PRINT December 1983


IS IT QUAINT TO SPEAK of art movies? I don’t mean those independently financed films, uncommercial esthetic expressions, which have been staples of small urban cinemas and university film societies since the ’20s. I do mean the recent high-budget films—typically international and most typically flaunting more art-historical connoisseurship and references than can be absorbed from years of visiting the Met and ritually attending university slide lectures—that self-consciously stake a claim for film as high culture. For the purposes of easily distinguishing them, let’s call the former art movies and the latter Art Movies.

By art movie I think of the family including Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922), Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Slavko Vorkapich’s and Robert Florey’s The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra (1928), Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951), Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1962), and Yvonne Rainer’s A Film About a Woman Who . . . (1974). These are the expressions of individual artists, hence the term “art” movie. Not the result of corporate or commercial decision, they are oppositional in that they are critical of bourgeois values—including, quite often, the sop of narrative—while at the same time remarkably “accessible.” Their makers rarely concern themselves with distinctions between mass and high culture, believing the question to be elitist and assumptive of an esthetic class structure. Makers of art movies are fueled by vanguard motives and create new forms to express the psyches of emerging cultures. They do not exalt the artist—each is an artist and exercises artistic prerogative without being defensive; rather, each zeroes in on the psychology of desire—the cause of culture rather than its effect.

The capital-A, capital-M Art Movie is a fairly recent phenomenon. Although Jean Cocteau’s 1959 Testament of Orpheus is arguably an antecedent, the pictures at an Art Movie exhibition would follow from Terrence Malick’s 1974 film Badlands, and would include such diverse canvases as Days of Heaven (1978), Pennies from Heaven (1981), Heaven’s Gate (1980; get the celestial drift?), Cat People (1982), Tess (1980), One from the Heart (1982). Moon in the Gutter (1983; one could propose that Nastassia Kinski, star of these four films, is the avatar of Art Movies), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Marquise of O (1975), Perceval (1978), Parsifal (1982), Our Hitler (1978), The Scenic Route (1978), Impostors (1979), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Apocalypse Now! (1979), The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), and Fanny and Alexander (1983). September’s 21st New York Film Festival featured a bumper crop: Passion (1982), Life is a Bed of Roses (1983), Rumble Fish (1983), Lost Illusions (1982), Nostalghia (1983), The Golden Eighties (1983), and The Story of Piera (1983). (At the Festival there were only two art movies: Robert Breer’s Trial Balloons and Ericka Beckman’s You the Better, both 1983.) Distinctive features of the Art Movie are as follows: it quotes extensively from high culture sources, especially giants of classical music and Old Master painters, in order to crystallize its esthetic; its protagonist is often an artist or tormented individualist and the film defensively details his/her struggle; it grieves when what’s potent and pure for the privileged gets deracinated and made common or accessible (think of the forbidden recording of the diva’s voice in 1981’s Diva); its art direction is conspicuous and overblown, while its script is minimal.

It is curious that the Art Movie begs a discourse I thought long since interred, namely, Dwight MacDonald’s pontifications about mass versus high culture and Clement Greenberg’s apropos avant-garde versus kitsch, two brilliant and wrong-minded disquisitions both arguing for political liberalism and cultural conservatism in their times. These are apologias for an esthetic elite, tracts admonishing against popularization. In digest form (MacDonald and Greenberg doubtless would find dark humor in my attempt to popularize their theories): MacDonald argues that mass culture breaks down all old barriers of class, tradition, and taste while dissolving all cultural traditions. “It thus destroys all values, since value judgments imply discrimination. Mass Culture is very, very democratic: it absolutely refuses to discriminate against, or between, anything or anybody.” MacDonald discriminates between the “conservative proposal to save culture by restoring old class lines” and “the Marxian hope for a new, democratic, classless culture . . .” The former, he feels, “has a more solid historical base,” because “ . . . with the possible (an important) exception of Periclean Athens, all the great cultures of the past were elite cultures.” MacDonald, paraphrasing Greenberg, rails against mass culture’s attempts to “debase” and “trivialize” high culture, viewing all such efforts as dilutions, rendering high culture impotent. Per Greenberg, kitsch (which MacDonald calls “Mass Culture”) is “ersatz culture” drawing the lifeblood from high culture. Greenberg’s vivid insight is his observation that while kitsch is only concerned with imitating the effects of high culture, the avant-garde is obsessed with emulating the vitality of creative process, the act of thinking and making instead of mere sensation, its end product. (The articles cited are Clement Green-berg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939, and Dwight MacDonald’s “A Theory of Mass Culture,” in Diogenes, Summer 1953.)

So what do these theories, respectively 44 and 30 years old, have to do with art movies and Art Movies? Lower-case art movies are products of the vanguard, acutely aware of process and a mutable social dynamic. Upper-case Art Movies are the highly polished treasures of cultural conservators nervous about the erosion of standards and taste, nostalgic for the restoration of an immutable social and esthetic hierarchy. Some—but not all—Art Movies are the realization of MacDonald’s and Greenberg’s dreams for a cultural elitism to uplift the aristocracy above the kitsch morass.

Unlike art movies, Art Movies do not anticipate a future without today’s social constraints; rather, they revere, reflect, revive, and revise an official-culture past. When they are good, i.e., revisionist, Art Movies like Danton (1982) are very, very good because they redefine what we understand by official culture. But when they are bad—witness Godard’s impotent Passion, or Francis Coppola’s rambling Rumble Fish (an exalted gang movie of such minimal content that it has the effect of Edvard Munch painting The Pshaw instead of The Scream in his feverish style)—they are scandalously out of scale with their ambition. Good or bad, they are always stunning to look at.

Before getting down, as they say to cases, some random observations about Art Movies. They have emerged at a cultural moment when television has officially displaced film as the oracle of mass culture. By aspiring to art status, the Art Movie privileges film’s future, establishing a firm link with the high art tradition by its quotations from the Old Masters. Pennies from Heaven employs Edward Hopper as its visual consultant: Barry Lyndon consults Gainsborough; Passion is a summit meeting of Goya, Delacroix, Rembrandt, and Simone Martini. By looking to oil painting as a source, Art Movie–makers can reject film’s low-caste parent, photography. This amounts to a betrayal of film’s class background. Formerly an expression of mass culture, through Art Movies the movies are cadging entrée into the aristocracy of “Film” in order that their artifacts be secure and treasured. Is it true, as MacDonald argues, that all great cultures have been elite cultures? Or is it true that we know about the elite cultures because the products of democratic cultures were not considered with the reliquary reverence we attach to products of the ruling class?

While the nostalgia for esthetic monarchism that pervades many of the Art Movies is disquietingly reactionary, those films have engendered a visual efflorescence in which image and the understanding of what the image evokes are paramount. Art Movies are objects of beauty and complexity. powerful visualizations of experience—not merely handsome illustrations of literary exposition. For the first time in film history since the murmur of sound, Art Movies place as high a premium on the visual as on the verbal. Shouldn’t movies which aspire to such universal intelligibility (pioneer filmmakers championed the movies as “visual Esperanto”) be considered populist? It’s a paradox.

I’m interested in the genre, or family, of Art Movies precisely because they contradictorily aspire to aristocratic estheticism and popular intelligibility. Are Art Movies a fusion of two contrary impulses—the nostalgia for old standards and the accommodation of old standards to a new, classless culture? Examining individual Art Movies doubtless will yield contradictions, but before the close-ups, what of corollary art/movie phenomena, and how do they illuminate the issue? What about art in movies? I don’t mean Godard’s quotations of Old Master tableaux in Passion, but the shock of watching a potboiler like Return of the Redeye (whoops, I mean, Return of the Jedi) and trying to figure out why the vacu-formed sarcophagus of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) looks so familiar. It’s like a Robert Longo relief! Or the frisson of seeing an out-of-focus oil painting in a scene background, the image so indeterminate that it inspires Alan McCollum to do a series of “generic paintings,” canvases with the convention of a frame and a blurry image—as you might see “art” on TV or at the movies. And what of the use of films, film stills, and frame composition as the subject matter of contemporary art? Manny Farber’s movie rebuses, Ida Applebroog’s serial works (à la Rear Window voyeurism), Alexis Smith’s movie posters and abbreviated collages telegraphing a scenario, and Cindy Sherman’s incarnations of glamorized starlets are all telling examples. What all these artists have in common, as do art movie–makers and Art Movie–makers, is a dual allegiance to art and culture.

The difficulties of demonstrating this allegiance were clear at the New York Film Festival in a number of films struggling with the contradictions. What is the museum of modern Art Movies? Now that cable stations broadcast popular new movies via TV, the Art Movie museums are the international film festivals catering to the refined sensibilities of the carriage trade. The latest Art Movie exhibition had on view a variety of offerings, worth looking at in close-up for the way they embody filmmakers’ divided loyalties and assumptions about their role as artists. (These may not have been the crowning achievements of the Festival—the faultless L’Argent by Robert Bresson and Diane Kurys’ perfectly realized Entre Nous, both 1983, towered over all corners.)

You the Better: Avant-en-Garde
Cobilled with Godard’s lifeless Passion (which received such clamorous ovation in advance that Godard admonished, “Wait until you see the movie first”), Ericka Beckman’s excellent 16-mm You the Better was received at the outset with impatience, then with rude catcalls, and finally with abusive hostility. If the fate of all great art is to be at first misunderstood, then Beckman’s film, hands down, was the greatest film at the festival. What the audience, conditioned by the Godard personality cult and their nostalgia for his elegant pessimism (which matches today’s zeitgeist even better than it did that of the ’60s, when he was a vastly superior filmmaker), refused to see is that Beckman is a more “accessible” moviemaker than Godard.

Beckman is obsessed by behavioral theory—Jean Piaget is a favorite—as a metaphor of social interaction. This film, in brilliant, Pop Art, primary color, and with an editing and rhythmic aplomb combining Sergei Eisenstein’s montage with the exhilarating kinesthesia of pro sports, is a wholly original work about games. The symbol: a stylized roulette wheel around which competitors bet against “the house.” We see the whirling wheel superimposed over human contenders. We hear the evocative sounds of money jingling and chips falling. The game-players are concrete, entering a basketball-like competition to get the ball into the roulette slot of choice. The overheated atmosphere of competition and the choreographic grace of the athletes is measured by the tattoos of an a cappella song Beckman composed and chants. The kinesthetic manner in which she edits movement and synchronizes it with music could easily get her a job with ABC Sports.

More compelling than Monday Night Football, Beckman’s You the Better situates the viewer as challenger of “the house,” or “establishment.” It’s a brisk (half-hour) meditation on competition, jealousy, and probability. As one of the protagonists, against all odds, repeatedly wins at the wheel (of fortune), his adversaries grow hostile and jealous—the very moods provoked in Beckman’s Film Festival audience, who were busy feigning not to understand. Beckman’s was the one truly vanguard achievement in the Festival, and the only analysis and indictment of the competition that keeps the wheel of fortune spinning. Beckman made an art movie; the audience clamored for Art.

Passion: Against Impotence
For my generation—which he aptly dubbed the children of Marx and Coca-Cola—Godard’s stature would seem unimpeachable. He makes grown intellectuals cry (Manny Farber: “ . . . no other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass”). Though no other filmmaker has so systematically and sensually objectified women, some feminists (viz. the Camera Obscura collective) find this—in his work—critically significant. His intimidation of the filmmaking and film-going community is total. Why? You don’t just watch a Godard movie—you watch the restless journey of a daring pilgrim who has repeatedly given shape to an inchoate zeitgeist for over 25 years. Godard’s films trace the trajectory of the modern intellectual, from escapist to artist to politico to academic—and back again.

And now he’s given us his Passion, a poor apology for a film, and a textbook example of a principal Art Movie aspiration. Its concern: the tormented artist, a filmmaker looking for a subject. Staving off his producers and creditors, Passion’s Godard surrogate, Jerzy (Jerzy Radiwilowicz), can’t write or film an experience until he’s lived it; consequently, he can’t provide a script for his producers nor a finished film to his audience.

The soundtrack glumly and pompously establishes its tone: requiem. Requiems from Fauré, Dvořák, Mozart, Ravel, and Beethoven swell as the protagonist’s passions diminish. The stymied artiste nostalgically listens to the classics and looks at the masters for ideas: Godard/Jerzy has costumed actors perform in living tableaux of Rembrandt’s Night Watch, 1642, Goya’s The Third of May, 1814, Delacroix’s Turkish bathers, et cetera. Though the reconstructions are lush and achieved with a meticulous eye for color and light, they’re kitschy in the way the Laguna Art Festival (a summer event in an alfresco Southern California theater in which players enact scenes from high art, raising masterpieces from the dead) is.

A movie about the making of a movie, the form of Godard’s greatest film, Contempt, is also the form of Passion, his weakest. Twenty years ago in Contempt he wryly honored the difference between a Homer epic and a Hollywood movie exploiting it. In Contempt, Godard argued against condescension; in Passion he argues for pretension. It appears he no longer believes that there’s a difference between seeing Night Watchat the Rijksmuseum and seeing it reconstructed in a Godard movie—though 20 years ago reading Homer and exploiting Homer were two utterly different practices. In Contempt Godard could profess his love for both high and Hollywood culture; Passion, essentially, is about distance, detachment through surrogate or vicarious experience. (Passion and Contempt, curiously, each possess titles more accurately describing the other film.)

In Passion, Godard is a puppeteer jerking his marionettes across the stage, hoping they’ll look enough like Goya and Rembrandt dress extras to furnish an aura of art. His concerns are au courant—how can an enlightened filmmaker reconcile his politics with his desire to objectify women? How can a director express his worldweariness without making a film drenched in ennui? How can he simultaneously express his reverence for art and his belief in TV without making (class) distinctions? But the questions are merely posed. If this accretion of images is a requiem to something, then it must be to the impossibility of making a masterpiece without the subjugation of women. C’est dommage.

Godard shows so much sensitivity to high culture that desire for life feels vulgar, overheated. . . . no other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel so stupidly crass.

Rumble Fish: The Zoetrope Esthetic
Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios has been the most conspicuous purveyor of Art Movies. Think Passion, the last two Hans Jürgen Sybergerg films—Our Hitler and _Parsifal—as well as Coppola’s own output of three pictures in two years: One from the Heart, The Outsiders (1982), and Rumble Fish. Zoetrope has produced and distributed enough films to have impressed an esthetic on the public consciousness. These are Art Movies with a disjunction between lean content and fat execution; it’s something like seeing a Spam sandwich offered on the most elegant of porcelain dishes, flanked by sterling silver, and placed on the finest damask fragrant with the aroma of nearby rubrum lilies.

That might be too severe a description of Syberberg’s work—after all, his meditations on Hitler and Wagner are not exactly puny. In an inadvertent mismatch of content and form, the Zoetrope esthetic specializes in humble scenarios more than a little awed by the operatic profusion of their realization. The plot characteristic meant to justify the humid Sturm and Drang of each film’s overorchestrated visuals is the lingering subject of “tormented artist.” Godard sees himself as such in Passion; Syberberg views Hitler’s and Wagner’s “oeuvres” as expressions of artistic frustration and consummation; Coppola’s own One from the Heart, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish counterpoise unconventional values of the misunderstood artiste with those of bourgeois complacency. Zoetrope’s is a sweetly anachronistic notion of the artist as (necessarily) a man overcome by his emotions and sensuality—the very incarnation of a 19th-century Romantic, far from the rationalist cultural worker we’re more familiar with in the last ten years of the 20th century.

Rumble Fish, an unlikable and miserably off-scale effort set in the contemporary Tulsa tenderloin and marvelously photographed in woodcut-sharp black and white, is a portrait of the Romantic as a young thug. Daliesque clocks without hands are conspicuous in many scenes. Stewart Copeland’s tick-tick percussion keeps time to the characters, two brothers for whom time is running out. In two remarkable scenes, through some technical wizardry, Coppola overlays color footage of the eponymous rumble fish (in vivid crimson, daffodil yellow, and Prussian blue, making them look like a homage to Mondrian) trapped in a pet-store aquarium. The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), identifying with the imprisonment and vulnerability of the fish, longs to set them free. The painfully obvious symbol of fish caught in a tank while anyone can watch their misery is exacerbated by the Motorcycle Boy’s report that the fish are so violently angry that they attack their own reflection. He and his brother Rusty (Matt Dillon) are the same: brilliant daubs of color in the drab, landlocked fishbowl of Tulsa—so victimized by authority figures that they’re masochistically fighting mad. Plotwise, there’s little else to talk about; decorwise, I could write volumes.

The rich visualization of this Tulsa milieu only serves to make the content seem all the more bankrupt. Like Godard in Passion, Coppola demonstrates what a wonderful eye he has, with what grace he can direct, art direct, edit, select music. and quote from art sources. Which artists? Oh, Reginald Marsh, the Soyers, Magritte (in the clouds occluding our vision), and—for this insight thanks to Elliot Stein—Lynd Ward’s woodcut novels without texts, like God’s Man (1929). This is less moviemaking than it is connoisseurship, an assertion that in the world of diminishing standards and returns there is still taste, still the lone artist struggling against the philistines. Coppola’s audacity, which epitomizes the Zoetrope Esthetic, is that he continues to express his loyalty both to the working class and to Art, echoing the 19th-century wisdom that the only way to transcend class is to become an Artist. Ultimately, the Zoetrope Esthetic realizes the political liberalism and cultural conservatism of MacDonald and Greenberg: only the artist can rise above the cultural morass, and only I, the artist who makes this statement, can argue this because I am a classless individual.

The Golden Eighties: Glitter Deconstruction
Up till now Chantal Akerman has been like a latterday Michael Snow : where he would decide to make a film about the properties of a zoom (Wavelength, 1966–67) or a pan (<—>, 1968–69), Akerman would decide to structure her movie around domestic routine (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975) or the moments in a relationship when a couple first connect (Toute Une Nuit, 1981–82). None of her previous films could qualify as Art Movies, but with The Golden Eighties she shifts from formalist to mogul. The cultural artifact she deconstructs is a musical, that apotheosis of mass culture; this is not a song ’n’ dance dissection of an Arthur Freed M-G-M musical from the ’50s, as the Film Festival mavens suggest, however, but an analysis of a ’60s-type Jacques Demy songfest, itself a critical homage to the M-G-M genre. Ah, sweet demystification of life!

The movie consists of two parts: an hour-long videotaped composite of rehearsals for a musical production number culled from some 40 hours of run-throughs, and the 20-minute realization of the production number. Akerman’s witty use of video for the rehearsals and film for the finished product is a clear recognition of mass versus high culture and her comment on where film fits in. Deconstruction usually does not an Art Movie make, but Akerman turns it into Art Movie property because of the elements she’s interested in analyzing: beauty, and, in the dramatic sense, climax. Subverting the narrative preconditions of beginning, middle, and end (in that order), Akerman is only concerned with end, with narrative’s effect, because that’s the moment when art crystallizes for the audience. She’s carried her concern for denouement over from her last film, Toute Une Nuit, in which she examined those romantic clinches when a couple finally meets, kisses, embraces—but absent from The Golden Eighties is an analysis of what Akerman’s most ardent supporters term her feminism. One observer, Ruby Rich. suggests that The Golden Eighties is a film involved with femininity rather than feminism, and Akerman’s surface concern with beauty would bear out this observation.

The rehearsals project all the tyranny of a French lingerie ad while the wham-bam of the finale looks like a Betty and Veronica cartoon set to the beat of Edith Piaf and the Go-Gos. When we see the skeletally thin, stiletto-heeled French and Belgian fashionplates trying to move and dance (mostly their shoes clack on the Brussels cobble) it’s hard to know whether Akerman is criticizing or exalting Gallic feminine ideals. She has the chutzpah to ask, What is beautiful? The knife slenderness of their contours, the chic ensembles they wear, the way their bodies, perched up on their shoes/stilts, arc in a gesture of sexual provocation? The Golden Eighties is an anatomy of femininity, arguing that the appurtenances some women find oppressive enable others to realize their sexuality, their prowess.

With its focus on the effects of beauty and climax, The Golden Eighties is in some ways the reciprocal of Passion. Godard wants us to identify with artistic anguish, while Akerman—ebullient conductor of the musical and on screen a fair amount of the time—encourages identity with artistic exhilaration. If, as Greenberg suggested, the emphasis on creative process is a vanguard strategy while the mimicry of art’s effects is kitsch sensationalism, then what are we to make of Akerman’s tactics which harness both? That she wants to be loved by the underground and the habitués of the mall?

Danton: After the Revolution
Bloodshed red, purity white, and victorious, celestial blue are the principal hues in Andrzej Wajda’s intimate epic, shot mostly in close-up and focusing on the conflict between those architects of the French Revolution, Robespierre and Danton. Featuring Jacques-Louis David as a crucial character and tricolor as its chromatic scheme, Danton is an Art Movie obsessed with how art—as in painting—can be used to rally the unfulfilled political goals of a revolution, and how art—as in political cunning—is employed to convince the people of revolutionary ideals. Like the painter David, who wordlessly chronicles their contretemps, Robespierre and Danton worry about images. How can they create an image—of the revolution, of a revolutionary personality—that won’t betray or diffuse their ideals?

Though many read Wajda’s face-off between Danton and Robespierre as a parable of Lech Walesa versus General Jaruzelski, respectively loose and strict constructionists of the Polish revolution, Danton is an equally compelling parable of the artistic dilemma and the way politics intervenes. Wajda and his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (who based their film on a ’20s play that was itself a parable of Trotsky and Stalin) make two claims: first, that the artist is the architect of the revolution, shaper of the collective images that lay the foundation for social change; second, that who controls painting controls history.

The cleverest scene in the film, making it required viewing for any artist, is one in David’s atelier, where we see him casually touch up The Death of Marat, then pose Robespierre for a glorification (implicitly revealing that the Revolution now has a dictator), and finally toiling over the completion of The Oath of the Horatii. Robespierre, soured by his inability to come to terms with Danton, is planning to arrest him, Camille Desmoulins, and their confederates, including one Fabre. When Robespierre sees the specter of Fabre in David’s line drawing for The Oath, the newly glorified dictator orders the painter to “edit out” Fabre, yesterday’s patriot and today’s traitor. Thus Danton analyzes the political and artistic experience, suggesting how they are one: does the revolutionary create the ideal image because it’s better for the people, or honestly present the real, though it might betray the revolution’s flaws? Danton shows that a political ruling class is no less despotic a patron than the aristocracy.

Employing the neoclassic gestures of a David tableau, Danton is an Art Movie focusing on the twin struggles of artistic and political freedom. An art movie like Beckman’s You the Better presumes freedom of artistic and political expression. Art Movies explicitly, candidly speak of a culture which torments, threatens, represses, exalts, and politically divides its artists. Godard, Coppola, Akerman, and Wajda each ask, in his or her own way, “How can I reconcile my reverence for individualist high art with my political awareness of its exclusivity and inaccessibility, and with my commitment to mass culture?”

Carrie Rickey writes on art and on film, and is working on a labor history of Hollywood.