Rise Of The Middlebrow

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Rise Of The Middlebrow

Before The Simpsons Movie this weekend, the packed house at my local multiplex suffered through trailers for the likes of Alvin & The Chipmunks, The Game Plan and Daddy Day Camp. After I pondered whether Simpsons fans are really the target audience for dopey, slapped-together family movies, I sunk into a brief depression at the prospect of moviegoing over the next couple of months. Then I remembered the amazing line-ups for the Toronto and Venice film festivals, with sure-to-be-daring and/or potentially great new films by some of my favorite directors, including Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, Noah Baumbauch, the Coen brothers, Brian DePalma, Todd Haynes, David Cronenberg, Ang Lee and others. It looks like the blog post I wrote back in March is going to come true.

And it's not just the artistes and indie gods stepping up to the plate in '07. Even the middlebrow movies look like they could be okay. Consider:

*Atonement, an adaptation of Ian McEwan's brittle novel by Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright. *Michael Clayton, a legal drama starring George Clooney and directed by The Bourne Identity screenwriter Tony Gilroy.
*Honeydripper, a new John Sayles historical drama set at the dawn of rock 'n' roll.
*The Brave One a Neil Jordan revenge thriller starring Jodie Foster.
*Rendition, a political thriller from Tsotsi director Gavin Hood, starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Peter Sarsgaard and Alan Arkin.
*Reservation Road, a wrenching drama about the aftermath of a child's death, starring Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix, and directed by Hotel Rwanda helmer Terry George.
*Things We Lost In The Fire, a post-loss melodrama directed by Danish art-house fave Susanne Bier.
*The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Julian Schnabel's study of life behind the eyes of a successful journalist who suffers a stroke.

Plus a slew of Iraq/Afghanistan-related dramas, including:

*Nothing Is Private, an intercultural romance set against the backdrop of the first gulf war, directed by American Beauty/Six Feet Under writer Alan Ball.
*In The Valley Of Elah, a homefront Iraq war mystery, written and directed by Crash auteur Paul Haggis. (And well-reviewed already by some prominent Haggis doubters.)
*The Kite Runner, an adaptation of the Afghan boyhood tale (and international bestseller) from Monster's Ball/Stranger Than Fiction director Marc Forster.
*Lions For Lambs, a Robert Redford-directed, Tom Cruise-starring drama about the investigation of a military mystery. *Charlie Wilson's War, an Afghanistan spy story directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I haven't seen any of these movies yet–few have–and it could be that some or all of them are lousy. It could also be true that some or all of them shade further into genre territory than middlebrow territory. (The Neil Jordan, for example.) And some could be more tricky and arty than broadly pitched. (The Schnabel, for example.) And it's certainly the case that all the war-inspired films will ultimately blur together and maybe cancel each other out. (At the least, we're all going to be sick of hearing actors and filmmakers say, "It's not really a political film; It's about people," by the end of the year.)

Nevertheless, Oscar voters (and prognosticators) are going to have a lot of their kinds of movies to chew on this year. Which prompts me to make a confession (after a little context).

Most film critics I know don't mind championing broad, crowd-pleasing comedies and action films if they're actually decent; and those same critics generally enjoy the kind of elusive art films that pile on the atmosphere and defy conventional notions of "story" or "entertainment." But show them a solid, stolid prestige picture that eschews style and creative risk in favor of plot and acting, and those same critics cringe. If a movie takes itself and its subject matter seriously, yet says nothing that any reasonable person could object to (with the possible exception of knee-jerk types), then it's merely middlebrow. If it features a showboat lead performance by a well-known Hollywood actor doing an accent–or pretending to be afflicted, or suffering prejudice–that's middlebrow. If it's thoroughly accessible, but with presumptions of "importance," that's totally middlebrow.

But I kind of like middlebrow movies. Not more than any other kind of movie–and sometimes a lot less–but I have a soft-spot for the faux-sophisticated, when it's done well. When I was first learning to appreciate movies, I gobbled up Oscar bait: Amadeus, The Big Chill, Kramer Vs. Kramer, A Room With A View, Broadcast News and the like. And I still have fondness for most of those movies. I can't quite abide The Big Chill anymore, but I think Kramer Vs. Kramer is a near-masterpiece, skillful in its depiction of parent-child interactions and autumnal chill. It almost bulls past "middlebrow" into something closer to art.

In fact, while middlebrow movies are typically too shallow–despite illusions of depth–a lot of movies fall into the shadow region between middlebrow and art-cinema. In recent years, I'd point to Brokeback Mountain, Good Night And Good Luck, The Pursuit of Happyness and Shattered Glass (among others) as films that push a little bit against the boundaries of foursquare cinema, via unconventional story structure, naturalistic performances, or a rigorous sense of style. These kinds of movies make the middlebrow respectable, and prove that a movie can aspire to Academy-friendly subject matter and tone, yet still reward those who'd rather not go the movies just to have their political sensibilities affirmed in the most unchallenging way possible.

The problem with middlebrow fare is that it's usually so stuffy and self-important–even though anyone who knows anything about movies can point to loads of films that are much more complex and legitimately "serious." (Not to mention noting a slew of genre films that handle edgy subject matter more fleetly). But that's mostly a matter of surface. If you can think of the rigidity of middlebrow movies as just a formal element–an essential flaw as necessary as the luridity of exploitation films, the obscurity of high art, or the elliptical bent of television–then it's possible to appreciate the nuances, or even just the communal feeling of sharing an easily digestible, scantly profound experience with millions of other people.

Whenever I teach a class, I ask my students, as a thought exercise, whether it's better to "speak well or speak directly," and I usually get a variety of answers, mostly settling on an equivocating "It depends." Which is, frankly, the right answer. Both approaches can be valid. I love movies that reward a little hard work. But I also don't mind movies that bluntly say what they mean, even if they lean on a story mired in conventions. Because sometimes, it's the conventions that unite us.

More to come, throughout the rest of the moviegoing year.