For the last two years I’ve been working on contemporary art cinema. I’m coming closer to a definition of what art cinema is as a genre. Declaring that art cinema can be approached as a genre may seem strange because of the diverse national, political, and aesthetic interests of the filmmakers on the festival circuit. If we look carefully at the most successful products of the major festivals in the last 15 years however, a number of trends, styles, tropes, and narrative patterns emerge. (My classification of art cinema as synonymous with the festival circuit films is also to say that critics aid in determining and promoting these features and directors as part of art cinema – cf. Film Comment’s Top 20 list of films without a distributor in the January/February 2014 issue, films which premiered and circulated at the festivals.)
I find that the key element of the contemporary art film is spirituality/transcendentalism in the style of Andrei Tarkovsky. Contemporary filmmakers have returned to the style and tone of Tarkovsky, this much is clear. On the festival circuit numerous examples could be cited, but its effects have already filtered into Hollywood. Consider Hollywood’s adoption of the art film genre, e.g., in Terrence Malick’s recent work (I once said The Tree of Life  wished it could be Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light ) and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011 – not a Hollywood produced film, but starring Hollywood actors). The art film has as its syntactic components both deeper meaning (often spirituality through eroticism) and ambiguity (often shown through ambiguous sexual encounters, relationships, or deeds lacking in motivation). Art cinema, as a genre, has continued to develop clear-cut formulas for impressing critics and audiences at film festivals and therefore securing distribution deals which, naturally, tout the film’s successes at festivals. Indeed the art cinema’s economic success is dependent upon the festival network, including its ties to critics and magazines, distributors and art-house theaters, and the reception by spectators through their engagement with a given film’s deeper meaning and explicitness.
Any genre film has its best and its worst features. The best seem to be those which have a firm grasp of the signs or semantic components and the syntactic aspects previously established (through a genre’s output up to that point). The filmmakers then extend these generic limits, most importantly, via the narrative conventions. The best performers (John Wayne, James Stewart for the Western) most frequently star and oftentimes the best genre film displays reflexivity about its status as such (John Ford’s films and Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks  seem appropriate here for the Western again). The least discussed of the genre films are those which do not extend or push generic conventions and adopt instead the easily identifiable semantic and syntactic elements, actors inappropriate for the part, and an (intentional) unawareness of its status as a genre film, i.e., without a certain reflexivity.
This quick analysis would apply then to the art film and if we scanned the pages of critical reviews and theoretical treatments we would find my summations to be true. The praise of a given feature or auteur, from critic and academic, would champion the elements I’ve described as best and suggest room for improvement or inappropriateness in the category I’ve designated worst. See for instance the Sight and Sound review of The Act of Killing (2012). There we see that the problem with this documentary is its lack of reflexivity, its inability to display its process and construction. On the other hand, the success of the film is its supposed capacity for truth-telling, its images edited together in such a fashion to be authoritative on its subject (what Mary Ann Doane has identified as an essential feature of the documentary voice, its authority). The persons documented in this film also perform in such a manner to warrant a credibility or believability to their acts, deeds, and transformations (due in part to the way the film was edited, again, hinting that this process of editing needing to be shown lest we begin to doubt the performances). The Act of Killing just serves as one example of critical commentary on genre.
My next post will assess Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) in light of my reflections on the art cinema as genre and the film criticism that results/has resulted from its status as genre.