Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Brow-beating

...Movies with such a prestigious pedigree won nearly universal acclaim in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Think of such Oscar-winning films as "Gentleman's Agreement," "All the King's Men," "The Defiant Ones," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "In the Heat of the Night." 

...These once-fashionable message movies came to be derided as earnest, simplistic and sentimental. There's another key word that succinctly defines these earlier critical favorites: middlebrow. The word means "somewhat cultured" or aspiring to intellectual substance without quite reaching the exalted heights. Virginia Woolf defined the middlebrow reader as "betwixt and between," devoted not to art for its own sake but to "money, fame, power, or prestige." In other words, the middlebrow is not quite as smart as the true highbrow and not as spirited as the unpretentious lowbrow. Today's critics wouldn't dream of keeping company with this crowd.

But here are a few other words that might describe the films mocked as middlebrow: ambitious, humanistic, impassioned, moving, hard-hitting. When did all those adjectives turn into dirty words?
When I first read this Los Angeles Times editorial, I took it to mean that certain movies such as The Help were being unfairly pigeonholed as being of lesser quality than they actually are due to critics' preconceptions. But a rebuttal from the same paper seems to suggest otherwise:
...Today is not 50 years ago. The modern world is a thorny, uncertain, rough-and-tumble place (not that it ever hasn't been), and the best films should aim to reflect that with a clear-eyed awareness in their context and perspective and a strong reach for more... The problem is not with the middlebrow in itself — and really, a film such as "Bridesmaids" likely represents the true New Middle more than "The Help" — the problem lies with opting for the obvious and becoming complicit with the incurious. Aiming for the middle is too often an excuse to aim too low.
First of all, let's tell it like it is: what we're talking about here are "awards bait" movies, the kind of films that - intentionally or not - appear to be made specifically to win Oscars and Golden Globes and what have you because they make Hollywood feel good about itself. The term has become a pet peeve of mine because it's the product of a cynical attitude that suggests that movies like these are automatically inferior in some way. To be fair, though, there is some truth to this: The Reader is a much better example of a movie that hit the Academy's sweet spot to a greater degree than more popular, and more critically-acclaimed, films like WALL-E and The Dark Knight, and sure enough, it was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture.

Still, to automatically conclude that The Reader or any movie was made for the sole purpose of winning awards is a step too far. I seriously doubt any filmmaker worthy of the name goes into a film with that mentality.


That said, the original argument is undermined with this passage:
Younger critics in particular are desperate to prove that they're hip, and so they champion esoteric, highbrow movies -- "The Tree of Life," "Meek's Cutoff," "The Future" -- that most audiences are more likely to find ponderous, impenetrable or impossibly precious. These younger reviewers also have a fondness for lowbrow fare -- gross-out comedies like "Superbad" or violent genre pictures like "Bellflower" and "Zombieland." In the past, many gritty crime movies were indeed underrated while highfalutin literary adaptations were overrated. But that battle has been won, and we've swung too far to the opposite extreme.
Why is there this backlash against Meek's Cutoff all of a sudden? I liked it, I do not consider it impenetrable, and I guarantee you I'm not trying to be hip when I say that. Anyway, speaking as someone who spent ten years championing "esoteric" independent comic books before starting this blog, let me say that "esoteric" does not always equal "ponderous." Yeah, there's crap in the art house, just like there's crap in the multiplex, but there's good stuff there too, and isn't finding the good stuff and writing about it kinda the whole point of being a film critic? And if there is disagreement on what's good and what's bad, well, then, the audience will be the ultimate arbiter, as it should be.

Agree? Disagree?

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Related:
The big sleep: Do 'boring' movies have value?

10 comments:

  1. I don't know about the term "Oscar-bait" being negative but aiming for the "middle" as that LA Times article suggests certainly does disservice to audiences and the human spirit. You get movies that lack the spark of creativity, boldness and novelty. It just makes for very bland filmmaking.

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  2. It's surprising that an actual film critic would even suggest it really.

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  3. The concept about some films being made for Oscars annoys me to no end. Oscar bait - are by default period pieces, prestigious literary adaptations and war films. So, of course, anyone who makes them is just making it for the glory. I think it's that same tunnel-vision mentality which makes the Oscar bait films get middling reviews. A film like Hangover has no expectations and gets ridiculously high 80s on RT but something like Atonement is liked, but is scrutinsed heavily and gets in the low 70s. What an odd world.

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  4. I've always felt comedies were graded on a different curve than dramas.

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  5. Hmm. Interesting take. I do recognize this tendency with myself (either going for the completely cerebral films or going for the braindead genre flicks, that is), but I'm not sure it's that bad.

    After all, a critic should never have to defend having a more "intelligent" take on films, nor do I think that genre movies such as grossout comedies or cheesy horror flicks have been championed enough. After all, it's the middlebrow stuff that will get seen anyway, so in that sense we can claim to be promoting the stuff that might otherwise not get seen. Which is good.

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  6. I think what counts most is honesty in a review. If you like that 'highbrow' movie, fine - say so and defend your choice. If you don't like that 'middlebrow' movie, same thing - and don't worry what other critics say.

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  7. But shouldn't everything be graded on the same curve?

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  8. Yeah, but they usually aren't. That's what I meant.

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  9. This piece of review mentioned in that LA Times article leaves me scratching my head: "too well-intentioned for its own good" Are people so darn cynical that movies that promote good behavior and simply basic moral goodness is automatically thought of as cliche?? I mean, that is just ridiculous and I pity such a cynic, life can't possibly be enjoyable for them.

    I like movies for various reasons, sometimes they happen to be 'high brow' sometimes they're simply good fun even if you think they're not the best made films.

    I like what you said here "...isn't finding the good stuff and writing about it kinda the whole point of being a film critic?" I think a lot of those critics ought to lighten up.

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  10. I think he was trying to make a defense of adult movies with a message and it came out wrong. At least I hope that's what he was trying to do.

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