Although I watch a lot of films, I realized a long time ago that my appreciation of films (or plays or books or concerts) was decidedly at a ‘low brow’ level. To explain what I mean, it seems to me that there are four levels in which one can appreciate a film (or play). At the lowest level is just the story or narrative. The next level above that is some message that the writer or director is trying to convey and which is usually fairly obvious. People whose appreciation does not get beyond these two levels are those I call low-brow. And I am one of them.
But I am aware there are higher levels of appreciation and criticism that can be scaled. The third level is that of technique, such as the quality of writing and things like acting and directing and cinematography and sound and lighting. And then there is the fourth and highest level, which I call deep meaning or significance, where there is a hidden message which, unlike the message at the second level, is not at all obvious but which has to be unearthed (or even invented) by scholars in the field or people who have a keen sensitivity to such things.
I almost never get beyond the first two levels. In fact, if the first level does not appeal to me, then no level of technique or profundity will rescue the experience. This does not mean that the items in the third level do not matter. They obviously are central to the enjoyment of the experience. It is just that I rarely notice the third level items unless they are so bad that it ruins the storytelling aspect. If the dialogue or acting (for example) is really rotten, then I will notice it but if I don’t notice these things at all, then it means that they were good.
But I don’t even consider these things unless the first two levels are satisfactory. If the first two levels are bad, nothing at the higher levels can salvage the experience for me. I never leave a film saying things like “The story was awful but the camerawork was excellent.”
As an example, I really enjoy Alfred Hitchcock’s films and have seen nearly all of them, many multiple times. But I just enjoy the way he tells the stories. Since I enjoy reading about films after I have watched them, I often find people pointing out subtle effects of technique such as how he uses lighting or sets up a camera angle or how he creates a mood, and so on. While I enjoy having these things pointed out to me, I would never notice them on my own.
The same thing holds with the music soundtrack. When friends tell me that they enjoyed the soundtrack of a film that is not a musical, my usual response is “what soundtrack?” The only films in which I notice the soundtrack are those in which there are obvious songs, such as in (say) The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy, the latter having a wonderful theme song Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nillson and a beautifully haunting harmonica score that so pervades the film that even I noticed it.
The same happens with the fourth level of analysis, which is even more inaccessible to me. Just recently I read that in several of Hitchcock’s films, he was exploring homosexual themes. I had no idea and would never have figured that out on my own. While I have no talent for exploring these deeper levels of meaning, I appreciate the fact that there are people who can do so and are willing to share that knowledge. Reading them and talking about films with such knowledgeable and keenly observant people is a real pleasure.
I once had pretensions to ‘higher criticism’ (which deals with the third and fourth levels) myself but that ended one day when it became dramatically obvious that I had no clue how to do it. It was in 1975 when I watched the film If. . . (1968) by director Lindsay Anderson. I like Anderson’s films a lot. He creates strange and quirky films that deal with class politics in Britain, such as This Sporting Life (1963) and O Lucky Man (1973). The last one has an absolutely brilliant soundtrack and I noticed it because it consists of songs sung by British rocker Alan Price and he and his group periodically appear in the film to sing them, so you can’t miss the music. It is one of the rare CDs I bought of a film soundtrack, it was so good.
Anyway, my friends and I watched If. . . and we noticed that while most of the film was in color, some of the scenes were in black and white. We spent a long time afterwards trying to determine the significance of this, with me coming up with more and more elaborate explanations for the director’s intent, trying to make my theories fit the narrative. By an odd coincidence, soon after that I read an article that explained everything. It said that while making the film, Anderson had run low on money and had had to complete shooting with cheaper black and white film. Since films are shot out of sequence, the final product had this mix of color and black and white footage. That was it, the whole explanation, making laughable my elaborate theories about directorial intent. It was then that I gave up on the higher criticism, realizing that I would simply be making a fool of myself.
There are some films that are self-consciously technique-oriented, and I can appreciate them as such. For example Memento and Mulholland Drive are films that are clearly designed by the director to have the viewer try and figure out what is going on. They are like puzzles and I can enjoy them because they are essentially mystery stories (one of my favorite genres) in which the goal is to determine the director’s intent and methods used. Both films were a lot of fun to watch and grapple with.
But except in those special cases, I leave ‘higher criticism’ to those better equipped to do so. That is the nice thing about creative works of art. One can appreciate and enjoy them at so many different levels and each viewer or reader can select the level that best suits them.
Next: A low-brow view of books.