Fifty Years Ago, When Art Was Cool…

Guest blogger Scott Nye writes:

A lot has been made about this year being the 50th anniversary of Psycho and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, especially with the latter embarking on a cross-country tour, courtesy of a newly-struck 35mm print. But two other incredibly important, immeasurably influential films are also celebrating their golden anniversaries – Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. And what all of this has stirred in me is not a sort of wistful yearning for movies of this caliber to be made today, nor a desire to trace the many, many ways these four films changed cinema (though I won’t be considering Psycho for this), but rather a simple question – what happened to all the cool art films?

After all, art took off in the 1960s in a major way for a lot of reasons, but one of the less-discussed, far more “base” reasons, but I would argue incredibly important reasons is that even the stuff proclaiming itself as art was just flat-out cool in a way nothing coming out of art house cinema today is.

Breathless, for all its innovation and artfulness, is a jazzy riff on Hollywood gangster films that’s a load of fun to watch, and I’m so glad Rialto is focusing on this aspect for their ad campaign. Featuring the coolest of the cool, Jean-Paul Belmondo (who defines in his own special way the “men want to be him, women want to be with him” paradigm), Breathless is set amongst a community of semi-employed intellectuals, the kind of crowd us hipsters ache to be and who must have even made its contemporary beat generation jealous.

Meanwhile, Antonioni meditated on alienation and loneliness, but he did so with the stunningly beautiful Monica Vitti, the Italian countryside, and black-and-white photography that is still so far beyond anything that came before or since. And Fellini? His image of Rome is still the one in the cultural consciousness, and his own meditation on isolation was done against the backdrop of Roman nightlife – whereas Claudia’s environment matched her emotional state, Marcello stands in stark opposition to his. A journalist specializing in gossip, Marcello’s natural habitat is wherever the party is, or sometimes, in quiet moments, just down the street.

Is there any wonder people were drawn to these films? One need only see a few frames from any of them to be hypnotized. The imagery they crafted was meant to stand the test of time; to be instantly alluring and, it seems, consciously iconic. You couldn’t dispose of these pictures if you tried. They work by drawing us in with a simple image of someone you would want to be – the aloof gangster, the disaffected society girl, the man about town – then subtly undermining and eventually exposing it bare.

It’s also a tradition that died with its era. Fashion magazines and travel agencies have adopted many of the modes these films birthed, but there’s no question that foreign films have just become a lot less cool over time, not just in how they’re received but in how they’re made. Those that received the highest praise over the last few years include 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and Two Days, an intense drama about abortion, and Cache, a meditative thriller about a man coming to terms with his violent past. Naturally, there should be room for these sorts of films, but on thinking about where art house cinema was 50 years ago, it’s not hard to see why the audiences just aren’t there anymore

Scott Nye loved movies so much, he spent four years at Emerson College earning a career-free degree in Media Studies. Now living in Portland, OR, he’s trying to put that to some sort of use. For more information, visit his blog The Rail of Tomorrow.