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

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! November 6, 2013 at 4:30PM

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.
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Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in 'Last Tango in Paris.'
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
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'
'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.

This article is related to: Your Week In Streaming, VOD, New On VOD, Features, HBO, Seduced and Abandoned, Netflix


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