Sixteen years ago I got together with a group of like-minded friends and started a magazine called The Modern Review. Its premise was that popular culture is as worthy of serious critical attention as high culture and, to that end, we commissioned intellectuals and academics to write about the likes of Madonna and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Believe it or not, this was a fairly radical idea back in 1991 — though not a wholly original one — and the magazine caused quite a stir. The previous generation of writers and critics attacked us on an almost weekly basis.
Like many people who questioned the status quo in their youth, I now find myself in the uncomfortable position of being in the majority. The Modern Review went belly-up in 1995, but its once heretical ideas have become widely accepted. This became apparent last week following the almost simultaneous deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Sixteen years ago it would have been unthinkable to criticise these two giants of European cinema — virtually every movie critic at the time considered art-house films superior to contemporary Hollywood ‘schlock’ — but Bergman and Antonioni could muster few defenders in 2007. The Times’s chief critic decided to commemorate Bergman’s death by compiling a list of his most unwatchable films.
So what is the basis of this New Populism? Nothing more than Little England-ism, according to Derek Malcolm, who was one of the few critics to praise Bergman and Antonioni last week. ‘There was once a survey of French and English students about who was the best director in the world,’ he wrote in the Evening Standard. ‘The French students reeled off a dozen names to be considered without a moment’s hesitation. The only names the British students could muster were Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg.’
Yet to ascribe the declining interest in art-house cinema to anti-intellectualism is to misunderstand the present mood. The reason that so many members of my generation are sceptical about the value of Bergman and Antonioni’s work isn’t that we’re suspicious of any films with artistic pretensions. On the contrary, I believe that the medium is as capable of producing great artists as classical music and English literature. Where I part company with Derek Malcolm — who singled me out for criticism last week — is in thinking that the celebrated art-house directors of the 1960s and 1970s are the greatest practitioners of cinematic art that the medium has given rise to. I believe that honour belongs to the great popular film-makers of Hollywood’s Golden Age — Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawkes, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston and Billy Wilder, among others.
It’s at this point that the argument becomes complicated. Defenders of art-house cinema are quick to point out that they, too, revere these masters. The contributors to Cahiers du cinéma who went on to become the vanguard of the French New Wave — Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol — were all great admirers of Hollywood genre pictures. The argument, then, isn’t about the artistic merit of films like The Shop Around the Corner, The Searchers, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday, North by Northwest, The Maltese Falcon and Some Like It Hot — which we can all agree are masterpieces — but about whether art-house directors belong in such exalted company. And to my mind, they don’t.
Why do I say this? Here, I want to skewer another misunderstanding about the basis of the New Populism (I’ve invented the term, obviously, but you get the idea). My reason for dismissing the famous art-house directors of the 1960s and 1970s is not that they failed to light up the box office. I would no more measure something’s artistic worth by how popular it is than I would by how unpopular it is — though the defenders of high culture are often guilty of precisely that elision. Consequently, it is not a rebuttal of my position to point out that James Joyce never wrote a bestseller.
Antonioni may have been no more popular than Joyce in his day, but A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners and Ulysses have entered the canon of great literature, whereas L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse have all been rightly forgotten. It is not a film or a book’s commercial success in the year of its appearance that matters — I agree with the defenders of art-house cinema on that point — but how it fares over time. As George Orwell said, the only true test of artistic merit is survival and posterity has not been kind to the films of Bergman or Antonioni — or, indeed, the vast majority of art-house directors. Most of their work now seems hopelessly dated, not least because their so-called ‘ideas’ consisted of little more than regurgitating the leftwing cant of their day.
Of course, it isn’t out of the question that some art-house films will still be watched in 100 years time — La Dolce Vita, The Seventh Seal, A Bout de Souffle, and perhaps a few others. But the odds are stacked against them. If a film strikes contemporary audiences as difficult and inaccessible, how is it likely to be received by generations to come? Most art-house directors eschewed conventional narratives in favour of stylistic innovation, but it is great stories that will resonate with future generations, not experiments in form. A compelling narrative has universal appeal, whereas the visual trickery of directors like Antonioni means very little when taken out of context.
Just to be clear, I am not sceptical about art-house films because I reject the idea that movies in general should be held to a high artistic standard. Another misunderstanding about the New Populism is that it is based on a kind of cultural relativism whereby all works of art are held to be equally valid. Far from being postmodern, my position is, if anything, pre-modern. In common with most members of my generation, I’m profoundly suspicious of the whole modernist project, particularly the notion that art and culture should only be accessible to an educated elite. As John Carey pointed out in The Intellectuals and the Masses, modernism emerged as a way for the literary intelligentsia to differentiate themselves from those they contemptuously referred to as ‘the masses’. By championing artistic endeavour that was deliberately obtuse, the intelligentsia succeeded in excluding ordinary people from sharing in their pursuits.
It is this notion, responsible for so much impenetrable gobbledegook in 20th-century music and literature, that produced the art-house cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. As Derek Malcolm put it in the Standard, ‘In Europe, when I first came upon Bergman and Antonioni, we called their work films, not movies.’ Unlike the champions of Bergman and Antonioni, it is popular movies I regard as true cinematic art, not obscure, art-house films — and I’m convinced that posterity will prove me right.