What Do You Mean by Art Film?
Film scholar David Andrews makes many arguments in his latest book and the central one is provocative: there is no such genre as “art film” or “art house,” just a set of subjective (and often dubious) signifiers by which a film (or anything else, a Brillo box?) is labeled as “art” in a culture that segregates art from everything else. Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond (University of Texas Press) is a stimulating exploration of the assumptions undergirding how movies are understood and consumed.
To put it bluntly, calling something “art” gives it a free pass in cultivated society, whether a depiction of rape (Pedro Almodovar or Lars von Trier?), gratuitous violence (Quentin Tarantino!) or pornography (David Lynch’s Lost Highway?). And who gets to stamp the Art Approval Seal on a movie? The film festival circuit includes many of the institutions that “legitimize” movies as art. If it played at Cannes, it must be art.
Like a Socratic philosopher, Andrews challenges filmgoers to define the terms they use, which leads almost inevitably to the conclusion that our words are inadequate and misleading, our statements are tautologies. In plain English, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about.
Maybe Andrews’ most valuable ideas are to remind us that “independence” in cinema, as in life, is relative, and of the hypocrisy and false facades behind which the art game is played on all levels. After all, the idea of “art house” coalesced post-World War II as a commercial alternative to Hollywood commercialism. Try to measure the mainstream and you’ll find that it overlaps everything and recedes into nothing.
Andrews gets a bit dicey, however, when trying to apply evolutionary biology to film studies. The auteur theory persists because of some fortuitous evolutionary adaptation by the ancestors of homo sapiens? Neat theory, but as unprovable as the ideas Andrews critiques.