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Is middlebrow a four-letter word for film critics?

Two of the Academy Award winners this past year, Octavia Spencer (L) and Michel Hazanavicius (R), were both involved in
Two of the Academy Award winners this past year, Octavia Spencer (L) and Michel Hazanavicius (R), were both involved in "middlebrow" movies, according to Farber.
Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

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Last August, film critic Stephen Farber wrote a piece for the LA Times about how The Help, a movie based on a novel with a varied of cast of award-winners and newcomers which tackled prominent social themes, was essentially panned by the more avant-garde or independently-minded film critics. The Help, and movies like it, are considered by Farber to be middlebrow. He elaborated further by explaining these films are, “aspiring to intellectual substance without quite reaching the exalted heights.” In short, they aren’t schlock, but they aren’t fine art either.

Farber points to the past to show how these movies were once regarded highly with examples like To Kill a Mockingbird, which won Oscars and received critical praise. Now, however, even Oscar-nominated films such as The Help, War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are derided for their “simplistic” efforts and “impassioned” attempts to put forth some sort of human viewpoint in a way that isn’t necessarily overtly artistic or challenging to the audience.

Farber cited several examples from critics who took umbrage which various movies for such offenses, and one of them, Mark Olsen, wrote a rebuttal in the LA Times to Farber’s thesis. The thrust of his argument is that times have changed, and while there once was a need for middlebrow movies, that time has passed. Audiences are smarter and braver now, and don’t need their hands to be held by movies like The Help.


Where do you fall in this spectrum? Do you think Farber has a point, and middlebrow movies are unfairly treated? Or is Olsen right to push the film industry to go further in a more artful style? Is there a happy medium that could be reached? Why must these stances be mutually exclusive? What are you looking for from not just film, but film criticism?


Stephen Farber, film critic for The Hollywood Reporter

Mark Olsen, film critic for Los Angeles Times, writes the Indie Focus column