Andrew Tudor wonders what happened to all the arthouse cinemas
What a strange creature was the 'art movie'. Neither fish nor fowl, it maintained often grandiose artistic pretensions against the brute realities of commercial necessity. At its zenith, in the 1960s and 1970s, it commanded a substantial niche audience, housed them in select arthouse cinemas, and fed their sense of superiority with a diet of selfconsciously stylish films. This was, after all, the era of the Antonioni trilogy (L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse), of Fellini's 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits, of Bergman's The Virgin Spring, The Silence and Persona, of Resnais' Hiroshima mon Amour and L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, of the French New Wave, of Buñuel's rediscovery, and of countless others who shared their subtitled seriousness.
Don't get me wrong. I admired, and continue to admire, many of these films and filmmakers especially Antonioni and Buñuel but there was surely something more than a little precious about their presumed ascendancy over the rest of cinema. As arthouse fare their intellectual and aesthetic superiority was presupposed a fundamental part of their appeal to an audience eager to demonstrate its own measure of distinction. They were the proof, if proof were still needed, that cinema was indeed the 'seventh art', that a form which had begun life as little more than a fairground attraction had finally made it to the artistic bigtime. Hence that odd label 'art movies' we don't customarily speak of artmusic or artpainting which served to underline the supposed chasm between commercial and serious cinema, Hollywood and Art.
All this began, of course, some 40 years earlier with the widespread rise of filmasart evangelism. Film clubs were crucial here, most famously the Club des Amis du Septième Art founded in Paris in 1920 and, a little later but no less significant, The Film Society in London in 1925. Between then and the end of the decade, The Film Society, operating first in the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street and later in the larger Tivoli Palace on the Strand, proved a resounding success. The weekly Sunday screenings were hugely popular and, on occasion, more than a little eventful. In his autobiography Ivor Montagu, the moving force in the first years of the Society, recalls the reception given to René Clair's avant garde piece, Entr'Acte, in 1926: "Some started to boo, others to scream and cheer, people got up and shouted, others shook their fists and even their neighbours I have never seen an English audience so passionate."
But passion was exactly what cinema inspired in its artevangelists, always eager to promote their cause through clubs, specialist magazines, and in the newly arrived arthouse cinemas. It was this unquestioning commitment that drove all those who nurtured local film societies (there were over 500 of them by the early 1960s) or who sheepishly crept into provincial art houses during the one week in four when the label 'continental film' meant something other than a flash of bared breast or an open reference to sex. To us, for I must be honest here and confess to just such activities, the cinema aspired to, and sometimes attained, the twin ideals of a 'proper' art form: authorship and artistic freedom. Notwithstanding the collective character of filmmaking, in the shape of their directors films were seen to have real authors. Indeed, one well known 1935 book was dedicated with stentorian capitalisation 'To the Future of the Director's Cinema'. And such authors were distinguished in our eyes by their constant struggle to free film art from its obvious commercial constraints. Inevitably, then, Hollywood became the Great Evil, berated for destroying extraordinary talents like Orson Welles, and regularly contrasted to the allegedly more creative European cinema.
All this reflected a particular ideology, of course, broadly one of 'art for art's sake'. But the widespread recognition of hitherto undetected 'auteurs' among Hollywood stalwarts like John Ford, Howard Hawks or Sam Fuller soon put a populist cat among the elitist filmart pigeons. And in the arts more generally, the growing cultural pluralism of the last quarter of the 20th century has ensured that the structuring opposition between art and commerce is not the force that once it was. In a multiplex culture, art is commerce, and the artmovie becomes just another product on the shelves of the cultural supermarket.
So what? Why should we be concerned about this long overdue levelling of the field? Surely it is a good thing to embrace artistic diversity. But I can't help noticing that with the decline of the purist art house (the Oxford Street Academy, longestlived of them all, disappeared in the 1990s) I now see far fewer foreign language films, even including those available on tape or DVD. For all its pretensions and elitism, the art movie industry the producers, the distributors, the cinemas did at least ensure a diverse and plentiful supply of world cinema. Now, just like real supermarkets, the cultural megastores mostly keep repackaging the same old stuff. Perhaps it's time to bring back the art movie corner shop.