By Owen Gleiberman
January 02, 2011 at 11:08 PM EST

Image Credit: Davi Russo; Merrick MortonThe term art film probably should have been retired about two decades ago — and when you think about, it kind of was. On the rare occasions that something now gets tagged as an “art film,” it’s generally meant in a vaguely dismissive and even pejorative way. It means not art but arty: high-minded and self-conscious, precious and austere. It means art less as pleasure than as medicine (which, in my book, tends to mean third-rate art, like the pseudo-Euro hitman-with-angst dud The American). Yet I’m tempted, out of a fresh wave of nostalgia, to haul out the old scarlet A for Art Film in connection to two quietly exciting new American features, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, if only because both films take you back to the best of the early ’70s, that much-revered era of American filmmaking when the spirit of European cinema had spread to Hollywood and had given rise to a liberating new hybrid: the raw, loose, reality-based American art movie — films that were out to capture “the truth” in front of your eyes, even if it was a little like catching lightning in a bottle.

Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, tells the story of a deeply imperfect, at times violently angry, yet also disarmingly tender six-year marriage that is rapidly hitting the skids, and the movie is staged with a breathtakingly close-up, warts-and-all intimacy that isn’t so far removed from the train-wreck voyeurism of certain reality-TV shows. Somewhere, starring Stephen Dorff as a sexy, jaded Hollywood movie star who is working his way through an existential crisis of fame (he’s so beloved for his image that he no longer knows who he is), often reminded me of Entourage without the entourage. So what makes these movies art films? Simple: In each case, the filmmakers capture whatever it is they’re portraying — a working-class family in a rural Pennsylvania suburb, a movie idol crashing out in the anonymous luxe sterility of the Chateau Marmont — with an incisive, almost journalistic detail; they get the surfaces exactly right. Yet we’re also invited, in nearly every scene, to look beyond the surface, to enter the troubled hearts and minds, the fascinatingly messed-up interior spaces, of all these characters. The approach is nothing if not novelistic: These movies may have “stories,” but once you get onto their wavelength, the real story they’re telling is spiritual and psychological. It’s the story of what you can’t see.

Somewhere opens with Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco racing his jet-black Ferrari around and around in a circle in the desert, the zooooms getting closer and then further away. The scene lasts for nearly five minutes, which means one of two things: We’ve wandered, without knowing it, into a sequel to Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny; or … we’ve wandered into a movie that will ask us, as a favor to be rewarded, to slow our roll, to wind down our ADD consumerist fickleness and give ourselves over to a movie that likes to stare.

Fortunately, the filmmaker doing the staring is Sofia Coppola, who has developed a sixth sense for letting a scene unfold in real time without losing its pulse. Everywhere Johnny goes — an idiotic press junket, quick-draw meetings with assorted groupies and handlers — he coasts through the event without losing his drop-dead cool. Yet that’s his whole problem, and also the film’s fascination. Somewhere is like Fellini’s 81/2 made for the age of TMZ. Johnny is living what most of the world would regard as a dream, and what Coppola, with the deftness of her satirical eye for the debauchery of celebrity, reveals to be a daily Christmas present that’s all gilded wrapping paper with nothing inside.

I admit I was one of those who grew a little impatient with her last movie, Marie Antoinette (I would have given it an A for haberdashery and a C for drama), but after watching Somewhere, I want to go back and see Marie Antoinette again. For Coppola, it’s clear, has become an authentic exploratory artist who gawks, with a fascination she imparts to the viewer, at her privileged/deluded characters as though they were the most exotic of fish trapped in the ritziest of aquariums. She works from the outside in, but in — make no mistake — is where she wants to go. The structure of Somewhere is a little blasé conventional (Johnny is saved when he recognizes how much his daughter, played by the winning Elle Fanning, means to him), but it works because Coppola wakes us to every quiver of what Johnny is thinking and feeling (or not). She pierces the Hollywood bubble by turning it inside out.

In interviews for Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams have both made much of how their director, in an act of playfully sadistic coercion, got them to come up with one of the movie’s key scenes: Williams, standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, refusing at all costs to reveal her character’s big secret (that she’s pregnant — in all likelihood by somebody else); and Gosling doing everything he can think of to goad her into revealing it, until he finally steps halfway over the bridge’s chain-link fence. It’s literally acting without a net.

This showpiece episode is only the most dramatic example of what makes a movie like Blue Valentine such a captivating experience: two actors, improvising within a fixed framework, forging a connection — between themselves and their characters — until it finds its own rhythms, its own thin line between sweetness and resentment, its own truth. I think one of the reasons that the ratings board, in all its infamous schoolmarm myopia, got its collective panties in a bunch over the film’s late-night drunken motel-room writhing isn’t that it’s so explicit but that it’s so naked emotionally. The two characters literally try to screw each other into feeling that they still love each other — a doomed quest, one that’s less sexy than sad. When Gosling shows up at the clinic where Williams works as a nurse, drunk and desperate, with an absolute need to explode into rage in front of her, we see the scene the way that everyone else in the clinic does, as the acting out of a man who has lost control of his behavior — but also the way that Gosling’s character does, as the acting out of a guy who believes it’s his right to be angry, and to show it, to strike out at a world that tells men to rein in their fury at all cost (the key cost being the deadening of their souls). This, too, is acting without a net, and it’s thrilling and devastating to watch.

Derek Cianfrance, a director with a background in documentaries, shoots much of Blue Valentine in grainy but by now almost classic retro deep-focus shots; we’re intensely aware of both foreground and background. And, by implication, of how everything that we aren’t seeing feeds into what we are seeing. Cianfrance makes the story bracingly specific, yet Blue Valentine reverberates far beyond the frame, so that we can view ourselves in everything these characters are. It’s startling to realize that the entire movie (or, at least, the present-tense parts of it) spans just a little over 24 hours. By the end, though, you feel like you’ve seen two intertwined lifetimes.

When I titled this post the “return” of the American art film, I wasn’t being completely serious. For, of course, the American art film has never really gone away. I think of the movies of James Gray (We Own the Night, The Yards), which were art films in the worst sense, at least until he made Two Lovers, a quiet knockout in which Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow found a revelatory space of their own. Or the calmly unfolding passion play of hushed interior revenge that was In the Bedroom. Or, yes, the films of Vincent Gallo. In the American cinema, a little art, at least of the overt kind, has always gone a long way. But when it’s as bracing and accessible and fascinating and real as it is in Blue Valentine or Somewhere, that lust for seeing things through an artist’s eyes can get you addicted to it. It can start to seem like a movement again.

So what are your favorite American art films? From past or present? And is there a real place in the current megaplex landscape for art with a capital A?

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