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Sure Seaters

Reviewed by Daniel I. Humphrey, University of Rochester

Barbara Wilinsky. Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. 288 pages. ISBN: 0816635633

In a remarkable turn-around from the discipline’s formative years, recent American film scholarship has largely ignored the art cinema movement of the post-war era. Academic engagement with the texts of Bergman, Bresson, Fellini, and Buñuel has seemingly been left to scholars in other disciplines, such as Modern Language departments or Religious Studies programs. And much of this critical work, sadly, is either underdeveloped (such as Thomas Elaseser’s compelling by frustratingly brief Sight and Sound essay) or simply ignored (Marilyn Johns Blackwell’s valuable work on Ingmar Bergman, for example, is almost completely overlooked). Recently, however, a number of emerging film studies scholars, many still in graduate school, have sought to renew discourse on this neglected subject. Barbara Wilinsky’s short but fecund new volume, Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema (2001) marks an encouraging, praiseworthy start.

Sure Seaters focuses on the sites of exhibition rather than the films themselves, narrowing its focus to a brief time period (the late 1940s) and to the specific locales of New York and Chicago. This approach allows Wilinsky to construct a persuasive materialist analysis of the movementís origins. She reminds us that film cultureís practices of textual categorization are contingent upon often-occulted social and economic factors (and upon the audiences that these factors help to construct), rather than upon qualities inherent to the films themselves. Wilinisky builds off of Pierre Bourdieuís Distinction (1984), Herbert J. Gansís Popular Culture and High Culture (1999), and a wealth of primary source material ‚ much of which, to my knowledge, has never been assessed ‚ to offer compelling reasons for the emergence and popularity of alternative cinemas during an era often described by its conformist and homogeneous impulses. The seemingly oxymoronic notion of a consumer counter culture posited by Wilinsky is a paradox frequently explored in cultural studies, and a theoretical discussion of the venues of artistic exhibition has been productively conducted by art historians at least since the 1980s. Yet this territory is not so well-charted in film studies, and Wilinsky deserves credit for taking the very body of work most often celebrated for its supposedly self-evident depth, profundity, and for its unique stylistic tropes, and historicizing its popularity in terms of economic and cultural determinants.

This book is nicely organized into discrete sections. In the first chapter, Wilinsky surveys various attempts to define the concept of the art film within academic discourses. In subsequent chapters she offers a brief history of pre-war alternative theaters, an examination of the economic conditions of post-war film distribution (which, she argues, encouraged the boom in art films), a look at the cultural and historical shifts affecting audiences’ film choices in the late 1940s, and finally a chapter devoted to exploring the ways in which art theater owners operated and promoted their venues. In a brief conclusion Wilinsky discusses contemporary art cinema, pointing out how the category continues to function in film exhibition today.

While I can find virtually no fault with the greater part of Sure Seaters – and although it seems perverse to wish that an academic book were actually longer than it is – this thin volume did leave me wanting more. One might also protest the first chapter’s consideration of the art film as, to quote Peter Lev, simply those films “shown in art theaters.” After using Lev’s definition as just one of many, a consideration of the three films Wilinsky has chosen as her exemplary titles (She discusses the Italian neo-realist film Open City, the independent US docudrama Lost Boundaries, and the British comedy Whiskey Galore! ) suggests that Lev’s tautology has become Wilinsky’s as well. With a materialist analysis we may expect nothing more, and it may have taken Wilinsky too far from her consideration of the venues themselves to do more than briefly acknowledge a content or style-based definition of art cinema – one she diachronically situates in the past with David Bordwell’s 1984 neo-formalist assesment. Later chapters would have been enriched had Wilinsky considered, for instance, William Siska’s phenomenological definition of the art film as a genre or certainly Gilles Deleuze’s intricate theory of l’image-temps.

While following well-trodden critical paths could have seemed a betrayal of her rigorous project, Wilinsky’s decision to avoid all but the briefest mention of the content of any significant art films leaves a number of unanswered questions. A visit to today’s specialty theaters indicates that while overlapping patronage is commonplace, there are, in fact, many fairly discrete subgroups comprising the art house audience. Today’s art theaters readily, and somewhat remarkably, shift between attracting cultural conservatives looking for prestigious literary adaptations and more ‘adventurous’ patrons, also divisible into subgroups, looking for the latest Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, or John Waters film. Additionally, a great many art films succeeded wildly during the post-war period while others opened and closed in Manhattan in a week and are now long forgotten. Surely, group responses to the offered films contributed to the direction that the overall movement and sub-movements eventually took.

In place of Sure Seaters’ conclusion, which discusses the art cinema’s survival into the 1990s, I cannot help but want a summation that leaves a discussion of the 1990s to others, and instead attempts to more fully adumbrate these kinds of outstanding issues. Wilinsky’s not-unreasonable instinct to eschew speculation might have kept her from exploring these questions, but a complete account of the phenomenon of post-war American art film culture will finally require that they be considered. Nevertheless, this is an exemplary text, one that deserves wide readership in cultural studies, visual studies, film studies, and American studies. Each of these fields can find much to build off of and learn from in what will hopefully be in the first text in a new and valuable consideration of an important aspect of twentieth-century cultural history.


Blackwell, Marilyn Johns. Gender and Representation in the Films of Ingmar Bergman. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997.

Bordwell, David. Narration and the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Elsaesser, Thomas. “Putting on a Show: The European Art Film,” Sight and Sound, April 1994: 22-27.

Gans, Herbert J. Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Lev, Peter. The Euro-American Cinema. Austin: University of Austin Press, 1993.

Siska, William. Modernism in the Narrative Cinema: The Art Film as Genre. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Wilinsky, Barbara. Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

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