Burning Down the Art House, Part One

art film

This is part one of three part series on my exploration of the elusive Art Film. (Read Part Two and Part Three, or listen to the podcast on Soundcloud)

Poseurs, Parodists and Pill Head, an Art Film

What Makes an Art Film?

I’m with frieze Magazine editor Dan Fox when it comes to being showy with one’s creative pursuits. In his book, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (a title that unleashes butterflies in my stomach), Fox suggests that pretentiousness, particularly that of aspiring artists, is a cornerstone of aesthetic development. As a woebegotten, trenchcoated teen, with a headful of arty ambitions curdling beneath my dyed-black locks, I can totally relate. It was only natural, then, that I would return to my memories of the era (the late 80s – early 90s) when I committed (again and finally) to make a so-called “art film.”

But what is an art film? Independent scholar David Andrews spent several hundred pages in Theorizing Art Cinemas: Foreign, Cult, Avant-Garde, And Beyond trying to answer this question (which we’ll examine in a later blog).  So far as I can tell, Andrews argues that an art film is any flick that plays in an art house. This begs the question — what’s an art house? Those in Petaluma in the 80s like me would say, emphatically, the Plaza Theatre. Long gone by the 90s, the Plaza was a century-old repertory cinema that projected a different movie every night. The bill was curated by some cinema-savant we never knew but whose depth and breadth of movie mastery was rivaled only by their obvious affection for the form. On any given night, one would be treated to selections from the French New Wave, noir classics, animation tournees, softcore foreign films, and all manner of counterculture curios.

I worked there during its gradual decline under new owners and later used it as the locus for much of my first novel, The Late Projectionist, which, itself was about pretentious wannabe filmmakers. Art films – or, or at least the affectations ascribed to them – are something I should know. And I do. I think. But even after I wrote the screenplay for Pill Head, my upcoming feature-length directorial debut, I felt queasy about humble-bragging about it on Instagram especially since I garnished the post with the hashtag #artfilm.


And so it begins. And only a week late. #artfilm #firstdraft #filmmaking #indiefilm #pillhead

A post shared by Daedalus Howell (@daedalushowell) on

Immediately after tapping “Share,” three notions occurred to me simultaneously, A) I sound like an idiot, B) I have no idea what I’m talking about, C) Best case scenario, people will think I’m trying to be funny. Had I used the slightly more pejorative tag “artflick” I could probably sneak by on C. But, nope, I wrote #artfilm and I meant it. After some reflection, however, I realized that humor was actually at the root of it all, that my entire understanding of what I think an art film is comes not from groundbreaking auteurs but from their satirists. It began, as so much of my adolescent understanding of the world, with Monty Python.

The French, Subtitles, and a Cabbage

Parody works, in part, because it distills the motifs and tics of its subject into a concentrated form. An analogy would be celebrity impressions — think of all the William Shatner bits performed by comedians — breathy, staccato, manic. Sure, each quality recalls an element of Shatner’s style but they seldom occur all at once. Film parodies do the same and art films can be equally breathy, staccato, and manic when condensed for humor’s sake. Hence, my appreciation for French Subtitled Film sketch from Python’s second season motion picture parody Scott of the Antarctic.

Here, the obvious targets are the French New Wave as a whole and presumably specific members of the Cahiers du Cinema gang from whom it spawned, with posterchild Jean-Luc Godard squarely taking one for the team.

French Subtitled Film finds a Belmondo-esque caricature (Terry Jones) and a Bardot-like blonde (the always game Carol Cleveland with an inexplicable cabbage in her lap) are engaged in trivial dialogue against the din of seagulls. At a dump. Sublimity that can only be topped by Jones uttering “I am a revolutionary.” And then perhaps a ticking time bomb head of lettuce that ends a reprise of the scene.

In an essay anonymously posted at Gaudy, On Rewatching “Monty Python” and Mocking the French, the author sums the effect up nicely:

“Feeding into the New Wave ideology, their dialogue, though seemingly absurd and pointless, does indeed expose a deeper level of existentialism, neither building upon itself nor entirely pointless; instead, it seems to embrace the total absurdity of human existence with such repeated lines as ‘It’s a nice day’ and ‘Do you come here often?’ Monty Python writers navigate the dual line between ridicule and homage here, as such dialogue is indeed possible in many of Jean-Luc Godard’s films.”

Ridicule vs. Homage

So, speaking of ridicule and homage, here are two of my own short films that I now realize owe some of their DNA to Python’s New Wave hat tip and, by extension, the films that inspired it.

Time Bomb

Then there’s this fun bit I did with my dearly departed pal and frequent collaborator Brodie Giles.

A challenge with Pill Head will be navigating the path through and beyond my influences and eventually inspire some ridicule and homage of my own, which, to bring it full circle, is totally pretentious.

The original Plaza Theater flier.

Bass Fishing in America: The Search for Meaning in a Beer Bottle

Did Richard Brautigan drink Bass Ale?

Bass Fishing in AmericaAs an armchair Jungian, one of my factory-default-settings is a heightened sensitivity to synchronicity – the perception that separate phenomena may share some shared significance but without “any discernible causal connection.” Think of it as pattern-recognition-plus or being bisociatively-curious.

Connecting the dots in this manner might be an earmark of  genius or paranoia, depending which side of the meds one wakes up on. I’m neither a genius or paranoid, nor, for the record, a paranoid genius, but no matter how disparate or faint the stars, I can usually make out (or make up) a constellation.

I’m presently trying to wrestle some meaning out of the following folly, which has absorbed several precious hours this weekend:

Years ago, Trane DeVore snapped a photo of me with my hands through a large film reel as if I was locked in stocks like a 17th century ne’er-do-well. After some Jurassic-era Photoshopping (this was the early 90s), the result became the de facto logo for SCAM Magazine and other of my early enterprises. When packing for a recent move, I unearthed an original print of the image and, for safe-keeping, stowed it in a handy copy of Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade until I could file it in my Smithsonian Box.

Lock, stock and two smoking barrels.
I forgot about this sentimental souvenir until a couple weeks ago when reading a quote from Debbie Millman’s Brand Thinking (via Brainpickings) that traced the origin of branding and trademarks to the “Trade Mark Registration Act” passed in the UK circa 1876. The first “brand” to receive official trademark status was Bass Ale for “its now-quintessential red triangle…”

Product Placement

Millman went on to cite Bass Ale cameos in Manet’s 1882 painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergèreand 40 odd works by Picasso (all with “Bouteille de Bass” in their titles) as milestones in “product placement.” My interest piqued, further research yielded an appearance of Bass in Chapter 14 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the so-called “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in which Leopold Bloom contemplates the logo:

During the past four minutes or thereabouts he had been staring hard at a certain amount of number one Bass bottled by Messrs Bass and Co at Burton-on-Trent which happened to be situated amongst a lot of others right opposite to where he was and which was certainly calculated to attract anyone’s remark on account of its scarlet appearance.

This is where the synchronicity kicks in for me. Naturally, after our move I couldn’t find the aforementioned Thomas title behind which I slipped the seedling of my own nascent efforts in branding. My wife, incidentally a woman whose career is in brands, found it instantly and sure enough, on the cover is depicted a comic scene in which a man’s little finger is stuck in a bottle of Bass & Company Pale Ale (a nod to the protagonist of the title story who suffers the same fate).

Adventures in the Skin TradeThis discovery provided me an occasion to wonder what all this Bass-branding might portend and more broadly, branding in general and my relationship to it. And is this synchronicity – how one semi-loaded notion seemed to spill into another like so much pale ale? Sure, if you’re drinking from a Klein bottle. And speaking of Bass, should I have another? Or should I just drink less – period? Should I be wary of red triangles? Avoiding Red Square has seemed sensible enough at times, but where’s Red Triangle? Turns out, according to Wikipedia, I live near it:

The Red Triangle is the colloquial name of a roughly triangle-shaped region off the coast of northern California, extending from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, out slightly beyond the Farallon Islands, and down to the Big Sur region… Around thirty-eight percent of recorded great white shark attacks on humans in the United States have occurred within the Red Triangle…

Bass Ale: No Discernible Causal Connection

I’m not worried about shark attacks or getting my finger stuck in a bottle or having some kind of existential Joycean moment whilst propping up a bar (a hazard when you’re a drinker named Daedalus). I do fear missing meaning when its revealing itself to me, nearly as much as I fear I’ve simply going mad. I can’t help, however, wanting to believe the universe provides such signs and symbols as an invitation to better understand it and perhaps ourselves within it.

Perhaps when there’s no “discernible causal connection” we have to make one, lest we live in a universe that produces only an elegant chaos that is little more than a light show. If, as they say, we are made of stardust, then mapping meaning in the phantom constellations between us is a worthy endeavor – whether one finds the Summer Triangle as in tonight’s stars or, like Manet, Picasso, Joyce and Dylan Thomas before me, a trademarked trivium of bloody angles.

Video on the Radio, My Billboard Interview

BillboardI recently had a chat with Billboard editor Mike Stern about how radio peeps might inexpensively incorporate video into their bag of tricks. Yes, it may seem a tad counter-intuitive that radio stations need to make forays into a visual medium but since the web has become the unified field theory of all media, we apparently also need to see radio to believe it.
This happens to the best of them – remember This American Life‘s Ira Glass getting ready for his close-up on Showtime? The TV version of his show made it through two seasons – traditional radio stations, however, are typically on a daily grind so expect to see more live streams and a proliferation of YouTube channels filled with faces “made for radio.” Anyway, you can click-through to see my mug beaming back at you from the center of the page of Stern’s piece, aptly titled Video Actually Enhances The Radio Star (PDF).  More to the point, there are some good tips for those who wish to make some decent video on the cheap. And if your needs transcend iPhoneography, consider dropping the gang a line at FMRL. Otherwise, just remember there are no second takes on live radio but there are viral blooper videos. Continue reading “Video on the Radio, My Billboard Interview”

Lost & Found Pages

When I lived in Los Angeles, I would frequently discover stray screenplay pages littering the streets. I saved them all and with my ArtsID co-host Gretchen Giles, am pleased to present a staged reading of these pages, complete with cast and soundtrack provided by the fine folks of KRCB 91 FM, Cotati, CA. Since I had no idea who wrote these pages, they have no idea that their work, or at least part of it, has been performed and immortalized in this recording. If you happen to be the writer of one of these specimens, by all means, drop me a line – I’d love to hear your side of the story. Continue reading “Lost & Found Pages”

Lost & Found Pages

When I lived in Los Angeles, I would frequently discover stray screenplay pages littering the streets. I saved them all and with my ArtsID co-host Gretchen Giles, am pleased to present a staged reading of these pages, complete with cast and soundtrack provided by the fine folks of KRCB 91 FM, Cotati, CA. Since I had no idea who wrote these pages, they have no idea that their work, or at least part of it, has been performed and immortalized in this recording. If you happen to be the writer of one of these specimens, by all means, drop me a line – I’d love to hear your side of the story. Continue reading “Lost & Found Pages”