Jor-El Was Right #1: On the False Dichotomy of “Arthouse” & “Mainstream” Cinema

What is "arthouse"? What is "art"?
What is “arthouse”? What is “art”?

by General Zod

Arthouse (n) [art’howss]: (1) a film playing in cheap, rundown theaters inside the urban cores of major cities; often foreign or made independently of the Hollywood Studio financing System. May be retroactively applied to films made within the Hollywood Studio System, and film-making techniques used by those in the System’s employ, that the speaker particularly likes, but never as a pejorative. For the pejorative usage, see definition (2)

(2) A pejorative term for boring films made by even more boring film school graduates steeped in arcane theory and purposefully obtuse jargon-speak, because sounding smart is much easier than being smart. And if people were smart, we wouldn’t need terms like “arthouse.” See definition (3)

(3) A branding label for a lifestyle demographic that (like all demographics) is the largely-imaginary composite construct of marketing executives at distant advertising companies who don’t give a fuck about you, or any of the Actually Important Questions. Like, “What is art? What, therefore, is ‘arthouse’?” Who cares? There’s money to be made off the poor suckers and rich fools who think the source of their movies matters more than the movies themselves. (“People like that exist?” Yes, unfortunately, and here’s the real ass-kicker: there are more of them than there are of you.)

There are no true “arthouses” aside from the ones we call “museums.” And who goes to those? Old people and captive children, frog-marching through their field trips. Not exactly the most aspirational demographics, eh?

Ah, but – an “arthouse”? People will go to an “arthouse,” especially if you tack the noun “theater” onto the end. Poor people (or, more likely, their curious and artistically inclined children) can feel smart – elevated, cultured – by the mere act of leaving their house, while rich people (or, more likely, their their curious and artistically inclined children) can feel good about themselves for “slumming” – going to that tiny theater on the “bad” side of town. They aren’t out-of-touch, ballet-watching, blood-drinking space reptiles like their parents – no. They are watching “un film de [insert director’s name here].” Whether it’s a Local Hero trying to get to Cannes or a Palm d’Or winner trying to make it in America, you – prospective “arthouse” audience member – can sit back and feel smug as the work plays out in front of you. And even as you tamp down the growing realization in the back of your head that what you are watching is really two-plus-hours of masturbatory bullshit designed as a “surrealist” narrative, or a “meditation” on what-have-you, you can console yourself with the thought that, “At least I’m not watching one of those damned superhero movies!”

Because, as with so much else these days, it becomes a question of branding, and the most common form of branding around is Oppositional. By it’s acts, you shall know it, since Oppositional Branding always takes the form of “I am THIS, not THAT! THAT is a disgusting, debased sign of the impending Apocalypse. THIS – THIS thing that I like – THIS is Art! So, obviously, it should have a house all to itself.” Far from a new phenomenon, this “divide-and-conquer-with-commercials” strategy is as old as modern advertising, which is itself only a few years younger that the moving picture show.

The first “movie theaters” weren’t even “theaters.” “Theaters” were where you went to watch plays. The first “movie houses” were actual people’s houses, or inner city storefronts with the curtains drawn, or dingy back rooms with no windows and rows of cheap chairs, set up manually before each show. You’d drag yourself in after work, pay your nickel, and watch a “nickelodeon.” Another nickel might get you snacks and/or (and here’s a thought whose time has come again, as some theater chains now realize) some beer, and everything was fine. Except for the politicians and moral crusaders of the early 1900s, who saw all these Nickelodeons as dins of sin and vice. Golly jeeze, children were going to these things! As were teenage couples! And, God help us, the teenage couples were using the excuse of dim lights and close proximity to make out! IN PUBLIC! Such affronts to decency could not stand. Any survey of pre-World War I film literature will uncover many choice quotes from Important People in Authority, all of which reduce down to “Won’t someone please think of The Children?!”

Theater owners (which, at the time, usually meant movie production companies in New York City, as well as that jumped-up, orange farmer’s town out in California, where all the actors were moving for the cheap land) thought of The Children…and, more lucratively, their up-tight, tub-thumping, propriety-obsessed parents. So the 1920s saw a wave of construction pass through America. The first true movie theaters sprang up in its wake.

In many cases, they were works of Art in their own right – great, Art Deco monstrosities that deserve the term their publicists gave them: “picture palaces.” They all tried their damnedest to be the Paris Opera House, and if you watch Lon Cheney’s Phantom of the Opera (or, even better – go to Paris your own damn self), it’s easy to see why. Wide isles, plush seats, full orchestras and the pits to hold them. Classical statuary on the walls and in the lobbies. Balconies so the truly rich could avoid the hoi polloi as much as possible. Grandeur largely unseen outside Counter-Reformation-era Catholic churches so none of the hoi polloi would dare enter dressed in anything less than their Sunday best and on their “Sunday best behavior.” (In other words, serving exactly the same function as all that Baroque art in all those churches.) And it worked. Going out to “the movies” became a social/cultural “thing” for people – whole families, even – from all walks of life, not just the urban peasants and their spawn.

All of this sprung from fundamental principal of advertising that explains so much about our modern world: the wrapping’s more important than the prize. Modern Advertising Logic says, “If Jesus Christ had just kept his fuckin’ mouth shut – maybe not publicly humiliated so many grown-ass priests from age twelve until the day he died – and climbed the established hierarchies of his time, he would’ve lived a lot longer. Probably died a hypocritical old man just like the ones he bitch-slapped down the Temple steps, drowning in tax money and free pussy. But he was some crazy carpenter’s kid from Nazareth, wasting his magic on poor people (plus his family spent a suspicious amount of time in Egypt…and we all know what those crazy, Cat-God worshipers are into…). So: give us Barabbas!”

Many a critic with proletarian leanings (often so fierce they will bristle with disdain if you dare call them “critics” to their faces) dismisses “arthouse cinema” as a homicidal maniac who will surely kill again should the mob demand its freedom. Replace “arthouse” with “mainstream” in the preceding sentence and you have the mindset of your average “mainstream” critic – from pros at major newspapers to fools like me, with our websites. None dare call themselves “mainstream,” of course – that’s just not aspirational. In everyday conversation, “mainstream” is a synonym for “dumb” and no one wants to be that. So we struggle, vainly, for something to call ourselves – a “handle” (to quote that seminal, mid-90s, arthouse Sci-Fi-dramedy Hackers) others can easily grasp, with no need for tedious explanations of our positions. Such explanations might lead to an actual conversation, and who has the time for those? “Shit, son – In the time it’s taken you to read this far, five news stories have sprung up and you’ve got to Tweet about all of them before the internet forgets you exist.”

Advertising stands ready to hand us handles, loaded with ideologies and assumptions we may or may not agree with…but that doesn’t matter. Wrapping > prize. Brevity > understanding. Instant reaction > actual thought. And consistency? Fuck that! All consistency does is tie you down and if you wanted that you’d get married. Besides – nobody has time to do research anymore, so you’re free to shed your past selves like snake skin , choose a new “lifestyle” and let branded objects do the talking for you. Become a “fan” of “x” because x is pregnant with meaning in a way your life could never be. Your life probably doesn’t have a multi-million dollar ad campaign behind it, investing it with all those meanings.

Declaring yourself a “fan of arthouse cinema” or “Disney” or “superhero movies” or (if you want to really parse the demographics) “DC/Marvel (circle one and only one or face the wrath of both) superhero movies” is tantamount to delivering a whole exegesis’ worth of information in one line, because all of those things are known quantities. How could they be otherwise? Their corporate masters have dedicated decades of time and oceans of cash to make sure each of those terms means something. Might be a different something to each person who reads your declaration…but that doesn’t matter, either…unless/until you get into a flame war with that person. Message sent. Message received. Time for the evening wank.

“Arthouse” is a meaningless term because its meaning mutates as it passes through each speaker’s brain. This is intentional. Millions of admen knock years off their lives struggling to find words just like it every single day – words pregnant with significance despite signifying…well, not much at all, really…independent of some context. If a bearded film school graduate in a suit and thick-rimmed glasses, or a shaven-headed good ol’ boy in a stained wife-beater with his jeans around his knees, use the term “arthouse” in my presence, odds are I’ll know of what they speak. But put me in a headlock and ask me define the term – like this – and watch the floundering begin! Look at me- ranging over the hundred year parallel histories of film and advertising, vainly seeking a definition I can sink my teeth into.

Finding none, I’m forced to conclude that “arthouse” is one more piece of intentionally-off-putting jargon designed to make those who use it feel better about themselves. Either because they watch “smarter” films from a “wider variety of perspectives” outside “the mainstream,” or because they are the mainstream, despise this fact, and so crow about how smart they are for not “wasting” their “precious” time with “pretentious arthouse” films. (And Great Rao, the rant I could write about the widespread and continual abuse of the term “pretentious.”)

As such, the term’s specifically deployed to stop the process of thought, and is therefore ruining the discourse of movie-lovers everywhere. Stop it. Stop using it and all the other cognitive short-hand terms you fall back on without knowing or caring what they mean. Next time, take a moment before you drop one of those into casual conversation and think. I know it hurts – but like most masochistic exercises, you get used to that. Eventually, you even start to like it. And you will grow strong. We’re weak now – fractured, divided, set upon each other over meaningless bullshit while the real enemy’s out there, at our doors, waiting for us to do their job for them. And if I’m doing someone else’s job for them, I insist on some compensation. You should too. Because if you don’t, then Jor-El was right…

About the author: General Dru-Zod is the former Commander-in-Chief of the Kryptonian military, a position for which he was vat-grown and trained his entire life. Where did you train? On a farm? He has since discovered a deep and abiding love of Earth's cinema, coupled with an even deeper hatred for Earth's people.
About the author: General Dru-Zod is the former Commander-in-Chief of the Kryptonian military, a position for which he trained his entire life. Where did you train? On a farm? Since his planet’s destruction he’s discovered a deep, abiding love of Earth’s cinema in parallel to his deep, abiding hatred of Earth’s people. You will bow down before him. Both you and then, one day, your heirs.
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5 thoughts on “Jor-El Was Right #1: On the False Dichotomy of “Arthouse” & “Mainstream” Cinema”

  1. Know what your problem is? you’re a genius! wonderful just thinking about ideas is such a rare treat. Thanks – can’t wait to have this discussion with my friends.

  2. You’re not flailing; you’re coming to grips with a problem that’s much broader than the question you first identified.

    The first is that advertising no longer sells a product (buy Ocean Brezze Soap!) when it can instead sell you an identity (Ocean brezze Soap is part of your extreme cool dude lifestyle) which also comes with a range of other assumed purchases (extreme cool dudes also drive audi’s or volvo’s, live within 3 hours of surfing beaches or snowboarding mountains, drink sweet red wines only, wear a range of cool clothing styles, wear this particular set of goofy looking haircuts, etc).

    Inherent in this is that once your audience adopts the identity they market to themselves. They have bought into a system. This is part of fitting into a peer group (extreme cool Elizabethans wear impractically huge lace collars and paint their faces corpse white with lead) but now it has been co-opted and is being sold on the large scale and to both the culture and its opposing counterculture(s).

    Shallowness is the soul of the modern modular identity, but there is a saving grace, if you will stay with me. Teenagers have no identity as they morph from kids to proto-adults so they borrow identity from others on a trial basis. This is obviously worth a lot of pecunia, but it eventually ends on its own. In the quest for greater profitability society has slowly lifted all of the old pressures to get on with adulthood and the average age of social maturity has rolled further and further back. The modular identity is part and parcel with the teenagerification of the masses. It’s not a plot per se, but it is a self perpetuating cycle of shortsighted gains. It is also a limited cycle, things happen in life that eventually require most people to grow up a bit; having kids, seeing the world (without blinders), starting a career (some of them), personal failure, the death of someone close, etc. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not propounding some infinite wisdom on the elderly (look at the Tea party, or baby boomers in general), they are not necessarily free of this, but they have usually experienced things that at least gave them the chance to be free of the thought control.

    A fool decides to be a fool; until that decision comes he is just ignorant.

    As for what is art, to most people art is something old (or maybe foreign) and from a short list of artistic styles of expression–paintings, sculptures, bas reliefs, difficult to interpret black and white films, etc. In this viewpoint art becomes pretentious when it tries to jump the system and be art now (Bellucci’s Pinocchio) or employs simplistic or insulting methods to get it’s point across (Christopher Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” with elephant poop and porn).

    Those of us who have broken free at a younger age are not common in this day and age, less so those who also have the time and will to research the background of art so as to understand it in any real capacity. A friend gave me his DVD of the movie Izo in 2007, it took me a while to chew through it (and look up the meaning of its endless, seemingly random, symbolism) but it was worth it in the end and I have a better understanding of Japanese creation myths and Shinto rebirth beliefs. I’ll disseminate that info in turn. Until America’s universities reform themselves (especially the humanities) this is probably how art appreciation will be spread, through personal research and for an advertising pittance on the internet.

    As for people who have shallowly bought in to the world of ‘ART,’ they may be posers (poseur is a poser word), but they at least increase their exposure which gives them a greater chance of seeing something which connects. Can a redneck with a pickup and a .22 appreciate Francisco de Zurbarán? Totally, and given the obscure beginnings and religious themes of humility probably better than many art critics, but the odds of these two ships passing in the night are unfortunately low.

  3. Interesting coincidence here, not even an hour ago I watched a rant by OanCitizen about how much he hates the term “arthouse” for the same linguistic and social reasons you do (though marketing/economics doesn’t come up).

    I am curious though, did this come up due to Gravity? Because I saw that a week and a bit ago and the first word that came to mind with the ending was “arthouse” (even though I almost never use the word except to describe Jim Jarmusch), mostly due to the rather on-the-nose symbolism on display.

    1. It’s been building for awhile as Summer turned into Fall and I began using irritation with certain verbal tics of the movie press as a heat source. Not surprised to hear Good Mr. Kallgren shares my irritation – we’re probably reading the same shitty websites and overpriced, word-salad magazines. In an attempt to stave off New Release Burnout I haven’t even seen Gravity yet. At this rate, it’ll probably wind up being 2013’s John Dies at the End: Sir Film Not Appearing in These Pages Until Next Fall. Personally, I blame the Carrie remake. But I blame shitty remakes of classic horror films for a lot of things.

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