Is ‘golden age’ of International art-house cinema over? Dwindling attention span, obsession with box office numbers to blame
I was watching a video on Facebook, about the arduous restoration of the Apu trilogy, and Peter Becker, President, The Criterion Collection, had this to say: “Ray is one of the essential figures in the golden age of international art-house cinema.” Is that right? Are we past the “golden age”? If anything, isn’t this the golden age? Hasn’t the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival been, like, everywhere? Thanks to the explosion of online media (including blogs, and online film clubs and message boards that foster discussions), isn’t art-house cinema being talked about more than ever before? Hasn’t watching films become easier too? Even if your local theatre won’t play these films, isn’t there a streaming platform – or, if you are so inclined, a torrent site?
Why, then, do we look so fondly at the 1950s and 60s as a golden age?
One reason is simply nostalgia. Take Hindi film music. It isn’t that good music isn’t being made today, but in the present, we are exposed to the bad music that comes along as well. But over time, a sort of sifting happens – and only the good remains. So when we look back, it appears that the 60s, say, had nothing but good songs, and no one – singer, lyricist, music director – ever had a bad day. Another reason is numbers. Not many films were being made earlier, so not much music was being produced. The good-to-bad ratio was still… good. But when quantity goes up, the quality comes down.
A still from Summer with Monika by Ingmar Bergman.
It isn’t that every art filmmaker was making gems back then, but because there was only a handful of them – or at least, because we knew only about a handful of them – it appeared that every film was a major event. Today, while being thankful that there are many more, we also know there are going to be turkeys.
But I think the most important reason for the (relative) decline of the cachet of art-house cinema is the late-1960s to early-1980s “New Hollywood” movement, where filmmakers like Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola broadened the definition of “mainstream” in American cinema. Till then, there was a distinct line between US and non-US cinema. Hollywood was dominated by the studios, which meant that certain topics were taboo. Let’s pick a year out of a hat: say, 1955. By then, American filmmakers were certainly exploring darker, more “adult” subjects – Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm, to name just two films that year that were the antithesis of family-friendly Technicolor entertainers like Oklahoma and To Catch a Thief.
But there was one kind of “adult” content that Hollywood still couldn’t dish out: explicit sex and nudity. The same year saw the US release of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika, which was made in 1953. See the trailer above, and you’d thing Bergman had made porn. It’s hilarious, today, but back then, it was a big deal. The posters screamed: “Men will wilt under the touch of her lips.” “So daring we recommend a babysitter.” “The story of A BAD GIRL.” It may help to add that the time was ripe for change. The first issue of Playboy, with a nude centrefold of Marilyn Monroe, had come out in December 1953, and the magazine was taking care to include “intellectual” reading so that it wouldn’t be classified as “smut.” (Not all that different from the Bergman approach, one might smirk.)
So at least for a while, foreign cinema carried the image of being bold, something “intellectuals” could finally see without feeling dumbed-down, as they did with the traditional mainstream product from Hollywood – and there was a significant theatre-going audience for this kind of cinema. But when the influence of this European cinema began to seep into American films, the foreign was no longer “new.” Prestige productions (Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Altman’s Nashville) came with nude scenes. The Warren Beatty hit, Shampoo, contained the line, “I’d like to suck his c**k.” You no longer had to attend film festivals or depend on a local art-house theatre to see “adult” content. It was playing at a theatre near you – though not in India, where film festival queues were still about watching scenes people couldn’t watch otherwise.
Gradually, international art-house cinema stopped being “cool” in other ways as well. Where earlier, it was fashionable to ponder over the mysteries of a Bergman movie, here’s the Diane Keaton character in Manhattan (1977) responding to the Woody Allen character’s claim that Bergman is the only genius in cinema today (see clip below): “[His] view is so Scandinavian. It’s bleak, my God. I mean, all that Kierkegaard, right? Real adolescent, fashionable pessimism. I mean, the silence. God’s silence. OK, OK, OK. I mean, I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but, all right, you outgrow it.” It’s a great scene because – seen today – it portends the 1980s, the end of New Hollywood, and an era where it was no longer cool to be “intellectual.”
This is why the “golden age” of art-house cinema is over – along with dwindling attention spans, the general decline of reading (which means that if, today, Pauline Kael wrote a 2800-word review of The Night of San Lorenzo, directed by the Taviani brothers, it wouldn’t get as many “clicks”), the devaluation of critics as tastemakers (and the increasing number of echo-chamber reviewers, who say exactly what you want to hear), the rise of “cerebral” television drama (proving a more accessible for audiences that still craves intellectual content), the shifting of art-house filmmakers (Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro) to Hollywood and English-language cinema , and the obsession with box-office numbers as the only barometer for a film’s success, which means that art-house films, too, are now pressured to turn in a profit, which means more feel-good films like Amélie and Cinema Paradiso. I love these films, but imagine that they occupied the first two positions in a Guardian poll of the greatest foreign films of all time – over The Seven Samurai, which was Number 3.
Some of the blame goes to the filmmakers too, for their increasing reliance on certain “formulas” that click with film-festival juries, which means that it’s become increasingly rare to find the “never before” on screen. Of all the films at Cannes this year, only one was able to match the never-before-ness of 2001: A Space Odyssey (the restored version), in terms of using the medium in unimaginably new ways – and that was Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which uses 3D in thrillingly, daringly. The fact that this difficult, challenging film attracted serpentine queues is heartening, but then, film festivals are always going to draw cinephiles interested in art-house cinema.
The real question is whether the general audience – even if this number is never going to match the numbers that watch the latest Marvel movie – will show the same interest, and that’s when we begin to see that the golden age may indeed be over.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South)