Thursday, July 28, 2011
Arthouse (?) Films
Someone I chat with online has said that a friend of his referred to the 2011 Oscar Best Picture winner The King's Speech as "an arthouse film". My response? "In what Bizarro universe?". Now, I'm not saying The King's Speech is a bad film. It's a very well-made, extremely well-acted, independently produced, artistic film that's perfectly straightforward and very accessible. One thing it is not is an arthouse film, at least not the way I and all my fellow cinephile define an arthouse film.
Much like the political discourse in the U.S. has shifted radically to the right where people can actually get away with calling a moderate conservative like U.S. President Barack Obama a "radical socialist", the definition for "arthouse" films have also shifted. I place the blame squarely on the phenomenon of tentpole $100 million-plus dollar blockbusters which caters primarily to teenagers. I'm not saying this to be a snob or to impugn the entire concept of blockbusters (I enjoy them a lot; a few of them are even great films) but to point out a reality. With the proliferation of cable and satellite TV, the internet, video games, DVD's, Blu-Rays, etc., less and less people are actually going to the movies. For most Average Joe moviegoers out there, the only times they would get off their asses to pay and see a film in the movie theaters is if it's a big blockbuster with lots of eye candy and to a lesser extent, stars their favorite movie star. That's the reality.
This shift in moviegoing culture has also caused a shift in the definition of "arthouse". During the '60s and '70s, mainstream films like Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer, Midnight Cowboy, M*A*S*H, etc. would be considered "arthouse films" today. Why, when adjusted for inflation, the 1979 Best Picture winner Kramer vs. Kramer, a courtroom drama about divorce from the point of view of the man would be a $200 million blockbuster. Today, it would be an indie drama which, if successful, would be considered an "arthouse" hit. But it's a perfectly accessible, mainstream film.
These days films that don't contain explosions, state-of-the-art visual effects, elaborate action sequences, snarky lines, juvenile gross-out humor or big named stars are, in most cases, already considered "arthouse". Jeffrey Wells, in a column, pointed out that Cannes Film Festival Best Director winner Drive is an action-thriller complete with guns and car chases and car crashes. Fast Five also is an action-thriller with guns and car chases and car crashes. One is a little more serious and substantive, the other is a fifth in a franchise with Vin Diesel and The Rock. Yet one is being released in "arthouses" while the other already raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in the box-office. Drive would just be a plain blockbuster if it was released in the '70s.
True arthouse films fall into one of three categories, at least in my opinion: a.) Films that dare to tackle subject matter or contains content that's either very difficult or very taboo or very provocative that will definitely turn off a lot of people; b.) Films that have a very non-conventional and/or highly unusual narrative or even NO narrative at all; c.) Films that do both. True arthouse films seldom become breakout box-office hits, get nominations at the Oscars or even seen by people who are not serious film buffs. I'm talking about films by filmmakers such as Peter Greenaway, John Sayles, Derek Jarman, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Lav Diaz, Guy Maddin, Bela Tarr, Maya Deren, Dusan Makavejev, etc. These filmmakers seldom have true breakout hits and they often work just in the fringe of the mainstream. I mean, Lav Diaz, a fellow Filipino, made an 11-hour black & white silent film. You can't get anymore less mainstream than that. That is REAL arthouse. The King's Speech? Slumdog Millionaire? Not arthouse.
A grown-up mainstream film without elaborate special effects, gross out humor or big-name stars does not an arthouse film make even if it has subtitles or even if it was released independently. I'm not saying that arthouse is necessarily superior to mainstream cinema. I've seen arthouse films that are crap like I've seen my share of mainstream films that are crap. This is just pointing out how the word "arthouse" has changed and bandied about to ghettoize grown-up non-franchise mainstream films who dare to not to cater to teenagers.