Are reality TV programs about blabbering drunk drivers less legitimate than acclaimed shows such as The Wire? Should one feel guilty about reading a Dan Brown book when an unread Charles Dickens novel gathers dust on the shelf? Why would anybody watch a dopey Hollywood rom-com when they could be charmed by the sharp-witted delights of French farce?
The breakdown between highbrow and lowbrow art — entirely subjective, of course, and utterly contentious — has sparked discussion in virtually every artistic medium over the years. Potted in notions of perceived merit and importance, the debate has long bubbled beneath the surface of cinema, a medium commercially dominated by products widely considered intellectually unchallenging.
There are oodles of examples of films that have enjoyed popular and critical success, from classics like Star Wars (1977) to recent hits Bridesmaids (2011) and Toy Story 3 (2010), which do not comfortably fit into either high/lowbrow camp. These days they are few and far between, with the majority of popular movies presenting a stark divide between public and critical consensus. The movies seen the most are often rated the worst and vice versa.
It’s easy — at times rather fun, and, of course, somewhat justified — to jump on the anti-Hollywood and, say, anti-Michael Bay bandwagon and spew vitriol in the direction of a man who brought us migraine-makers such as Pearl Harbor (2001), Armageddon (1988) and the Transformers movies. Or to join the booing chorus for the latest critically walloped Hollywood rom-com featuring great looking people, silly gags and life-affirming endings.
There is a shared unspoken belief among many “serious” film appreciators that a long, slow, brooding independent production is inherently of greater worth than a fast and frothy studio movie, even if the “b” word — boring — is more commonly used to describe the one rated favourably.
Can one kind of movie really be considered more “valuable” then another? Is escapism something less meritorious than Reflection, Meditation and Learning?
One of cinema’s best vignettes about the highbrow versus lowbrow debate can be found in Preston Sturges’s 1941 gem Sullivan’s Travels. Sturges, who became Hollywood’s first writer/director after famously selling his screenplay for The Great McGinty to Paramount Pictures for a dollar in 1939 in return for permission to direct it, is mostly remembered for delightful screwball comedies such as The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The Miracle of Morgan Creek (1944).
Sullivan’s Travels is difficult to categorise — part rom-com, part film about filmmaking, part late age coming of age, part social commentary — and is arguably his most revered film. The protagonist, John Lloyd Sullivan (Joel McCrea), shares many similarities with Sturges at the time he wrote it. Sullivan is a shrewd well-respected writer/director adept at making popular comedies, but he has grown cocky and disillusioned and no longer sees the worth in making breezy no-brainers. Sullivan yearns to be an Artiste, to make powerful and insightful films about the human condition. To have something Serious to say.
He argues with his producers, who want nothing but sex and whimsy, about his new project: a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes, film buffs — this is where the Coen Brothers got the title for their folksy 2000 comedy starring George Clooney, John Turtorro and Tim Blake Nelson).
“I want this picture to be a document, I wanna hold a mirror up to life,” Sullivan says. “I want this to be a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.”
Adds a producer: “but with a little sex in it.”
Sullivan has evolved into an elitist who doesn’t see the value in lowbrow entertainment and dismisses escapism as worthless. He ventures off on a mission to inform his upcoming Serious film by living life like a pleb, shedding all the accoutrements of fortune and wealth he has enjoyed.
When a boxcar hobo beats him and leaves him for dead, Sullivan’s plan goes radically awry. After a violent incident he is sentenced to six years in a labour camp and cannot prove his identity. All the people who know him believe him to be dead.
In the film’s centrepiece scene, Sullivan and a group of fellow convicts enter an African American church and consume the first three rows. This wretched, depraved lot sit down to watch a movie reel. They watch Disney cartoons. Goofy. Lowbrow. Anti-intellectual comedy.
And they love it. Every face of every convict erupts into an explosion of laughter and happiness and guffawing spreads like wildfire across the room. In a state of delirious joy they forget, for a few fleeting moments, their sordid lot in life. Sullivan, silent, glances between them. After a little while, he starts laughing. And laughing. And laughing. And he doesn’t stop. Sullivan has finally understood the value of escapism and comes to regard its creation as a noble cause.
How might the convicts have reacted if they’d watched a different film? What if the reel rolling in front of them belonged to a morose hard-hitting drama? How might their faces have looked? What effect would it have had on them? They would perhaps have watched such a film under duress, grudgingly sitting through it as if it were a form of punishment.
The Turin Horse, which screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival early this year, is a long, morose, minimalist Hungarian drama that captures — says The Hollywood Reporter — “the dull monotony of rural peasant life.” It is the kind of film cultivated cinephiles will feel compelled towards for largely intellectual reasons: to broaden their horizons, learn more about another culture, study it on a technical level, admire its verisimilitude, etcetera.
The crowd who look forward to a film like The Turin Horse are the kind who stare down their nose at an invite to The Smurfs. But let’s ask ourselves one simple question: which film are the rural peasant themselves more likely to watch? One that captures the unrelenting sadness of their existence or one that offers escape into a different, brighter world? Acknowledge the answer to that question and lowbrow art begins to take on a different, nobler meaning.
It is generally privileged people who buy tickets to watch sad films about the poor and destitute. This is arguably another kind of escapism. There is of course nothing wrong with that, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying films that aspire to do nothing other than entertain. Sullivan’s Travels reminds us that there is never a reason to feel guilty about so-called “guilty pleasures.”