On Second-Class Cinema: Highbrow. Lowbrow. Nobrow? / by Samuel B. Prime

          I am particularly fond of this still from MUTANT HUNT (1987), a poorly made film - but one that has robots and lasers.

          I am particularly fond of this still from MUTANT HUNT (1987), a poorly made film - but one that has robots and lasers.

Earlier today, a casual acquaintance from my academic days shared a link on Facebook to one of those pointless, yet somehow still appealing, quizzes that is designed to tell you something about yourself that you probably already knew, but that feels good to confirm externally. Ego-boosting clickbait, essentially. From The Guardian, the quiz in question is called "How highbrow is your taste in film?" Without much hesitation, I clicked the link and proceeded to answer the questions, each of which expects the user to choose between one film and another based on an identifying criteria. For example, the first question (as you'll see, if you click the above link) asks you to pick a Bill Murray film, wherein your only choices are Jim Jarmusch's BROKEN FLOWERS (2005) and Ivan Reitman's GHOSTBUSTERS (1984). In other words, a rather thinly disguised distinction between highbrow and lowbrow (or so I initially thought). I scoffed, then chose GHOSTBUSTERS. I continued answering the queries until #5 (of 20), asking me to choose a Werner Herzog film - either AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972) or BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS (2009). I found myself stuck, unable to make a choice because there are aspects of each that I enjoy and because I found myself wondering: which is which?

Okay, okay, *obviously* AGUIRRE is meant to be the highbrow film and BL: POC-NO (hell of an acronym) the lowbrow, but I found myself questioning whether the accepted definitions of highbrow (rarefied/intellectual) and lowbrow (uncultured/base) are: 1) useful or 2) healthy. Furthermore, I found myself wondering whether the distinction (possibly unintentionally) denigrates the art that it aims to clarify, in placing an inherent value distinction on expression. I only mean in terms of cinema, for the purposes of this think piece, but someone else can expand the discussion to other creative realms, if they so choose. At this point, I stopped taking the quiz. What is the sense in determining the highbrowsiness (?) of your taste if it means excluding truly great cinematic experiences like STAR WARS and THE LOST BOYS (just two of the other 20 purportedly lowbrow films included in the quiz)? I found myself frustrated (maybe too much) by the relative shortsightedness of the quiz. Nonetheless, it resulted in me immediately sitting down to write this blog post, so there's something to be said (at the very least) for taking hold of an idea in its most nascent form. I'm patting myself on the back here.

Instead, how about nobrow: an even playing field for all films regardless of genre distinction, ratio of comedic to dramatic, or any other qualifier? I think it far more useful and positive to redefine lowbrow and highbrow for oneself in terms of personal esteem. I still find the terms a little bit offensive, so maybe there are more suitable replacements, but I am very keen on the idea that the only distinction that matters is your own - what YOU like or dislike (and precisely why). The tacit acceptance of cinematic taste as some kind of shared cultural norm is more than just a misnomer, it's an insult. The idea that 'lowbrow' types are cultural cavemen and 'highbrow' types constitute the monocled cultural elite speaks to a brand of uppity pretension that far exceeds both categories and just means you are an asshole (whoever you are). This social stigma of popularized shame and degradation is beyond me. I refuse to participate in it and hope you (dear reader) feel the same. I have too much respect for how hard it is to make a film, let alone a spectacular one, to designate a second-class cinema. High or low, esoteric or blockbusting, cinema is an art for everyone - its beauty is in its boundless universality.