“Upstream Color,” which most likely cost less to make than “Oblivion” cost to cater, has already become a sensation on the festival circuit this past year, earning applause for its audaciously experimental structure, loop-de-loop story line and adamant refusal to offer viewers the slightest hint of what is going on inside the hermetic — if richly imagined — world Carruth creates on-screen.
“Oblivion,” for its part, has received middling to positive reviews as a well-made sci-fi action-adventure, featuring a reliably macho Cruise flying planes, riding motorcycles, kissing girls and staring down murderous robotic drones.
Whereas “Upstream Color” is a film — opaque, inscrutable, challenging — “Oblivion" is a movie: simple, conventional, escapist. Whereas “Upstream Color” is niche (it opens Friday at the West End Cinema, in a theater that holds 95 seats), “Oblivion” is unapologetically mass: It can be seen in 40 theaters throughout the D.C. region alone.
Whereas “Upstream Color” is highbrow, in other words, “Oblivion” is middlebrow.
Like most critics, I’ve been known to use that term derisively, with a contemptuous sniff, to dismiss movies that sought the audience’s approval by way of predictable stories, slick production values and interchangeable Q-rated movie stars. Pandering, un-demanding, philosophically inert, these are the movies so desperate to be palatable that they wind up being the screen equivalent of a suburban strip mall: featureless, bland, efficient for commerce but deadening for the soul (and yes, Katherine Heigl, I’m looking at you).
They can be manipulative and often dishonest. But so can even the most vaunted highbrow films (yes, Todd Solondz, I’m looking at you). But recently, I’ve begun to question whether “middlebrow” always deserves to be a pejorative. There are plenty of movies that, while not aspiring to high art or slumming their way to the lowest common denominator, qualify as middlebrow — and also happen to be skillfully made, generously humanistic and genuinely entertaining.
Where highbrow films seek to unsettle audiences and lowbrow films seek to anesthetize them, middlebrow films seek to comfort and stimulate viewers simultaneously. They may not always be feel-good, but they never go to gratuitous lengths to make us feel bad. Frank Capra was the consummate middlebrow director; we have Steven Spielberg, who has pursued the middlebrow via media with remarkably consistent results: For every starchy “Amistad” or saccharine “War Horse,” we’ve gotten a superbly crafted “Jaws” or “E.T.” or “Saving Private Ryan.”