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

by Ryan Lattanzio
November 6, 2013 4:30 PM
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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.

Mirren in 'The Cook...'

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.


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  • Streaming | November 14, 2013 11:55 AMReply

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  • 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


    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

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