Doomed to the Middlebrow, or Why I Watch Films

November 1, 2011 — 15 Comments

I recently got into a fight on the internet. Yeah. A fight. On the internet. Now, I’ve never been totally immune to this. The internet is a great place for discussion and argument, but I generally don’t take thing to heart. This time I did. And ever since, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the implications of the argument. Without getting into the gory details, let’s just say that fiery words were exchanged, primarily dealing with the subject of my taste in and attitude toward film. Specifically, I was accused of being entirely middlebrow in my approach.

To understand why I took such offense to this accusation, I think it’s important to understand exactly what my approach is in the first place. How do I watch films, what kind of films do I prefer, what do I take away from film, and why do I watch them at all. It’s probably the “why?” that’s most relevant in this discussion. I can’t really help what films speak to me or not, but to a certain extent that has everything to do with why I watch films.

So why do I watch films? Quite simply, films open me up to new worlds. That probably sounds both quaint and overly broad, but the breadth is exactly what excites me. I don’t discriminate. I enjoy films of all shapes and sizes. Films that take me on adventures, introduce me to unforgettable characters and stories; films that engage my sense and my intellect; films that expose my own vulnerabilities and neuroses, films that barely resemble convention or buck convention entirely; films that make me laugh and cry and excite me and scare me. I don’t love all films, but I love film in every sense of that word, from the stories it tells to the chemical processes that have made it work for over a century.

This is why I took such offense. For someone, particularly someone who hardly knows me, to begin making judgements on the scope of my love of film based purely on what films I talk about enjoying is something I cannot abide. My love of film goes well beyond the confines of those films I’ve already seen. I take pleasure in watching films and re-watching them and pushing the boundaries of my comfort. I don’t always enjoy those experiments in branching out, my response to Werckmeister Harmonies being a good example of that. But for every Werckmeister Harmonies there is a Close-Up or a Last Year at Marienbad. To imply that my love for film is somehow diminished by my great appreciation for the mainstream in cinema or the durability of narrative form is to attack my sincerity in expressing that love. To call me “middlebrow” is to slap me in the face and then stab me in the heart.

Even the mere notion that such classifications as middlebrow can be applied to a person’s tastes is appallingly unfair. People watch films for different reasons. I don’t begrudge the person who likes a solid (or stupid) diversion for two hours, nor do I make judgements on the person who chooses to focus on obscure Asian films. What I cannot stand is a person who assumes that their reasons or interests in film somehow better than someone else’s. Newsflash: no amount of Renoir or Cocteau will make you better than anyone in any way. You take away from films or art exactly what you take away, and you cannot judge another person for taking away something different or not taking anything away at all.

I don’t just reject the middlebrow label because of the variety of films I watch, I reject it outright as a sign of terrible pompousness on the part of the labeler. I encourage most people I know to expand their boundaries in the world of film, just as I encourage myself. Sometimes it also helps to have outside encouragement. I’m always looking for new (or old) and interesting films to watch and sink my teeth into, and it helps a great deal to have guides on that path. And if I can offer a guide to anyone who needs guiding, I’m glad to do it. Despite some of my rhetoric, I have absolutely no interest in imposing my view of the world or of film on anyone. If someone is content with Adam Sandler films, if Michael Bay films make them happy, who am I to tell them they are wrong? At most I will tell them to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark or Die Hard or Back to the Future for some different perspectives.

There’s also another issue in all of this, which is that of knowledge. I am not even close to being knowledgable about film, at least not compared to some people I know. I’m constantly seeking to expand that knowledge, to understand film better. But I don’t forget that whatever levels of understanding I gain, they are still only my own. A man who’s seen every film ever made still wouldn’t see the same things that I see. This variety of impression is important and no amount of knowledge can change that, just as a more knowledgable person can never really say that somebody is wrong for liking or disliking a particular film.

I was partly inspired to write this diatribe by Ryan McNeil’s latest post over at The Matinee entitled “New Divide (Reflecting on Changing Tastes)“. I encourage you all to read it. It’s a wonderfully honest account of how are perceptions of art are not stationary. Our tastes grow and change as we do. I can tell you quite unequivocally that my tastes have changed even from what they were a year ago. A year ago I could not have called Billy Wilder my favourite director of all time. A year ago I might not have been moved so much by Five Centimeters Per Second. If you’d sat me down in front of The Tree of Life last year, before I watched his other films, I might have told you it was a masterpiece beyond compare rather than flawed-but-ambitious work by a director capable of much better.

Yes, my tastes have changed. My tastes have grown. This extends both to the films I have come to love as well as those I find I have less tolerance for. A couple years ago I might have said Thor and Captain America were very good films. I sit here today wishing I had those four hours of my life back. At the same time though, I do not regret watching any of these films. If I wasn’t willing to sit and watch mainstream Hollywood fare like Thor, I would also have missed out on Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

If there is one thing I take pride in, it’s that I am open to just about anything when it comes to film. That doesn’t mean I’ll like everything, but at least I’m giving everything a fair shake. Yes, I probably do appreciate mainstream filmmaking more than some more studied cinephiles, but then I also appreciate artistically-minded films more than many. I don’t want to limit the kinds of films I watch or fall into thinking that any kind of film is better than another. All that would come of that is a limiting of my own growth as a film lover and as a person.

In the end, I stand by one thing: I love film. I love everything about it. That’s something I won’t allow anyone to take away from me. And as I grow and change I hope my tastes grow and change right along with me. And most of all, I hope I never get so jaded as to stop getting enjoyment from the purity of a simple, entertaining film. If that makes me middlebrow, then I guess I’m doomed to be middlebrow, but in that case I’ll own it and wear the badge with honour.

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15 responses to Doomed to the Middlebrow, or Why I Watch Films

  1. 

    Indeed it’s a badge you should wear with honor. Tbh I find people who only go for arthouse movies, frowning at anything that is even remotely successful in the box office just as narrowminded and uninteresting to listen to as those who stick to the bestsellers and nothing else.
    Openminded is a different word for middlebrow. And it’s something we all should strive for.

    • 

      That’s why I love guys like Chuck (1SO). He’s seen so many movies, and he’s watching all these obscure films to fill in the gaps in his knowledge, but he’s still totally open to anything, including most simple narratives and good Hollywood films.

  2. 

    I like Hollywood films too, BFF.

  3. 

    I’ve been going back through my reviews of the past few years and one thing I noticed was how much I was solidly liking films like Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, etc. And those films were indeed enjoyable in the moment but have largely faded. And that is one of the reasons I’ve been watching less of the popcorn movies this year. It isn’t that I’ve grown too good for them or wouldn’t enjoy them anymore, I’m just targeting those films I hope will have greater lasting resonance. Sometimes those films are blockbusters and sometimes they are indie films, but there are a lot of blockbusters that I feel confident won’t be resonant.

    • 

      I’m with you man. I tend to go through phases of film watching. I’ll get turned on to something and begin devouring a few other films like it and then move on to the next thing. But when I do this it’s always because I’ve been stimulated by something more lastingly great that a simple diversion. That said, I am never above a simple diversion. Sometimes it’s just all you need.

  4. 

    One thing that really bugs me is when people try to tell others that their tastes in movies are somehow inferior to their own, especially when they don’t even really know the person. As you state in this excellent post, everyone’s views on movies are constantly changing based on life and just seeing more films. It’s a never-ending discovery, which is one of my favorite things about movies. I haven’t experienced this type of vitriol yet since I started my blog, but I’m sure it will happen eventually. Everyone’s tastes are their own, and even people that watch challenging films can be really close-minded too.

    • 

      I frequently exaggerate and use objective sounding rhetoric, just because it’s fun. But I don’t actually believe for a second that anyone else can be more right or wrong about their feelings for a film than I am. That’s just silly.

      • 

        Just to make sure it’s clear, I wasn’t saying that you thought that way. It was more in response to the people who were attacking you online. I agree that it’s silly, but there seem to be a decent amount of people online who aren’t having fun when they’re arguing about a movie.

  5. 

    Therapeutic vent! Since cinema is about exploration, it’s too bad your internet antagonist won’t broaden his horizons–Oh, and I love your banner picture at the top!

  6. 

    Well written article, Corey, and it’s something I think any film fan has grappled with over the journey, especially since the internet has made all of our opinions accessible to everyone else. I completely agree with you – everyone has different tastes in film, from arthouse European fare to obscure Asian cinema (I once met a guy who spent three hours next to me discussing Korean cinema over the last 30 years with an associate of his, and made me feel somewhat insignificant for how much I DIDN’T know about the subject!) and I guess the motto of this issue is this: if we all enjoyed the same films, the world would be particularly boring.

    And I’ve also had my ego bruised in an internet argument. Sometimes, there’s just no winning those fights.

    Can I suggest an article to read, which is of a similar subject (although more pointed to the critical side of film blogging, as opposed to our individual love of films) from Sam at Duke & The Movies. It’s quite well written as well: http://dukeandthemovies.com/featured/the-state-of-film-criticism

  7. 

    Wait…In consecutive order in your marathon you watched Borzage, Tarr, Kusturica, Ichikawa, Tsai and Chahine and you’ve been called “middlebrow”? Regardless of that fact that you’re just plain wrong about Werckmeister Harmonies (heh, I kid…B-) ), I’m kinda baffled how that comment could come about…Kudos to you for not pointing back to the original argument to make your accuser look even more foolish. Very classy sir.

    I would agree with pretty much all the comments so far – there’s room for art-house, cult, mainstream, indie, blockbuster, etc. in anyone’s film diet – and there’s no shame in liking elements of all those categories. I admit I get occasionally frustrated when I see people not wanting to even try something a bit out of their comfort zone and to stick only with major releases at the multiplex, but I have to take a step back and realize that not everyone loves film as much as we do or who aren’t looking as broad in scope (being a generalist can be difficult sometimes as you can never get on top of the massive “to see” list – but I guess that’s one of its advantages as well…). For example, I know little to nothing about the world of the graphic novel except for the obvious stuff I read as a kid or minor details about those that get turned into movies.

    Of course, one of the reasons is that I’m afraid I would get sucked in and I simply don’t have enough time for another obsession…B-)

    • 

      Yeah, I definitely get frustrated too. But like you I then need to take a step back and realize I am not coming from a normal perspective. I do still try to encourage people to step outside of their comfort zone a little, but that’s just a good thing to encourage for anyone regarding any subject.

      Though I’ll still admit to nearly throwing a fit when a friend told me he watched Apocalypse Now and found it terrible and boring. I asked what version he watched. He said he watched only half of the theatrical and it took him several nights at in 10-20 minute chunks to accomplish that. I came so close to throttling him. lol

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Everybody’s Talkin’ 11 – 4 (Chatter from Other Bloggers) | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective - November 4, 2011

    […] this week by linking the article he linked me in. Young Corey has recently been accused of being“Middlebrow”…whatever that’s supposed to […]

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