A low-brow view of films

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.


  1. says

    In english classes (at least all the ones I’ve had) it’s common to read a book and then analyze the author’s intent. In middle school & high school, I always thought this was the height of silliness; can you really infer what the author means when he gives someone “blue-gray eyes”? Isn’t it just as likely that the author thought blue-gray eyes looked cool?

    It occurred to me, finally, that the point is not necessarily to infer the author’s intent; it’s to infer what you think the intent is. Really good films, books, and albums make you think. I’m not sure it matters if what they make you think about is what the author/director/musician intended you to think about! So, I think it matters less whether an author purposely made a character’s eyes blue-gray or whether Lindsay Anderson purposely filmed certain scenes in black & white (even though he clearly didn’t).

    This seems like a cop-out. However, I think the purpose of art is to get us to think about things. It’s really a form of communication; so some art is for fun (action movies, and a lot of serial sci-fi), some of it causes a thousand and one ideas in a thousand people, and some of it causes one thought in a thousand people. Arguably, the last category is the highest form of art: someone managed to communicate (through film, poetry, fiction, or music) a single idea to a lot of people, and they’re all talking about that one idea. Really, though, we need all three types: we have to enjoy ourselves, and getting a thousand ideas from a single film means that there might be a thousand new films inspired by that single original film.

  2. Paul Jarc says

    I can definitely relate. I like movies, and sometimes I get an idea of what the message is, but if not, I can still enjoy them. I can even enjoy a “bad” movie, as long as I go into it knowing what to expect. (Of course, it doesn’t help when the advertising misrepresents the tone of the movie—I’m looking at you, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Very Bad Things.)

    I saw Mulholland Drive, and it was interesting, and then I read an explanation, and it made a whole heckuva lot more sense. (I.e., I think this explanation is very likely what David Lynch actually had in mind, or close to it.) Memento is a favorite of mine, and I think I managed to get a pretty good idea of what the director had in mind on my own with that one, although multiple viewings certainly helped. Side note: my uncle once considered screening Memento with the reels out of order.

    V: to add to your point, I’d also say a single work can have a clear message from the maker, and also can inspire tangents from the audience. I’d even say in any work of decent quality that isn’t purely meant for fun, both factors are almost always present, just in varying degrees.

    I’m also reminded of my cousin’s book club that had a deep, extended discussion of the symbolism of the setting of certain scenes in a rose garden. When they got the chance to ask the author about it, he just said “well, I had to have it happen somewhere“.

  3. says

    Like V, I remember finding some literary analysis to be over the top. While the teacher was explaining that Faulker placed a white rose on the table to represent death, I couldn’t help but wonder if he just thought it looked right in the room he’d envisioned in his head. My dream was to write a successful novel then come back to school to explain to the teachers that their interpretation of my symbolism was entirely wrong. Alas, I’m well behind schedule on finishing the novel, let alone reaching such heights!

    Yet, I have discovered in writing short stories, that no matter how silly they may be, I do often incorporate some sort of symbol or hint. I think of them more as inside jokes. If someone gets the reference it will add to the story, but if not it should still work. The Simpsons and Family Guy do a lot of that as well.

    Movie-wise a fun example of this is The Player. They open with an 8 minute continuous shot that harkens back to scenes from classic films. In this case they let the audience in on the joke because they reference these films in the dialogue while it is happening.

    I think the great thing about films and books though is as you’ve said, you don’t need to notice all of the levels of depth. While a certain quality of light, the use of a hand-held camera, etc. may add certain qualities, we can all enjoy the effects of those techniques and tools even if we don’t realize how they are used.

    I wonder in fact, if it might be distracting to notice too much. In college my campus job was theater electrician. For the first few years after, whenever I went to a play I think I paid more attention to the lighting than I did to the acting.

    Perhaps it all depends on one’s goal. One can relax and just enjoy a movie for the fun of it, or watch it more closely (and repeatedly) to discover the deeper nuances.

    On a related note, The Case Film Society is showing CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles, 1941) at Strosacker Auditorium on Tuesday, March 20, at 7:15 for FREE!

  4. says

    Mano, I’ve not scene RKO 281 but it sounds intriguing.

    Mulholland Drive and Memento were both worth multiple viewings. (FYI, The Cinematheque is wrapping up its showing of Lynch’s new film tonight.)

    My film prof. always had us watch every movie twice. He did this not only so we would catch more details, but because he said that each viewing creates a different experience. While it is technically the same piece of art it is perceived differently each time.

    I imagine that would be true of any art, but perhaps more so for 4 dimensional pieces that take place over a given course of time than for 2/3 dimensional images and objects.

  5. says

    Heidi: I agree that attention to technique can result in the viewer “stepping out” of the film and losing the suspension of disbelief that is so vital to enjoyment. I usually enjoy technique when I watch a film the second time around. (Thanks for the heads up about Citizen Kane. I had been meaning to see it again on DVD but the big screen is much better. Did you see the film RKO 281 about the making of that film? It was pretty good.)

    Paul: Memento and Mulholland Drive were films that I watched a second time after seeing them, being baffled, and then reading about them prior to the second viewing. The second time around, I was better able to appreciate technique since imporant elements had been pointed out to me and I was not as absorbed trying to figure out the story.

    V: I think your point that what is important is not what the artist intended but what it makes us think about is a good one. I can understand that better with respect to abstract art, though. With books and films, I can’t break the feeling that the author’s intent is there somewhere. As Heidi says, someties the authors drops hints. But at other times, certain things may have a reason but are not consciously inserted by the author. Uncovering both things can be fun, if not essential to the enjoyment of the basic work.

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