Thursday, October 26, 1995

Arthouse

A JAR of milk, carelessly left too close to an edge, falls slowly to the floor.
An Asian woman rollerskates across a deserted warehouse while someone takes a bath. A car speeds headlong down a Glasgow street, Anthony Quinn spoons himself some penne rigate. A sad, soutaned priest waves goodbye to a group of impeccable schoolchildren, Charles Aznavour tumbles down a snowy hillside. We are obviously in a land called "arthouse".

Leslie Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion - in an entry not updated since the mid 1970s - suggests rather dustily that "art house " (at that time still two words) was an American phrase meaning a cinema that screened "classic revivals and highbrow or off beat new films of limited commercial appeal".

While the world's first arthouse cinema was probably Jean Tedesco's Cinema D'Avant Garde, opened in Paris in 1924, the term art house does not really flourish until the 1950s in the United States. Initially the word was used to describe cinemas, where "art films" by the likes of Bergman and Kurosawa could be seen. By 1950 there were some 500 art house cinemas in the US, and by 1955 their owners had an international representative body, the International Confederation of Art Houses.

Nowadays, it is when a movie leaves this type of cinema, that the term "arthouse" is most likely to be applied to it. Fredric Jameson, who has suggested that there is no such thing as an identifiable sub genre of "art movie" anymore, has clearly not been down to Laser Videos recently. Here, shelf after shelf of cassettes distributed by companies such as Tartan, Connoisseur or of course, Art House Productions sit primly under the shelf mark arthouse.

We are currently in a transitional phase in which whether you separate, stick together, or even hyphenate the words "art" and "house", gives an indication of your political leanings. If you tend to separate your art from your house, you obviously have a recidivist hankering for the communal joys of sitting in a darkened room watching Salo with a number of like minded, black clad citizens. However, if you glue the two together, you almost certainly understand "arthouse" as defining a potentially lucrative type of audiovisual commodity.

In the latter case, the word "arthouse" has simply been substituted for an older, discredited word: the prospect of a shelf labelled "art" is obviously considered either too elitist, too commercially undesirable or simply too ridiculous. As the space between its two constituent parts closes up, however, "arthouse" begins to present itself as the perfect word to describe tasty take away art. Go to your homes and prepare for pizza.

All of this naturally leaves exposed Ireland's latest cog in "the last machine" - the all singing, all dancing, all realtime 3D rendering audiovisual factory, Arthouse, opening shortly in Dublin's Temple Bar. Initially, the centre's name may have been chosen for the hygienic virtue evoked by its simplicity and eager, teutonic chime. But things change, and as the word begins to darken around the edges, how long before it comes to represent the contemporary equivalent of the dark, satanic mills, now disguised as the bright, saintly art house?

LOAD-DATE: October 26, 1995

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