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.

4 comments on “Is The Arthouse Film Dead?”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    Greenaway’s ‘Prospero’s Books’ has long been one of my favourite movies together with ‘Drowning By Numbers’. His visual style was interestingly appropriated by some scenes in the recent ‘High Rise’.

    Is ‘Nordic Noir’ as far as we are capable of cinematic travel?

    The lack of arthouse movies, or appreciation for anything other than US fodder is depressing for those of us who watched film during the 70’s and 80’s. As I recall both BBC2 and Channel 4 did some great late night seasons of Truffaut, Fellini and many others that gave a very different ‘eye’ to filmic narrative, revealing that American film was neither great nor original. Where can anyone see this now, consecutively and with a knowledgable framework of critics and film professionals? Sorry Zoe Ball, but you’re not nearly there.

    Plus, where can you get a copy of ‘Leningrad Cowboys Go America?

  2. The world has changed beyond recognition and not, I think, in a good way. My student years in London were dominated by going to see European cinema in small cinemas in town. It scarcely seems possible now, but when I was about 20, ITV extended its broadcasting hours into the night. They would show double bills and it was on ITV that I first saw Fear Eats the Soul. I’ve no idea what ITV shows at midnight now but I’m pretty sure it’s not films by Fassbinder with subtitles. More like Eat Jamie’s Lemon Sole.
    I make short films for a living and so have to deal with a lot of film/production graduates. By the time I had graduated – and I had no intention of working in film at that point – had seen most of the classics of European cinema as had my friends. No-one was particularly arty, it was just part of our education. The graduates I meet have rarely seen anything that pre-dates Pixar. I love Pixar but it’s one fruit out of a thousand. A director friend of mine recently quit teaching film because he had a class of students, none of whom had seen Taxi Driver. “What’s the point of trying to teach them when they haven’t done their homework?” Film played a huge part in my rough council estate life if for no other reason than seeing All the President’s Men at 13 made me want to become a journalist (which I did for The Times). I’m guessing my equivalent these days would want to go become a superhero?
    And yes, Greenaway was a huge influence too – I saw the Draughtsman’s Contract on Channel 4 and then followed everything he did for at least 10 years. One of my first CD boxsets was Nyman’s first four Greenaway soundtracks.
    It does make you feel old bemoaning this stuff but the truth is our young people are being denied something. My 9 yo daughter is already a freak for being obsessed by films like Top Hat, Blithe Spirit, High Society. At least she also likes the Marvels and Pixars which stops her from actually being beaten to a pulp.

  3. Richard Burton says:

    When I did my Foundation year at art school we had to do film, no matter whether we were fine art or even product design students. I will admit I was bemused slash horrified by the compulsory Greenaway films we watched, but ended up impressed by the colour scheming in Cook, thief etc and the time lapse rotting. It made me a more sophisticated watcher of films.

  4. SteveB says:

    Ha I remember seeing Draughtman’s Contract on C4 too. It’s still my favourite maybe because I was young but also because it’s the most direct I think and easy to enjoy. And the Nyman boxset I did have too unfortunately I lost it a few years back during moving with some other favourite cd’s.
    It’s curious to contrast his career with Stephen Poliakoff. For a long time the only copy I had of Hidden City was my off air VHS.

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