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Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond Hardcover – November 15, 2013
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"Among other things, Theorizing Art Cinemas poses interesting questions about the relationship of traditional art cinemas to the phenomenon of midnight movies and identifies their links to more mainstream commercial film production. The book manages to be engaging, informative, and highly readable without ever losing its sense of scholarly rigor and critical focus. Recommended for all readers with an interest in art cinema as concept, art form, culture, and industry."
"...a thrilling revelation from front to back."
"The sweep and scope of the book is staggering, and nearly every facet of "art" cinema is covered. . . This fascinating, challenging, and wide-ranging text is a must read. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers."
About the Author
David Andrews is an independent scholar who has published widely on issues related to art cinema and cult cinema. He is the author or editor of four books, including Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in Its Contexts (Ohio State UP, 2006).
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The most common method of approaching art cinema has consisted of laying out formal characteristics and counterposing those against an amorphously defined mainstream. But for Andrews, art cinema is more an event in a multitude of contexts that confers value upon a variety of aspirational forms. In short, “art cinema refers to a dynamic, high-art super-genre comprising all legitimate art movies as supplemented by the qualified high-art canons of quasi-legitimate and illegitimate cinemas” (29).
Andrews lays down the foundation for this theory by demonstrating the ability of film festivals, the academy, film criticism, fan sites, etc. to confer value in the form of auteur status and “artfilmness,” infusing inclusiveness into a category that has long reveled in exclusivity. For instance, the traditional art film aimed to shake off all remnants of genre such that in the postwar years, art cinema became an, if not the, anti-genre genre. But festival awards and government funding drained much of its oppositionalism by the 1960s. So a new subcultural sensibility arose in opposition to this now highbrow oppositionalism and forged a cult-art cinema, upholding an active audience (contrary to the ideal of the disinterested art film viewer) and consecrating genre-based commercialism.
A similar form of oppositionalism lies in avant-garde cinema. It’s art cinema’s very own art cinema – its most aspirational sector. But as a rejoinder to those who believe the avant-garde does not belong under the aegis of art cinema in the first place, Andrews notes that both are powered by auteurism, anticommercialism, and a concern for the relationship between aesthetic and politics.
Art cinema proves such a flexible category, in fact, that it can even infiltrate into the mainstream. For Andrews, “mainstream art cinema” is no oxymoron. The mainstream is a specialized and hierarchical phenomenon and thus can incorporate a variety of cinemas, art included. Directors like Tim Burton, Richard Kelly, Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan, David O. Russell, M. Night Shyamalan, etc. can then position themselves and their product as existing both within and against the mainstream.
Ultimately, Andrews’ goal with Theorizing Art Cinemas is to move the analysis of art cinemas away from textual and formal issues to the contextual energy that surrounds them. In this respect, he runs counter to cinephile discourse which consistently denies the commercial nature of art cinema. Cinephiles and film critics tend to conceive of stardom, for instance, solely as the province of Hollywood or other mainstream cinemas. But in his most astute chapter, Andrews shows how art cinemas pivot on a sort of anti-stardom, contentious, for sure, but no less palpable than any other form of stardom. The ultimate star in the art cinema galaxy is, of course, the director-auteur. And that figure’s prestige can provide an alibi for actors to take on dodgy roles which in other contexts might find them ridiculed or even ostracized.
Andrews also takes on cinephiles’ disdain for distribution. Distribution is not a mere pipeline for films which can be closed off by the whims of an evil philistine distributor. Rather, as Andrews demonstrates in a brilliant analysis of the controversy surrounding Todd Solodnz’s Happiness, it’s a mode of social exchange. Distribution problems can augment a director’s renegade profile, crucial for the cinephile set, while distributors may work to get the film released for fear of being accused of censorship or in the hopes of gaining prestige.
As for shortcomings in the book, I do wish Andrews provided some empirical evidence about the “authenticity problematic” that hounds experimental filmmakers who receive funding through institutions like the academy or arts centers. With a built-in anti-institutional logic, the avant-garde fills some filmmakers with a sense of anxiety concerning prizes and tenure-track positions. But without actual quotes from filmmakers, the reader must take it on faith that such anxiety exists (although I grasp the difficulty of getting tenure-track avant-garde filmmakers to confess their itchiness about university support). And I think it’s problematic to assert that “the exploitation is mutual” (136) when it comes to adjunct faculty. Adjunct avant-gardists might be able to use university equipment to make their films while warding off intimations of co-optation in the process. But universities receive far more in the form of underpaid labor. And really, are there any adjunct filmmakers who wouldn’t rather have some sort of steady funding for their work? I honestly don’t know so some interviews with adjuncts would’ve strengthened Andrews’ argument.
Also, Andrews is taken with the field of evolutionary biology and its potential application to art theory. Like cognitive film theory, evolutionary biology aims to jettison the social constructionism of continental theory for a practice grounded in more verifiable phenomenon. His excitement leads to meditations on “humanity’s clear evolutionary bias against pornography” (90-91) and auteurism as a by-product of natural selection. The idea that “the human species has evolutionary origins and material constraints” can certainly invigorate our understanding of art beyond the most egregious vagaries of capital-T Theory. But I find it naïve, at best, to then conclude that “many of the best research programs in the humanities could be made more defensible if they simply stated these assumptions clearly at the outset” (4). Claiming that art valuations have evolutionary origins will do little to prevent the captains of industry from rationalizing academia down to the last pencil as they select to do away with tenure and perhaps even professors themselves.
But these are minor quibbles that have little to do with the thrust of this groundbreaking book. Theorizing Art Cinemas summarizes a time when access to cinema has exploded via DVDs, cable, streaming, and torrenting. And with that explosion comes a concomitant expansion of cinephilia and its propensity to disseminate high-art ideals. Familiarizing himself with the previously devalued areas of film activity where these values are now being deposited has opened up Andrews to an overwhelming variety of films. And with that democratic spirit as a guide, readers can use Theorizing Art Cinemas to stoke their passions for any kind of cinema.