A is for Art part I: “I think we’re just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that”
The moving picture has been around for over 100 years, and has been a part of the pop consciousness for almost as long. From the earliest days of nickelodeons, movies have been part of mass entertainment.
The earliest American film that can really be considered a work of art is most likely D.W. Griffith‘s Birth of a Nation. There are several other works produced during the first five decades of filmmaking, some of them (such as Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will) just as incendiary as Griffith’s film.
Even with all these avowed classic films, the medium was essentially scoffed at; the only awards came from the industry itself, and films were not critiqued for their merit so much as they were criticized for their content.
That all changed thanks to Cahiers du cinéma. Founded in 1951, this magazine fundamentally altered the way that film was viewed. For the first time, criticism of film became about the form as much as about the content. Essentially, films came to be viewed as objects as well as stories, similar to the fine arts.
The magazine is also responsible for advancing the auteur theory. The short version of the theory is that directors are the ones who put their personal stamp on the film, and because of it, nearly every classic film was reevaluated and directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Lean were recognized for the quality of their oeuvre. This theory still persists today; modern filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodóvar, and the Coen Brothers are considered auteurs.
Of course, Cahiers du cinéma is also responsible for introducing a bunch of fancy French words into the language of film so that obnoxious film students could let the entire world know how pretentious they are, so it wasn’t a total triumph.
Now, of course, only the stodgiest denier of reality will argue that at least some film is not Art. For over half a century now, the film medium has been seen as an arena of skilled craftsmen. Without the radical reinvention of film criticism engineered by Cahiers du cinéma, however, film’s ascendence to capital-A Art may never have happened.