Terry Teachout explores the demise of middlebrow culture, using as his starting point this year’s DVD release of Kirk Douglas’ Lust For Life, in which seminal man-of-action Douglas took a surprisingly passable turn in 1956 playing Vincent van Gogh under Vincente Minnelli’s directorship :
The result is a quintessential example — perhaps the quintessential example — of the American middlebrow culture of the ’40s and ’50s, which at its not-infrequent best educated and entertained in like measure without dumbing down beyond recognition the art it popularized. The same impulse that inspired Life magazine to publish Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and CBS to telecast Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” can be seen at work in “Lust for Life.”
It says everything about Minnelli and his high-minded collaborators that they made no attempt to turn van Gogh into a regular guy, a potato-eater like you and me who just happened to paint “Starry Night” and chop off his left ear. Instead, he is unapologetically presented as a genius, set apart from the common run of men by his God-given talent and his sense of artistic mission. And that’s what makes the film so special: It takes art seriously.
A wise old cynic once observed that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Had he lived three centuries later, La Rochefoucauld might have added that biopics are the tribute Hollywood pays to real art. Anyone who chooses to make a movie about a great artist, be it good or bad, is making an implicit declaration of faith in the enduring significance of Western culture. Hence it says something of interest about the state of American culture that pictures like “Lust for Life” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” in which Charlton Heston played Michelangelo, have become so rare in recent years. “Amadeus” and “Shakespeare in Love” weren’t biopics but fictionalized fantasies (albeit smart ones). “Pollock” and “Girl With the Pearl Earring” were art-house films aimed at a smallish audience. When was the last time a Hollywood producer with muscle used it to make a big-budget movie about an indisputably great high-culture figure, pitched to the public at large? Instead, we get “Walk the Line.” From “Starry Night” to “Folsom Prison Blues”: That’s how far we’ve traveled in the past half-century.
Believe me, I’m not turning up my nose at Johnny Cash. I love country music (in fact, I used to play it). Besides, “Walk the Line” is terrific, one of the finest biopics ever made. But Cash himself would surely have admitted that he was no Mozart. Whether or not they enjoyed high art, most Americans of Cash’s generation were brought up to respect it, and middlebrow culture allowed anyone to share in its glories. Now we’re expected to discover them by ourselves. It strikes me that our culture was healthier when Hollywood offered an occasional helping hand — even if it belonged to Kirk Douglas.
They’re not biopics, but the closest I can think of a positive middlebrow cultural experience in today’s Hollywood would be its adaptations of the Lord of the Rings and Narnia books. (I so want to add The Passion, but its endlessly brutal blood and guts gore knocks it out of the middlebrow running.) But as for the two sterling examples of Brit-Lit made celluloid look at some of the grief both productions received. If there are no middlebrow movies, its not because the audience turned their backs, but because there’s just not a whole lot of insider slaps on the back when Hollywood makes one, especially on Oscar nights.
Update:Speaking of which, in a post defending the merits of The Searchers after a Slate critic (apparently seeing the film for the first time) ran roughshod over it, Jason Apuzzo of Libertas writes: