Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Feature: Provisional Manifesto


Film is the most important medium of the past one hundred years, yet most people do not know what a good film is.  Most of the masterworks of the medium have passed by the general population unnoticed or misunderstood.

We need a new aesthetics in film culture.  Those that dominate the discourse and culture of cinema either fail to highlight the greatest works of art the medium has to offer or they neglect and distort what is valuable in those works.

The reasons for this are historical.  Some vestige of an organic, evaluative system of values exists in the other arts because the terms for appreciating painting, architecture, dance, music, drama, poetry and literature have roots that reach far beyond the mid twentieth century.  They all have rich aesthetic traditions that can withstand and absorb new trends and preoccupations.  The cinema does not, and the results speak for themselves.

Film culture is currently dominated by three general aesthetic principles.

1.     Success over Value

Did this movie “work?” To know what makes a movie good based on a set of cinematic rules is the domain of the professional reviewer.  This leads to evaluation along the lines of “the ending was contrived” and “the acting was stiff,” comparing the film work to some Platonic ideal of cinema. Now, thanks to the internet, novices are getting involved and everyone is a qualified critic.  The rules are not hard to learn after all: one need only align himself with a particular school or patron saint of popular cinema, Hitchcock and Welles from the golden age, or George Lucas, the Coen brothers or such crossover Indie artists such as Darren Aronofsky and Steven Soderbergh.  The inherent problem with this system, of course, is that it internalizes an aesthetic based on the external indicators of success, either monetary or critical. But we believe art is measured by idiosyncratic vision and not by the perfection of ideal form, so this ideology is not useful to us.

2.     Does this conform to my (political) belief system?

In academia–by which we mean what is taught in university film courses and what is published in scholarly journals, quarterlies and books and presented at academic conferences–external interpretive strategies dominate the scene.  These methodologies are “external” in that they are not organic – either to cinema or to the fine arts.  They are very often not aesthetics at all but analytical models imported from the social sciences, usually employing Marxism, feminism or queer theory to describe a given film as representation of a demographic group or their presumed ideology.

3.     The Cineaste

A still from Malick’s The New World; note the beautiful photography.

For the movie buff, everything is good in its own way.  Even if we happen to disagree about the relative value of something, the end result is inconsequential, because we are merely discussing opinions, and no one has the right to take away another person’s right to the enjoyment of beautiful cinematography or an especially charismatic performer.  In ethics, this is an adequate system but aesthetics has to make evaluative judgments, and since the cineaste refuses to do this, her ideology is inadequate.

These aesthetics are insufficient.  The first two are misleading and damaging.  The third is ineffectual.


CINEMA UNDERGROUND is a response to the state of contemporary film culture.  We do not pine for the halcyon days of yore when the opening of a new Godard or Bergman at the New Yorker was a society event.  We do not have any first hand experience of those times.  We must focus our attentions on our own time.  And in our own time art cinema is marginalized and treated as a niche market.

Within that market are many conflicting tensions.  On one hand, everyone is entitled to their opinion, whatever their training in the arts may be, whatever their level of experience.  On the other hand, we have a film school system that teaches rigorous, technical appreciation for the Cinema, but makes little qualitative distinction between art cinema and mainstream movies.

  • We find too many opinions about a given work or artist.  They are all over the internet: emotional, knee-jerk, unreasoned positions that people want to share, but have no interest in revising.
  • We believe in deliberation.  We believe in digging beneath your likes and dislikes to find where those inclinations come from.  The next step is to bring them to light and examine them.
  • We believe in debate.  One must consider alternatives to her interpretation even as she formulates it.  Watching a film, deciding how good or bad it is and sharing the verdict with others is not a three step process.
  • We need a new aesthetics in film culture based on the organic qualities of the medium.  This is how aesthetics were developed for all other art, but in cinema appreciation we have been sidetracked by the above ideologies.

As a starting point we offer the introductions to the four modes.  At the top of the homepage you will find tabs for pages that discuss:

Discursive Mode

Performative Mode

Visionary Mode

Meditative Mode

  • We believe in watching movies again and again.  We believe some films are better than others.  We believe there are wrong interpretations and wrong ways of interpreting. We know the difference between the mainstream and a work of unique vision.  We want to champion the greats.  We want to discuss the difference between genius and commercial fodder.  The difference often rests on the tiniest filaments of meaning and on the subtlest decisions.
  • We believe artists do things for a reason and it is the responsibility of the viewer to understand those reasons.  It is not a clear message that a work of art imparts to its audience; it is not a statement that can be boiled down to succinct and eloquent verbal language.  It is a matter of attention to style.  It is not an ideological statement that a filmmaker may want to make through narrative, but what he does by holding a shot for ninety seconds instead of ten, by filming a doorway for a few seconds before the characters step into the frame instead of starting the take on the character’s action or the effect of having no score on the soundtrack.  The style is the statement.
  • We have developed a canon which is flexible and subject to change.  Our expertise is not exhaustive.  The filmmakers we champion as the patron saints of the medium did not preach suprasensible truths, and we do not posit their works as perfect answers to abstract questions.

Truth in art, as in life, is more of a suggestion than a solution.  Artists seek myriad, conditional truths, not ultimate Truth.  Likewise, we at CINEMA UNDERGROUND continue to seek out new truths, new forms of cinematic communication and new masters of the medium.  We form our canon based on decades of combined experience.  We know where our blind spots are and we will program series and events that address those weaknesses, particularly the cinemas of Latin America and Africa.

  • We want to champion minor vision as well.  Cult films and B-movies are interesting because they fail by commercial standards.  To the market there is little difference between an art film and a cult film.  We know the difference between them and we acknowledge it, but we also want to explore the quality that they share.  Both the cult film and the art film subvert the mainstream.  Both are often products of singular vision.
  • We have no ideological antagonism toward entertainment.  Yet, even in more light-hearted affairs we try to challenge and surprise the viewer.  Roger Corman and Russ Meyer are not bad at doing what Spielberg and Michael Bay do.  They deliver spectacle, but spectacle on their terms; spectacle which is not test-marketed; spectacle which does not hide beneath a veneer of technical virtuosity, spectacle which does not congratulate itself for dealing with important issues.

Throwing art into the free market is not enough.  Simply presenting an alternative to the mainstream will only appeal to a certain kind of temperament (such as the aforementioned movie buff).  Thus a theater with alternative programming is not sufficient.  This is why we have a website that delineates our four mode aesthetic foundation, and offers what we believe to be a new kind of writing about cinema.   We appeal to anyone who is curious about art cinema, not just film nerds or college students.  We strive to give to the public the tools to appreciate the alternative we offer.

  • We believe in comedy performance as a subversive art.  We honor certain works and certain artists with reverence, but we also honor them with joy.  We are scholars but this is not an academic mission.  The writing you will find here is not scholarship, or it is a new kind of scholarship.  Not that it is less thoughtful or poorly reasoned, but that it is open, stream of conscious and provisional.  We want to be read by anyone who would be interested in watching these films, not just film students.  We want to attract and inspire new viewers of the films we write about.

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