The Arthouse Antidote

By Joseph Giallombardo

December 17, 2015. I emerged from the void of the just-darkened IMAX screen and into an immense, gleaming lobby. The outgoing crowd, suddenly face to face with the incoming throng, erupted in spasmodic riots of inchoate exultation. The throng zealously flooded by us into the theater. I turned on my phone and it began popping, buzzing, sizzling, exploding–– messages and calls from friends all over the country and in far away corners of the globe, all addressing the same subject. I waded towards the huge glass doors, dodging stray light sabers, and slipped into the frigid Boston night. Another call came through, from Los Angeles.

“Hello!”

“Can you believe––?”

“I can’t!”

“And what about––?”

“I know!”

––and other, less articulated, primal cries of mutual awe.

The film, of course, was Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. In the coming weeks, my opinion of the movie faded. The craft of its filmmaking was unremarkable; what had fueled my first reaction was the ecstasy of the event itself. The entire world was rejoicing in the unity provided by this cultural bond. Yet it was no single moment, but the heralding a new era. With the announcement of new Episodes, spinoffs, and origin stories to be pumped out at annual rate, it seems that Disney shall release a new Star Wars film every year from now unto the last syllable of recorded time. Long foreshadowed by Marvel Studios and a handful of other mega-franchises, The Force Awakens marked the apotheosis of Hollywood as an arbiter chosen to codify an official, homogenous, global culture. It also marks the growth of Star Wars from a phenomenon of nationalism ––the original saga laid more claim to the title of America’s “national epic” than any literature in our history–– into an agent of globalism.Hollywood has always been a nationalizing force in American culture. It is no coincidence that what we call the “Golden Age of Hollywood” reached its peak during the Second World War, when America was more inclined towards cultural unity than at any point in its history, and when many were craving an official voice to give shape to the coalescing surge towards national adulthood. Frank Capra codified a populist mythos, John Ford created an analogue for our society’s genesis by crafting an Old West more real than the west ever was, and we received Casablanca–– arguably our most widely loved cinematic national treasure pre-Star Wars.

But the watershed moment came in 1975. Spielberg’s Jaws was the first film issued in wide release, and the world of cinema sprang forward onto the path of monstrous growth it has hastened along ever since. Before Jaws, films would open in limited engagements in a major city or two. If the film got good reviews, had great word of mouth publicity, and made a lot of money, it would pass on piecemeal to other cities and then onto rural neighborhoods. Films were local events that occasionally snowballed into national phenomena. Today, a major film is a national event on day one. And rather than depend on good reviews for steady viewership, all you need is a killer trailer to get enough butts in seats for financial success. There is less of a causal relationship between quality and more money. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the average mainstream film has declined.

This is not to say that all post-Jaws films were mere bread and circuses for the masses. On the contrary, the “movie brats” who came to power in the 70’s ––Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Lucas, and others–– drunk on European and Japanese art cinema from the 60’s, applied techniques learned from masters of such world cinema to mainstream American movies. The result was an auteur-driven mainstream film environment where movies like Taxi Driver could be a big hit with a cinematically literate national audience. But the Jaws phenomenon, no doubt augmented by the titanic events of Star Wars and Indian Jones, put Hollywood on an inevitable economic course that would eventually take power away from the very auteurs that helped the industry flourish during that time.

Simultaneously, art house theaters began losing business and the rise of the multiplexes began. The autuer-hungry audience of the 70’s briefly propped up the art house, but the economic reality of the wide release was inexorable. Less movies were produced, but generally on a bigger scale. With the wide release, big name films became a weekend event rather than an everyday pastime.

This brief history underscores what, in general, we Americans value in movies. We celebrate that a film can speak to the whole nation at once–– at times, to the whole world. We value the bonds of national and global culture. We adore Star Wars not just because it is a great movie but because it is a common currency.

The shouting match between nationalism and globalism is the defining flavor of American society today. But look at how these ideologies are manifest and magnified in the cultural force of The Movies. The industry of big budget filmmaking blurs the lines between the two, suggesting that there is less difference between them than we might expect. Blockbusters have grown from national to global events. Hollywood had always been popular abroad, but instead of foreigners romanticizing the blatant American-ness of Hollywood, now Hollywood tailors its product to foreigners. Hollywood is like a colonial empire focusing on expanding its influence. Yet even as the great monolith of blockbuster culture soars higher and higher, economic realities and radical shifts in the means of distribution make way for a possible renaissance of the arthouse theater. This local institution can serve as an antidote to the monolith and a center for the kind of artistic development that we need most.

For the artist himself belongs properly to the city, not the nation nor the globe. He is bound to the life of the polis. This claim, alien in an era of wanderlust, was pervasive in antiquity and survived in various iterations until late into the modern experience. Long before the concept of “fatherland” became synonymous with nationalist movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Romans used a similar word, patria, to describe the native soil of someone’s hometown or city. Patria is ubiquitous in Roman writing, but seldom defined; in context, its meaning emerges. Consider Cicero’s explication of pietas in 86 BC:

(Appellant) pietatem quae ergo patriam aut parentes aut alios sanguine coniunctos officium conservare moneat.[1]

It is the virtue, he claimed, “which drives us towards duty to our fatherland or parents or other bonds of blood.” Fatherland, patria, is listed first, signified as the primary object of pietas. Centuries later, Thomas Aquinas would expound on the relationship of patria and pietas and make explicit the overtones of covenant found in Roman sources. He would explain that a man exists at the nexus of three “local sovereignties”: patria, religio, and familia. Fatherland, Church, and family each play a role in bringing a man into being in the first place, and they combine to provide the man with his ultimate purpose. In return, the man owes a great deal to all three. The two way street of this relationship is best described as pietas. The Thomistic view holds that man is a political being insofar as his relationship to his polis, not according to his democratic value in the arithmetic of the modern nation-state.

But what does all this have to do with movie theaters? The key is the poet Vergil. Most know Vergil as the author of the Aeneid, a work commissioned for the purpose of empire-building. Before Caesar Augustus called on his services, however, Vergil composed his masterpiece of pastoral poetry, Georgics. In this work, he declares:

Primus ego in patriam mecum, modo vita supersit, 

Aonio rediens deducam uertice Musas.[2]

This is Vergil’s declaration of his purpose and, by extension, the purpose of art: to bring the Muse into his home town of Mantua. Willa Cather offers this moving commentary on the same passage in her 20th Century novel My Antonia:

I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning … Cleric had explained to us that “patria” here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country”; to his father’s fields, “sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.”[3]

If there exists a covenant between the man and the land, the best way for the artist to express pietas is to dedicate his art to that land, and not only to base it in the experience of that land but to address it to the local community. Art should be a combined experience that binds people together and helps the community understand itself. Culture is, as Roger Scruton argues, “the self consciousness of society,” but society starts with the “local sovereignties.”

Clearly, the films shown in a given place are not all created by locals, nor are they about the town or city where they are screened. But the young artist needs orientation and training. Imagine the arthouse theater not only as a public third space shared by the general community, but as an arena where the young filmmaker receives his primary formation. As a neighborhood institution, the theater acclimates the young filmmaker to art that is not primarily the product of inexorable world history nor the cataclysm of a singular mind, but a phenomenon that proceeds from the collective consciousness of a community–– albeit observed and articulated through an artist’s personal vision.

I do not mean to dismiss those rare works of art which are all things to all men. Universality is the ante price among the foundational canon. Most universal expression is a happy accident of intensely personal experience, anyway. The works of Shakespeare are studied today as a definitive analysis of the human condition, but originally they were designed as violent, bawdy entertainment for blue-collar laborers of London on their way home from work, drinking heavily and sitting on wooden bleachers. It takes nothing away from Shakespeare’s accomplishments to recall that his art was a phenomenon of a local neighborhood on the banks of the Thames. Artists should not try to scale the very summit of Parnassus. Truer to the nature of art is to minister to the local community, to educate them in seeing the hidden poetry in the apparent prose of each day, to make their small model of land a bit more beautiful. Art, or at least the art we need right now, is more about being present to the moment than changing the world.

Historically, we value the Aeneid as the national epic of Rome and one of the foundational works of Western culture. And rightly so. Today’s society is too democratic and possessed of a too-short memory for a nation or international body to have a singular epic, but we value minor “aeneids”–– films with the ability to speak to and bind together the people of a nation or many nations at once. And yet, Vergil on his death bed begged that the Aeneid should be burned. Perhaps he foresaw that using art as a tool for nation building tempts art away from its primary purpose and unmoors the artist from his primary muse. Perhaps it is more important in the first place to have Georgics than an Aeneid.

Joseph Giallombardo has worked for multiple Hollywood production companies and was a guest speaker at the 2015 Taormina International Film Festival. He is currently a fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute at Harvard, where he is presenting a lecture series on great films.

 

[1] (De Inventione II.22.66).

[2] Georgics III 15-16

[3] My Antonia, Chapter 3.2

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