Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Movie culture is pretty much dead now, isn’t it? Sure, it’s possible to whip up some decent arguments to the contrary. But for all intents and purposes movies are no longer significant drivers of culture. Frankly, when a young person talks about movies, I’m often not even sure what he or she is referring to. The series of mostly animated 3D commercials that constitutes the modern summer blockbuster? Homemade iPhone porn? Grainy, recursive gifs of people putting things in their assholes? Serialized dramas streamed by the Netflix gremlins straight to your TV? All of these might qualify as movies. And yet in a sense they’re not movies, which for me is a term redolent of a whole art-and-entertainment ecosystem — one that’s gone and vanished, like the rhino in Mozambique.
Younger folks reading this — flatter me while I pretend we have a few readers under the age of 30 — might not even realize that movies used to be sophisticated, adult pursuits, a bit like Russian novels or sex. People were serious about ’em. Of course, some folks took that seriousness to embarrassing extremes — the Fellini-fellating intellectual in “Annie Hall” is a good parody of the type. But even that guy now seems like an expurgated rhino; he’s been replaced by newer, scroungier founts of pomposity, like the angry anonymouses who hang out in internet discussion forums looking to pick fights over perceived insults to Christopher Nolan. (By the way — screw those guys.)
Hey, that reminds me: I wrote about grindhouse movies back here. Doesn’t it seem like exploitation is the one corner of old-fashioned movie culture that young people have some connection to? Maybe the tradition of extreme, wild-ass movies has managed to maintain a toehold within the cultural mythosphere. If so, how great is that? And what to attribute it to? In any event, grindhouse is practically a brand.
But what about its high falutin’ mirror image, the arthouse? For a long time, especially in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the arthouse scene was a vital part of movie culture: it’s where audiences experienced older movies and work from foreign countries. Perhaps more importantly, it’s where many people learned to take movies seriously, as part of a broader life experience, one that touched on a whole bunch of stuff that was only tangentially related to entertainment. The gods of the scene were Bergman and Fellini. Though the reputations of both filmmakers have deflated since their heyday in the ’60s, it seems to me that the actual quality of their work was always somewhat secondary. What mattered were its trappings, its postures, its associations. For a Bergman film was more than just a two-hour black-and-white slog; it was a foray into Euro-style seriousness, sex, philosophy, high art — one that you might even be able to parlay into some meaningful alone time with a girl who wears berets and quotes Sartre. Movies as a forum for intellectual-amorous adventurism, eh? Hard to believe they were that, at least for a time.
I don’t have any data on arthouse theaters, and I’m too young to have much direct experience of ’em, but my rough sense is that most decent-sized cities and college towns had one, and that they were hubs for curious and adventurous culture lovers. The movie critic Pauline Kael famously got her start writing program notes for The Berkeley Cinema Guild; she later managed the theater, too. According to biographer Brian Kellow, “Locals grew accustomed to seeing her up on a ladder changing the Guild’s marquee, a hip flask filled with Wild Turkey dangling from a belt loop.” How’s that for a great image out of the movie past? Sadly, the Cinema Guild closed in 1967; the building it was housed in was ravaged by a fire in 2011.
These days the arthouse mindset is kept alive by the Criterion Collection, an upscale home video outfit that specializes in deluxe editions of non-English classics. An outgrowth of the Voyager Company, an early CD-ROM producer, the Criterion folks realized very early on that digital media was capable of providing movies with new layers of context. In the digital era film presenters aren’t limited to the written notes like those Kael provided for her screenings; they’re capable of exploring side avenues through the inclusion of ancillary films, interactive features, and pre-recorded commentaries. In some ways the deluxe Criterion DVD can be understood as an attempt to evoke the heady, chat-heavy atmosphere of the arthouse scene — only now the consumer is forced to experience it in isolation, digital technology having thus far failed to replicate beret-wearing girls who quote Sartre. Criterion has recently extended its digital reach by partnering with Hulu to create a channel largely devoted to arthouse offerings. Yet the company’s arthouse roots extend into the pre-digital past: it got into the foreign classics biz through a partnership with Janus Films, a distribution outfit created out of the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Brattle is one of the few old-school arthouses still in operation.
Anyway, all of this is a lead-in to the gallery at the bottom of this post, which shows off some of the arthouse movie posters I’ve managed to collect over the years. I call them “arthouse movie posters” because they’re mostly related to independent and non-U.S. features, and they share some interesting design quirks. Most notably, they tend to avoid the use of full color; many are printed in one or two tones, often with somewhat crude line art or publicity stills for graphics. And the bulk of them were not distributed by the National Screen Service, the outfit responsible for providing movie advertising to first-run theaters. I get the sense that many of these were designed and printed by independent distributors hoping to provide their business partners with some rudimentary advertising material.
Some of the posters are pretty straight-forward affairs, employing text pulled from positive reviews and somewhat reverent imagery. Others are much weirder. One of the posters for “The 400 Blows” tries to frame the movie as a youth-in-rebellion screecher along the lines of “Blackboard Jungle,” while the two posters for Bergman’s “Monika” pitch the movie as pure exploitation — as “the story of a bad girl.” A couple of my favorites concern American avant-garde films, “The Wedding Party” and “Putney Swope”; both feature photographic images notable for their chic sense of rebellion and art-scene edginess. The “Putney Swope” image, in particular, is a classic.
The DIY aspect of the old arthouse culture is also evident in the below mock-up for a flyer associated with a theater called The Unicorn, based in La Jolla, California. It was created by cutting out pieces of the pressbook for Godard’s “A Woman is a Woman,” then pasting them along with some text onto a larger sheet of paper. You’ll notice that the finished flyer also incorporates write-ups of Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” and Renior’s “A Day in the Country.” It looks like The Unicorn is no longer around, but here’s director Gregory Nava talking about seeing his first Bergman at the theater. And here’s an informative piece about Harold Leigh, the man who ran the joint at the time this flyer was created. Critic Welton Jones describes The Unicorn as “the handmade Maserati of the art houses.” According to this piece, Landmark Theaters ran a number of arthouses in the San Diego area. I guess the locale was a real hotbed for cool, outside-the-mainstream moviegoing. Needless to say, I was pretty chuffed to receive this flyer along with a poster I bought on eBay a while back; made me feel like I was getting a peak into independent theater history.
Do you have any arthouse movie experiences to share? Perhaps a favorite independent or repertory theater? The one closest to me is probably the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. Great place, though its vibe is a little too PBS for my taste. No one walks around with a flask of Wild Turkey swinging from her hip, at any rate.