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Brow inflation

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.”

13 Comments

  1. Kieran says:

    Here's a nice example (from Life Magazine in 1948) that I came across a while ago.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    Yes, this is from Russell Lynes.

  3. Mark Palko says:

    As any fan of bad science fiction can tell you, brow inflation is a well-documented phenomena. In the future, they're freakin' huge.

  4. Yes, you are right. The middebrow's "highbrow" newspaper calling middle brow pop entertainment "highbrow". To help complete the critique Inception is completely middlebrow. (Don't know about Social Network, haven't seen it).

    What succeeds unchallengeably as high brow but not the cheap version of highbrow that is barrier aesthetic art?

    I wasted time trying to do so just now and lack confidence in any of my choices (I can't defend 12 monkeys, Primer, or any Woody Allen movie, for example, as being definitely not middlebrow). Are movies irreduceably lowbrow, middlebrow, or the cheap barrier aesthetic version of "high brow"?

  5. Mark Palko says:

    Sticking with the bad sci-fi motif, but in a slightly more serious vein, if I had a time machine I'd be tempted to go back and smash MacDonald's typewriter immediately before he wrote "Masscult and Midcult." Putting aside the extraordinarily high pretension to insight ratio, MacDonald saddled us with an framework for criticism that's weak when used properly and terrible when used improperly.

    And he gave the language two of the ugliest bits of newspeak I've ever seen.

    I'll try to put up a post on Barnes unfortunate NYT piece on OE if I get the chance.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    Middle Brow is way above the median point.

    I'm all for middle brow movies, such as, say, The Social Network, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, True Grit, and The Black Swan. Inception is a middle brow movie where a lot of effort was made to allow the mass audience to keep up.

    High brow movies, such as Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky or Inside Job, are rare.

  7. Andrew Gelman says:

    Mark:

    Nooooooo, don't say that. I love Dwight Macdonald!

    Steve:

    Exactly. But what could be more charmingly middlebrow than a NYT writer describing middlebrow (at best) products such as a 21 Jump Street remake and a Spiderman sequel as "highbrow"?

  8. "Are movies irreduceably lowbrow, middlebrow, or the cheap barrier aesthetic version of "high brow"?"

    "Irreduceably" sounds good to my inner ear, but I think "inescapably" makes better sense in that sentence.

  9. Mark Palko says:

    I've only read a smattering of MacDonald (just the aforementioned essay and some film criticism), so I'm not in much of a position to judge.

    The film criticism may be part of the problem. Film is primarily a commercial art form, a product turned out by a large industry. By definition almost all movies fall into MacDonald's masscult/midcult and yet they still manage to be art surprisingly often.

    I could see MacDonald's approach working fairly well with literature, but with movies he's forced to argue claims like Chaplin is folk art and Griffith is avant garde.

  10. DanK says:

    I hadn't read this article, but I'll cut Barnes a little slack here.
    He didn't write that those three movies will be highbrow works. He
    just wrote, essentially, that they will be higher-brow than they would
    have been if Inception and The Social Network hadn't been so
    successful. Inception is solidly middlebrow, and I assume The Social
    Network is too. So his standards aren't high(-brow). But middlebrow
    covers a lot of ground, and I don't think it's a stretch to argue that
    a Haunted Mansion movie will have higher expected brow height in the
    hands of del Toro than it would have in the hands of whatever director
    they might have picked a year ago.

    I have to admit, though, that I'm surprised to hear anyone label
    anything as highbrow out loud. You don't show off your taste and
    erudition by gushing, you do it by being sarcastic and dismissive.
    Admitting that you consider any specific work highbrow is just begging
    to be dismissed as provincial and shallow. Of course, any discussion
    of brow size measurements is at best middlebrow, since whatever brow
    height is meant to measure is probably poorly described by just three
    discrete categories spanning a single dimension. But I assume that
    all real highbrow art is distributed through channels I know nothing
    about. I shop at Amazon, so I wouldn't know anything about it.

  11. DanK says:

    Maybe I'm drawing too fine a point here, but I feel like someone has to defend poor Brooks Barnes. He didn't describe these three non-existent movies as highbrow, he described them as examples of how Hollywood, spurred by the success of movies like Inception and The Social Network, is shifting its strategy slightly to embrace quirkier directors. He certainly didn't suggest that the in-progress movies will be highbrow, only that the studios think quirkier directors will help the movies satisfy a perceived demand for better quality and originality.

    The title of his article (do NYT writers even write their own titles?) was poorly considered, but beyond that, the only indication of brow inflation is his comment about the facebook movie. I haven't seen it, but I won't begrudge him a tiny bit of irrational exuberance.

  12. "Of course, any discussion
    of brow size measurements is at best middlebrow, since whatever brow
    height is meant to measure is probably poorly described by just three
    discrete categories spanning a single dimension."

    I didn't get around to including this in my comment. I'm toying with calling it the "Sailer Paradox" or "Catch

  13. Wow, that didn't post correctly. HTML tag problem?

    I can't recreate what was lost, but I think most can connect the dots if I call it Catch ~122, the paradox that anyone who makes a social science theory based on IQ is (even if of above average intelligence) too low IQ to come up with a useful social science theory.