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Art, for commerce's sake

In 1978, the year I began reviewing films professionally, the Triangle got its first successful art cinema. The idea had been tried several times before in different locations in all three cities, but it wasn't until the Carolina Theatre in Durham reopened as a venue for art films that such a theater became a permanent fixture in the area.

By the time The Independent arrived in 1983, the Carolina's success had helped spawn art cinemas in Chapel Hill (the Varsity) and Raleigh (the Studio I, the Rialto). In subsequent years the number of screens devoted to art films continued to grow, to the point that, by the 1990s, the Triangle had perhaps one of the highest ratios of art cinemas to population in the country.

"Art film" traditionally has been shorthand for foreign and independent cinema, yet the term's practical definition has remained in flux since the medium's infancy. In part, it has long reflected Americans' interest in European styles and ideas of art. Even in the first decade of the 20th century, venturesome U.S. distributors were importing Italian historical epics and French literary adaptations.

By the 1930s, which saw the founding of the New York Film Critics Circle and the Museum of Modern Art's film department, moviegoers in a few larger U.S. cities were able to see imported masterpieces like Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion in theaters devoted exclusively to such fare. By the '50s, "art film" had acquired rather paradoxical double meaning that combined high moral purpose and sophisticated raciness, connoting both the principled rigor of Italy's Neorealists and the pleasing pulchritude of icons like Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot.

In the 1960s, art cinema, like much in the world, exploded. While the auteurs of the French New Wave led European cinema toward its high-modernist peak, John Cassavetes and other low-budget innovators put American independent filmmakers on the map. (Those who suppose that U.S. independent cinema began with the Sundance Film Festival in the 1980s regularly need to be reminded that it's actually as old as the industry itself: D.W. Griffith was an independent filmmaker.)

When I started as a critic, directors such as R.W. Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog were the rage. Their work seemed to comprise yet another in an endless series of astonishing cinematic "waves" from Europe. In retrospect, though, the New German Cinema looks like European filmmaking's last high-water mark. Thereafter, cinema's most notable foreign movements came from China and Iran--cultures that had been largely shielded from the homogenizing effects of Western electronic media.

Yet, by the time filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Abbas Kiarostami were winning laurels at international festivals, foreign films were no longer the big news. Come the 1990s, the art film underwent what might be called its Miramaxization.

When the decade began, Harvey and Bob Weinstein's Miramax Films had just established itself with the through-the-roof success of Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape. That brilliant film unleashed the "Sundance generation" of mostly young independent filmmakers who all seemed to want to follow the career path of Miramax's next big discovery, Quentin Tarantino: Make one super-cool low-budget film that establishes your name and indie cred, then another that grosses $100 million and makes you the toast of tout Hollywood.

Such ambitions, of course, were a recipe for disappointment if not disaster. With their eyes fixed on commercial success, the vast majority of Sundancers lost sight of art, and ended up achieving neither aesthetic distinction nor box-office bonanzas.

Miramax, meanwhile, continued its campaign to redefine the art film in terms of commercial punch, with decidedly mixed results. On one hand the company (which in the mid-'90s was acquired by Disney and started making as well as distributing movies) commendably took up the slack left by Hollywood's wholesale abdication of adult viewers in pursuit of TV-lobotomized teens. In essence, Miramax Oscar winners like The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, The Hours and Chicago are simply the sort of "quality" movies for grownups that all the major studios once made.

On the other hand, Miramax started filling up art houses with lots of made-to-order mediocrities and ersatz foreign films like Cinema Paradiso and Life Is Beautiful. Its competitors quickly followed suit. Thus, what was once a precinct for art was subtly but decisively transformed into something else: a niche market.

As a result, many urban areas in the United States, including the Triangle, now have impressive numbers of screens devoted to "art" fare. Yet that term has come to mean films released by "independent" companies that, in most cases, are now not independent at all. And the films are, all too often, simply lower-budget mainstream fare aimed at a slightly older audience.

One consequence has been that "faux" art films have sometimes driven the real art out of the art houses. Any new Miramax-produced Gwyneth Paltrow comedy will play our indie cinemas, yet the Triangle has never seen the art-house display of films by such internationally renowned masters as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Bela Tarr.

Ironically, the price of success for the art-film business has been the steady dilution of the idea that was its raison d'etre--art.

Godfrey Cheshire has been film critic for The Independent since 1998, and has been a film critic for Spectator magazine in Raleigh and The New York Press.

  • Art, for commerce's sake

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