In an article headlined, “Hollywood moves away from middlebrow,” Brooks Barnes writes:
As Hollywood plowed into 2010, there was plenty of clinging to the tried and true: humdrum remakes like “The Wolfman” and “The A-Team”; star vehicles like “Killers” with Ashton Kutcher and “The Tourist” with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp; and shoddy sequels like “Sex and the City 2.” All arrived at theaters with marketing thunder intended to fill multiplexes on opening weekend, no matter the quality of the film. . . .
But the audience pushed back. One by one, these expensive yet middle-of-the-road pictures delivered disappointing results or flat-out flopped. Meanwhile, gambles on original concepts paid off. “Inception,” a complicated thriller about dream invaders, racked up more than $825 million in global ticket sales; “The Social Network” has so far delivered $192 million, a stellar result for a highbrow drama. . . . the message that the year sent about quality and originality is real enough that studios are tweaking their operating strategies. . . . To reboot its “Spider-Man” franchise, for instance, Sony hired Marc Webb, whose only previous film was the indie comedy “(500) Days of Summer.” The studio has also entrusted a big-screen remake of “21 Jump Street” to Phil Lord and Chris Miller, a pair whose only previous film was the animated “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.” . . . Guillermo del Toro, the “Pan’s Labyrinth” auteur, is developing a new movie around Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. . . .
“In years past,” said Sean Bailey, Disney’s president for production, “most live-action films seemed like they had to be either one thing or the other: commercial or quality. The industry had little expectation of a film being both. Our view is the opposite.”
Huh? Standards have certainly changed when a Spiderman sequel, and a 21 Jump Street remake, and a ride at Disneyland are defined as “highbrow.”
The cultural products described in the article–big-money popular entertainments that are well-reviewed and have some association with quality–are classic middlebrow. Back around 1950, Russell Lynes and Dwight Macdonald were all over this.
Of course, Lynes and Macdonald would’ve identified the New York Times as Middlebrow Central and so wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see uber-middlebrow items labeled as highbrow. That’s the whole essence of middlebrow: to want the “qualiity” label without putting in the work. 21 Jump Street, indeed.
P.S. I agree with (the ghosts of) Lynes and Macdonald that these middlebrow movies are just fine if that’s what people want. It’s just funny to see them labeled as “highbrow,” in what almost seems like a parody of middlebrow aspiration. So “edgy.”