Movies in Midcult
It’s the resignation heard round the world. Nearly 15 years after taking office, Bob Iger has stepped down as CEO of Disney. A period of unprecedented expansion for the company, the Iger era saw four multibillion-dollar acquisitions, including Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and, for a cool $71.3 billion, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox fortune. Pile on top of that seven blockbusters to hit $1 billion at the global box office in 2019 alone and it’s no wonder people are calling for a good old trust-busting. Too many roads lead to Disney, and not all of them seem paved with gold.
In the age of nostalgia, the Mouse holds a near-monopoly on the best-known franchises which are fast becoming the only event films audiences will pay to see in cinemas. And yet Disney’s PG-13 mandate and executive-level creative control, according to many, poke holes in the integrity of filmmaking. Blaming Disney for the trend toward vanilla cinema is the people’s current soapbox of choice, and the thrust of the anti-Disney argument sounds an awful lot like Dwight Macdonald’s attack on midcentury mass culture, or Masscult. Macdonald was a cultural critic of the snobbish sort, who claimed that popular art, like movies and comic books, is in fact not art at all, but predigested, profit-seeking commercialism. Disney’s investment in big-budget crowd-pleasers has paid off, and Bob Iger is surely a jack of all trades — but is he the kind of Masscult master that Macdonald so openly despised? And should we be afraid for the future of cinematic creativity?
Dwight Macdonald. Chant the name three times in an academic setting and watch the paint run off the walls. This is not so gross an exaggeration: When the academy conjures its tutelary deity of the high-brow, low-brow distinction, it squirms with self-doubt and self-defense at the possibility that the canon is still that walled garden cultivated only by elites. A cultural critic of the midcentury New York intellectual breed, Dwight Macdonald levelled many a fabulous polemic against so-called “sham art.” The cultural products Macdonald went to war against included the low-brow trash filling the bins of mass culture, anti-art manufactured so plainly for the purpose of turning a profit that Macdonald nicknamed it Masscult, careful not to grant it the status of “culture" at all. And then there is Macdonald’s archenemy, Midcult, or middle-brow culture. Like Masscult, Midcult is also a manufactured, profit-seeking pseudoculture, but, unlike the baseborn, unassuming low-brow, Midcult is convinced of its own sophistication. It is shallow, formulaic, usually enjoyable, and sometimes quite smart entertainment that attempts to copy the depth and value of high culture. Keyword: attempts. Macdonald, the good doctor, famously diagnosed Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” H.G. Wells, and Andy Warhol with stage four Midcult.
Macdonald’s cultural criticism has been presumed dead for decades. After all, his admittedly snobbish views are in some senses antithetical to the project of the liberal arts. However, even as the literary canon disagrees with Macdonald on the point of “The Old Man and the Sea,” its discriminatory tastes still uphold a kind of high-brow, low-brow distinction. In fact, we, as individual cultural consumers, are somewhat brow-bent. When I declare the majesty of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” and denounce Michael Bay’s “6 Underground” as a garbage fire, am I not signaling my own high-minded refinement? Surely, Macdonald would find it splendidly ironic that today, the high-low dichotomy is taken up by popular culture warriors: people like you and me, like everyone who, in daily life, recommends slates of “visionary” indie films to our friends. We might throw in the occasional action-packed thrill ride, but only with the self-edifying caveat that it is, of course, a big-budget lobotomy, but if you’re in the mood, who knows? Filling out our Oscar ballots, we render the world of film our playground for trying out that Macdonald-esque pomposity. It’s fun and freeing and provides perhaps the most democratic thing any one cultural consumer could hope for — the right to be an absolute snob. Or movie buff. Whatever the euphemism.