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Review: David Andrews’s Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond

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Review: David Andrews’s Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond

As evidenced by the title of David Andrews’s latest book, his scope entails both offering an evolved definition of “art cinema” and explaining how said definition must relate to numerous cinemas, be they traditionally labeled cult, mainstream, avant-garde, or art. The plurality in “cinemas” is of utmost importance, since one of Andrews’s primary objectives is to dismantle the lines between legitimate and illegitimate art cinemas, explaining how there is and always has been a considerable overlap between these various incarnations. As such, his ambitious and heavily researched work addresses issues of auteur theory, the historical relationship between avant-garde and art films, and the role that technology has played in redefining these terms.

Andrews produces here an academic text, with its litany of references to film journals such as Screen and Camera Obscura and even addresses the practice of film studies explicitly at times, explaining how several scholars have needlessly complicated these issues by conflating terms such as “mainstream” with “Hollywood,” or insisted upon retaining dividing lines between various forms of cinephilia (he cites Jonathan Rosenbaum as a primary culprit here). Nevertheless, Andrews remains acutely attuned to both potential criticisms in his logic by addressing them head-on, while never sliding into overtly academic-speak or rhetoric that could obscure his points, which makes Theorizing Art Cinemas a thrilling revelation from front to back.

While many academic monographs take a single director, time period, or genre as their field for analysis, Andrews is juggling at least half a dozen at once. He navigates his theorizing through the treacherous and often contentious waters of auteur theory, genre critique, star texts, production culture, feminist theory, and new-media discussions, all while reinforcing his methodological insistence that proficient scholarship results from critical distance and an ability to explain “what a canon has been thought to be by actual groups and institutions rather than when they tell us what it ought to be.” Thus, Andrews provides readers not just with an intricate explanation for various art cinemas, but how such scholarship can best be performed going forward.

While many academic monographs take a single director, time period, or genre as their field for analysis, Andrews is juggling at least half a dozen at once.

In this light, Andrews clears up complicated, much-debated issues with relative ease. He explains how, while several scholars have been quick to assert that originary auteur theories from the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma or Andrew Sarris have stalled more evolved forms of film history and criticism, these theories actually “remade” those fields, reshaping the potential for new forms of theorizing and critique. Such a distinction is crucial, since Andrews’s prose makes it clear that his interest lies not in simply shifting disciplinary directions, but formulating the most precise understanding of the terrain possible. Therefore, Andrews is disinterested in drawing essentialist lines in the sand, though he remains insistent that “auteurism has turned attention away from the political, economic, collaborative, and biocultural contexts of the film industry.” He warns, however, that simply replacing one of these forms with an auteur-driven approach would simply replace one form of scholarly tyranny with another; instead, context-driven analysis is preferred, which could potentially serve recourse to any of these approaches, while “creat[ing] a credible art-historical narrative that relates potential art movies to more established art movies through clear similarities in the auteur rhetorics than enmesh traditional and non-traditional art movies.” Given the potentially overwhelming web of theoretical traps Andrews could easily find himself in, his deft ability to explain positives and negatives from nearly every perceptible vantage point goes to considerable lengths in establishing not only his own credibility on the matter, but legitimating his suggestions for future scholarship.

While Andrews remains trepidatious of the more traditional art-house cinephilia which has created canons and taste formations, his breadth of reference to numerous kinds of cinema should delight just about any conceivable reader with more than a passing interest in cinema history. The Lovers and The Brown Bunny receive intriguing comparisons for how each film was received during its respective release, as Andrews explains the trajectory for integrating more sexually explicit content into art-house-intended fare. Along this line, directors such as Radley Metzger and Lloyd Kaufman are given paragraph-length attention, as each director weighs in on how their work relates to underground traditions. Also, and perhaps most troubling for Hollywood haters, Andrews provides numerous examples where Hollywood films have served similar functions and worked from similar narrative templates as art cinemas, concluding that “Hollywood has made contributions to almost every kind of narrative cinema.” These conclusions are likely to upset those insistent upon retaining a clear divide remaining between various genres and filmmaking sensibilities, but those are precisely the kinds of interests that Andrews wishes to upset and he does so with evidence upon evidence in service of his insistence that the sorts of pleasures and insight often associated with art cinema can come from all regions and forms of cinematic expression and representation.

In the epilogue, Andrews explains that he self-identifies as a cinephile, but that his cinema love has been expanded, not shrunken, by allowing for the inclusion of numerous cinemas to come into his purview. He explains that, to this extent, he insisted upon watching at least one film a day throughout his research, to allow that love to remain in focus. However, Andrews makes clear that allowing cinephilia to simply remain the guiding principle of one’s artistic or academic pursuits results in an unthinking love that lacks the ability to produce new knowledge. As in real relationships, a deeper understanding, awareness, and tolerance for differing ideas and approaches only produces more love. The same should be said for cultivating an “art cinema” sensibility, which helps to confirm Andrews’s forceful and moving concluding line that “love works in mysterious ways.”

David Andrews’s Theorizing Art Cinemas is available now from University of Texas Press; to purchase it, click here.