Before we discuss art house films, we must take a stroll: Long before the “Dummies” guides, there was How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual Of Step By Step Procedures For the Compleat Idiot. For a time in the early 80s, our family vehicle was a Volkswagen microbus and my father kept an edition of the manual in the den. As a nine-year-old, newly-minted Monty Python fan (thanks PBS), the punchy title — with its archaic British spelling of “complete” and R. Crumb-style cover art — appealed to the subversive spirit then awakening in me. I knew nothing of Volkswagens or auto repair but the book sparked in me a lifelong love for guides of all stripes. Later, in the 80s, I discovered the Bluffer’s Guides, which helped stoke my budding cinematic and literary pretensions. Fake it ’til you make it (or make it up).
Still with me? Okay — so, all of this, of course, was long before Wikipedia and smartphones made the ultimate, if fictitious bluffer’s guide, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, something of a reality. Now that it is, I submit to you that its entry for “art house cinema” would go something like A Beginner’s Guide to Art House Cinema, a new video essay by a YouTuber with the auspicious handle “kubricklynch.” It’s a mere gloss along the surface but a handy toe-dip nonetheless.
I could’ve used this video during pre-production for our own art house cinema effort Pill Head (now in post-production!) when I was trying — and often failing — to define what an art house film is (and why we were making one) to the cast and crew. I’m not the first to bump up against this issue. The jacket copy to David Andrews’ Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, and Beyond succinctly underscores the difficulty of using the term “art cinema” as if it were a genre unto itself, which is a confusing habit of mine:
The term “art cinema” has been applied to many cinematic projects, including the film d’art movement, the postwar avant-gardes, various Asian new waves, the New Hollywood, and American indie films, but until now no one has actually defined what “art cinema” is. Turning the traditional, highbrow notion of art cinema on its head, Theorizing Art Cinema takes a flexible, inclusive approach that views art cinema as a predictable way of valuing movies as “art” movies—an activity that has occurred across film history and across film subcultures—rather than as a traditional genre in the sense of a distinct set of forms or a closed historical period or movement.
I think the “flexible inclusive approach” is where it’s at in this regard but it also makes creating — forgive the oxymoron — a comprehensive guide to art house cinema impossible. Depending on one’s flexibility and inclusivity, everything and nothing is art house cinema. It’s like some Fluxus thought experiment — or better, a Fluxus film — a length of celluloid twisted into a Möbius Strip. I suppose it’s like Justice Potter Stewart’s observation on defining porn: “I know it when I see it.” But a guide can at least get you close enough to see it. So, kudos to kubricklynch and his video. Perhaps it will inspire someone to watch Kubrick and Lynch and maybe someday Howell (then they can create The Compleat Idiot’s Guide to Daedalus Howell and my ghost will finally rest).