Friday, April 8, 2011

The Tedium Of The Middlebrow


Something made me think back to one of my least favorite courses in college.

Let's call her Dr. Lewis and she taught an English Lit. Critical Analysis course.

When I got into the class, I quickly discovered how undefined the syllabus and approach were. Not only that, with her new haircut, Dr. Lewis was trying very hard to appear younger than she was. I say that because I think that that haircut goes hand-in-hand with her very 1990s PC-approach.

I'm probably giving her more credit than she's due; her approach was at best vaguely feminist in a 1980s sort of way and she tended to reduce everything to one or two interpretations at best, usually based on the gender or ethnicity of the author and not his or her actual talent or skill.

There was one incredibly awkward day when the boy-and-girl Born Again Christians in the class got a chance to air their grievances about her secularist approach.

It was an odd day for a public university. As I had only escaped Bible college a few years earlier, I was being rudely reminded of what I left behind.

That said, I understood their frustration on some level as Dr. Lewis was a bit of an idiot; it was one of those classes where I knew exactly what she wanted to hear so, in writing that, I was guaranteed an "A".

She really wasn't teaching us much beyond her point-of-view which was badly cobbled together from the theories floating around the academic world at the time.

Anyway, the most memorable event of the semester was when she blithely assigned a bonus essay near the end of the term where we were to review either Dances With Wolves (1990) or the then-current Silence Of The Lambs (1991) from a Native American or feminist perspective, respectively.

That's all the instruction we were given. I chose Dances With Wolves (1990) which I would never sit through again, but I did watch Silence Of The Lambs (1991) as well.

The film, not nearly as effective as 1986's Manhunter, was an okay flick but to ascribe some feminist message to the film is a reach. You'd have an easier time ascribing that message to something like Linda Blair's Savage Streets (1984), frankly.

With the creaky, Old Dark House-isms of the introduction of Lecter, and Anthony Hopkins' vaguely Capote-like performance, the old cannibal is less a figure of fear than one of camp joy.

As for Jodie Foster in this film: the less said the better. Her accent is laughable at best, recalling one of the Darling clan on the old "Andy Griffith Show", and her performance is a bit mannered to say the least.

Jonathan Demme made a fine schlocker but to dress up his B-movie flick as an A-list Film is to do a disservice to the viewer and the director.

When I finally watched the film, and recalled Dr. Lewis' assignment, I thought how middlebrow her worldview was. Maybe she was assigning the film because it was current?

But maybe she was just incapable of enjoying something for what it was without finding the agenda in it?

Postscript

In that spring of 1991, I was reading A LOT of Nabokov. And his quotes would be fresh in my mind as I endured Dr. Lewis' agenda:

"A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual."

Stuff like that.

I remember this guy in my class was in a D.C. band (Absolutely Boxspring) and we both listed Nabokov as our favorite author on the first day of class during the student introduction go-round.

After class, as we were chatting and it was clear that I had read far more Nabokov than he had -- though he had, admirably, read more than just Lolita -- I made the mistake of asking him what music he listened to.

His taste lined up with mine but the way he prefaced his choices by saying "You probably haven't heard of this band called Television..." rankled me and I sort of avoided the guy after that.

I chuckled politely at the time but I wanted to say:

"Hey you condescending dipshit: I worked at three record stores in a college town and I had both Television albums on tape when I was 18!"

I am sometimes an obnoxious know-it-all but I actually like the stuff I opine about. I'm not in this to show off my knowledge of non-mainstream bands or directors, nor am I in this to prescribe a point-of-view.

Dr. Lewis taught me a lot but not what she thought she was teaching me.

Nabokov taught me even more.