Is The Arthouse Film Dead?
London has opened more arthouse film venues in the last two years than it has for decades. There’s the excellent Piccadilly Picturehouse, the Curzon chain, the Everyman chain, the Electric, the wonderful Regent Street Cinema and many others are now screening live theatre events – so why would arthouse be in any danger?
Because we’ve changed the definition of what we regard as arthouse. Once it meant a great swathe of overseas (mostly European) films, and experimental movies – but local Euro-releases hardly reach these shores anymore. Now it means any indie film that doesn’t have Iron Man in it.
Britain has a strange love/hate relationship with art. Most of our painters were and are at best mediocre (don’t get me started on the Emperor’s-New-Clothes world of Emin and Hirst). Go into an old country house and there’ll be a Stubbs and a Reynolds, and that’s about it. It took a long time for us to get away from the ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ mentality.
In cinema UK critics have always favoured neo-realists over anything surreal, fantastical or abstract, thinking it’s better to watch polemic over passion (cf. ‘I, Daniel Blake’). There have been good films this year about the rise of Muslim extremists, from ‘Under The Shadow’ to ‘Mustang’. But where are the artists of film?
So now seems a good time to look back in on Mr Peter Greenaway.
At first the artist/director was a British Film Institute darling, with short films of alphabetical lists, and the astonishing feature debut ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’, still a film I admire and love. His playful murder puzzle ‘Drowning By Numbers’, with its hidden numerical count and identically named murderesses, was as gloriously odd as his ode to decay and animals, ‘A Z And Two Noughts’. Inevitably he started baiting the censors with the cod-Jacobean coloured-coded ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’, and almost overnight became reviled by conservatives, facing accusations of misogyny for ‘The Baby of Macon’.
Greenaway was a man of Europe, despising the Little England filmmaking mentality, and said so – thus cutting himself off the UK establishment. And he fell too heavily in love with technology, resulting in ‘The Pillow Book’, which was densely visual at the expense of cohesion. Previous films had felt like waking dreams, possessing logic and tension, but now they were museum pieces, not films.
His multi-part, multi-media grand experiment that was intended to encompass films, art and the internet in 92 parts; ‘The Tulse Luper Suitcases’ was finished as a trilogy funded by half a dozen different nations. Despite cautious critical acclaim, it has only ever been shown once in its entirety in the UK. Australia released a box-set of the films, but it was deleted.
Not only has ‘Suitcases’ not been released, but Greenaway has not been re-evaluated for new audiences. None of his films are available in Blu-Ray or on DVD with any extras, although I found a copy of his biography of Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’, starring Martin Freeman. ‘Goltzius and the Pelican Company’ was acclaimed but went unreleased. Greenaway joins an increasingly long list of lost or forgotten film makers at a time when his style of arthouse is really needed.
With the far right in ascendency and President Oompa-Loompa in power it would be good to think that arthouse filmmaking would once more take flight into the surreal, the political, the wide-ranging, as it did in the Nixon era. But so far digital experiments by talented directors have failed to materialise.