Cast adrift against the futuristic backdrop of a science-fiction thriller, a man and a woman pursue a mysterious romance, haunted by mutual fleeting memories they may or may not genuinely share.
Put briefly, that sentence could summarize the plot of two movies opening Friday: “Upstream Color,” a small-canvas drama written, directed, produced, shot, scored, edited by and featuring Shane Carruth, as well as “Oblivion,” a $120 million, ubiquitously marketed behemoth starring Tom Cruise.
“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.”
Like fellow middlebrow maestros Clint Eastwood and Ron Howard (as well as Steven Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant when they feel like it), Spielberg understands and obeys the rules of the middlebrow film — conventions as codified and classifiable as those that govern Westerns, thrillers and romantic comedies.
To wit: A good middlebrow movie is simple but never simplistic. It’s accessible but never patronizing. It’s high-gloss but never just eye candy. It’s relatable but never banal. It’s straightforward but never on-the-nose. It’s audience-friendly, but it never begs to be liked. By these criteria, “The Blind Side,” with its matter-of-fact lack of melodrama, was a good middlebrow movie, while “The Help,” with its glib, caricatured view of racism and its discontents, was not. “Lincoln,” rich in production values but un-pretentious in its storytelling, was all that a middlebrow movie should be. The maudlin, meretricious “Forrest Gump” embodies everything that gives middlebrow a bad name.
The most recent example of a good middlebrow movie is “42,” Brian Helgeland’s long-awaited movie about the trailblazing baseball player Jackie Robinson. Leaving naturalism and nuance behind, Helgeland staged “42” with a combination of nostalgia and dogged earnestness, giving 1940s Florida and Brooklyn the spit-shine perfection of a studio back lot and Robinson’s difficult story a gentle top-spin of consoling uplift.
The Robinson of “42” was undeniably idealized, shorn of psychological complexity and elevated (reduced?) to something of a secular saint.
But were I to knock “42” solely on that basis, I’d be lying about how pleasurable the movie is on a purely sensual, emotional level, how Helgeland’s prettified past throws into even sharper relief the vile abuse Robinson suffered, and how gratifying it is to see his story finally being told in a rousing, old-school version of the most important medium of our time.
The fact that Helgeland chose to make “42” using that medium’s most wholesome values shouldn’t be held against him. Rather, he deserves credit for that choice, and for making a film that, while sentimental and earnest, largely avoids being condescending (except when the director overplays Mark Isham’s treacly score). With “42,” Helgeland has made a classic middlebrow film in the best sense of the word: meaningful but not self-consciously profound; aesthetically safe; resolutely un-edgy in tone. (You won’t see heads blown off or needles in arms in a classic middlebrow film; profanity and nudity will be kept to a minimum.) Like its classic middlebrow forebears, “42” seeks to access our pleasure centers, but it does so by satisfying the audience’s desire for reassurance and resolution rather than exploiting it. It may not set out to blow our minds, but it doesn’t set out to insult them, either.
And it looks as if the gambit is working: “42” knocked it out of the park at the box office last weekend, earning $27.5 million and becoming the strongest-opening baseball movie in history. It bears noting that, like most but not all middlebrow movies, “42” is rated PG-13 — a category that gets little respect in a post-Tarantino era of “Bridesmaids” and torture porn. Just a few days ago, National Association of Theater Owners President John Fithian called on Hollywood studios to make fewer R-rated movies — for everyone’s good. (Nine out of 10 of last year’s top-earning films were rated G or PG-13.) “Make more family-friendly films and fewer R-rated titles,” Fithian told executives gathered at the movie industry trade show CinemaCon in Las Vegas. “Americans have stated their choice.”
Put another way: Mass is the new niche. In an increasingly fragmented media multiverse, being middlebrow may be downright subversive. Thanks to festivals, on-demand and funding mechanisms such as Kickstarter, the cinematic ecosystem will continue to find ways for the “Upstream Colors” of the world to thrive, just as lowbrow spectacle will never go away.
But a healthy ecology will also make space for movies that aren’t ashamed to meet their audience halfway without overreaching or underestimating. As “42” proves, you can admit you want to be liked and still deserve some love.