October 13, 2003

In Praise of the Middle Brow Culture

NOTE: This is just a quick post on a couple of movies I saw this weekend. Nothing financial in it. The obnoxious opinions expressed here are purely my own. This post from Terry Teachout (author of a book on Mencken which is sitting on my desk at home), on middle brow culture in America is worth a patient read. The point that struck me most: the middlebrow culture on which I was raised was a common culture, based on the existence of widely shared values, and it is now splintered beyond hope of repair. Under the middlebrow regime, ordinary Americans were exposed to a wide range of cultural options from which they could pick and choose at will. They still do so, but without the preliminary exposure to the unfamiliar that once made their choices potentially more adventurous. He's right. Today, we're getting movies which represent radically different sets of values. Take two movies I saw this weekend, Ken Park and Seabiscuit. They couldn't be more different. I wonder which one is a more accurate description of today's America. In terms of "values," the films have little in common (though not nothing.) Ken Park's director, Larry Clark is fixated on teenage sexuality. His movie is about a group of teenage friends growing up in Visalia, California. All the kids' parents have faults that end up hurting the kids. Sexual abuse. Substance abuse. Emotional abuse (even when it's disguised as affection.) The kids do the best they can to cope. And in the end the director seems to say that even though the world is mostly hopeless, you can find companionship (and sex) with your friends and, maybe, just maybe, prevent tragedy. That would be a generous interpretation. I don't mind movies made to shock. There's a certain value to it And sometimes, an audience needs it. But showing teenage sex doesn't really shock. It's just kind of creepy. And you get the feeling that the director is really more interested in teenage bodies than teenage hearts and minds, or souls. In the end, I think the movie is about how about an adult interested in the sex life of kids thinks those kids see the world. And I hope he's wrong. But the kids do find ways to "fix" each other (even though the director suggests the world itself is hopelessly broken.) And in that sense, Ken Park and Seabiscuit have something in common, the "fixing" that friendship can do. But there the similarities end. Seabiscuit is about how in the face of universal bad times, people can find ways to help each other and not lose faith in the world either. Maybe I'm a soft touch, but I prefer the Seabiscuit take on life. that life is a gift, not a burden to be endured (as the last line in Ken Park suggests). Life is not a sexually transmitted disease. And without giving too much away of the movie, I'd say Seabiscuit is far more representative of America than Ken Park. Of course, Larry Clark probably wants us to believe that "Seabiscuit" is the comfortable myth...but the world is much more like "Ken Park" than any of us would care to admit it. Maybe. The world is what it is. Sometimes we're astounded and disheartened with how cruel and meaningless it seems. And sometimes, we're incredibly grateful we have people to share it with...people who don't just comfort us in our desolation...but help "fix" that part of the world that we occupy. Maybe. By the way, you probably won't find Ken Park playing anywhere in the States. It was banned in Australia. It's extremely graphic sexually...not in a gratuitous way, I don't think. But it's not going to be at Bockbuster anytime soon either. It got a feature review, of course, in the weekly movie guide I pick up each Wednesday. And that's an interesting question to think about when you read Terry Teachout's article. High-culture has gone from paintings that exalt the divine to movies that gawk at teenage sex. Are the French simply more tolerant for distributing the movie (it's off limits unless you're over 16), or can you pass off a lot of unseemly behavior by claiming to be a disinterested intellectual or "artist?" Maybe this is the logical conclusion of intellectual (and atheistic) elitism...disparaging anything with "meaning" as bourgeois. What you're left with is a heartless propensity to leer at life's tragedies and celebrate them precisely because they're so discouraging. Go see Sea Biscuit instead. (ironically, the French translation for the title is "Pur Sang," or pure blood.


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