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American Narrative Art Film:
The First Thirty Years, 1949-1979
The most important fact for a European reader
to keep in mind is simply that there is no narrative art film tradition in
It might be thought that that is precisely where critics and reviewers come in--to call audiences to higher, more enduring values. However, the sad reality is that very few reviewers dare to buck the box office trends for fear of getting too far ahead of their audiences. Pauline Kael's reply to a question in a private conversation can stand as a summary of how completely the commercial tail wags the critical dog in America (and is all the more telling insofar as Kael was generally regarded as being among the most "high-toned" of American reviewers). Asked why, in more than twenty years of reviewing for The New Yorker, she had never discussed a single film by Tarkovsky, nor even mentioned the work of a host of important American art filmmakers, she nearly shouted her answer--"You think my readers go to films like that? They're not interested in those sorts of movies!"--as if that explained everything. When critics rely on market values to justify their positions, it is obvious that the triumph of the marketplace is more or less complete.
I would note parenthetically that not even the very concept I am invoking--"the independent narrative art film"--is safe from commercial debasement. In a process that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was completed by around 1985, the term was gradually transformed from a meaningful way of identifying a small body of crucially important work that exists as an alternative to mainstream filmmaking, into an advertising slogan used to promote big-budget entertainment films. After the mid-1980s, the term was routinely and uncritically used to describe the multimillion dollar productions of figures like David Putnam, Oliver Stone, Paul Mazursky, and Sidney Lumet. The concept has been so drained of meaning at present that when Robert Wise described himself as an "independent art filmmaker" at a recent Sundance Institute symposium on the subject, no one laughed, and only one person in the audience (Stan Brakhage) openly questioned the applicability of the term to the director of West Side Story and Star Trek--The Motion Picture.
Needless to say, not all American criticism is commercially compromised, however. Even in such an overwhelmingly market-driven culture, there are fortunately still a few writers and publications that function almost completely independently of commercial considerations. One thinks of figures with the stature of Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, William Phillips, Richard Poirier, or Hilton Kramer and of serious journals of ideas and opinion like Partisan Review, Commentary, The New Criterion, Tikkun, and Raritan. Unfortunately, however, none of these writers or journals, nor any other equivalent to them, has to my knowledge ever seen fit, even in a single essay, to take up the cause of American art film. One searches for reasons why this should be. Part of the neglect is traceable to a high-art snobbery that still looks down its nose at "movies" as an artistic poor relation to "real arts" like opera, ballet, literature, painting, and music. Film simply has not been around long enough to establish its artistic credentials in the minds of these high-brow critics, and is consequently relegated to the same critical ghetto where other artistically unimportant cultural expressions (music videos, television programs, Broadway plays, advertising campaigns, and fashion trends) are corralled. But if all film is patronized to some extent by these thinkers, it is clear that a special scorn is reserved for American film (which is why, if exceptions are occasionally, though rarely, made in favor of treating a film as a serious artistic object, they are invariably made for foreign imports and not home-grown products). The ironic explanation is that the high-brow writers are (albeit unconsciously) as much under the thrall of the distributors' publicists and mass-market reviewers as the average viewer is. The marketing professionals who represent the major studios and distributors have apparently convinced even the Irving Howes and Hilton Kramers that their definition of American film is the only definition there is. (Note that even when intellectual mavericks like Stanley Cavell, Fredric Jameson, and Morris Dickstein propose serious artistic interpretations of American movies, they too invariably take all of their examples from mainstream movies. Even they are apparently unaware of alternatives to the major distributors' releases.)
One might imagine that university film programs
and specialized, scholarly film journals would offer a more exalted vision of
film art, but (for a variety of reasons that there is not space to go into here
and now) art has itself become a dirty concept in American scholarly film criticism.
Advanced American film criticism has, for at least the past twenty years, favored
an implicitly sociological approach that involves treating films either as forms
of pop-culture and mass-entertainment, or as ideological or sociological documents--in
the process inadvertently reinforcing the patronization of film as not being
a full-fledged art, confirming the limiting judgments of those who don't take
it seriously in the first place. Though even as I write it I can still hardly
believe it is true, there is, in fact, not a single university program or film
When you combine the preceding observations with the almost complete lack of financial support American art film receives from governmental or institutional sources like grant agencies, museums, and archives, and factor in the terrifying economics of film distribution and publicity in general (economics which are made all the more daunting for American independent filmmakers not only by the geographical sprawl of the country, but by the fact that their work has to compete for the attention of exhibitors, reviewers, and audiences against studio releases with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and frequently millions of dollars, in their advertising budgets), it becomes more understandable that the majority of viewers (and critics) are still unaware that an extraordinary body of narrative film has been created independent of the large-scale production and distribution system.
The reason this background sketch is important is that it is crucial to realize that during its first thirty years (and to some extent even today) American narrative art film was created by individuals working stunningly alone, almost entirely unaware not only of the achievements of previous generations of American narrative art filmmakers, but also of the work of the filmmakers' own cinematic contemporaries. I have spoken with virtually all of the filmmakers I am going to mention, and a surprising number of them admit to being unfamiliar with the work of the others. (Since the only examples of "art cinema" screened by most of the American university film programs in the sixties, seventies, and eighties were works by European filmmakers like Fellini, Antonioni, Resnais, and Godard, even the American independent directors who had formal training in film had little or no opportunity to be exposed to the work of other American independent narrative filmmakers.)
There were two seminal influences on the first
generation of American independent feature filmmakers: American television and
magazine news photography, and the cinematic work of the Italian neorealists.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, picture magazines like Life and
Look were undergoing enormous postwar surges in popularity, demonstrating
that the small dramas of an ordinary individual's daily existence, as captured
by unposed "grabbed" photography (made possible
by new lightweight photographic equipment and faster film stocks) could be gripping
narrative material. By coincidence, at approximately the same time, the early
masterworks of Italian neorealism were reaching American repertory movie houses in
subtitled versions. Shoeshine, Bicycle Thief, Umberto D,
La Terra Trema, and
In addition, the neorealists demonstrated the expressive possibilities of a looser, less focused narrative and photographic style than the Hollywood studio style allowed. While Hollywood systematically closed-off the shot and used lights and framing to focus attention on one spot within the frame, the neorealists opened up the frame space and made its boundaries permeable by treating the shot as what Bazin called a "window" on a reality which was larger than it and overflowed it. In De Sica's work in particular, visual and emotional distractions, excursuses, and eccentricities were not screened out of the shot and the plot, but were deliberately included in.
Beyond being abstractly fitting that a cinematic
movement attempting to escape the imaginative sway of the studios and the stars
should originate three thousand miles from Hollywood, New York City was the specific place that the intertwined influences
of neorealism and photojournalism made themselves felt most powerfully during the late 1940s and early
1950s. Because of the ethnic background of the population, many of whom are first-, second-, or third-generation
European immigrants, the culture of New York has historically been far more in touch with and receptive
to movements in European art and cinema than that of any other city in the
But even more than being interested in states of social vulnerability, these filmmakers were interested in capturing states of imaginative vulnerability. Their work reserves a special tenderness for all forms of weakness or powerlessness: not only focusing on the wormy underbelly of American society (the situation of blacks, the homeless, drunks, and drug addicts), but a variety of forms of imaginative marginality and susceptibility (ranging from depictions of children and young lovers, to dramatizations of the situation of young beat generation artists and young adults floundering about trying to decide who they are).
© Text Copyright 2005 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.