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Culture, Film

When Art Film Goes Mainstream

Style Over Substance?

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James Pike
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Art film is usually (ironically and unfairly) perceived as an exclusive and elitist niche reserved only for the high-brow film lover with the naïve allegation that style rules over substance. However, if you strip away the stereotypes and look just a little deeper you may find that some of your favourite ‘mainstream’ films have their roots firmly embedded within this often pre-judged genre.

Art film has many monikers (arthouse is the preferred term amongst the general populous) but the traditional sentiment of art film remains universal. Typically tackling serious subject matters as opposed to the pure escapism of conventional Hollywood, art film acts as a pedestal for independent film making – experimental, unconventional and artistic in its own right where profit is sacrificed in the name of integrity.

You can trace its roots as far back as the early 1900s where film was still in its infancy and finding its feet within a mass market. During the 1920s and 1930s the inception of a French avant-garde film movement, Cinéma Pur, developed art film with an emphasis on vision and movement as opposed to narrative and character. This, considering that art film hadn’t even come anywhere near mainstream cinema at this point, is testament to the passion that was displayed by its practitioners to ensure film was an independent art form.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when art film started to meld into mainstream cinema and more importantly what the definition of art film really is. Art – in its purest sense, is free-form. There are technically no rules on what constitutes as an art film which, I would imagine, is exactly what the European art film movements of the early 1900s were striving to convey. There are obvious hallmarks used within traditional art film that were adopted by filmmakers after the inception of Cinéma Pur. Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman were notable during the 1950s, 60s and 70s for experimental filming and editing techniques. These were used to more prominently dictate narrative rather than relying on exposition or driven actions from the characters onscreen. Thematic ideas were heavily delved into – Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey being prime examples during this period.

During the 1980s art film started to be referred to as ‘Independent Film’ particularly within Hollywood with some major studios (completely contradicting the term) creating separate divisions to produce these films. You could say that this was the era art film started to filter into the mainstream with an emergence of exciting filmmakers using independent backing to create the films they wanted to see while retaining some commercial viability. This was the decade we got Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, James Cameron’s The Terminator and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. All could be considered as having a certain ethos rooted in art film. Far from the philosophical leanings of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, these films still retained the essence of art film through the mantras of old. They all had a common theme running through them behind the scenes – an almost workmanlike ethic to ensure their vision is sustained with as little studio influence as possible.

Moving into the 1990s, independent film was booming and showcasing some absolutely fantastic talent behind the camera; Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, David O’Russell, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola and Darren Aronofsky are just a few names that emerged during the 90s, producing experimental, smart and accessible features that balanced the sentiment of art film perfectly with the mainstream. As we move into the noughties and beyond, more and more mainstream films are adopting a ‘smarter’ approach, particularly to the themes running throughout their features. It’s a far cry from the origins of art film but with major studios opting to give more filmmakers (with their roots firmly embedded within independent cinema) the opportunity to make bigger films, strands of the art film DNA remain.

For the purists there is an argument that the true essence of art film died a long time ago with major studios capitalising (where they can) on art film conventions. I for one feel that art film has simply evolved the best it can – it’s almost impossible to stop a good thing from being corporatised for a mass market. If you take Bergman’s The Seventh Seal for example, even with its heavy leanings towards art film sentiments, it’s still removed from the art film of the 1920s and 1930s. This, of course, is all a matter of opinion, which is the beauty of art as a whole. Art is designed to generate emotion and opinion regardless of the medium; I for one could not imagine a world where art never evolves and is hindered by prevalent social norms – how boring would that be?

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