Monday 16 May 2022

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Part Two of Bruce Hodsdon's new series on the history of art cinema

Last year at Marienbad

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a new series by scholar and critic Bruce Hodsdon in which he analyses the history and impact of Art Cinema. 
Part One appeared on March 10 and can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE.


Part 2: Art Cinema: a matter of definition?


Art cinema: genre, quality, alternative, marginal, pan-national, a mode of film practice, a form of film exhibition, an institution? Or what everyone understands, yet no-one until fairly recently has been prepared to specifically define, other than simply 'not being Hollywood'. The mode of narration is loosened from classical structures typically (but not necessarily) engaging the audience in a 'foreign' production including overt aesthetic formalism and/or an emphasis on verisimilitude over narrative drive.


André Bazin

Julian Petley notes that serious anglophone discussion of art cinema per se dates back to the late 1970s with the publication of David Bordwell's essay on 'Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice' (1979) and Steve Neale's 'Art Cinema as an Institution' (1981).  Bordwell called for the examination of the complex historical relation of art cinema to the classical narrative cinema. The term was then applied retrospectively to identify historical phenomena from 1908 as outlined in part 1. Petley lists a series of discussions through the 60s into the 70s going back to Alexandre Astruc's discussion of 'La Camera Stylo' in 1948 (the idea of  'writing with the camera'), André Bazin's critical work on neo-realism (Rossellini in particular), and Cahiers du Cinema's ranking of Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bresson and Dreyer in its directorial pantheon. By the early 60s there was a growing sense that a new kind of cinema was developing without agreement on what its specific characteristics might be. (Cook & Bernink eds. 106)


In common usage the term art cinema has come to describe feature-length  narrative films  outside  mainstream cinema, located somewhere  between fully  experimental films  and overtly commercial products. They may typically include foreign  productions engaged in  unrestrained formalism or a mode of narration that is pleasurable but loosened from classical structures while distanced from its representations.(G & S 6)

Kristin Thompson & David Bordwell

At the radical end of the art film spectrum Last Year at Marienbad  has been described as a quintessential work of art cinema with, as Bordwell notes, “a plot so wrought that it becomes impossible to construct a story” (Narration 232). At the other end, as Bordwell further points out, by the 60s art cinema had so accustomed critics to looking for personal expression in films by Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni et al, that auteur critics “unproblematically applied art cinema schemata to classical Hollywood films.” By the 80s “the intense subjectivity of the 60s art film was less in evidence “with greater emphasis on an ambiguous play between objective    realism and authorial address.”  (ibid).


In recent decades there have been two forms of international art cinema offering a range of viewing experiences:  one centred close to the mainstream in its cinematic values and distribution centred in Europe, the other lower budget independent films coming from a variety sources including the U.S. What is most important about art cinema is “the room it provides for difference,” which Nowell-Smith seeks to release  by letting art cinema fragment.  ( World Cinema 573-5)  


In 1981 Steve Neale describes art cinema, both historically and contemporaneously  as “the attempts made by a number of Europeancountries both to counter American domination of their indigenous markets in film and also to fostera film industry and film culture of their own.”

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin insists that “no distinction should be made between art cinema and so-called commercial/entertainment cinema – both are, or can be, cinematic art...In essence according to classicism, style exists to serve the subject or story. This is an expressive economy: style expresses subject.” (Mise en Scène 22)  A broad swathe of production with the label of 'art cinema' as a loose marketing term, Martin suggests, implies that other types of cinema are not art. This was associated with luminaries such as Bergman, Bertolucci, Resnais and Haneke, “a range of moments in their films racing ahead of the critical language. In the 70s mise en scène analysis began to stage a comeback.”(ibid 78)


It has been relatively easy to locate art cinema for simply being 'not Hollywood or even anti-Holly- wood', “Art films tend to be marked by a stress on visual style (an engagement of the look in terms of individual point of view rather than by institutionalised spectacle), by a suppression of action in the Hollywood sense, by a consequent stress on character rather than plot and by an internalisation of dramatic conflict” (Neale pp 13-14), and a tighter causal chain replaced by an episodic structure and more nuanced characterisation. These elements function as differentiation from what is perceived to be the Hollywood text, art features differing from classically constructed features. As Kristin Thompson has noted they can be more ambiguous, reflexive and stylised and at the same time more naturalistic.  Art filmsalso tend to be marked by the signifying presence of an authorial voice. Art is thus the space in which indigenous (or in the US, independent) cinema can develop and make its critical and economic mark.

David Andrews

The description by Peter Lev of art cinema as “what is shown in art theatres” (quoted G&S 65) might lead us to conclude that art cinema since its inception has been tantamount to most every kind of “alternative” or non-Hollywood cinema.” (David Andrews 65)  This represents a challenge to a formalist definition. Any complete history of art cinema and its discursive trappings, it is suggested, reveals a genre so eclectic that we might even be tempted to call it an “open” formal category.


As one follows them, however, according to Andrews, the lines of inquiry suggest how unlikely it is that theorists will ever develop a satisfying definition of art cinema that defines it only in the formalist terms of a specific kind of cinematic text and not the the unified body of work such analysis tends to imply.


There is also the question of the development in fields such as the philosophy of art which “have abandoned attempts to define “art” in evaluative formal terms (i.e. in terms of a preferred set of texts) some decades ago” (ibid 68). Further it is clear that dedicated art house circuits don't necessarily follow any film-as-art definition in their programming. Does it even make  sense, Andrews asks, to refer to art cinema as a form of high art (as classical music might be posited against jazz with its folk origins) apart from implying a sense of exclusiveness?


The following are some principles Galt & Schoonover nominate by which art cinema might be more clearly identified in relation to the mainstream and historically to classicism( 6-9).

Karl Schoonover, Rosalind Galt

The lack of strict parameters for art cinema is not just the ambiguity of its critical history but a central part of what it is: “a positive way of delineating its discursive space.” It is proposed by G&S that art cinema be identified for its impurity without losing its place as an alternative cinema between the main- stream and avant garde - “a difficulty of categorisation that is as productive to film culture as it is frust-rating to taxonomy.” To be impure G&S emphasise, “is not to be vague or nebulous.”  They further contend that art cinema, by its nature, “always perverts the standard categories used to divide up institutions, locations, territories, histories, or spectators.” They illustrate how this impurity can be understood in different ways such as an institutional space “that moves uneasily between the commercial world and its artisanal others, neither experimental nor mainstream.” At the mainstream end contemporary European art films, for example, can look more like the derided cinema of quality rejected by the French New Wave. In some cases art films can, as suggested by Lev, simply be those shown in art-house theatres, or at film festivals, so that their very existence as art-films is dependent on certain critics, programmers, or distribution models. 


Art cinema has an ambivalent relationship with location and identity. A mainstream film in its place of origin can become an art cinema release in another country (further signified by the addition of sub-titles) immersed in a sense of internationalism. G&S point out that art cinema always carries a comparativist (national) impulse combined with a transnational tenor (ibid 7). Canons of great films established by world polls are dominated by this sense of internationalism co-existing with nationalism. The format of this series links this co-existence with individual expressivity in the key role of the director as auteur.  In the designation of “art” within global art cinema, the local has played a key but shifting role. When a country's films are selected for foreign cultural screenings by a commission or similar agency, conformity with eurocentric notions of art cinema has tended to prevail in the process.


A film's positive international reception can become proof of its importance in the country of origin. This ambiguity/impurity also resists attempts to define 'art film' as a genre. International is often a code for 'foreign film' understood primarily in terms of its consumption. Leaving international festivals, with their predisposition to search out difference, to directly identify another country's talent from the outside has meant that the films so selected for screening have increasingly been recognised on their own terms in crossing the threshold from a national to an international art cinema.


Far from rejecting Hollywood systems of stardom and authorship, art cinema deploys these systems   in parallel if more ambivalent form, not necessarily with the same aesthetic criteria that mark their operations in the Hollywood system. Stardom, for instance, tends to adopt criteria such as bodily qualities with somewhat different emphases. The auteurist impulse in the role of the director also demands a different emphasis. Given the global spread of production and film cultures in the 50s and 60s, the role and nature of authorship with art cinema as a platform, particularly its political and cultur- al agency, can have a pressing significance.  


Issue #1 (?)

Art film has a more ambivalent yet central relationship with authorship than is the case with classical narrative. Auteur was initially deployed polemically by the Cahiers du Cinéma critics as a term for what they perceived as being too often critically unrecognised excellence within the confines of Hollywood's studio system. The critics, some soon to be making their own films, writing in Cahiers, found new ways of identifying authorship in the studios, most notably adapting the notion, adapted from the theatre, of mise-en-scène as a measure of a director's commitment, intelligence and sensitivity in naturalising the way emotions and ideas are thematically 'de-theatricalised' and conveyed 'cinematically' by the auteur's direction of the actors and the camera.


Sam Rohdie, in his posthumously published Film Modernism, suggests defining an auteur as “some- one who creates his or her own system rather than putting into play an existing one,” stand out examples in American cinema being Welles and Cassavetes. In classical Hollywood movies, cinematic means are subordinated to narrative and story... a great classical artist being someone who is great for his or her ability to imitate not to innovate, who obeys the rules with grace and style.” (26-7)  This dominance of narrativity involves the effacement of the forms deployed   in the telling of the story. In essence classical storytelling is objective, “imitative of nature,” as Rohdie puts it. Directors such as Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Sirk, Fuller, Ford, Preminger, and Howard Hawks, were singled out and praised by the Cahiers critics for the excellence of their filmmaking within the Hollywood system, not for subverting it. In this respect, Rohdie further suggests, they were more like traditional craftspeople but ones using the system by making it their own.


Sam Rohdie

 Authors in art cinema more often speak from outside America or Europe or are otherwise located outside the mainstream. The film festival circuit constitutes a major platform, both commercially and culturally, for the success of an individual film that is also closely tied to that of an often relatively small, or even almost non-existent national industry.


An Australian Intervention

The final problem for the classification of art cinema raised by G&S is the application of the notion of the impure spectator, “both at the level of textual address and in the history of audiences” (ibid 8). They note that the literature of the emergence of an art-house audience meshes with the sense of a hybrid audience.


Queuing out the door.
The Savoy Theatre Sydney, 1950s.
The film screening was  La Ronde

Initial potential for audience hybridity in Australia was heightened by postwar migration which generated the increased inflow of European feature films in the 50s and 60s through ethnic based distribution and even the American distribution majors in the 60s and 70s whose head offices, in response to the international art house boom in the 60s acquired world rights (for the first time?) to selected foreign language titles. The story in these decades, however is as much one of parallel rather than of intersecting audiences for foreign language cinema.


The ongoing rigid, often arbitrary application of the censorship code by the Commonwealth film censor in the 60s served to increase the notoriety of so-called “continental” films attracting a predominantly male audience in search of erotic content in inner city cinemas, most often in ex-newsreel theatrettes. Expectations were continually thwarted by the censor until the introduction of the 'R' certificate in the early 70s.The first art house film to break the drought in Sydney cinemas, I seem to recall, was Pasolini's The Decameron.


Pier Paolo Pasolini as Giotto, The Decameron

A growing art house audience was concentrated in the above average income socio-economic bracket with an otherwise seeming preference for British rather than Hollywood films, plus a small but growing number of tertiary-educated and student filmgoers looking for an alternative or supplement to Hollywood-dominated screen entertainment. This widening spectrum of cinema audiences was also the product of the postwar influx of migrants from Europe with screenings in the large Italian and Greek clubs equipped with 35mm projection, for members of smaller ethnic clubs organised in cinemas, or the regular programming of sub-titled films in suburbs with a concentration of migrant populations.In Sydney and Melbourne, film festivals made their first appearance, film society initiatives over a weekend in the early to mid 50s, becoming major cultural events by the late 60s in packed 2000 plus seat cinemas over two weeks by the late 60s, also spreading to other capital cities, and later a travelling film festival for regional centres.


The openness of art film to aesthetic experience,” conclude G&S, “is not unconnected to its openness to minority communities who have formed a significant part of art cinema's audience as well as its representational politics.” They find in this “the kernel of art cinema's significance as a category of cinema brings categories into question and holds the potential to open up spaces between and outside of mainstream/avant-garde, local/cosmopolitan, history/theory, and industrial/formal debates in film scholarship” (9).


The bibliographic references for this part are combined with those of part 3 to be posted shortly.

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