harmony.” Hollywood films, Cousins concludes, actually “rarely attained such balance in the 1920s and 30s” (ibid). This closed romantic realism of the studio system became the schema for a mainstream international film style. The rigorous control inherent in the studio system was however flexible enough for great films to be made not only in Hollywood but also in France and Japan.


In appraising cinema's first encounter with modernism in the 20s Kovacs notes that “the common ground in all definitions of artistic modernism is an aesthetic reflection on and critique of its own traditional forms, [making] cinematic modernism a special case when compared to other forms of modern art (16).” This is because, as Kovacs points out, in the first 60 years of cinema one could not reasonably talk about a cinematic tradition to modernise as there was no tradition, only the suggestion that there were different ways of achieving this goal.


One way is to bring out the artistic potential of cinema to create cinematic versions of modernist art movements in fine arts, theatre, and literature, or simply fit cinema in with narrative and visual forms of the national cultural heritage. In this sense early modernism was cinema's reflection on artistic or cultural conditions outside of cinema. (ibid 17)


German expressionism, Kovacs points out, was the first cinematic reflection on artistic or cultural traditions outside of the cinema. At the same time as far as narrative is concerned German expressionist films, Kovacs suggests, “were not at all subversive, if extremely unusual in some cases.”  In respecting most classical rules they were not anti-Hollywood in their principles and formed the first models of some of the most popular Hollywood genres. The success of German filmmakers who emigrated to Hollywood shows that their cinematic culture harmonised well with Hollywood's. Kovacs adds that “the stylistic renewal of the American cinema by Orson Welles and film noir in the 1940s had its foundation precisely in expressionist cinematography” (18).


Greta Garbo, The Joyless Street ( G W Pabst, Germany, 1927)

Neue Sachlichkeit/The New Objectivity was a reaction in the arts in Germany against expressionism. In film the emphasis was on realistic settings, functional camerawork and editing with objects often being used to interpret character. G W Pabst was the leading director associated with the movement, Die freudlose Gasse/ The Joyless Street (1925), the landmark film in this style, in which Greta Garbo plays a fallen woman suffering for her sins.


The French impressionist movement in the cinema, if less spectacular than German expressionism, Kovacs considers more important for the future development of cinematic modernism. Like the German expressionists, the French impressionists did not deny the narrative nature of cinema and “did not look for cinema's essence in abstract visual and sequential principles.” A driving force for French cinematic  impressionism, principally through their main theorist Louis Delluc, was that the cinema's potential lay not in the staging of a psychological drama and the visual illustration of a literary plot. That potential lay “not just in the external form of physical events and human behaviour but in a kind of psychological representation in which mental states and processes are represented as a visual reality, which “engendered an important trend of the modernist wave of the sixties” (ibid 19) The visual rhythm of cinematic impressionism “followed poetic logic rather than the monotony of a chronological composition,” contributing to the the construction of a psychic reality in which internal and external sensual stimuli replace physical events. “The specific character of French impressionism in the modernist movement was that it invented a different way to represent the psychological, the centre of which was not the external acts of the character but his/hers inner visions” (ibid). Impressionist cinema is also deeply symbolic and psychological in which mental images become an alternative dimension of physical reality synthesising the other elements of early modern cinema: extra cinematic artistic effects like German expressionism, abstract rhythmic and visual construction like avant-gardist “pure cinema', unusual image associations like surrealism, and it remained fundamentally narrative based” (ibid 19).


As a consequence of this early modernization process, a special institutional practice of making films came into being: commercial art cinema. Modernism was not the modernization of the cinema  in general. In both periods [ 1920s and 1959-75] it was the modernization of the artistic utilization of the cinema. Cinematic modernism is art cinema's approach to modern art.  (ibid 20)


As Kovacs notes “at the turn of the 40s and 50s it became a widely accepted view, especially among some French film critics, that a new way of filmmaking was rearing its head in America and Europe” (34).  While the classic-modern dichotomy was deployed to demarcate these new tendencies, it was agreed that there was a need for a new relationship between camera and subject, or, even more between the filmmaker and his/her filmic creation and ultimately a new relationship between the film and the audience.  At the same time not all the critics, soon to become filmmakers, agreed that classicism was an out-moded filmmaking practice and did not advocate a total break with all filmmaking traditions. Eric Rohmer, with Godard one of the two main critics for 'Cahiers du Cinema', considered that “cinema as a form of representation is modern because it renders modern reality, but as an art form it has to be classical” (ibid 35). But where the neo-realists sought to create a relatively unmediated observation by the camera of the subject, for the audience this tended to confirm the Hollywood narrative convention of an invisible form of presentation.

Jean-Luc Godard

What Godard sought was nothing less than a remaking of the image-sound relationship to focus awareness on the materiality of cinematic reality. By focusing upon the narrative codes, he was encouraging greater awareness of how the stories are told. The extent to which this was preplanned or arose spontaneously in the process of filmmaking is an open question. What has subsequently come to light about the making of Breathless seems to suggest a good deal of the latter (see the notes on its making the New Wave below). Godard did extend his awareness of genre developed as a critic, into re-examined popular forms as a means of both of revitalising and putting genre to innovative new uses. This evolution of form and content in his work, away from the Hollywood mode of manipulation, carried with it the aim of freeing the viewer. Following the events of May 68 in France, this led to the seeming overreach during Godard's Dziga Vertov period in their estimation of the wider public's receptivity to radical politics.


The 'new wave' label began to be attached to emerging trends in national cinemas with “the French Nouvelle Vague's oedipal revolt against Daddy's cinema -le cinema de papa - encapsulated in the native 'quality tradition' ” (Nowell-Smith Making Waves p.3). In the UK (1956) and Germany (1962) manifestoes from the left calling for a more socially engaged cinema were followed by limited injection of a 'realist' filmmaking aesthetic. In Eastern Europe – most notably in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland - the revolt was, of necessity, simultaneously both aesthetic and political. Focus for these new cinemas was to be found at emergent film festivals, consolidated or otherwise, in often newly commissioned art house screens; in the Sydney CBD, initially these were, in the main, former newsreel theatrettes made redundant by television.


I recall some audience bemusement, after the long wait, at the first                             screening of an English dubbed 16mm print of Breathless made available by the French Embassy, at a film weekend in late 1965 – it had earlier been banned  – and greater bemusement at a screening in a converted arthouse cinema in Sydney, of the censor-cut print of Vivre sa vie, the first Godard feature to be commercially released in Australia.


The historicism inherent in encapsulating history in these terms, a tendency to represent its development teleologically as following a path of inevitable progress, does risk glossing over the contradictions, ruptures and reversals along the way. At the same time it serves the purpose of identifying an emerging sense of internationalism in both interconnected and fragmented political purpose through the 60s in national cinemas, as in the European new waves and the new cinemas in Latin America.




Mark Cousins  The Story of Film  Pavilion 2004                                                                                                            

Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink  Eds.The Cinema Book 2ndEd.BFI Publishing

David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson  Film Art 5thed. 1997

Yuri Tsivian “Pre-Revolutionary Russia” in Nowell-Smith Ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema

Paolo Cherchi Usai “Carl Dreyer”  ibid

Robert Phillip Kolker  “Introduction” and “Versus Godard” (Ch.1) Bernado Bertolucci  BFI  1985 

Alan Williams Republic of Images  1992 

András Blint Kovács  Screening Modernism European Art Cinema 1950-1980   2007                                                                                                        

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.