Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Highbrow vs. Lowbrow

NOTE: This post is rated R for adult themes and mild strong language.


Nobody needs to be encouraged to embrace lowbrow entertainment. Widespread embrace of the vulgar is nothing new; in fact, the word “vulgar” derives from the Latin word “vulgus” meaning “the common people.” You’re probably thinking, especially given my last sentence there, that in comparing lowbrow vs. highbrow entertainment I would always champion the latter. Thus you may be surprised, perhaps pleasantly so, that I also think it possible to embrace the highbrow too enthusiastically. In this post I will use a pair of recent entertainments to examine the question of when and how we should choose one brow height over another.

My credentials

Naturally, before you spend any time reading this, you’ll want to satisfy yourself that I’m even in a position to comment. After all, since I’m an opera-hating jeans-wearing guy without a graduate degree, who likes all pizza—even frozen pizza—and can’t help but pronounce the name “Proust” to rhyme with “oust” instead of “boost,” you may question my authority in casting aspersions on the highest cultural realms our society can achieve. On the other hand, since I often post really long essays to this blog, have a liberal arts degree, and pronounce “crêpe” to rhyme with “pep” rather than “scrape,” and since I actually bothered with the accent over the “ê” just now, you may consider me so far out of touch with the mainstream that I could never give lowbrow entertainment a fair shake. I hope to put both of these misgivings to rest.

As far as my highbrow cred, I literally do have a fairly high brow, and as I get older and my hairline recedes, it’s only getting higher. I majored in English. I have had some success reading St. Augustine, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Mikhail Lermontov in the original Latin, French, and Russian, respectively, and I know how to use the word “respectively.” I have enjoyed live theater performances of “Faust,” “Volpone,” and various Shakespeare plays. I have been to a poetry reading, and I enjoyed it. I can write a sonnet.

On the lowbrow side: I can recite the entire ad copy of a Coast deodorant soap commercial from the ‘80s; I watched “Star Wars” nine or ten times in the theater when it first came out, and again as an adult; I can sing the theme song to “Gilligan’s Island.” I avoid listening to NPR (lest I find myself playing it in my Volvo while driving through Berkeley, which would render me a human cliché) in favor of FM 107.7, The Bone. I almost snorted with derisive laughter when a realtor touted a condo in my old neighborhood as being “walking distance to the thea-tah.” I call a spade a spade when it comes to overbearing, insufferably pretentious and dull movies like “The Remains of the Day.”

In this corner…

What could be a more timely representative of the lowbrow camp than “Avatar”? I saw it recently and have much to report.

First, the bad news. Two tickets ran us $34, by far the most we’ve ever spent on a movie. Parking was another $10. My 3-D glasses were pretty grubby and I had to wonder how many filthy kids had worn them before me. Then, given the combination of 3-D and having to settle for front-row IMAX seats, I had a hard time, for the first half-hour, focusing on everything on the screen. Trying to make out the facial expression on a twenty-foot tall 3-D head, for example, made my eyeballs hurt. Thus, I had trouble getting into the trance that is the unique pleasure of a movie in the theater. And I haven’t even gotten to the plot cheese yet.

Before discussing the plot, I’ll take a moment to dismiss the more nitpicky things. The price was actually pretty economical when you compare it to other IMAX movies, like the lousy Mt. Everest thing I saw years ago that only lasted like forty minutes. Besides, “Avatar” cost like half a billion dollars to make, and it shows. (I’ve always enjoyed how the length and budget of a movie don’t affect its price.) Ultimately, $17 a pop is perfectly reasonable because from the standpoint of spectacle, “Avatar” is fricking awesome. My mind hasn’t been so satisfyingly blown by a moviegoing experience since I saw “Pink Floyd - The Wall” in 1982.

As for the plot of “Avatar,” I say if you’re going to do anything cheesy, the action or sci-fi genre is where to do it. When romance or comedy is cheesy, it’s pretty much unwatchable, as in the case of “Titanic.” The cheeseball stuff in “Avatar” isn’t actually that bad. Sure, a final man-to-man showdown was utterly predictable, and the anti-corporate message was a bit twee in the context of the most well-funded and lucrative movie ever made, but we were all braced for the cheese factor going in.

Meanwhile, Cameron gets major style points for staging a giant battle between a state-of-the-art military battalion and a bunch of natives with spears. The last time this was tried was in “Return of the Jedi,” with those damned Ewoks, and I don’t need to tell you how utterly awful that was. For anybody to repeat that kind of matchup again takes some serious cajones. And trust me, the “Avatar” battle scene is fricking glorious. I went from wondering how a bird could take down a giant military helicopter to gasping and (inwardly) cussing with delight at seeing how it’s done.

On top of delivering on pure action-chewing satisfaction, this movie makes you think—in a good way. For an action movie to make you think can of course be a bad thing; for example, if you try to sort out the time-travel nonsense in “The Terminator” or the recent “Star Trek,” you start to wonder if the movie was really that good after all. But here are some of the interesting things “Avatar” can make you ponder long after the film itself is over:
  • Neytiri, the main Na’vi character, was pretty hot. The movie’s creators evidently want the audience to feel something like actual lust for a member of another species. Should we as a society be concerned about where this is headed?
  • Why did I have vision problems for the first thirty minutes of the film? How is it that my brain eventually adjusted? Could this movie have actually made me smarter somehow?
  • Why didn’t this movie win Best Picture at the Oscars? Is it because the Academy are a bunch of fricking idiots, as was so strongly suggested by “Chicago” winning in 2002 despite being just about the dumbest movie ever made? Or is it because “The Hurt Locker” has such a compelling name that people just want to like it, the way they like tiramisu and Hootie & the Blowfish? Or, could it be that “The Hurt Locker” is actually a better movie, to which all hundred or so people who saw it can attest?
  • What does the brilliant use of 3-D in “Avatar” mean for the future of movies? Could properly executed, non-gimicky 3-D rejuvenate the theatergoing experience, at least until home theater systems catch up? Could great 3-D make it possible to revive formerly moribund movie franchises? For example, even though the “My Dinner with Andre” trilogy was never completed after its second installment, “My Dessert with Andre,” fizzled at the box office, might not “Dinner/Andre/3-D” be just the kind of shot in the arm this property needs?
And in this corner…

Against “Avatar” I pit the King Tut exhibit at the newly revamped de Young museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. On paper, this exhibit should be a fearsome contender in our highbrow vs. lowbrow face-off. The exhibit is being held at a famous museum in a legitimate world city; everybody has heard of King Tut; mummies have captured our collective imagination since we were kids; Tutankhamen reigned over Egypt when it was a massive world power; and, even in death, Tut out-pimps even the richest rap star. And, we can bring the kids! For months Erin has been telling Alexa and Lindsay how they’re going to get to see a real mummy!

As before, I’ll start with the bad news. It’s really, really expensive. As in, $27.50 for adults on weekdays, and $32.50 on the weekend. Each. Seniors over sixty-five, after working all their lives, save a whopping two dollars, and kids over age five are $16.50. That’s some serious coin. Haven’t these museum people heard about the economic meltdown? How many eggheaded liberal arts types actually make enough money to spring for such a thing?

At least we’d be getting a guided tour for our money. (When our family toured the Tower of London last summer, the tour guide was a real highlight.) But when we showed up at the appointed place at the appointed time, nobody was there. An employee told us, “Oh, when there aren’t a lot of people, we meet at the bottom of those stairs over there.”

Downstairs, we found the ticket-takers and were shown to a big pair of doors. I asked the guy there if he was the tour guide. “Oh, there’s no tour,” he said. “Unless you want the audio tour; you can get your listening device over there.” For nine dollars extra, per person, that is. No thanks; between the usurious entrance fee, the parking, and the $20 we’d blown on a quick snack in the museum cafeteria, we weren’t feeling that flush. Besides, a tour should be given by a real person, ideally a really smart, knowledgeable, and funny person who can answer questions.

But still, our spirits were high. While we waited for the doors to be opened, Erin tried to pump the kids up a bit. “Girls, this is it!” she said. “We’re finally going to get to see a real mummy!” But the doorman broke in: “Uh, actually, there’s no mummy here.” That’s right, not only is King Tut not part of the exhibit, but no other mummy is, either. The guy said the U.S. has “a mummy” but it’s over at Stanford undergoing some tests. He went on to say that we would get to see the coffins of Tut’s two stillborn daughters. That didn’t exactly cheer us up. Erin asked if the daughters were twins. The guy had no idea.

Finally we were let in. There were little things in cases—statues and stuff. One was a bust of some princess or other, with this strangely elongated head, roughly the shape an unshelled peanut. Lindsay asked me why the head was so strangely shaped, but I couldn’t tell her; oddly enough, the little plaque just said something like, “Lots of statues of the period had strangely elongated heads. The reason is not known.” Next to this was a bust of Nefertiti which was actually pretty cool. Her head wasn’t all elongated, and I like to use the phrase “bust of Nefertiti.” Good ring to it.

I guess I should have sprung for the audio tour. For those without it, I think there should be elevator music of some kind, because it’s hard to think about King Tut without getting that Steve Martin song from the “Saturday Night Live” skit stuck in your head. It gets really old after awhile.

There were ten rooms full of stuff. In the third or fourth room was a big coffin in the shape of an Egyptian. It wasn't as fancy as what Tut got, but was still pretty ornate, with the Battlestar Galactica headdress and everything. It’d have been even cooler if they’d made a full-sized wooden replica that we could climb inside, or if somebody knowledgeable could have helped me fully appreciate what I was seeing; there’s only so long you can gaze at an object and wonder about it. (Perhaps you’re thinking that, my earlier credentials notwithstanding, I’m just not cut out for museums. Not so. I have enjoyed many museums in my life, including such humble venues as the Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, Kansas and the little Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and I spent three days taking in the Smithsonian.)

The coffins of the stillborn daughters were much less impressive. They were very small and looked more like the shoeboxes that the coffins might have come in. Meanwhile, the plaque told us that it isn’t actually known whether these were Tut’s daughters, or somebody else’s. Most of the plaques and things had this sort of “whatever” aura about them—the written equivalent of a guy shrugging and saying, “Who knows? It was a long time ago.” The most commonly mentioned fact was that Tut was only nineteen when he died, and he died for no known reason. This was hammered into our heads again and again. From an educational standpoint, the entire exhibit reminded me of a student paper printed in a really big fixed font, with wide margins, to meet the five-page-minimum requirement.

Probably the coolest thing we saw was the “coffinette.” Only fifteen inches tall, it was something they put some of Tut’s organs in. I wish I’d looked at it longer, but I was really looking forward to seeing Tut’s actual coffin in the final room of the exhibition. But when we got there, there was no coffin to be found: just a video showing all his coffins, nested like Russian Petrushka dolls, the largest shrouded in a pair of giant gold boxes. The cheek! All these coffins, and you couldn’t include a single one in your exhibit? There was also mention of servants who were buried in the same crypt with Tut, to help him in the afterlife. Couldn’t the museum have thrown in a servant mummy or two? Or one of the servant’s coffins at least? We’d been duped: the picture on the ads (that I included above), showing the gorgeous coffin, was actually a picture of the coffinette, shown pretty much full-scale.

Somebody needs to explain to these curators that the whole idea of a museum is that you see actual ancient objects with the naked eye. If all they have to show me is video on a TV screen anyway, why shouldn’t I just go see a movie, maybe in 3-D at an IMAX theater? I want from a museum what the best video technology cannot give me. And I want the attraction I came to see; I want to see Tut, not just some of the crap they found in his car.

In the final room, we saw what I guess was supposed to be the highlight of the exhibit: a big slab on the floor onto which a ceiling-mounted projector shone a picture of Tut’s mummified body. This photo showed the location of some of the articles (a knife, a breastplate) that were on display. For some reason, the slab they were projecting onto was black, so the image was cloudy and vague, like a ghost. (Perhaps they didn’t even have good photos of the mummy—maybe just some black-and-white ones taken in 1950?) Lindsay pointed out, “King Tut was a lot taller than you, Dana.” For a second I was tempted to reply, “Actually, people in that time were much smaller than modern man. The size of this image is completely arbitrary, as it’s based on the distance between the projector and this slab, and thus on the ceiling height of this room.” But I didn’t want to deprive my daughter of whatever sense of wonder she might be gleaning from the exhibit. So I said, “That’s right, Lindsay, Tut was a very tall man. That’s why he was king.” (Note to de Young curators: this is called showmanship. Something lowbrow entertainers have a nice grasp of.)


The big lesson to take from the Tut exhibit is this: highbrow entertainers shouldn’t abuse the privilege. Sure, they’ll get some mileage out of the Emperor’s New Clothes effect; some striving intelligentsia will pay a lot of money just to say, “Well, we just took in the Tutankhamen exhibit at the de Young on Sunday” (they would never just say “Tut” when they could showcase their ability to pronounce “Tutankhamen”). But if you’re going to do highbrow, you can’t do it half-assed and expect to please the more discerning members of your already limited audience.

The flip side of this is that some of the greatest entertainment is achieved by aiming for lowbrow and doing such a good job that the resulting product is vaulted past the supposed limitations of its humble category. In other words, real genius is not actually reserved for the intellectual elite.

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of this is children’s literature, which is lowbrow almost by definition. Children, after all, are too small to have high brows, and too young to follow, say, the ontological discussions of Jacques Derrida or the subtleties of a Samuel Beckett play. But great literature doesn’t require advanced vocabulary or complex literary structure; just look at books like The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White or Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Critics have long challenged the idea that Huckleberry Finn is a children’s book at all, and as for The Trumpet of the Swan, the other day my kids were playing a tape of the author reading it, and it sucked me right in.

It would be a disservice to the highbrow types to suggest that big words or complicated intellectual concepts are the only qualities of their preferred entertainment. I’m led to believe that opera lovers truly enjoy the singers’ voices, on a purely aesthetic level (in addition to the pleasure they get from ancient drama told beautifully in another language). What the opera lovers might be surprised to learn is that what they might consider opera’s musical opposite—rap—can also be enjoyed on the basis of the rapper’s voice. For example, the rapper Obie Trice has a great voice, rich and defiant and chewy, and I’d like to meet him some day and, ideally, piss him off, because to be chewed out by that guy would surely send shivers down my spine.

Rap is actually a great example of transcendent lowbrow. Rakim has said, “It’s just the beat, the beat, the beat,” but really, it isn’t. In terms of articulating teen angst in simple language, Holden Caulfield has nothing on Eminem, who raps, “That’s when you start to stare at who’s in the mirror and see your self as a kid again/ And you get embarrassed/ And I got nothing to do but make you look stupid as parents/ You fuckin’ do-gooders, too bad you couldn’t do good at marriage.”

But simple language isn’t the hallmark of rap music; the lyrics are often as complex and ingenious as classic poetry. Consider this line from Obie Trice: “Ob’ Trice rock harder than infinite horny men.” It’s funny, of course, but it’s also remarkably sophisticated. (Some literary types may bristle at the rap convention of boasting, but is Shakespeare any different when he writes “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/ So long lives this [poem], and this gives life to thee”?) Trice not only finds a solid metaphor to express how hard he rocks, but he also packs a second message about his virility through the implied verb “to be.” That is, he’s also saying “Ob’ Trice be rock-harder than infinite horny men.” It’s a nice grammatical twist: “rock” is a verb in one context and an adverb in the other, while “harder” does double duty as an adjective and an adverb. And that’s not all. By using “infinite” as you would a specific number, the way kids do (e.g., “My dad could beat up infinity-plus-one of your dads!”), Trice reminds us of his lack of education, thus highlighting how clever he can be without it. Not a bad bunch of layers for an eight-word sentence.

All of us English majors know how jam-packed classic poems are with allusions to literature, history, and such; it’s why there are so many footnotes to wade through. Good rap isn’t so different. When Eminem raps, “If I had one wish, I would ask for a big enough ass for the whole world to kiss,” he’s alluding to (and mocking) a well-known 1971 Coke ad (“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love”). And when he bags on his mom for his crappy childhood—“Goin’ through public housing systems, victim of Munchausen Syndrome/ My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn’t,/ ‘Til I grew up, now I blew up, it makes you sick to your stomach”—the attentive listener reaches for his encyclopedia. (Eminem is actually talking about Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, by the way.)

I hope I’ve helped you appreciate how lowbrow entertainment can transcend the more modest ambitions of its genre. It may seem that I’m also suggesting that highbrow entertainment should try to aim a bit lower. Certainly there’s precedent for this, like how Nabokov gleefully saturates Lolita in references to ‘50s pop culture. But I’m not saying highbrow entertainment necessarily should do this; Tolstoy plays Anna Karenina completely straight and it’s a masterpiece. Dumbing down serious art is the last thing I’d recommend, but it’s tempting to say high culture should take itself less seriously. Then again, the failure of the Tut exhibit was, I think, that it didn’t take itself or its audience seriously enough. What I will conclude is that highbrow entertainment shouldn’t be afraid of enticing a larger audience even at the risk of alienating its cultural elite.

For example, I’ve witnessed firsthand how a famous museum can amuse the masses even within a serious exhibit. The Tower of London had a great name for its exhibition on the armor worn in the days of Henry VIII: “Dressed to Kill.” The irreverent British sense of humor permeated the exhibits; for example, they showed the suit of armor made for Henry VIII in his forties when he’d become quite fat, and didn’t pull punches in bagging on their famous king. I can’t remember the wording, but they went into some detail about how he’d become so dissipated and lame he never even wore the armor, begging off his tournament appearance against another king with some half-baked excuse.

Here’s another example of how simple pleasures can work within highbrow entertainment: I saw “The Last Station” recently, which is about the final months of Tolstoy’s life and the power struggle between his wife and the officers of his Tolstoyan political movement. Not exactly crowd-pleasing stuff. But early in the movie, our hero, a young man hired as Tolstoy’s new secretary, arrives at the Tolstoyan commune and sees an attractive young woman chopping wood. As soon as I saw the woman I thought, “Oh, those two are definitely going to hook up,” and I wasn’t wrong.

I don't fault the movie's creators for throwing a bone to the less bookish members of the audience; actually, for me the movie was more satisfying visually then intellectually. The apparent manipulation of Tolstoy by his acolytes seemed unrealistic, given his massive intellect, but would I have traded the scenes of the young lovers for half an hour of explanatory voice-over? I would not, and I give credit to the creators of “The Last Station” for remembering that this is a movie, after all—we came to see something. Who knows, perhaps “Remains of the Day” might have been tolerable if they’d had Anthony Hopkins slip into his Hannibal Lecter role and slaughter a few dozen Ewoks.
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