Art House Confidential: A Night at the Museum

Art House Confidential: A Night at the Museum

Earlier this year, we prefaced our interview of a rising star in film with the provocative title, The World is Not Enough: Has Jia Zhangke Permanently Left the Art House?

I should hope not. From my view Stateside it seems that Jia Zhangke has just arrived. After all, I had been waiting since 2006 for the U.S. release of Still Life (Sanxia Haoren: literally, “The Good People of Three Gorges”). So I waited. And waited. And wouldn’t you know, I waited.

Still Life made its American premiere in January 2008 at New York’s IFC Center. It reached the West Coast in April, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and a month later, showed for a week at one of the Lumiere Theatres in the Bay Area. In other words, an art house. So is Jia leaving the art house, just as he has entered it?

I think two different meanings of that phrase at play. One is subjective, about the film itself: serious, often experimental and avant-garde, produced independently, with a singular vision (i.e. that of an auteur). One is objective, the circumstances in which the film and by extension, the filmmaker, is received: where it plays and what audience.

The term “art house” or “art film” turns out to be a uniquely American one, due to the monopoly of commercially-oriented Hollywood films in American theaters (and abroad), leaving acknowledged serious films domestic and international limited to certain theaters. They could be specialty film centers such as the IFC in New York or Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, or repertory theaters that show classics for a day and new releases for a week, two on popular demand. In the suburbs, they could be the occasional chain-operated theater set aside for niche movies, or the single screen reserved at the 30-plex theater.

An independent film with strong prospects may open at several dozen screens. For example, a Jane Austen adaptation starring Emma Thompson (and a not-so-famous Kate Winslet). Sense and Sensibility opened at 70 screens in 1995. That sounds like a lot, but with nearly 300 million people and 400 metropolitan areas, it clearly did not show within driving distance of many Americans. In contrast, The Dark Knight opened at over 4000 screens in the US. The art film’s initial unqualified success did allow it to expand to several hundred screens, thus “leaving the art house”.

A more recent example is the phenomenon known as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Buoyed by the art house successes of Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s film was able to open at . . . 16 screens!! Two reasons come to mind. Foreign language films have smaller potential audiences, and so they started smaller. Also, they opened smaller at the start of December to build up to Christmas season.

Well Christmas came and went, and a month later it was playing at close to 200 screens, so it was bumped to 700 screens for another three weeks. But wait, it wasn’t going away. In fact those 700 screens were packed. So well after the holiday season, Crouching Tiger played at 1200 screens, then 1700…until it reached an unheard-of 2000 screens for a foreign language film. The punctuated equilbrium of this theatrical progression is fascinating to chart. It appears the powers that be expected such a film only needed 173 screens when it opened those screens, and when it exceeded all expectations, took some time before it made non-art screens available to the wire-fu epic. Put another way, it was the Obama of the cinema world.

At its theatrical peak, in February 2008, Still Life played at two screens. The World, his previous international success, hit three screens in the US. Of course, none of these record film festival screenings, which are lovely feathers in the cap but do little for accessibility. Seattle on May 23 and Austin on October 12? No thanks. Given the 4000+ screens available in the US, it seems even the proliferation of international films can find their, um, niche in a physical art house. Perhaps Netflix and soon the Internet will render inconsequential the movie bottleneck in the theaters. But the reviews, the buzz, the “event-ness” of a film today accompany generally just its theatrical release.

There is another world, one that falls somewhere between the visibility of repertory theaters and the singularity of film festivals. That’s the art museum world. At some point art museums decided to show international films as part of its regular exhibitions. Perhaps it’s an extension of their experimental film and video showings, or as a long awaited acknowledgment of narrative film as art with a capital “A”. While each film shows for a day or two, the program (often focusing on one filmmaker) may last weeks, giving the curious time and opportunity to taste some of the oeuvre.

The San Francisco Bay Area is fortunate to have several such venues for film. This month, SF Museum of Modern Art is showing the film series Rediscovering the Fourth Generation as part of its exhibit on Chinese contemporary art. Films include Wu Tian Ming’s River Without Buoys, Xie Fei’s Black Snow, and Huang Shuqin’s Woman Demon Human.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts tends to focus on experimental and documentary type films. Next month it premieres Fengming: A Chinese Memoir by Wang Bing, which showed at last year’s Cannes. Here’s the Variety review. He Fengming survived “anti-rightist” persecutions for decades and lived to tell her three-hour tale.

Across the Bay, the Berkeley Art Museum’s Pacific Film Archive functions more like a stand-alone film center. Though nominally tied with the art museum’s contemporary Chinese art exhibit, the PFA had an extraordinary program this month. Unknown Pleasures: The Films of Jia Zhangke allowed Bay Area audiences to see for the first time “the quartet of beautifully constructed, profoundly astute examinations of a changing China”, as the Village Voice called Pickpocket (Xiao Wu)PlatformUnknown Pleasures, and The World.

That series has ended but is followed up this weekend with a four-day, five-film seriesI Love Beijing: The Films of Ning Ying , capped by a “master class” from Ning Ying (宁瀛) herself. But wait, there’s more! November features Mahjong: New Independent Chinese Cinema, a sample of 21st century visions from Beijing, Sanxia, and Anyang to an art house, I mean art museum, near you.

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