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Counterpoint: Why aim for the middle?

To like 'The Help' and other such feel-good movies is to opt for the obvious and become complicit with the incurious. Better to champion the many challenging, fascinating indie films out there.

August 28, 2011|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • From left, Bryce Dallas Howard is Hilly Holbrook, Sissy Spacek is Missus Walters and Octavia Spencer is Minny Jackson in "The Help."
From left, Bryce Dallas Howard is Hilly Holbrook, Sissy Spacek is Missus… (Dale Robinette / Dreamworks )

If I may be indulged to step from behind the curtain for just a moment, a recent essay here by the esteemed critic Stephen Farber struck upon a number of issues regarding both writing about movies and cinema-going that brought into relief core elements of what these Indie Focus pieces are meant to be about.

Farber used the recent film "The Help" as his jumping-off point to uphold a notion of self-consciously middlebrow filmmaking, lauding the movie for a studied sense of messaged importance and genteel ambition carefully calibrated to flatter the sensibilities of its audience. For Farber, "The Help" falls perfectly in line with classic Hollywood social-problem films such as "Gentleman's Agreement," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "In the Heat of the Night" and should be lauded as such.

The retort to Farber's position is simply and obviously this: Today is not 50 years ago. The modern world is a thorny, uncertain, rough-and-tumble place (not that it ever hasn't been), and the best films should aim to reflect that with a clear-eyed awareness in their context and perspective and a strong reach for more.

Films such as the Sundance Film Festival breakout "Pariah" and John Sayles' historical drama "Amigo" are recent examples of politically committed, culturally connected films that do not pander or patronize, unlike "The Help" or "The Whistleblower," to use another film that Farber holds up as unfairly bashed by critics and on which he quotes me specifically.

At a time when independent films as exciting, engaging and forward-looking as "The Color Wheel," "Green," "Vacation!," "Without" and many more struggle for even the chance to build an audience — and I remain convinced that there is an audience for these films because I like them and I know I am not so special — to fall back on some sort of nostalgically self-satisfied indifference is in essence an abdication of duty.

This reckless disregard is especially damaging here in Los Angeles, which is constantly fighting to be perceived culturally as something more than the plastic backlot of Hollywood's industrialized production. Did Dennis Hopper's radicalizing legacy of artistic cross-pollination teach us nothing?

The problem is not with the middlebrow in itself — and really, a film such as "Bridesmaids" likely represents the true New Middle more than "The Help" — the problem lies with opting for the obvious and becoming complicit with the incurious. Aiming for the middle is too often an excuse to aim too low.

Farber extends his argument to claim that writers who champion films such as "The Future," "Bellflower" or "Meek's Cutoff" are, in his words, "desperate to prove that they're hip." I have written about those very films in these very pages, and I would put them all forward as the kind of ineffably adventuresome filmmaking it is the duty of anyone writing seriously about cinema to bring to audiences' attention.

Since one origin of the word "hip" is a West African term meaning "to open one's eyes," I accept the charge. But if I am desperate for anything, it is to point broad-minded moviegoers toward good work in peril of going unfairly underseen. It's why these Indie Focus features exist.

In many ways, the issues in Farber's essay can be given a certain simplified clarity by thinking, as is often the case, of musician Neil Young. In the liner notes to his early career retrospective "Decade," he wrote that commercial success put him "in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."

Those who write about film should not be afraid to rough it in that ditch. Through the building of a mutual trust and with a little luck, audiences hopefully will come along for the ride too — and they won't need the safety of "The Help" to do it.

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