Is the ‘golden age’ of international art-house cinema over?

Posted on May 29, 2018


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I was watching a video on Facebook, about the arduous restoration of the Apu trilogy, and Peter Becker, President, The Criterion Collection, had this to say: “Ray is one of the essential figures in the golden age of international art-house cinema.” Is that right? Are we past the “golden age”? If anything, isn’t this the golden age? Hasn’t the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival been, like, everywhere? Thanks to the explosion of online media (including blogs, and online film clubs and message boards that foster discussions), isn’t art-house cinema being talked about more than ever before? Hasn’t watching films become easier too? Even if your local theatre won’t play these films, isn’t there a streaming platform – or, if you are so inclined, a torrent site? Why, then, do we look so fondly at the 1950s and 60s as a golden age?

One reason is simply nostalgia. Take Hindi film music. It isn’t that good music isn’t being made today, but in the present, we are exposed to the bad music that comes along as well. But over time, a sort of sifting happens – and only the good remains. So when we look back, it appears that the 60s, say, had nothing but good songs, and no one – singer, lyricist, music director – ever had a bad day. Another reason is numbers. Not many films were being made earlier, so not much music was being produced. The good-to-bad ratio was still… good. But when quantity goes up, the quality comes down. It isn’t that every art filmmaker was making gems back then, but because there was only a handful of them – or at least, because we knew only about a handful of them – it appeared that every film was a major event. Today, while giving thanks that there are many more, we also know there are going to be turkeys.

But I think the most important reason for the (relative) decline of the cachet of art-house cinema is the late-1960s to early-1980s “New Hollywood” movement, where filmmakers like Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola broadened the definition of “mainstream” in American cinema. Till then, there was a distinct line between US and non-US cinema. Hollywood was dominated by the studios, which meant that certain topics were taboo. Let’s pick a year out of a hat: say, 1955. By then, American filmmakers were certainly exploring darker, more “adult” subjects – Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm, to name just two films that year that were the antithesis of family-friendly Technicolor entertainers like Oklahoma and To Catch a Thief.

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