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Screen Grabs - The Death and Life of Arthouse

In this week's edition of Screen Grabs, we ask if the rumors are true—is arthouse cinema dying? Not if the latest projects from Todd Haynes, Jessica Yu, and Michel Gondry are any indication. Plus, the latest writers' strike videos, and the Oscar doc short

The Death and Life of Arthouse

The Dadaists proclaimed the death of art almost a century ago, and art critics have been echoing them ever since, although to most people's eyes, art certainly seems to be alive and kicking. What about arthouse—is it dead? Ed Burns thinks so. The prolific director/actor/writer, whose latest film, Purple Violets, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year but couldn't find a satisfactory distribution deal and consequently became the first straight-to-iTunes release, declared that 2007 was "the year that arthouse cinema died." He joins Peter Greenaway, who said last month that all cinema was dead, and has been since September 31, 1983, when the remote control was introduced (as others have noted, September hath only 30 days). The media's been beating the same drum. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times observed that arthouse was, if not dead, at least "depressed," since you have to go back more than a year (to The Queen and Babel) to find the last commercially successful "specialty pictures." And this week, Variety chimed in by wondering if art films were "out of touch."

They might all be right, but whether arthouse is dead, depressed, or out of touch, the independent auteurs who make it don't seem to have let it bother them. Not only was Todd Haynes' unconventional Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There finally out (and possibly destined to set the year's mark for highest ratio of column inches devoted to it versus actual tickets sold), but lots more good stuff was on the way: the website for music video maverick/effects wizard Michel Gondry's new film Be Kind Rewind, due in January, was up and full of trailers for the ultra-DIY remakes of Hollywood classics which are the film's central conceit. There was the idiosyncratic Jessica Yu (director of 2004's In the Realms of the Unreal), explaining how she came to make her latest, Protagonist (opening Friday), a documentary/narrative retelling of the stories of Euripides, performed with wooden-rod puppets. And there was the incomparable Crispin Glover, taking advantage of the free publicity being generated by his turn in Robert Zemeckis' latest mocap extravaganza, Beowulf, to self-release and distribute his latest feature-length curiosity starring disabled actors, It Is Fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE!, actually carrying his reels around in a rolling suitcase from one engagement to the next.

Controversy attended the release of the shortlist of 15 documentaries that will ultimately produce the five nominees for next year's Oscars (which included TFF '07 entries Taxi to the Dark Side, Nanking, and Autism: The Musical), as some felt the field focused on hot-button issues (eight of the 15 were about one war or another), to the exclusion of true innovations in documentary craft. Still, the very hubbub over the Academy's omission of acclaimed docs like In the Shadow of the Moon, King of Kong, My Kid Could Paint That, and TFF '07 entry The Devil Came on Horseback from consideration also served to highlight the incredible wealth of compelling docs pushing the boundaries of the form today.

There was plenty of interesting stuff happening on the small screen too: The flood of clever viral films addressing the writers' strike, now in its fourth week, continued with a new series of amusing black-and-white spots conceived by writers George Hickenlooper and Alan Sereboff and featuring the likes of Holly Hunter, Sean Penn, Harvey Keitel, Laura Linney, Susan Sarandon, and others; titled Speechless without Writers, the shorts demonstrated how helpless thespians are without their scribes, and certainly got the attention of the media. And with awards season fully upon us (in addition to the buildup to the Oscars, the Independent Spirit Award nominees were announced and the Gotham Awards took place), the Plug Independent Music Awards announced their 2008 nominees, including the 12 contenders for best independent music video of the year, drawing attention to a truly no-budget corner of moving image endeavor where remarkable stuff is taking place. They're well worth checking out if you're bored with TV in these strike-stricken times (or in general). In other words, however much arthouse films may be slumping at the box office, the spirit behind arthouse seems to be alive and well—it's just a matter of where you look, and what you're looking for.

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