Saturday, 16 August 2008

Arthouse or Mainstream? Let's Have Both!

Contains spoilers for Blue Velvet

I saw Blue Velvet when it first came out in 1986 – it was the first movie of that particular ‘type’ I’d seen and, although my friend and I emerged blinking form the cinema asking each other “What the flaming fup was that all about?”, I loved it. David Lynch has always made films that are defiantly ‘arthouse’, but what really distinguished Blue Velvet for me was that it seemed to exist at a crossroads between ‘arthouse’ and ‘mainstream’ cinema. To be honest, I’ve always had problems trying to distinguish between the two anyway (I’ve often asked myself why arthouse films can’t have more car chases, and conversely, why a lot of mainstream cinema has to be so unrelentingly dumb). Trying to put it down to an explanation that mainstream cinema relies predominantly on a traditional three act structure (as Karel Segers suggests) doesn’t really do it for me. If there are distinct differences between the two, they’re far more subtle than that.

Perhaps a major distinction between arthouse and mainstream cinema is the fact that in an arthouse film the dots are not immediately joined up for you. This can apply not only to the film’s narrative, but also to its visual style as well. By not providing an explanation of every little narrative or visual detail, a film can quite easily slip into the ‘arthouse’ camp, where it’s remarkably easy for a seemingly random detail to inspire someone to say, “What’s going on there, then?” (which was exactly the question I was asking myself throughout Inland Empire).

Blue Velvet is a case in point – during the concluding scenes, Jeffrey walks into a scene of torture and carnage in Dorothy’s flat. The scene is not explained via a huge landfill of exposition, so the onus is on the viewer to try and piece the various bits of elliptical logic together (that said, good luck to you if you try this with Inland Empire).

Now take an example that exists at the other end of the spectrum: Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners. For me the most notable feature of this rather daft bit of mainstream fluff was the striking visual of an injured dog: a memorable detail completely spoilt by the fact that it’s ruthlessly explained away. A director such as David Lynch would have felt no desire at all to have done this, which seems to me to form a distinction between the two ‘styles’.

Of course, ‘arthouse’ and ‘mainstream’ are not mutually exclusive. Here’s Karel Sagers again:

The darkest film I have recently seen is PRINCESS, a revenge tale mixing anime and live action. Subject matter: pornography and child abuse... the film was told in a traditional three act structure. Even if you believe your film will appeal to intellectuals only... you will need that conventional story structure. Because today without it you have no audience.

As above, I’m not sure that this is entirely correct. Princess is again a film like Blue Velvet that sits quite comfortably at the crossroads between mainstream and arthouse, which is absolutely fine by me. Given the problems that Tartan Films have been having recently, it might even be tempting to say that the market for arthouse films is in decline – this isn’t because audiences are somehow demanding more conventional story structures, but probably because ‘arthouse’ is in a constant process of being co-opted into the mainstream: perhaps Christopher Nolan’s successes of recent years are particular cases in point. And besides, whenever I hear the over-used term ‘blockbuster with a brain’, it invariably means that the brain has been borrowed from an arthouse sensibility – and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

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