Image Credit: Davi Russo; Merrick MortonThe term art film probably should have been retired about two decades ago — and when you think about, it kind of was. On the rare occasions that something now gets tagged as an “art film,” it’s generally meant in a vaguely dismissive and even pejorative way. It means not art but arty: high-minded and self-conscious, precious and austere. It means art less as pleasure than as medicine (which, in my book, tends to mean third-rate art, like the pseudo-Euro hitman-with-angst dud The American). Yet I’m tempted, out of a fresh wave of nostalgia, to haul out the old scarlet A for Art Film in connection to two quietly exciting new American features, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, if only because both films take you back to the best of the early ’70s, that much-revered era of American filmmaking when the spirit of European cinema had spread to Hollywood and had given rise to a liberating new hybrid: the raw, loose, reality-based American art movie — films that were out to capture “the truth” in front of your eyes, even if it was a little like catching lightning in a bottle.
Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, tells the story of a deeply imperfect, at times violently angry, yet also disarmingly tender six-year marriage that is rapidly hitting the skids, and the movie is staged with a breathtakingly close-up, warts-and-all intimacy that isn’t so far removed from the train-wreck voyeurism of certain reality-TV shows. Somewhere, starring Stephen Dorff as a sexy, jaded Hollywood movie star who is working his way through an existential crisis of fame (he’s so beloved for his image that he no longer knows who he is), often reminded me of Entourage without the entourage. So what makes these movies art films? Simple: In each case, the filmmakers capture whatever it is they’re portraying — a working-class family in a rural Pennsylvania suburb, a movie idol crashing out in the anonymous luxe sterility of the Chateau Marmont — with an incisive, almost journalistic detail; they get the surfaces exactly right. Yet we’re also invited, in nearly every scene, to look beyond the surface, to enter the troubled hearts and minds, the fascinatingly messed-up interior spaces, of all these characters. The approach is nothing if not novelistic: These movies may have “stories,” but once you get onto their wavelength, the real story they’re telling is spiritual and psychological. It’s the story of what you can’t see. READ FULL STORY