Saturday 2 July 2022

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Part Four of Bruce Hodsdon's new series on the history of art cinema - Authorship & narrative,

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part of a series by 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 HEREPart Two appeared on 16 May and can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE Part Three appeared on 3 June and can be found  IF YOU CLICK HERE


Orson Welles

Genre pictures, at the most basic level - melodramas and comedies - are almost as old as cinema. But as David Bordwell points out, “Europe also promoted a conception of creativity that was rare elsewhere: the auteur film. The idea of a director expressing his (only rarely her) vision of life on film remains crucial  to the art cinema.” Authorship can be tied to the promotion of national culture while providing a marketable identity to films made on low budgets lacking known stars. “Acknowledging a powerful creator as a source of the film's formal and thematic complexity yields something marketable internationally, a brand name that can carry over from project to project...The idea spread rather quickly outside Europe.” (Poetics of Cinema 159). 

Auteur-ship is also intrinsic to the expressive quality of the art film. 

[Orson] Welles was an auteur from the beginning, precisely because of the force of his personality and colorful biography, amplified into legend also by his many acting roles and media appearances... [He} belonged to the international art cinema as much as to American cinema or Hollywood, which makes him an auteur in a quite different sense. For in art cinema, the auteur is constructed within a different conceptual matrix or semantic field: the auteur can be a recognition factor for several different distinctions between Europe and Hollywood: auteur versus genre, auteur versus star; but s/he can also stand for working in a studio-setting  (aligning realism against the commercial idea of genre); the auteur can stand for high art (in the paradigm art versus industry); and finally, the auteur can represent a national cinema – not least because European national cinemas saw themselves in competition with Hollywood...But an art cinema auteur can also present himself as a literary artist or composer, as Welles often did in interviews. - (Thomas Elsaesser  Hollywood 160-1) 

It has been suggested that in an art film intended to be read as the work of an expressive individual, an audience 'so informed and educated', looks for the marks of authorship  “to make sense of a rambling story of characters who are often aimless victims [in art films] rather than controlling agents.” Viewer  identification shifts from the characters to the author. The audience might be given privileged information over the characters (e.g. by a 'flash forward') which strengthens that identification. This controlling authorial discourse provides a sense of 'truth': the realism of locations and character psychology represents 'the world as it is' confirming the essential truth of the individual's experience of that world. This organisation of the film differs from that of the 'classic realist text'. “However, the dominance of authorial discourse is by no means secure in art cinema- Bordwell sees the art film in terms of a shifting, uneasy relationship between the discourses of narrative, character and author. In this way art cinema maintains hesitation rather than the resolution of problems: the essential ambiguity of life as reflected in art” (Pam Cook 236-7).

Forms of narrative 

As mentioned in Part 2, art cinema began to be discussed as a concept in Anglophone circles in the late 70s. Bordwell followed up with his book 'Narration in the Fiction Film' published in 1985. In it he categorises and amplifies five forms of film narrative more or less in accord with epochs in the history of fiction film making: classical, historical materialist, art cinema, parametricand palimpsestic. Bordwell argues that the first three have clear historical ties (as outlined in the art film chronology in Part 1), to historical developments of narration – the classicalwith the “invisible” style of Hollywood cinema in the inter-war years through to the 1960s; the historical-materialist with the theoretically tied Marxist forms of the Soviet montage school; and art cinema with the innovations of Italian neorealism extending through various European new waves reaching a peak in the sixties to the mid-seventies. 

The last two do not, Bordwell suggests, coalesce around a specific historical period. Palimpsestic narration (the overlaying of one set of narration on another) is mainly specific to the work of Godard in his presence as a narrator (to be discussed further in a later essay “France Part 2”) in a form of pervasive self-consciousness in direct address to the audience. Parametric narration - alternatively Bordwell suggests that it could be called “style centred,” “dialectical,” “permutational,” or “poetic” -  is not linked to a single national school, period, or genre of filmmaking. As a mode of filmmaking Bordwell (in 1985) considering it applying to only five filmmakers : Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson, Mizoguchi and Tati - and 7 single 'fugitive' films: Fritz Lang's MIvan the TerribleLast Year at Marienbad, Vivre sa vie, Hanoun's Mediterranée (63), Fassbinder's Katzelmacher(69), and Robbe-Grillet's L'Eden et après (70). Bordwell separated these filmmakers and films from all others by identifying the films' stylistic systems as creating patterns distinct from the demands of what he terms the “syuzhet” system, i.e. plot (Mark Betz 33-4).

Last Year at Marienbad

A distinction to be made in analysis is between the historically non-specific use of 'modern' cinema which is a new and actual cinema of any time, and 'modernism/modernist' cinema (as referred to above) as a specific cinematic trend displaying certain shared stylistic and narrative characteristics.    An 'in-between' position adopted by John Orr and French theorist Gilles Deleuze and also by other theorists, is based on the idea that modernism is an 'unfinished process' which leaves an open question: for film history to continue depends on whether modernism has reached the most developed end phase of evolution in cinematic (narrative) form in what Deleuze (1983) refers to as 'the time image'  

Hungarian theorist András Balint Kovács in 'Screening Modernism' his monumental study of European Art Cinema 1950-80 published in 2007, argues that cinematic modernism in art cinema was not a coherent movement like the French New Wave or Brazilian Cinema Novo but rather “a stunning range of variations on the core principles of modern art” spanning more than a dozen European countries: France (69), West Germany (36) and Italy (33) accounting for more than 50 per cent of the films identified. Kovács describes it as inspired by the art-historical context of the two avant-garde periods, the 1920s and the 1960s. As a consequence of adaptation to the varying historical and cultural contexts, “art cinema became an institutionalised cinematic practice different from commercial entertainment as well as from the cinematic avant-garde.” (ibid 7). 


Aurore Clement, Les Rendez-vous d'Anna

Kovács precisely identifies 250 art films made by in excess of 100 separate filmmakers in the UK, the Soviet Union and 13 European countries as 'modernist', beginning with Hiroshima mon amour and The 400 Blows in 1958, ending with Chantal Akerman's Rendezvous with Anna in 1978. As already proposed, the legacy is not as precisely circumscribed as suggested by Kovács. He emphases that while late modernism in cinema was a European aesthetic phenomenon it prevailed only in some films and only for a limited period of time. It was/is, however, the first global art movement in the cinema. As a cinema of auteurship it claims an importance well beyond its numbers. Overwhelmingly the directors have a place in the art film listings that will be published in a further instalment. Inclusive of the French New Wave and key players in the waves in Eastern Europe, it had a major role in the surge of public interest in art cinema in the sixties and early seventies


In the late 70s and early 80s there was a weakening in modern art cinema coinciding with the sharp decline in cinema attendances in the face of great inroads made by home audio-visual entertainment   in the western world and elsewhere. Bordwell as the seminal theorist of modern narrative style, first rigorously defining (arguably too much so) the main structuring principles of the four non-classical   styles in the following selection grouped together, in identifying modern narrative's challenges to the conventions of classical storytelling in the cinema. Kovács's constricting historicism imposing a spec- ific cut-off date for European art film modernism is questionable and also puzzling since Kovács him-self refers to John Orr in 1993 (Orr's 'Cinema and Modernity') as claiming that the modern poetics of cinema have remained unchallenged since the 1960s because postmodernism has continued to use the formal devices invented by early and late modernism (see Kovács 44-8). Mark Betz finds variations (c 2010) of nonclassical narration in this time that have moved beyond Europe to where cinematic modernism is being  reclaimed: “Wong Kar-wai, Abbas Kiarostami, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Jafar Panahi, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, Lisandro Alonso, Jia Zhangke, Hong Sang-soo, Idrissa Ouedraogosome on occasion, others consistently over 20 years, have directed films in what Betz calls “the parametric tradition,” the narrative mode first theorised by Bordwell (Betz 40 G&S).     

Part Five will examine and analyse  the International Film Guide  Directors of the Year. Coming Soon.                                                                                                     

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