I find myself continually confronting and struggling with what I call the HighBrow/LowBrow Paradox. There’s really nothing much to question about it really. It’s an annoyance, and a constant conflicting area I’d attribute to amateurish journalism, pseudo-pretentiousness, intellectual wannabeism and academic bullying. Let’s not forget ignorance too.
If you caught an image on film are you not a filmmaker? And just explain to me why an American Pie film deserves a franchise whilst independent filmmakers throughout times have struggled to make a single follow up to minor successes? Why Cult filmmakers CONSTANTLY are revealed/discovered/known to have only been making “that kind of film”, so they could afford to make the films they wanted to?
Highbrow is defined as highly cultural or educated, a person of intellectual or erudite tastes. Highbrow’s usually have money, snobbish. Lowbrow is unsophisticated, uncultivated, cheap. A dictionary definition of low-brow is partially “a person who is un-interested in intellectual pursuits”… I fucking challenge you to say that in the same sentence as Jean Rollin, Jess Franco, Lucio Fulci, Ed Wood Jr, Doris Wishman, Roberta Findlay and many, many others. They were filmmakers, ergo artists, and they were trapped in their economical circle of production hell, so why the need to deem films into two fields divided by an intellectual crevice that splits art and trash… a you and me, us and them, a rift to judge artistic value. Hence the HighBrow/LowBrow Paradox
The HighBrow/LowBrow Paradox is the space where the low-budget films I watch and love get mocked, guilt tripped, questioned and shamefully referred to as low-brow cinema clashes with the highbrow films I watch and love are credited for, even though they many cases lifted the conceived moment from low-brow cinema.
Where high-brow cinema gets away with anything, and low-brow cinema is scolded/ridiculed for same narrative trait.
When a “lowbrow” film zooms a lot to avoid the cost of breaks and resetting of camera and lights for close-up shots are called “lazy/sloppy camerawork” but when “highbrow” does same move it becomes an “innovation/a genius approach”.
When a “lowbrow” film becomes exploitative/filth because it features nudity, whilst a “highbrow” film is artistic/celebratory.
Where a corporeality of the flesh, of bodily fluids, of self-mutilation and suicide are mocked as childish tools in films deemed “lowbrow”, but when used by acknowledged filmmakers of the “highbrow” earns them the status of hailed auteurs.
We could seriously simmer it down to the simple question if we should think of Bertolucci as a rapist, or Meir Zarchi as a rapist, and then question how said films where received, perceived and played a part in said field of cinema. What is highbrow, what is lowbrow and why does there need to be a border?
Never forget, Nick Roeg’s Don’t Look Nowbasically ripped off Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die, complete with alienated non-linear, ex-spatial sex scene and mystic Venice location. Period, full stop, end of discussion! Then let me ask which of the two films you are more famillar with…
Then we come to the clash in focus this time, the case of Nick Roeg’s Walkabout. A highly rated, loved, critically appraised tale of two city originated children who end up walking the desert of the Australian outback and learn how to survive the ordeal with the help of an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) who they meet along the way. He’s on his Walkabout, a traditional ritual where young men are cast out of their tribe to live off the what the outback provides, hence the title Walkabout, which in a metaphoric way is what Girl (Jenny Agutter) and Boy (Luc Roeg) experience too.
No question about it, it’s a beautiful, atmospheric and very much child of its time piece of cinema. It heled usher in the “new wave” of Australian cinema and uses an somewhat unconventional juxtapositioning of imagery to clash modern/indigenous similarities though out.
There is a total of (at least) twelve animals killed on screen for narrative purposes of depicting survival in the outback. Amongst that lot, three water buffalo, three decently sized lizards and two kangaroos and a bunny wabbit. I’m not bringing any question of morale to the fact of killing to eat or not, or even killing for film, this is just a fact of the images preserved on celluloid. The first time, it’s validated as a fact of survival, and in the narrative, it’s warranted. But it just keeps going on and on, more and more animals are killed, slaughtered and chucked on the fire for dinner ending up in the pretty large number of twelve dead animals.
I would though, like to question how many times Nick Roeg had to endure the same ordeal of questioning Ruggero Deodato gets after each in presence screening of Cannibal Holocaust“Why did you have to kill the animals?” Whereas I in Walkaboutcan appreciate the animal deaths as being an ethnographical study of the native Aboriginal saving the present, (even though the present kills him later, for lack of reflected love it may seem in the film, but in the novel the Aboriginal boy dies from influenza that he’s not immune against), which it does and it gets the metaphoric job done. Even the three water-buffalo that are killed adhere to a native vs modern as they kill for fun premise. But then again this is not what Walkaboutis famous for, as Cannibal Holocaustif famous for its animal deaths, despite them being half the number compared to Walkabout. Cannibal Holocaustis only famous for its animal deaths and very rarely does the question of morale that fuelled the film get heard over the complaints of animal deaths. (Long story told short; Deodato wanted to comment on his art being censored whilst capitalist TV stations made money showing death on the news etc. I feel he does an excellent job of that with Cannibal Holocuastwith its immense cynical tale) Although the difference is that Deodato’s animal deaths (at least key deaths) all take place on the secondary format of the found footage, hence becoming a storytelling tool to sell the authenticity of the films violent and harrowing final act. Through the authentic animal deaths, the illusion of the staged human deaths is complete, as the trial for manslaughter would prove only days after the film premiered in Milan on 8thof Feb, 1980. I don’t see how the many deaths of Roeg’s film actually do anything but spin off a contextual concept that parallels the sensationalism of the mondo-genre using savagery images of native man in his setting, just like Deodato does with Cannibal Holocausta year later. Are they really that different when it all comes around?
But perhaps more disturbing than the animal deaths, is the adolescent nudity. There are at least three times where Jenny Agutter is objectified and placed under Mulvay’s “male gaze”. This once again made me question the HighBrow/LowBrow Paradox. After a few days in the desert girl and boy stumble upon a small watering hole. Girl, obviously stuck in the role the patriarch has designated her with, sets about washing their clothes, whilst he plays action games with his toys. After their clothes have dried we see Girl putting on her underwear and this is shot in a close-up excluding anything by her underwear as they are pulled up her lower legs. I’d argue that this is purely eroticizing the underwear and her body, even though we don’t see more than her calves. In contemporary times, it echoes Japanese burunsera and school girl fetishist imagery. Of which there is much inWalkabout, and Agutter’s tiny school girl dress versus compositions of shots to be honest. Later, Girl goes swimming. She has no swimsuit so she obviously goes swimming naked, as the camera lingers gently observing her, as a romantic score by John Barry plays on the soundtrack. Naked as she twists, turns as the camera observes her every move. If not sexualising/objectifying her, why did it end up being the image on most of the posters? It seriously made me think of Kelly Brock and Riley Steel’s overtly drawn out underwater nude acrobatics in Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3Dbut the difference being that that moment is drawn out to make a point of the conventions of nudity in genre film that Aja’s taking the piss out of with the film. For fun go check that scene explained in the parent’s guide on IMDB, because the swimming scene in Walkaboutis naked in a way that should have earned it a “Severe” rating along the lines of the parent guide for Franco’s Female Vampirewhich has descriptions that read like fan fiction erotica. Seriously, someone took the time to write a parent’s guide for Jess Franco’s Female Vampire?
It’s possible that this was the weak-ass critique that Roeg was aiming for. A “Oh, look how you’ve exploited the aboriginal people and look, it’s all the same as how we’ve exploited women keeping her constrained to stereotypical roles in the patriarchal structure…” But I seriously think that would be pushing it, wouldn’t it? I think it’s a clear case of dirty auteurism.
What we have here is a classic highbrow/lowbrow paradox. Roeg’s objectification of a young 16 year old girl is accepted because of the intellectual makeshift excuse of being art, of being at one with nature, of finding her freedom in its submitting Agutter to the male gaze. And I’d argue it’s a perverted one too as that underwear fetish will support, the several scenes where she’s semi naked, which of a couple are kind of innocent, but there are moments where it’s very sexually loaded and Agutter’s acting is of as in panic as she knows she’s being stalked perhaps going to be assaulted… I will though argue that the final scene, which features nudity from all three of the main cast works as a metaphor for freedom and is narratively legitimized. The adult Girl still stuck in the hegemonic structure, did have that one moment of freedom where all were treated as equal, and that’s the closing shot. Unfortunately, it’s only a safe place she can resort to when her hubby comes home with more small talk of how he’s doing at work with his career whilst she’s chained to the stove.
So you have objectification, of underwear, nudity and then a threatening victimisation of nudity all in one film… although still art. So, I question once again, why do we need the polarizing fractions to define art vs trash, objectification is objectification in any way right?
It’s almost like asking if a Serbian Filmwould have been considered highbrow if Michael Haneke directed it. Exactly as it is, no changes to anything, but pretend that Haneke had directed it… how would it have been received?
A great exploration into how HighBrow/LowBrow works is to spend some time reading Parents guides on IMDB for an instance. You will pretty soon find that “highbrow” films will waste characters explaining that nudity “is not in a sexual way”, “non-sexual” and so on, even scenes warning of violence too. Whilst “lowbrow” films will have “woman seen in underwear”, “it’s insinuated two people had sex” etc etc… anything to throw dirt down the ladder of intellectualism to taint the smut of lowbrow perverse deeds. Watch Walkabout, observe the mating ritual scene and then tell me that this is nudity in a “non-sexual way”.
Don’t judge. Enjoy and treat all film as equal is my recommendation. A story is a story no matter who tells it, the experience the same.