In this Sunday’s L.A. Times, critic and writer Stephen Farber contributed a piece called “Middlebrow, eh? Well, more please,” lamenting the cold critical reception offered by some to “The Help,” opening with the statement “If it had been released 50 years ago, “The Help” would have been the cinematic event of the summer. ” According to Farber, something changed, and for the worse, “when a new generation of critics decided that once-disreputable genre pictures — film noir thrillers, screwball comedies and low-budget westerns — had been slighted while the press was slavering over movies with weightier themes.”
Farber notes that “The Help” is in the same tradition as “such Oscar-winning films as ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’ ‘All the King’s Men,’ ‘The Defiant Ones,’ ‘Judgment at Nuremberg,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night.’” Farber concludes by saying, “here’s my advice to today’s persnickety critics: Don’t be ashamed to champion humane, emotionally satisfying films that dare to tackle subjects that matter. In other words, let’s hear it for the middlebrow.” (Farber is arm-in-arm with other commentators, like David Poland at Movie City News, who think that “The Help” is getting unfairly berated and belittled.)
And while I don’t think of myself as persnickety — and while I regard Mr. Farber’s work — I was more confused by his article than convinced, and I can tell you why. The simple fact is that, to paraphrase Mr. Farber’s opening sentence, if it had been released 50 years ago, “The Help” would have been a commentary on the issues of the day, not a cozy narcotic of nostalgia. (All the examples Farber cites, as well, were either films about their present day or a look back of 10 years. Movies like “The Help” and “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Invictus” say racism was a problem — but not anymore, and not now, and mostly thanks to white people.)
Baby-Boomer film critics love it when their soft, lazy-liberal assumptions are coddled, not challenged — the same for the Academy — which is why “Crash” wins best picture and not, say, “Brokeback Mountain,” because “Crash” suggests we can work things out with some coincidence and monologues, while “Brokeback Mountain” suggests that doing so will take far more effort and pain than we are ready for. The older generation of arts commentators and critics likes to think about how things are moving forwards towards the greater good; anyone under 45, though, who grew up under Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush, is essentially tired of being lied to — and can’t help but note how, too often, big Hollywood movies are part of that lie. (Really, I dislike the fact — not the rumor, but the fact — that my tax dollars went to help provide Michael Bay with production value for “Transformers 3.”)
Do I think that “The Help” — or any look back at the past of social justice — is utterly useless? Not in principle, no. But I would suggest that a historical look at a topic captured on film would be helped by it reflecting actual history — and when the Association of Black Woman Historians publishes an opinion document stating that “The Help” “… distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers,” it’s hard to suggest that’s the case. Steve James’ “The Interrupters” — about a group of anti-gang-violence activists in Chicago who take an epidemiological response to gang violence — says more about the challenges of America today in regard to race, class and opportunity in five minutes than “The Help” does in its entire length — and was made for probably less than it took to recreate the clothes and hair of the era for the stars of “The Help,” and will go largely unseen, and that’s a shame of the highest order.
Mr. Farber’s namesake, the great American film critic Manny Farber, railed against “White Elephant Art” — films meant to be decorative and praised and useless, so noble they’re immobile, big and broad and bland and well-meaning — and noted that the ideal role of the film critic was to “play both brows against the middle,” to praise great art and great trash, to endorse tough films and to mock and knock over processed, easy-to-swallow corporate products from the feel-good nostalgia factory — movies, in essence, like “The Help.” I — and several of my fellow critics, Mr. Farber — will be glad to praise big Hollywood films about social issues, with honest looks at what America is and at how it could be better.
I look forward to the hypothetical day when big Hollywood starts making them.