The eagerness for Steve McQueen’s latest film, Twelve Years a Slave (2013), comes as no surprise after the success of both his first foray into feature films, Hunger (2008), and the highly anticipated follow up, Shame (2011). As a Turner Prize winning artist, McQueen has successfully made the transition from artist to narrative filmmaker and, along with fellow British artist Sam Taylor-Wood, was hailed a ‘saviour’ of British cinema in a 2009 Guardian article and even prompted the UK Film Council to set up an initiative to help fund artist turned filmmaker’s work. This may well be excellent for the British film industry but both McQueen and Taylor-Wood chose to move into the realm of narrative, as this clearly has a place within the film industry.
But what about non-narrative art films? Is there a place for these in the current film industry, or have spectators become too languid to view non-continuity editing and non-narrative based films? With high-profile filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh becoming frustrated with the monotonous nature of film today and the ‘tyranny of narrative’ perhaps it is time the art film had a designated place in the film industry.
Throughout the history of film, art has played a fundamental role in cinema. Be it the early film stylistic developments and subject matter linked intrinsically to art at the birth of cinema or the use of film as a medium by artists over the decades, film is unquestionably an art form that has been influenced by art.
Early animated films, such as J.Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906), embraced the art of Vaudevillian performance and developed non-narrative spectacle films that demonstrated the skills of sketch artists and the magic of new technology rather than eliciting an escapist narrative.
Pop-artist Andy Warhol’s static films of the 1960s, Sleep (1963), Eat (1963) and Empire (1964 – main image), are considered fundamental works of the genre, if we can call it that. These non-narrative art films are regularly shown in art galleries around the world but exhibition in cinemas is limited and most of the films are not available on DVD. Could modern cinema audiences endure 8 hours of the Empire State Building at dusk?
Non-narrative art films are abundant in galleries but rarely seem to be given designated regular slots at cinemas, if at all. This immediately raises the question of why people visit an art gallery and why they visit a cinema. Galleries are allowed and expected to provoke, challenge and stimulate visitors, whereas the cinema has become a place to escape and to find comfort in. The dark, warm, womblike chamber is not expected to push audiences to their limits and challenge and possibly distress spectators. Instead it has become mainstream entertainment where we know what to expect and we like that. Any recent box office statistics will confirm this.
However, there are filmmakers who successfully challenge the narrative conventions of cinema and still manage to fill screens, although never in any way the amount a Hollywood blockbuster would do. David Lynch has continued support from fans of the surreal and the work of experimental filmmakers such as Ben Rivers is embraced at international film festivals. But is there a place for these films outside of film festivals? Douglas Gordan’s 2006 film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, toyed with the idea of portraiture in the cinema, with 17 cameras focused on the eponymous footballer for the duration of a game. The film was exhibited at cinemas internationally and perhaps comes close to an art film in the cinema.
Whilst the films of the French New Wave are not non-narrative art films in the same sense as has been discussed previously, they do reject the ‘audience friendly’ continuity editing of the mainstream and experiment with the film form and yet these films are regularly exhibited at cinemas, why? What is the difference between showing an ‘art-house’ film and showing an art film? Reputation and status are maybe the culprits behind this.
David Bordwell believes that watching certain films requires different viewing strategies and skills and makes reference to early films and audiences and the critical discourse of Noel Burch on this subject; “Noël Burch, in his 1990 book Life to Those Shadows, argued that in the first dozen years or so of cinema, movies solicited viewing skills that we lack today. He suggested that early filmmakers often refused to center figures and crammed their frames with so much activity that to our eyes the shots look confused and disorganized… The result, says Burch, is a mode of filmmaking that demanded “a topographical reading by the spectator, a reading that could gather signs from all corners of the screen in their quasi-simultaneity”.”
This particular reading of early film can also be applied to non-narrative art films, which do require different techniques in viewing in order to be appreciated, they cannot merely be viewed as a mainstream narrative film can. So perhaps people need to develop new ways of viewing to be able to accept art film into cinemas.
Narrative and non-narrative filmmaker Mark Jenkin believes the art film is an essential creative outlet and a pure form of self-expression. He states, “as an audience member I’m not interested in going to the cinema for a roller-coaster ride, I want to be challenged”. Upon the topic of non-narrative film having a place within cinemas Mark considers that “it would probably take a seismic change in the way we perceive cinema and what role it plays culturally” for this to happen.
“People seem to want to be challenged in galleries and theatres, but if you try and challenge someone through the cinema screen you risk being labeled pretentious, or worse, boring.”
When approaching making a narrative film Mark talks about self-imposed restrictions that do not exist when making a non-narrative film. He says that the restrictions “are usually motivated by under-estimating the intelligence of the audience. I am often disgusted with myself when I realise that I am spoon-feeding or making things easy for others. Audiences are capable of incredible levels of comprehension but they are rarely tested.” Mark concludes “ultimately we need to continue to give the audience more choice and slowly alter the position of cinema in our cultural landscape” in order for art films to be successfully integrated.
The cinematic context has become static and audiences have become passive. We need to become more active, like the spectators of the ‘cinema of attractions’, and look to previous decades for inspiration and guidance. There is certainly a place for art film within the film industry today and now just might be the right time to actively do something about it.