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Where High-Brow and Low-Brow Meet

Updated on January 4, 2013

In film studies there is often a distinction made between mainstream cinema and art house cinema. The former is produced primarily for entertainment and commercial purposes, while the latter is made for artistic and intellectual purposes. However, there is a third layer to cinema that is often overlooked in many film schools, and that is the cult film. Generally considered to be low-brow, cult films, midnight movies, and drive in flicks are looked down on as vulgar by the mainstream and as gratuitous by the art house crowd. However, these films share an overlapping audience with the art house aficionados. They also share a common distain for Hollywood and mainstream film. Perhaps the cult film and the art film aren’t as different as many would like to believe.

For this argument I will define cinema as having three categories; first, the mainstream commercial film. This is the typical big budget Hollywood movie that you will see at the local multiplexes all over America. Second is the cult film or paracinema. This is what is generally considered to be low-brow entertainment and includes everything from horror, to exploitation, to martial arts films. Prior to DVD these films were typically shown in drive-ins and at midnight screenings. Finally, there is the art house film. These are typically foreign and are distributed more by film festivals and certain home video companies like the Criterion Collection.

The most obvious similarity that paracinema has with art cinema is their outsider status. Both types of film exist outside of the mainstream and much of the movie viewing audience is unaware of them. However, with the explosion of the home video market this is becoming less and less true, obscure titles that use to be near impossible to track down and just a Netflix click away. Although, despite the increase in availability, the popularity of these types of films has not increased significantly, making them still part of a niche market.

Prior to the internet, the home video market for these kinds of niche markets was controlled by fanzines. Several of the catalogs in these fanzines that cater to the paracinema crowd sold not only cult films such as Zontar, the Thing From Venus (Larry Buchanan, 1966) they also sold many European art films like those of Jean Luc-Godard and Luis Bunuel Moreover, these catalogs make little to no distinction between the high-brow and the low-brow. The titles are usually ordered chronologically or alphabetically rather than by genre (Hawkins, 125). So as one can see they are clearly marketed to the same audience. The descriptions of the film establish the fact that a film like Vampyr (Carl Dreyer, 1932) is not in the same vein as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (Gene Fowler Jr., 1957). Instead the description directs the audience’s attention to the lighting, mood and atmosphere of the film (126). In this way it separates from some of the other drive-in titles while marketing it to the same audience.

There are many titles which are appreciated by both fans of paracinema and fans of art house cinema. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) is a good example of this. It was a low budget horror film, released to drive in theaters and marketed as schlock. However, the films atmosphere and lighting reflect a clear influence by German Expressionism and today the film is popular with high-brow audiences as well. It has the rare status of being both a favorite at Halloween film screening and part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. The Criterion Collection also includes several other cult titles such as The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958) Equinox (Dennis Muren, 1970) and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964).

This is not just the case in the United States. The British home video company Tartan Films is a similar case. They have release a number of art house titles such as; Coffe and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003) and Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972). However, they also have an Asian Extreme line, in which they released cult films like Battle Royal (Kinji Fukasaku, 200) and J-Horror essentials like Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998). In fact, this line became so popular that it was expanded to the point where now over 1/3 of their films are part of the Asian Extreme section (Dew, 54). They also have another line called Tartan Terror in which they release many American cult and horror films. So as one can see these home video companies that cater to niche markets make little distinction between art films and paracinema.

It is not just the home video market that works this way. When European art films first became popular in American during the 1950’s and 1960’s they were often screened at the same theaters that played exploitation films. At this time art house and exploitation were not that different, or at least that is how the mainstream viewed it. Many European art films like Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) for instance, were marketed with sexual imagery, despite the fact that the film has nothing to do with sex at all. American audiences flocked to art house theaters to see foreign films in part hoping to see some raunchy imagery that was forbidden in Hollywood cinema. Some communities even protested the opening of art house theaters in their neighborhoods because they associated it with sex and nudity (Hawkins, 126).

One of the reasons theaters such as this became increasingly popular in the 1960’s was that with the rise of television theater attendance declined, especially among fans of mainstream film. So to compensate theaters began to cater increasingly to niche markets, showing people what they couldn’t see on TV due to censorship laws (Hawkins, 128). When these theaters screened something like Jean Luc-Godard’s Contempt (1963) they would often simultaneously attract a more educated and cultured audience, interested in the film as art, and a more low-brow audience hoping to see Brigitte Bardot naked.

The cult success of these films, in many instances, relies on showing audiences what is forbidden. In Japan for example, extreme violence and sex are part of their popular culture and can be seen at the multiplex theaters. In Britain and the United States however, that is not the case. This in large part explains the cult status that many Asian Extreme films hold in the west (Dew, 54). Many of these films when released in Japan are not controversial at all; they are very popular at the box office and marketed towards a mainstream audience. So something that might be obscure and part of a niche in America or Britain may be part of the mainstream in Asia. As a result, the status of a film as either cult or mainstream depends in a large part on where it was produced.

In 1967 a Swedish art film called I am Curious (Yellow) (Vilgot Sjöman) was released in the United States. It was denounced by some as being pornographic; it was even banned for a short time in Massachusetts. Many intellectuals defended the film was being art. However, at the same time, fans of exploitation films went to see it for the nudity.

The cult success of these films, in many instances, relies on showing audiences what is forbidden. In Japan for example, extreme violence and sex are part of their popular culture and can be seen at the multiplex theaters. In Britain and the United States however, that is not the case. This in large part explains the cult status that many Asian Extreme films hold in the west (Dew, 54). Many of these films when released in Japan are not controversial at all; they are very popular at the box office and marketed towards a mainstream audience. So something that might be obscure and part of a niche in America or Britain may be part of the mainstream in Asia. As a result, the status of a film as either cult or mainstream depends in a large part on where it was produced.

The same thing can be said for art films. John Hawkins points out that if Carnival of Souls had been made in Europe it probably would have been considered an art film, or at least art horror. At the same time, if the French film Eyes without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960) were made in America it would probably have been considered a drive in flick (Hawkins, 130). American cinema is generally looked at as being more commercial than European cinema, which is viewed as more artsy. So horror films, even highly stylized ones like Carnival of Souls are considered to be b-movies rather than art movies. Despite the fact that many films overlap between the paracinema and art film crowds the two groups often look down on one another and rarely see their similarities.

Fans of art house cinema tend to look down not only on the mainstream, who in their view can’t appreciate art and only watch film for entertainment, following the whims of pop culture and Hollywood. They also look down their noses at fans of paracinema. Many of them feel as though the average cult fan will take anything as long as it is full of gore and violence. They are rarely interested in art or in film as an art form (Dew, 57. Likewise most fans of cult cinema feel that art films are pretentious and their fans are cultural elitist snobs.

The Horror ect podcast is a good example of the latter part in this divide. One of the shows hosts frequently Hollywood films, particularly horror, and its conventions, such as the jump scare. He loves indie horror and foreign horror, especially Japanese and French. In one episode he denounced Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) for its “pretentious” visual style. In a later episode he attacked Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) on the same grounds. However, in an episode on J-Horror he praised Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999), which also contains very stylized and dreamlike visuals. He becomes increasingly hypocritical when in another episode he expressed his disdain for Hollywood torture porn films like Saw (James Wan, 2004). And Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005). The last 30 minutes of Audition can easily be compared to films like Saw and Hostel. However, it was made outside of Hollywood and, despite its relative success, remains a film that most Americans have not seen or heard of.

There is a student club on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus called the Obscure Movie Group, which holds weekly screenings of cult films like Repo! The Genetic Opera (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2008). Once they screened The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (Peter Greenway, 1989), which while featuring a great deal of sex and violence, is far from the standard cult film they usually play. Needless to say it was poorly received. Several people walked out and several more rudely mocked the film out loud.

Despite the fact that few fans of paracinema are also fans of art films and vice versa several filmmakers within these various genres are able to appreciate both types of film. The website Combustible Celluloid has compiled a list of filmmaker’s favorite films. Paul Bartel, the director of films such as Death Race 2000 (1975) and Lust in the Dust (1985) lists Citizen Kane as his favorite movie. Likewise, Roger Corman, the so called “king of the b’s” for his low budget drive-in films, lists Battleship Potemkin (Sergi Eisenstein, 1925). At the same time, Luis Bunuel, an art house favorite, listed the 1945 horror anthology flick Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer) as his favorite (Combustible Celluloid). So as one can see while overlapping fan bases for paracinema and art films are rare, they do occur, especially with those making the films.

Another example of this is the film critic Joe Bob Briggs. He is famous for reviewing cult movies in his weekly column Joe Bob goes to the Drive in. He also provided audio commentaries for the special edition DVD releases of grind-house classics like I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978). Recently, he released two books dealing with sex and violence in film, Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies that Changed History, and Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies that Changed History. In this book he reviews films that addressed taboo subject matters and broke down the barriers of what was acceptable to put on screen. These books include exploitation films like Blood Feast (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1963) and The Immoral Mr. Tease (Russ Meyer, 1959). However, they also include Jean Luc-Godard’s Contempt (1963) and the German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920).

Both paracinema and art cinema broke new ground and presented forbidden images to the audience. The taboo nature of these films explains why they never achieved mainstream success. However, it also explains why they became popular with certain niche audiences. In a number of instances the same films became popular with both crowds. Un Chien Andalou(Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, 1927) contains some of the most shocking imagery ever seen on screen. At the same time, it is part of the surrealist movement and an intelligent criticism of narrative cinema. Thus it is popular with both fan groups.

In the 1970’s a series of theaters on 42nd street, New York, known as grind-house theaters also demonstrate an overlap between the two fan groups. These theaters were known for screening exploitation, martial arts, and even pornography. However, some of the films released in these theaters were also popular with the art crowd. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) for example, which is now considered an example of art horror, was released into these types of theaters and marketed simply as a horror film. Despite this however, it became popular among film critics who frequently gave positive reviews to gory horror flicks.

So the question must be asked, just how different are these two niche audiences? As I have already shown they enjoy many of the same films. The difference seems to lie in their motivation for seeing these films. However, their reasons for enjoyment may not be all that different after all. Un Chien Andalou was made with the intention of shocking the audience. In that sense it is not all that different from exploitation films like I Spit on Your Grave. The Surrealists and the Dadaists, two turn of the century modern art groups, were both advocates of shocking audiences. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s follow up to Un Chien Andalou was L’Age d’Or (1930). The two were disappointed at how well received their first film was, they were hoping it would be far more controversial, so they stepped it up for their next film. L’Age d’Or achieved its stated goal. There were riots at its premier and it was banned in France for 50 years (Hammond, 13). This response is very similar to the reception that many cult films received upon their release.

Surrealism was very much influenced by Dadaism. Both art movements were rebelling against traditional society especially traditional art forms. They produced “offensive art” with the sole purpose of shocking mainstream audiences. Marcel Duchamp for example, entered a urinal in an art show and called it “fountain.” The only real difference between the surrealists and horror filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis is that the surrealists were shocking audiences for social and political reason, whereas Lewis and company were doing it for money. In that sense the exploitation filmmakers are not all that different from Hollywood. They were both in it for profit; the only difference is that they produced films that were too controversial for Hollywood and therefore catered to a smaller audience.

Hollywood marketed their film to a mainstream Middle American audience, making images of nudity and violence out of the question. However, not everyone was satisfied with sappy MGM musicals. There was a much smaller portion of the population that desired those kinds of films. As a result, people like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Russ Myer produced sexploitation and gory horror flicks. The goal of these films was to shock and titillate audiences, not unlike the early surrealist films, although, the work of the surrealists is revered in art house circles, while they look down on the films of Lewis and Myer.

The most obvious explanation for this double standard would be that art house fans tend to be left wing and liberals often scoff at people who act solely for profit. However, it goes beyond that. Many art films, such as Un Chien Andalou, were made with the primary purpose of offending and shocking were made by artists and intellectuals. Dali and Bunuel are often considered geniuses, and rightfully so. On the other hand, few people would describe Lewis that way. So although their goals may have been the same they come from totally different backgrounds and had totally different motivations for producing their work.

Despite the fact that most of the population views art cinema as being radically different from cult or paracinema, they have a number of similarities. Both are outside of the mainstream and part of a niche market. Many theaters and home video companies cater to both audiences. Also, they appreciate several of the same films. Paracinema is popular because it presents something forbidden, that Hollywood won’t show in their films. However, many art films contain similar images. Likewise, a number of cult films are highly stylized and were clearly influenced by art cinema. Despite these similarities, there are very few overlapping fans. Most of those in the art crowd look down on followers of paracinema as simply craving violence and titillation. At the same time, most people who enjoy paracinema view art house films as pretentious. Perhaps one day the two niche groups will realize their similarities, their common disdain for Hollywood, and begin to appreciate each other as fellow outsiders, but probably not.

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