Cinema and Media Studies Art Cinema
by
Alex Lykidis
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0201

Introduction

The artistic sophistication of interwar movements such as German Expressionism and French surrealism led to the establishment of film journals, clubs, and archives that helped to legitimate cinema as an art form. However, it was not until after the Second World War that a particular mode of filmmaking came to be known as “art cinema.” The term is now used to identify a subset of commercial films that typically rely on both private and state funding, film festival exposure, exhibition in art house theaters, and auteurist marketing strategies. This article distinguishes art cinema from other non-mainstream modes of filmmaking such as avant-garde cinema and independent cinema, which are discussed in other OBO articles, including Robin Blaetz’s Avant-Garde and Experimental Film, David Sterritt’s American Independent Cinema and Yannis Tzioumakis’s American Independent Cinema, Producers. Scholars have focused on art films’ deviations from Hollywood style, engagement with modernist philosophy and aesthetics, and cultivation of more active and contemplative forms of spectatorship. The primary debates in art cinema scholarship revolve around the aesthetic and ideological implications of art films’ auteurism, ambiguity, reflexivity, genre revision, and psychological realism. Some scholars contend that these characteristics have merely enabled art films to be marketed as niche commodities in the capitalist film market, while others believe that art films pose significant challenges to the foundations of mainstream cinema. It is sometimes argued that art films’ appeal to mainly bourgeois audiences and reliance on narrative film language limits their potential for social transformation when compared to more overtly political modes of filmmaking such as Third Cinema. Early-21st-century scholarship is challenging the earlier focus on male-directed European art films by drawing attention to the work of female, queer, diasporic, and non-European auteurs. Although questions of categorization play a prominent role in art cinema scholarship, it would be a mistake to reduce the field to this one concern. Art cinema’s position at the interstices of national and transnational film culture, middlebrow and highbrow tastes, commercial and artisanal modes of production, and liberal and radical political commitments makes it a fascinating case study of aesthetic innovation, ideological contradiction, and cross-cultural reception. As texts art films tend to be complex, challenging, and enigmatic, inspiring a variety of interpretations that generate important theoretical debates about film style, ethics, and spectatorship. Their reliance on a wide assortment of institutional supports (theaters, museums, archives, journals, festivals) has enabled art cinema historiography to shed light on the institutional development of film culture as a whole. It is only by looking at all these aspects of art cinema—style, authorship, institutions, reception—at the national, regional, and global level that we can hope to understand this notoriously difficult-to-define mode of filmmaking.

General Overviews

Art cinema scholarship encompasses many analytical approaches, including aesthetic, institutional, and reception studies, that emphasize to varying degrees art cinema’s deviations from mainstream conventions. As noted in Galt and Schoonover 2010, art cinema is difficult to define because it has often been associated with vague notions of art and foreignness and has oscillated ambivalently between formalism and realism. Ndalianis 2007 and Andrews 2013 both acknowledge the slippages of meaning that have bedeviled scholarly attempts to define art cinema in a systematic way. Andrews 2013 notes that various categories of film—avant-garde, foreign, indie, mainstream, video art, cult—have at one time or another been defined as art cinema, revealing a persistent uncertainty about what distinguishes this mode of filmmaking from all others. Ndalianis 2007 points out that mainstream co-optations of art cinema aesthetics and the heightened engagement with popular genres by contemporary auteurs have made it increasingly difficult to differentiate art films from their Hollywood counterparts. One of the first attempts to nail down art cinema’s textual characteristics was made in Bordwell 1979. In this highly cited essay, David Bordwell identifies art cinema’s primary deviations from classical narrative style, situating this mode of filmmaking in an intermediate position between Hollywood and more experimental works of high modernism. Whereas Bordwell 1979 focuses on textual elements, Neale 1981 traces the institutional history of art cinema. These two essays have become foundational works in the field, inspiring a litany of subsequent studies (see Style and Institutions sections). The fact that textual approaches tend to emphasize the differences between art cinema and Hollywood more than their institutional counterparts can be traced back to these early essays. One of the reasons for this is that institutional studies place a greater importance on art films’ status as commodities in the capitalist film market, something that limits the radical potential of their aesthetic deviations from classical Hollywood style. Bordwell 1979 and Andrew 1984 are early examples of another strain of art cinema scholarship, one that focuses on the way art films challenge their audiences and create more active forms of engagement (see Reception section).

  • Andrew, Dudley. Film in the Aura of Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

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    Unlike many other scholars, Andrew includes American studio films by Griffith, Capra, and Welles into the corpus of art cinema. The volume emphasizes the act of critical interpretation, arguing that viewers and critics must pay attention to the discordant and irregular aspects of art film aesthetics if they are to understand how these works disrupt the pleasures associated with standard models of film entertainment.

  • Andrews, David. Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.

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    An expansive history of art cinema that defines it as the product of diverse aesthetic and institutional responses to notions of high art in film culture. Andrews develops a biocultural genealogy of postwar art cinema by tracing how this mode of filmmaking has been influenced by auteur theory, notions of foreignness, mainstream appropriation, cinephilia, art-house theaters, film festivals, and commercial distribution networks.

  • Bordwell, David. “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice.” Film Criticism 4 (Fall 1979): 56–63.

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    Bordwell differentiates the narrative style of art cinema from both Hollywood films and the more radical works of Oshima, Godard, and Straub-Huillet. He argues that the ambiguity of art films is interpreted by spectators as a function of either realism or authorial commentary, shifting our attention from narrative development to character psychology and auteurist interventions.

  • Galt, Rosalind, and Karl Schoonover. “Introduction: The Impurity of Art Cinema.” In Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories. Edited by Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, 3–27. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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    Acknowledging its subject’s Eurocentric history, this essay seeks to reposition art cinema at the center of debates about global cinema. Galt and Schoonover reconceive the hybridity of art cinema—caught between commerce and art, aestheticism and politicization, nationalism and transnationalism—as a mark of its contemporary relevance, since it allows a diverse range of filmmakers to adapt its conventions to their own ends while using its universal language to achieve cross-cultural legibility.

  • Ndalianis, Angela. “Art Cinema.” In The Cinema Book, Third Edition. Edited by Pam Cook, 83–87. London: British Film Institute, 2007.

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    An accessible introduction to art cinema aesthetics and history, which highlights the catalytic role of auteur theory and art-house theaters in shaping the reception of this mode of filmmaking. Ndalianis identifies realism, reflexivity, and unorthodox narration as characteristic elements of art cinema.

  • Neale, Steven. “Art Cinema as an Institution.” Screen 22 (1981): 11–39.

    DOI: 10.1093/screen/22.1.11E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on the role of national film industries in the postwar development of art cinema, Neale notes that auteurist notions of film as personal expression, the exploitation of sexual realism, and the emphasis on the universal values of art have been used to construct an alternate form of commodity fetishism that has established art cinema as a niche product in the capitalist film market.

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