- Art-House Cinema, Avant-Garde Film, and Dramatic Modernism
The most important modes of film practice, in my view, are art-house cinema and the avant-garde, both of which contrast with the classical Hollywood mode of film practice. While the latter is characterized by its commercial imperative, corporate hierarchies, and a high degree of specialization as well as a division of labor, the avant-garde is an “artisanal” or “personal” mode. Avant-garde films tend to be made by individuals or very small groups of collaborators, financed either by the filmmakers alone or in combination with private patronage and grants from arts institutions. Such films are usually distributed through film cooperatives and exhibited by film societies, museums, and universities. (Consequently, such films can only usually be seen in urban centers—and only in a handful of those with any regularity.)
Significantly, this alternative system of production, distribution, and exhibition is not driven by profit. Avant-garde films rarely break even, let alone make a profit, through the markets of either the mass commodity or the luxury item. There is no market in the negatives of avant-garde films, and truly famous practitioners of avant-garde film have made their fame and fortune either through other activities (Andy Warhol) or through moving into the realm of the art-house film (Warhol, Derek Jarman, and Peter Greenaway). Most avant-garde filmmakers make a living as teachers, technicians within the film industry, or through other “day jobs.” In this respect, the filmic avant-garde is markedly different from the avant-garde in music, literature, and especially painting—a fact that is obscured by the tendency of critics to talk of the avant-garde, as if its conditions of existence were identical from discipline to discipline.
Within the domain of cinema, the avant-garde differs not only from Hollywood cinema but from that other mode of film practice known as [End Page 1] art-house cinema (even if there have been many practical and aesthetic crossovers, from Fernand Léger and Germaine Dulac to Chantal Akerman, Jarman, and Sally Potter). Art-house films are typically characterized by aesthetic norms that are different from those of classical narrative films; they are made within a somewhat less rationalized system of production; and they are often supported by government policies designed to promote distinctive national cinemas. But art-house cinema is still a commercial cinema, which depends for its existence on profits rather than the more ethereal rewards of status and prestige.
Although the notion of an art-house cinema had existed since at least the formation of the Film d’Art company in France in 1908, it was not until after the Second World War that European art-house cinema became firmly established, with the succession of movements such as Italian Neorealism, the French Nouvelle Vague, the New German Cinema, the Czech Renaissance, and the Brazilian Cinema Nôvo. A number of factors accounted for its rise at this point: new legislation in many of the European countries to support indigenous film cultures, combined with new opportunities for foreign films with an American film market increasingly filled with a college-educated audience.
The “art” in art-house cinema, it is important to note, differentiates itself from the art of other cinemas in two ways. First, art films are usually expressive of national concerns, even if these concerns are ones that, ironically, make them internationally marketable. (For example, it is partly the perceived “Englishness” of Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette  that makes it of interest to American audiences.) Second, art films attempt to conform with canons of taste established in the existing “high” arts. That is, art films are generally characterized by the use of self-consciously “artful” techniques designed to differentiate them from “merely entertaining,” popular cinema, and these techniques frequently draw on nationally specific legacies within the established arts (for instance, expressionistic painting in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Germany, 1920]; the nouveau roman in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour [France, 1959] and Last Year at Marienbad [France, 1961]; Italian opera in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem ). Such “native” cultural markers are...