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Your Week in Streaming: Why the Commercial Art Film Is Dying, and the Scandalous Films That Define Its Legacy

Features
by Ryan Lattanzio
November 6, 2013 4:30 PM
10 Comments
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Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in 'Last Tango in Paris.'

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.

Baldwin and Toback at Cannes

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.

'Eyes Wide Shut'

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.

10 Comments

  • mechmachi | April 13, 2014 2:21 PMReply

    slt je veu savoir des amis qui ma envoyer sms a m mobail est ma dit vous voyer photos a tango je sai pas de qu il est son nom veuillez de ma aider

  • Streaming | November 14, 2013 11:55 AMReply

    These days Streaming is becoming popular more and more. It provides many benefits. One can watch any live show, concerts, events and programs etc. anywhere and anytime on i phones, i pads, smartphones, laptops and other devices.For more information visit Streaming

  • Gman1001 | November 9, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    NB: In 1986, Jonathan Demme with his longtime producers Ed Saxon and Kenneth Utt, E. Max Frye and the benchmark 'mini-major' Orion Pictures brought us the completely subversive and brilliant SOMETHING WILD. This picture pushes the envelope not only sexually but emotionally as well. Its frisson is electrifying. Watching the film now, it is utterly impossible to imagine any Hollywood company greenlighting it today.

  • Daniel E | November 7, 2013 12:35 PMReply

    Why watch the narrative when you can get the porn for free?

    When Hollywood was under the repressive Code, directors were forced to think of means of subversion - mostly in subtly - to undermine the censorship. This stands true for those cinematic giants of the 60's as well, at least in the American market.

    This knowledge is obvious, I know, but does this mean contemporary filmmakers have lost the knowledge to confront taboos? Or are there no taboos left to be broken? Doubtful. For we see hope in the increasingly controversial 'Blue is the Warmest Color'. (I've yet to see it, but it's obviously ruffling some social norms.) Paul Thomas Anderson still shines as well; how quickly we forget his sex-riddled masterpiece 'Boogie Nights'; not all art house successes need be international.

    I was comforted by a statement from Zizek the other day: "Philosophy from the 19th century was criticized for interpreting the world too much while doing nothing to change it. (I think) in the the 20th century we tried to change the world too much and too quickly. Maybe it is the time to interpret again."

    Contemporary directors, like their well-read and studied predecessors, should take note of this.

  • candlelot | November 7, 2013 11:00 AMReply

    The elephant in the room in this debate is the WHY, which is all too apparent to those who are not bedazzled by the bread and circuses of the new Call of Duty video game. Sadly, I'm not sure how many of us that constitutes.

  • ShowHive | November 7, 2013 7:57 AMReply

    This makes a good read.

  • Jacque | November 6, 2013 10:49 PMReply

    The thing with 'edgy' films that 'push boundaries' and breaks taboos (thought taboos are taboos fore a reason, so what we have here is social experiments for those who watch it) is that most of the time they're full of themselves and really adds nothing any body of knowledge, besides more of its niche market clamoring for similar themed and tonal projects, and they themselves acting for self-righteous they mock 'the masses' for not having such taste and sophistication in their celluloid picking. Such a film is both elitist, pretentious and downright narcissistic.

  • Daniel E | November 7, 2013 12:37 PM

    lol.

    OK, so we should focus our reading, watching, and listening on everything conventional?

  • Alex | November 6, 2013 6:00 PMReply

    Wow, seems impossible to think that this films were made once...

  • Excellent | November 6, 2013 5:59 PMReply

    I agree...I don't understand why studios won't stop making billion dollar profit tentpoles and focus on soft porn instead...especially since it's so hard for people to find naked people having sex on the internet...lol

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