The Dreaded Art Film

After attending a seminar that declared Kelly Reichardt the best filmmaker in the current independent scene, I decided to give her a whirl. Over a one week period, I watched her three most recent films (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff), as well as her commentary on Old Joy. And yesterday, I did a breakdown of that film. Her work is daring, inspiring, and unique; she is definitely one of if not the best independent filmmaker working today.

One thing I find  interesting about her films is the vast divide between its critical and mainstream reactions. All three of her films have received “universal acclaim” at Metacritic, while over on IMDb, her films are barely average, with Wendy and Lucy slightly higher and the other two slightly lower. What gives?

The answer is simple: Reichardt makes art films. And mainstream audiences don’t like art films.

In my (admittedly oversimplified) opinion, the difference between art and mainstream films is simple. Mainstream films are plot driven, with character inserted where necessary to move the plot along. Art films, however, are character driven, with plot inserted where necessary to move the characters along.

This difference has significant ramifications on how the films play out. Since art films are not plot driven, it can often feel as if nothing is happening. For example, here’s the entire plot of Old Joy (minor spoilers): two friends meet up, get some supplies, head to a secluded hot springs, get lost, camp for the night, have breakfast and find their way the next morning, enjoy the hot springs, and then go home. That’s it.

But while I’ve given you the entire plot of Old Joy, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the film has to offer. This film isn’t about what happens; it is about the characters, their relationship with each other, with themselves, and with the outside world. There’s a ton happening in Old Joy. The difference is, it is happening inside the characters, not outside them.

This leads to the second difference between mainstream and art films. Because art films don’t have to support a complex plot, because they rely solely on character to drive the film, they generally have richer characters and the films have more meaning. Every look, every action, every shot, every cut defines character, pushes story, means something. In art films, there’s no need to wait for plot points, there’s no we-just-did-this-to-get-to-the-next-moment moments, there’s nothing wasted, everything in the film works directly towards its message and its meaning.

Compare this to a mainstream film, say X-Men. Below is the plot summary for X-Men (major spoilers, so skip the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film).

In 1944 German-occupied Poland, a Jewish boy discovers his ability to manipulate magnetic forces. In the present, Marie discovers her own powers, although she doesn’t understand them. Senator Robert Kelly pushes a Mutant Registration Act to force all mutants to reveal their powers and identities. Magneto begins his masterplan to start war between mutants and humans. Marie (aka Rogue) meets Logan (aka Wolverine) at a bar. Rogue discovers her power: she can assume the powers of any mutant she touches. Sabertooth, one of Magneto’s henchman, attacks. Cyclops and Storm arrive, save Wolverine and Rogue, and bring them to Professor Charles Xavier. Xavier leads the mutants who seek peace with humans. He also leads the fight against Magneto and educates young mutants in responsible use of their powers. Senator Kelly is abducted by Magneto, who artificially turns Kelly into a mutant. With his new abilities, Kelly escapes. After an accident causes Rogue to use her powers on Wolverine, she is convinced by Mystique (another of Magneto’s henchman) to leave school. Xavier uses Cerebro to locate Rogue. Mystique sabotages Cerebro. Wolverine finds Rogue, convinces her to stay at school. Magneto, Sabertooth, and Toad (another Magneto henchman) arrive. A fight ensues and they capture Rogue. Kelly arrives at Xavier’s school, but dissolves when his mutation becomes unstable. Magneto, severely weakened from when he turned Kelly into a mutant, intends to use Rogue to power the artificial mutant machine. Xavier uses Cerebro to locate Rogue, but falls into a coma due to Mystique’s sabotage of the device. Jean Grey fixes the device, finds Magneto’s machine on Liberty Island. The group arrives, defeats Toad and Mystique, but Magneto and Sabertooth incapacitate them. Magneto transfers his powers to Rogue, who is forced to start the machine. Wolverine breaks free and fights Sabertooth. With Jean’s help, Cyclops blasts Sabertooth away. Storm sends Wolverine to stop the machine and save Rogue, but Magneto stops him. Cyclops shoots Magneto, wounding him. Wolverine destroys the machine. Rogue uses Wolverine’s healing powers to heal herself. Professor Xavier recovers from his coma. Later, the group discovers Mystique still alive. Xavier visits Magneto in his plastic prison cell; the two play chess.

Whoa. Twists, turns, tons of action, tons of characters, always something going on. But because X-Men has so much plot, because there are so many characters, there is no time to develop them. In fact, I can only remember two character moments in the entire film: Magneto’s concentration camp backstory and the banter between Wolverine and Cyclops (this second aspect is my favorite part of the film).

So which is better? While I personally like Old Joy more than X-Men, the answer is not so simple. In my opinion, it doesn’t get much better than great art films, such as Raging Bull, Shame, The Hurt Locker. But when art films are bad, they are BAD. Like turn me off, pound my head against the wall bad. Mainstream films, even when bad, still have the wanting-to-know-how-it-turns-out thing going for it.

There’s a second reason why mainstream movies are often better than art films: they are more entertaining. This is because, through plot and spectacle, mainstream films have the ability to be more entertaining than they are good. This is especially true with genre films, such as comedy (Role Models, Horrible Bosses, Dumb and Dumber, none that great but all hilarious), action/adventure/sci fi (Inception, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terminator 2, none very deep but all tons of fun), or horror (Halloween, Evil Dead, The Ring, again, none very deep but all scary). Art films, on the other hand, are only as entertaining as they are good, meaning they have to be really REALLY good just to achieve the level of entertainment of an entertaining mainstream movie.

In my opinion, the best films are where art and mainstream meet. Movies that have complex, interesting stories that unfold through developed, interesting characters. The best example of this (which is probably why it is considered by many to be the best screenplay ever written) is Chinatown. The intricateness of Chinatown’s plot approaches most mainstream movies, while the characters are just as developed as those in the best art film. Best of both worlds.

Another great example is Die Hard. While Die Hard may seem like any other action movie, it is not. Sure it has shootouts, car crashes. big explosions, all that fun stuff, but it also has an incredibly well developed main character, much more so than action movies typically have. Just look the first fifteen minutes, which contain no action; instead, this time is spent developing McClane’s relationship with his wife. And then there’s the scene in the bathroom, where McClane confides in Powell while pulling glass shards from his feet. Scenes like these, which elevate McClane from typical action hero to three dimensional human being, are what makes Die Hard, in my opinion, the best action movie of all time.

If you’ve never seen an art film, I recommend checking one out. Sure, the bad ones can be bad, but the good ones (Shame, Raging Bull, Reichardt’s films) are GREAT. And the entertaining ones (The Hurt Locker, Drive, Napoleon Dynamite) are just as entertaining as the best that mainstream Hollywood has to offer. At least I think so.


About Gabriel Bruskoff
I make movies! See for more information.

4 Responses to The Dreaded Art Film

  1. Pingback: A Moment of Surrealism « OLDBOY PRODUCTIONS

  2. Pingback: Welcome, welcome (and a status update) « OLDBOY PRODUCTIONS

  3. eleighsplace says:

    Im glad i read this article, its very thorough on both sides of the spectrum (art films vs mainstream films) without being bias. Good job, well done!

  4. Pingback: Why I Go To The Movies « OLDBOY PRODUCTIONS

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