The Cappuccino Conspiracy

Art house film-goers think they're seeing today's best movies. They're wrong.

By Charles Taylor
Published September 16, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

perhaps the most persistent myth of moviegoing is that art houses are run by connoisseurs who select only the best films for their customers. It's not hard to see why that notion has such a durable shelf life. It allows people to entertain visions of themselves as cultured and refined -- and not venturing beyond the art house is a lot easier than doing the work of sorting through what's actually out there. But, as "specialty films" have become more and more lucrative (their collective box office was up 40 percent this summer over last year, while the mainstream box office petered out after the wham-bam-thank you ma'am of summer's big blockbusters), it's become harder to ignore an unpleasant reality: art houses have been taken over by the same marketing and distribution forces that rule the multiplexes. Art-house audiences are now doing just what they've always looked down on the mainstream audience for doing: going for the big pictures sold to them by publicity people.

The studios have decided they want a piece of the art-house action. Fox's specialty division, Searchlight Pictures, released "Stealing Beauty" and both of Edward Burns's films, "The Brothers McMullen" and "She's the One." Miramax, the leading distributor of art-house fare, is now owned by Disney. Last year when Miramax purchased Larry Clark's "Kids," Disney announced it would not distribute the movie after it received an NC-17 rating, forcing Miramax to create a new division to release it. Miramax was established enough to fund that alternative. Had "Kids" been handled by a smaller distributor, the controversial parts of the film might have been cut -- if it had been released at all. That "Kids" was lousy is beside the point. What matters is that a big studio has gained the power to dictate what art-house audiences see.

What's worse, independent distributors have begun to ape big studio practices. In 1992, Fine Line opened David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" in America without the benefit of press screenings. In Hollywood that's interpreted as a clear vote of no confidence. The movie acquired an aura of disaster at Cannes (though, unlike "Wild at Heart," which won at Cannes and which seemed to have been made by a David Lynch impersonator, there was no doubting this fascinating, affecting mess was a serious movie). In this case, an independent distributor, who ought to be championing offbeat work, had simply discarded a new film by a major American director. And the critics slavishly took the bait, dismissing the movie before they'd even seen it. Critics, who know how scared studios are of anything unconventional, happily swallow the studio line and assume that a picture that opens without press screenings is a stinker.

Even critics who know better can get inadvertently caught in the publicity push. Editors assign the limited coverage for movies not according to what a critic thinks deserves attention, but according to the amount of "interest" (i.e., hype) surrounding a picture. A critic who wants to alert readers to a smaller picture has almost no opportunity to do so.

When art-house patrons tell you they've heard a movie is great before it even opens, what they usually mean is that they've read profiles of the stars or director in glossy magazines or the Sunday New York Times. Hype doesn't mean a movie is automatically bad. "Trainspotting," the most hyped picture of the year, is also the best. But art-house audiences gullibly confuse carefully-targeted, publicist-generated buzz with legitimate critical praise. The myth persists that the art houses give small, quirky pictures a chance to find their audience, press or no press. But now big releases like "I Shot Andy Warhol" or "Fargo" are being sold as aggressively as any Hollywood picture (relative to their probable audience), and art houses open those pictures on multiple screens to handle audience demand created by the advance hype. The inevitable result is that smaller, less-hyped movies get lost.

Those overlooked movies might find a home at the dwindling handful of truly independent movie houses still able to bid on first-run films. But those theaters must compete with the better-funded art house chains springing up in urban centers or the specialty screens within mainstream multiplexes. Meanwhile, nearly all of the best, unhyped, foreign and independent films of the last few years either disappeared from art houses after a week or two, or got a few days' run at museums, university film societies, or repertory houses. The list includes the Argentinean director Eusebio Subiela's "Dark Side of the Heart," "The Last Bolshevik" by Chris Marker (arguably the greatest living filmmaker), Maria Novaro's "Danzon," Margarhette von Trotta's "The Promise," Jacques Rivette's" La Belle Noiseuse," Agnes Varda's "Jacquot," Tom Noonan's "What Happened Was . . .," Michael Almereyda's "Nadja," Nancy Meckler's "Sister My Sister," Nick Gomez's "New Jersey Drive," Claire Denis' "I Can't Sleep," Andre Techine's "Ma Saison Préferé," Wong Kar-wai's delicious "Chungking Express" (a derivation of the French new-wave that's alive to the erotics -- and emotion -- of color and music and movement), and Martine Dugowson's astonishing debut "Mina Tannenbaum."

Art-house audiences can't be blamed for not going to movies they've never heard of. And they are still capable of miracles, making tough sells like "Vanya on 42nd Street" (which may turn out to be the movie of the decade) and "Leaving Las Vegas" into modest hits. But too many of the movies those audiences flock to are exactly what they claim to despise in Hollywood. Are Robert Altman's recent multicharacter extravaganzas -- "Ready to Wear" and the abysmal "Kansas City," in which the black musicians are reduced to window dressing -- really better than the Vanity Fair aesthetic of mainstream fare that lures audiences in with celebrity glitz? Would audiences turn out for Ed Burns' atrocious, inept movies -- which pander to every prejudice of the lunkhead Irish-Catholic machos they pretend to skewer -- if they didn't have that indie aura?

Finding the worthwhile movies out there requires some effort, and it means being open to the idea that good filmmaking and acting can be found in all parts of the movie industry. Art-house audiences continue to assume that anything Hollywood produces must be the lowest commercial crap, although the most risky American movies of the last few years haven't come from the indies but from the studios. Having no idea what to do with them, the big companies often dump these gems. I'm talking about films like Michael Tolkin's "The New Age," Ron Shelton's "Cobb," Chris Menges' "Second Best," Diane Keaton's "Unstrung Heroes," John Boorman's "Beyond Rangoon," even Stacy Cochran's strange little suburban fairy tale, "Boys." A couple of art-house bookers might have prolonged the lives of those movies by showing them in their theaters, but that would have meant admitting the "movies" into the "cinema."

And woe betide any art-house personage who ventures to Hollywood. "The Edge of Hollywood" episode of the recent PBS series "The American Cinema" featured a procession of independent filmmakers and producers spouting insufferable self-congratulation about how they would never sell out, how they would never work within the Hollywood system. That might be the slyest career move of all. Just look at what happens to art-house figures who go to Hollywood and -- gasp! -- actually produce better work. Actress Fairuza Balk was a hit in "Gas, Food, Lodging," but you can bet that no art-house habitues darkened the door of the multiplex to see her give the most daring performance so far this year, in the enjoyably cheesy "The Craft." Balk's teenage witch Nancy is the first riot grrrl to make it to the screen. She wears all of her confusion, rage and hurt on the surface, gives it an ideological justification, and treats everyone around her as if they were players in a metaphysical game of truth or dare.

Richard Linklater became an art-house darling with the zero-style "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused." But the audience he won with those movies ignored "Before Sunrise," one of the most exquisite romantic films ever made. And although art house audiences were suckers for Peter Jackson's tabloid kitsch hysteria in "Heavenly Creatures," they'd have nothing to do with Jackson's "The Frighteners," a gothic-horror comedy about the derangement of grief. Michael J. Fox's sublime performance in "The Frighteners" is a marvel of the sort of timing, charisma and feeling that made '30s and '40s stars legendary. But what self-respecting art house patron would go to see a horror movie featuring a sit-com star? "The Frighteners" may be the year's most inventive, moving entertainment. It was certainly the most obtusely reviewed. (The critics who asked, "Is it supposed to be a comedy or a horror film?" had apparently never heard of a tone shift.) Art-house audiences -- who are overwhelmingly white, liberal, educated and financially comfortable -- would cringe at being compared with a cultural conservative like the late Allan Bloom. But really they're implying the same thing, believing that people who respond to pop culture will never be able to appreciate high culture. In fact, the opposite is true. If people deny themselves the sensual and visceral pleasures that pop can offer, how deeply can they respond to any art?

Writing about the promise movies offered in the '60s and '70s in the current issue of the film journal Sight and Sound, producer/writer Larry Gross says, "Movies were therefore to be an art form as rigorous, as serious, as demanding as anything that the so-called 'high' arts could produce, yet they were somehow to be jazzier, more fun, more immediately accessible -- at the same time . . . [demonstrating] the chance of refusing that dichotomy and overthrowing it all together."

That dichotomy has its uses. There's no point pretending that what draws me to a John Woo action picture also brings me to a delicate Satyajit Ray drama. But the unifying principles are pleasure and emotion and a filmmaker's intelligence. I don't want my visceral, emotional, and intellectual pleasures straying too far from one another, though it's long been a badge of intellect, seriousness and maturity to separate those things. Art-house audiences who continue to insist on that separation are contributing to the Balkanization of the movies. That's a hell of a thing to be buying along with your cappuccino and gourmet chocolate.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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