Whatever happened to the mainstream art film? Those daring, high-minded movies for adults and serious filmgoers, that flew into art houses and the megaplexes on the wings of word-of-mouth and studio support, are dying.
These are the movies that Alec Baldwin and James Toback, trekking like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza across the Croisette, set out to achieve in their must-see documentary “Seduced and Abandoned” (HBO Go) which follows the pair as they attempt to get a movie financed at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
But with each delivery of their half-baked pitch — a kind of “Last Tango in Paris” for the current climate — Baldwin and Toback meet grimaces, lowball offers and skepticism. Financiers see no marquee appeal in a Middle East-set erotic drama starring Baldwin and Neve Campbell as a CIA operative and a lefty journalist, respectively, who in a war-torn nation conclude that “the world is ending. Let’s fuck.” Grubby potential stakeholders, however, understand that the movies are also a business, and to make the engine run, you need car chases and explosions.
Along the Riviera, Baldwin and Toback face various industry heavyweights like action film producer Avi Lerner, and various auteurs behind the high water-mark art films of yesteryear, from Scorsese and Polanski to Coppola and Bertolucci, whose seminal sex movie “Last Tango in Paris” (Netflix) is the fulcrum of “Seduced and Abandoned.”
Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando bared their bodies — and their souls — for the young Bertolucci in 1972. Brando plays an expatriate widower with a damaged dirty mind and psychosexual hangups who initiates a no-strings May-December affair with a vulnerable woman (Schneider) who offers exoticism and escape and enjoys being his girl toy.
The film exploded because Pauline Kael loved it, writing in The New Yorker that “the movie breakthrough has finally come.” But in today’s world there is no Pauline Kael. Amid the noisy din of tweeting critics and bloggers, while the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis and other top print critics step above the fray, there is no singular tastemaker, like Pauline or her rival Andrew Sarris or Vincent Canby or Roger Ebert, to herald a breakthrough.
A gold standard in adult erotic films that should have inspired studios to make more (they didn’t), “Last Tango” has an emotional fury impossible in Stanley Kubrick’s frigid world of upper class erotic dysfunction, the mesmeric “Eyes Wide Shut” (Amazon and iTunes). Where Bertolucci’s camera cranes and careens, Kubrick’s looms and lurks. The throbbing emotional streak of “Last Tango”–and of Brando’s career-defining performance–lifts the film from any misogyny or exploitation, unless you count the emotional toll it took on the actors. Where so many contemporary films about sex, like Steve McQueen‘s NC-17 “Shame,” browbeat with moralism and suffocate with a so-called “objective” style, Bertolucci’s most essential film is a swoon, filled with truth, longing, hunger and despair. (See our ranking of NC-17 films here.)
In the summer of 1999, just after Kubrick’s death in the Spring, “Eyes Wide Shut” opened number one at the box office. Though enticing trailers of this long-awaited film, and controversy surrounding its belabored production, promised (edited R-rated) white-hot sex between Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, it’s still a miracle that this costly film played so well. Even with an A-list cast and top-drawer director, an arty film like “Eyes” wouldn’t be such a hit, or probably even get a wide release, nowadays.
Word-of-mouth is crucial. In the salad days of the commercial art film, studios knew how to build it. But with the advent of wide release fare aimed at young men, they forgot how. As the Weinsteins started taking art films in the 80s and turning them into a specialty genre, studios followed suit and formed subsidiaries like Sony Pictures Classics. But while SPC, Fox Searchlight and IFC still put out for sexy indie fare, major studios lack the guts to support these movies anymore, which is why we get five “Pirates of the Caribbean” films instead.
And not that this dead horse needs more beating, but denizens of the arthouse have found a new home: their own, on television. It’s tough to dispute the claim that “Mad Men” offers more high art than any of today’s most serious-minded movies.
Antonioni, Bergman, original theatrical trailers and more after the jump.
It was Michelangelo Antonioni‘s “Blow Up” (Amazon) that ushered an audience for international art films in 1966. In today’s figures, this stylish mod masterpiece starring David Hemmings — and his fierce bedroom eyes — grossed about $120 million in North America. Unheard of for such a film. People were paying attention. In 1970, Antonioni tried to repeat the film’s success with “Zabriskie Point” but, despite a dreamy original score by Pink Floyd, this sendup of Vietnam-era American counterculture just didn’t gel. Because by then, New Hollywood figured out how to do art films themselves.
After “Blow-Up,” if you look at the art films that broke out in the 70s and 80s, most are fascinated by the combination of sex and death. B-movie king Roger Corman had faith in that formula when he bought the US rights to Ingmar Bergman‘s brittle chamber drama “Cries and Whispers” (Hulu) for $75k. In 1972, the arch period film took a significant domestic gross, was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture and won for longterm Bergman collab Sven Nykvist‘s heavenly images. Starring the untouchable Liv Ullmann, “Cries and Whispers” is a claustrophobic, languorous creation from cinema’s gloomiest mind, with three sisters moping about a Victorian mansion. So why did it succeed? It offered the crucial ingredient of foreign film appeal: a shocking scene of aberrant sexual violence that just had to be seen.
Peter Greenaway‘s brutal, baroque “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (Netflix) has many such scenes. This early Miramax art film is a wicked, audacious piece of pure cinema. And while it is a visual feast filled with references to European painting, the contents are grim and ugly: scatology, mutilation, cannibalism and rape line the wall-to-wall horrors of “The Cook.” Rather than bear the scarlet letter of the X, the film went “unrated,” and drew a massive international audience and lavish praise from critics. Donning Jean Paul Gaultier in every impeccably manicured frame, Helen Mirren impresses as the abused wife of a brutish restaurateur (Michael Gambon).
Given its epic scope and the cross-cultural pedigree of director Ang Lee, 2007’s “Lust, Caution” (free on SnagFilms) is an example of the kind of commercial art film that could-have-been. It has all the necessary fixtures: graphic lovemaking, the NC-17, an almost three-hour running time and a huge overseas success story in Hong Kong and China. Set in World War II-era Hong Kong and Shanghai, it’s a period espionage thriller but also a love story, with a typically excellent performance by Wong Kar-wai fave Tony Leung. 20 years ago, this is the kind of film that could have incited a storm, a la Nagisa Oshima‘s “In the Realm of the Senses” (1976) and its unsimulated sex. Though by comparison, “Lust, Caution” is far tamer. What film isn’t?
Which begs a different kind of question: are there any taboos left to be broken? The triumph of steamy films like “Last Tango in Paris” and “Eyes Wide Shut” leaned on carefully calibrated marketing campaigns that promised exploratory sex scenes, things you’ve never seen before. But audiences have seen it all. We’re jaded, and the problem is that most contemporary adult movies use onscreen sex sensationally, and not because it speaks to the narrative or comes from some deep, dark and true place within the film.