We all know there’s a time and place for both lowbrow and highbrow film – categories I’m crudely defining as commercial cinema and art house respectively – and that a vast, messy, awesome, in-between space exists that straddles both. But in this debate I’m going to conveniently ignore this because you have to make a choice. What’s more, as I passionately defend highbrow cinema, I’m going to raise the stakes.
In Australia in particular, highbrow film has associations with intellectual rigour and with being a pretentious twat. Embracing this position, I’d like you to think of this debate as a form of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return, if you will. But instead of deciding the kind of life you want to lead, I’m asking you to choose the kind of films you want to watch. Forever.
You have a choice: lowbrow film and highbrow film. The blue pill or the red pill.
Even if you don’t realise it, you live in a world dominated by lowbrow cinema; while you might think of lowbrow as an innocent, sweet outlet where for once you don’t have to take life so seriously, I invite you to re-consider. Look around you. As one independent cinema closes after another, cinema attendance numbers are plummeting, the arts are increasingly seen as less valuable to governments, and The Fast and the Furious franchise has made nearly two and half billion dollars. Lowbrow rules, and the world is fucked.
This matters because cinema is a powerful medium. Going to the movies, be it a Lav Diaz epic or a Michael Bay blockbuster, is an act of submission. You hand over $15 and the whole mash of your brain/senses/heart/dreams for ninety minutes. Susan Sontag likens the experience of watching a movie to ‘kidnapping’. David Foster Wallace extends this idea, saying, ‘Part of the magic of going to a movie is surrendering to it, letting it dominate you.’
And filmmakers know this. I’m thinking of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where Alex is ‘cured’ of his ultraviolent tendencies, his eyes pulled open, forced to watch a stream of images; or the famous film-within-a-film scene of Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, where Nana weeps while watching Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Cinema is powerful. As a viewer, you are made vulnerable and your emotions manipulated. Film posters promise, It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. In the case of a Haneke film, it will fuck you up. So it makes sense to think about which films you give this power to and what you’re getting in return.
Essentially, lowbrow film is about escapism. This is the blue pill. Lowbrow film does not surprise you, lowbrow film does not change you. As Foster Wallace says,
Commercial film’s goal is to ‘entertain’, which usually means enabling various fantasies that allow the moviegoer to pretend he’s somebody else and that life is somehow bigger and more coherent and more compelling and attractive and in general just way more entertaining than a moviegoer’s life really is. You could say that a commercial movie doesn’t try to wake people up but rather to make their sleep so comfortable and their dreams so pleasant that they will fork over money to experience it.
My problem is that when you look closer at the fantasy worlds of lowbrow cinema, everyone is a little whiter, thinner, wealthier and straight-er than in reality, and the Bechdel test has highlighted just how few opportunities women have to speak as independent characters on screen, which, together, doesn’t leave space for many other types of dreams. (On a side note, obviously this occurs in highbrow too, for example the French New Wave features the most impossibly beautiful people on the planet, but they also gave us the incredible feminist filmmaker Agnes Varda.)
I’m sure you already feel this limit. In the words of Morpheus to Neo before he elects out of the simulated reality of the Matrix, ‘You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.’
Like the Matrix, lowbrow film projects a spectacular fantasy that is seductive, but full of bullshit. And when you start to see the bullshit, you realise you have a choice, you can opt out: lowbrow or highbrow film, the blue pill or the red pill.
For me, wonder is an incredibly important word when talking about highbrow cinema. One of the masters of the red pill, Kubrick, thought that, ‘Children begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf.’ While Kubrick said we tragically lose this capacity with age, I believe that highbrow cinema has the power to resurrect wonder. Highbrow film re-locates the elements of wonder – surprise, awe, beauty, novelty – from this bullshit fantasyland, back towards an engagement with the world around us.
When I watch a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, perhaps my favourite highbrow director, I submit to wonder. His camera gives equal weight to details such as leaves blowing in the wind as to those advancing the narrative. It’s slow and peaceful. He is deeply interested in filmmaking that relays strange and mysterious dreams. And if you think this kind of cinema can’t ever be fun, how about the dream sequence in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, or better, The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers, which is basically a highbrow stoner flick. Like Apichtapong, these scenes present a different form of visual communication; their disregard for plot and their infinite open-ness are one of their many charms. This is the red pill. As Foster Wallace continues,
An art film’s point is usually more intellectual or aesthetic, and you usually have to do some interpretative work to get it, so that when you pay to see an art film you’re actually paying to work (whereas the only work you have to do w/r/t most commercial film is whatever work you did to afford the price of the ticket).
Because of this ambiguity and required engagement, highbrow film frustrates and bores some; an IMDB review of Apichatpong’s Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives is titled ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can’t Recall Where He Put The Plot’, but I beg you, stick it out. For not only does Apichtapong allow audiences to relax into the details of his films, to be present in the moment – he also opens a window to northern Thailand and its people, politics, folklore and jungle that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.
By which I mean to argue, that the act of surrendering to highbrow cinema is not only a rejection of consumer bullshit and its homogenised dreams, but an engagement with the world, an opening up of spaces of wonder across the world.
Just as studies suggest avid readers have a higher capacity for empathy because of their ability to mentally inhabit fictional worlds, arguably so do highbrow cinephiles, as these films open you to new thoughts, perspectives, voices. Rather than the lowbrow monopoly of big explosions, dick jokes and happy endings, highbrow cinema is exciting. It’s diverse. More women get to talk, and way more of our dreams get screen time. As a kidnapped viewer, it’s a joy to feel your brain working like a muscle, forging these new connections.
There’s still so much cinema out there for me to watch, but thanks to highbrow film, when I think of Iran, I now see Kiarostami’s dusty Jeep roaming hills in the countryside; Claire Denis has shown me gorgeous, agonised desiring bodies; Richard Linklater has taught me to be friendly to people who approach you on trains; Tsai Ming-Liang, to always carry an umbrella in Taiwan. I could go on and on. This is the red pill, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Unfortunately, I can’t just tell you what highbrow film is. You have to see it for yourself.
This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, this debate ends. You go home, watch Star Wars for the umpteenth time and feel your heart flutter as the theme song plays over the end credits and you go to bed. You take the red pill, you visit the Cinematheque, join your local art house rental shop, and you see how much wonder highbrow cinema brings to your world.
This is an edited version of Annabel’s speech from our recent online event, the Kill Your Darlings Highbrow vs Lowbrow Cultural Showdown: Round 2. Watch the video of the event here.