What Makes an Art Film?
I’m with frieze Magazine editor Dan Fox when it comes to being showy with one’s creative pursuits. In his book, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (a title that unleashes butterflies in my stomach), Fox suggests that pretentiousness, particularly that of aspiring artists, is a cornerstone of aesthetic development. As a woebegotten, trenchcoated teen, with a headful of arty ambitions curdling beneath my dyed-black locks, I can totally relate. It was only natural, then, that I would return to my memories of the era (late 80s – early 90s) when I committed (again and finally) to make a so-called “art film.”
But what is an art film? Independent scholar David Andrews spent several hundred pages in Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, And Beyond trying to answer this question (which we’ll examine in a later blog). So far as I can tell, Andrews argues that an art film is any flick that plays in a art house. This begs the question — what’s an art house? Those in Petaluma in the 80s like me would say, emphatically, the Plaza Theatre. Long gone by the 90s, the Plaza was a century-old repertory cinema that projected a different movie every night. The bill was curated by some cinema-savant we never knew but whose depth and breadth of movie mastery was rivaled only by their obvious affection for the form. On any given night, one would be treated to selections from the French New Wave, noir classics, animation tournees, softcore foreign films, and all manner of counter culture curios.
I worked there during its gradual decline under new owners and later used it as the locus for much of my first novel, The Late Projectionist, which, itself was about pretentious wannabe filmmakers. Art films – or, or at least the affectations ascribed to them – are something I should know. And I do. I think. But even after I wrote the screenplay for Pill Head, my upcoming feature-length directorial debut, I felt quesy about humble-bragging about it on Instagram especially since I garnished the post with the hashtag #artfilm.
Immediately after tapping “Share,” three notions occurred to me simultaneously, A) I sound like an idiot, B) I have no idea what I'm talking about, C) Best case scenario, people will think I'm trying to be funny. Had I used the slightly more pejorative tag "artflick" I could probably sneak by on C. But, nope, I wrote #artfilm and I meant it. After some reflection, however, I realized that humor was actually at the root of it all, that my entire understanding of what I think an art film is comes not from groundbreaking auteurs but from their satirists. It began, as so much of my adolescent understanding of the world, with Monty Python.
The French, Subtitles, and a Cabbage
Parody works, in part, because it distills the motifs and tics of its subject into a concentrated form. An analogy would be a celebrity impressions — think of all the William Shatner bits performed by comedians — breathy, staccato, manic. Sure, each quality recalls an element of Shatner’s style but they seldom occur all at once. Film parodies do the same and art films can be equally breathy, staccato, and manic when condensed for humor’s sake. Hence, my appreciation for French Subtitled Film sketch from Python’s second season motion picture parody Scott of the Antarctic.
Here, the obvious targets are the French New Wave as a whole and presumably specific members of the Cahiers du Cinema gang from whom it spawned, with posterchild Jean-Luc Godard squarely taking one for the team.
French Subtitled Film finds a Belmondo-esque caricature (Terry Jones) and a Bardot-like blonde (the always game Carol Cleveland with an inexplicable cabbage in her lap) are engaged in trivial dialogue against the din of seagulls. At a dump. Sublimity that can only be topped by Jones uttering “I am a revolutionary.” And the perhaps a ticking time bomb head of lettuce that ends a reprise of the scene.
In an essay anonymously posted at Gaudy, On Rewatching “Monty Python” and Mocking the French, the author sums the effect up nicely:
“Feeding into the New Wave ideology, their dialogue, though seemingly absurd and pointless, does indeed expose a deeper level of existentialism, neither building upon itself nor entirely pointless; instead, it seems to embrace the total absurdity of human existence with such repeated lines as ‘It’s a nice day’ and ‘Do you come here often?’ Monty Python writers navigate the dual line between ridicule and homage here, as such dialogue is indeed possible in many of Jean-Luc Godard’s films.”
Ridicule vs. Homage
So, speaking of ridicule and homage, here are two of my own short films that I now realize owe some of their DNA to Python’s New Wave hat tip and, by extension, the films that inspired it.
Then there's this fun bit I did with my dearly departed pal and frequent collaborator Brodie Giles.
A challenge with Pill Head will be navigating the path through and beyond my influences and eventually inspire some ridicule and homage of my own, which, to bring it full circle, is totally pretensious.