Does World Cinema Have To Be Arthouse?
Arthouse cinema is, in its own modest way, doing well in the UK. New branches of Picturehouse and Curzon are opening, new lifelines have come from screenings of live events including sport, opera and theatre, and even museum exhibitions. My local cinema is now a multiplex arthouse with a dedicated documentaries screen. But what exactly is ‘arthouse’ and how does a film qualify as one?
After the war, London had a handful of dedicated independent cinemas, including the BFI and the much-missed Academy screens, housed in a black marble pantheon on Oxford Street, with their beatniky hand-made wood-cut posters, which had offered the finest in world cinema in London’s only non-smoking zone. The Kensington Minema and the Curzon Mayfair continued the growth of arthouse, which then rolled out through the university towns. Arthouse was usually meant to mean a foreign film that had been featured at Cannes, then Sundance, then any major film festival.
Their distributors were small companies working on tight margins. The cost of adding subtitles in English had been worn by the USA, who took more arthouse films because of the increased size of the country. But with distributors in sole charge of choosing world cinema (TV having long since stopped showing such things) we began to get a very narrow definition of what ‘arthouse’ meant; the films were left-leaning, demanding, thematically adventurous, intellectually rigorous. But it was noted that the USA made some very fine arthouse films too, and we even had a handful from the UK, so the guidelines changed to include English-language films.
At the same time, mainstream multiplexes narrowed their range of fare so that out of 15 screens, 12 might be showing a tiny number of family or action films. So that anything which existed outside the limited range of what might be termed ‘Puppets and Explosions’ was squeezed out of exhibition. Here, independent cinemas stepped in to pick up films that would once have been considered mainstream (like ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ or ‘Sideways’) and gave them screens. So the definition of arthouse changed. Once, films like ‘The Parallax View’ or ‘Harold and Maude’ would have been counted as mainstream, but now they would be arthouse.
Which leaves another raft of movies unseen; other countries have mainstream homegrown fare, like ‘Bienvenu Chez Les Ch’tis’ and ‘Ocho Apellidos Vascos’ (both massive hits in their respective countries, France and Spain, concerning North/South divides) which never get seen in the UK. I imagine the latter probably had good distribution in the USA, where there are more Spanish speakers, but we had neither. Nor did we get the Valdemar films (Spanish gothic fantasies), ‘Brice De Nice’, ‘Le Boulet’, ‘Los Ultimas Dias’, or ‘Las Brujas De Zugarramurdi’ (changed in the US to ‘Witching and Bitching’) because these films are funny, exciting or simply good quality mainstream movies.
Then you get a problem like Guiseppe Tornatore. He’s a fascinating director who has never repeated the same style of film. From ‘The Legend of 1900’, about a boy born on a ship from which he may never step onto land, to ‘Cinema Paradiso’ and ‘Malena’, about a town beauty who is driven into prostitution, and his most recent, ‘The Best Offer’, about an art dealer obsessed with a reclusive girl, he wins awards in Italy but has been frozen out by distributors who don’t consider him to fit their limited criteria. Now we don’t even get the sexy French comedies that once filled arthouse screens. I’ve seen films like ‘Ida’ and ‘Leviathan’ in arthouse cinemas, and they’re good if a little dry, but surely there’s room for genuine world cinema in its broadest sense of being films from other countries?
Directors who create smart, thoughtful or simply enjoyable films can’t find screens for their fare, but the esoteric ‘A Pigeon sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’ can be seen on the big screen. When the BBC was forced to choose what to keep from their videotaped archives for posterity, they saved filmed Shakespearian plays and threw out ephemeral programmes, not realising that the latter would have provided better cultural context from the past. This is exactly the same as what arthouse distributors are doing by limiting our choices to tasteful middle-class fare in the UK. Bollywood is deemed acceptable (although exclusively aimed at Indian audiences). It would be great to see what pleases and excites other countries as well.