Posted by Greg Ferrara on November 14, 2012
Hollywood, and even independent cinema, here defined as an independent producer financing a film and then cutting a deal with a studio for distribution rights, has rarely made the type of film that one can seriously call an “art film.” There’s a reason for that. A true art film, often a short subject, many times abstract, has little relation to narrative in the strict sense and exists merely to make a singular statement on… something. A Hollywood film, on the other hand, tells a story with precise plotting and easily recognizable story developments and expects a return on its investment at the box office. The two aren’t mutually exclusive but searching for an art film in the studio era of Hollywood, or any era for that matter, becomes a tricky game of hide and seek.
Art films are defined by the general public to mean something quite different than that described by a person with a passion for film. While the general public might simply describe anything that wins Best Picture as an art film, a cinephile might think of something like Persona or Faces as art films while still others would define it as literally being the work of an artist (someone who does not normally work in the medium of film) for the purpose of making a larger point contained in an exhibition that will tour the country. For instance, there is a great art film, 67 Blows, that I saw last year at The Hirschorn (my favorite museum in Washington, DC – I visit every chance I get), in which a group of flamingos duck every time a gun is shot. The thing is, no gun was ever shot where they were. It was actually just videotaped group behavior, in which the flamingos duck in unison, and then the sounds of shooting were added later. There was something distinctly disquieting about it, watching them duck as the constant sound of gunfire surrounded them. What did it mean? That’s up to the observer. The point is, that’s an art film, while, to many, something in the Cassavetes oeuvre is not. At least, not in the strictest sense. Of course, next to The Sound of Music, Faces is an art film. But what does the term “art film” mean when it comes to Hollywood? That is, if an art film is considered to be, as this Wikipedia entry on “Art Film” states, films that contain “formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films,” then what is considered an art film inside the universe of Hollywood? If pressed, what would a studio executive qualify as an art film?
Going back to the start of film, there has always been the argument that every film is art and, of course, this is true. The word “art” does not attach a quality judgment, simply a descriptive one. A film can be great art, good art, average art, bad art or terrible art. But we’re not here to talk about literal definitions but rather, how people come to a film and when they make a division in their head that says, “this is art” or “this is not.” (At this point I was going to link to a specific article by Jim Emerson on the subject but two things happened: One, I couldn’t find the one I was looking for and, Two, I remembered that Jim has about fifty or so great blog posts on “what is art” so just go to his blog here and look around).
Hollywood has, for decades (maybe always?) considered an art film to be the stuff that goes for the awards. I view these systems of measurement as rather staid and unimaginative. Gandhi is not an art film, it is clearly a commercial film. It tells the story of a famous world figure, from beginning to end, with high production values and a superb central performance by Ben Kingsley. It would fit in nicely in the studio era. But Hollywood considers something like Gandhi an art film because it does not appeal to the general masses who filled the multiplexes in the summer for special effects extravaganzas. Also, it has noble subject matter and is based on historical events.
Many notable directors from the seventies on, from Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg and William Friedkin, made movies more closely associated with being art films, that failed, than the big films that earned their reputations. Coppola made The Conservation, Scorsese made Mean Streets, Spielberg made The Sugarland Express and Friedkin made The Sorcerer but for Hollywood, their art films are the ones that got all the nominations and/or awards. Films like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Schindler’s List and The French Connection. The fact is, most people qualify movies as art based on subject matter or scope. I would never personally consider The Sugarland Express an art film but since it’s a “small” film with limited budget, it falls into that vague category. Same for The Conversation, Mean Streets and The Sorcerer. All films that seems more like art films to the megaplex crowd than the cinephile crowd. To Hollywood, it’s the award winners. I say they’re both wrong.
For instance, to Hollywood, Schindler’s List feels like an art film. But that’s only because it’s not a “popcorn” movie, a sweeping category generally meaning summer blockbuster. But as far as these things go, Schindler’s List contains standard plotting devices and tightly constrained scene structures that would put it cinematically in line with most of Spielberg’s work. If I had to pin down a Spielberg movie that I would most likely qualify as an art film, I’d go with Duel. Unlike the clear and precise plotting of Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and the like, Duel has a real looseness to it. Nothing is explained, camera styles alternate from hand-held in the diner to mounted and steady for the shots of the truck approaching and, most importantly, the performance of Dennis Weaver is given a metaphysical carte blanche in which he can agonize and philosophize about the nature of reality around him and never, ever get a response. How many times can a filmmaker claim to have made a movie in which it could be argued the entire plot structure is merely a metaphorical underpinning to allow the lead character to revolt against his own demons? And there’s a resolution but no real ending and never an explanation. If Spielberg ever achieved anything close to true, abstract art, Duel was it. It’s just that Hollywood doesn’t know that.
And so now, several paragraphs, I’ve gotten exactly nowhere. What about the studio era? What were the art films then? Were there any? It’s funny because most of the films that were considered the highfalutin art films of the teens, twenties, thirties and forties would be considered today to be lavish period pieces or epics. Intolerance feels like it has all the makings of an art film but contains the trademarked Griffith race to the rescue at the end and certainly has that self-conscious “I am an important” movie sense that works as far against “art” as possible. For me, the truest art films of the classic era had little to do with period epics and more to do with characters and stories that exist outside the mainstream. Movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Sunrise told their stories in such inventive visual ways that the stories were inconsequential to how the stories were told (in Caligari, the “story” isn’t even real). At the same time, more purely abstract expressions, like Blood of a Poet or Un Chien Andalou, were making their way onto the scene. But that wasn’t Hollywood. Hollywood didn’t do abstract. Hollywood made socially important pictures (I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Grapes of Wrath), epics/period pieces/adventures (Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld) and pure box office entertainment (King Kong (independently produced), Swing Time, It Happened One Night) and did it well. And it was the movies in the first two categories, especially if they became prestige awards fodder, then and now, that they considered the real art, even if, occasionally, something like It Happened One Night took all the honors. But just like Duel decades later, the real art film often flew under the radar.
For instance, Freaks, directed by Tod Browning and written by Tod Robbins, in its original (now lost) version, tells a story of deception and revenge that makes everyone a bad guy at some point and forces “normal” people to become “freaks” in order for justice to exist. The beautiful “normal” woman becomes a deformed duck-lady and her strapping lover, Hercules, is castrated (in the original ending) and forced to sing falsetto as a man/woman in the freak show thereafter. It’s not just revenge, it’s sick, brutal humiliation and it’s permanent. There are levels of cosmic justice at play that Hollywood rarely approached and, in fact, Hollywood cut a third of the movie, including the castration, just to satisfy appalled audiences. But more than that, Freaks doesn’t necessarily adhere to a normal narrative (until it was recut with a new ending added on in which tears and remorse are felt) and tells a standard tale (greed and power seducing the weak) with an ending that jumps onto another plane of existence in which justice is meted out by a forced physical equivalence. For this and many other reasons, Hollywood considered Freaks a problem, never art.
Getting a handle on what Hollywood considered art but what was actually just awards fodder and what most other people would consider art probably never came closer to meeting than with the career of Robert Altman. Unlike his contemporary, John Cassavetes, Altman’s films, most notably the one that landed him on the scene, M*A*S*H, were box office hits, awards fodder and distinctly different from the usual form of cinematic narrative. But even with Altman, movies like Thieves Like Us and The Long Goodbye, a complete subversion of the film noir narrative, were pushed aside for the more ostensibly artistic productions like Nashville.
Once the late eighties and nineties hit, and technology allowed for more aspiring filmmakers to get into the game with much less overhead, Hollywood could leave the “artistic” film making to the indies and stick with the awards-heavy “art” that Hollywood had always preferred (as the song goes, Goodbye Seventies). Film makers like David Lynch carry the artistic flag far but, unlike Altman, haven’t enjoyed the same amount of popular Hollywood appeal (i.e. Lynch doesn’t gets noms like Altman did). As I said at the top of the piece, all of these movies are art, all of them. Art contains multitudes; good, bad and ugly. The point of this piece was never to elevate one over the other but acknowledge that Hollywood has rarely recognized the work made on its own watch that transcends the limitations of the narrative form. And because so many people are looking for their art films in the form of a Buñuel/Dali abstraction like Un Chien Andalou, we have to look harder to see it in the form of a Lupino expression like The Hitch-Hiker, and we usually do. But unless it comes in the form of a three-hour period/epic/social commentary made with a budget bigger than most city-states, Hollywood usually doesn’t see it at all.
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