How Cultural Elitists Are Destroying Creative Spirit; or: Why Guilty Pleasures Aren't Guilty of Anything

The words "a Rob Zombie film" and the fact that I'm not particularly fond of John Carpenter's original Halloween did not deter me from going to see Zombie's remake of the 1978 slasher film. It's two hours of innocent people getting gruesomely hacked to death (as well as slaughtered in other horrifying ways) by a masked psychopath with no emotion or an ounce of human decency—what's not to like about a movie like this, really? Besides, Malcolm McDowell shows up, supposedly lending the project some artistic cred. (But is that cancelled out by the fact that he starred in Firestarter 2: Rainbird?)

This Halloween pretty much replicates the plot and carnage from the first movie, but with Zombie's deft and convincing directorial vision. And an hour-long first act is tagged on in order to humanize the crazed killer, Michael Meyers, delving into his grotesque white-trash childhood and documenting his murderous antics at the age of 10—four people beaten or stabbed to death by his young hand.

It's all relentless and pretty overwhelming, so I checked out mentally early on.

Cultural critics lambast films like Halloween for having no redeeming social value and contributing to the delinquency of minors. And I'm not talking about social conservatives or pioneers in the family values movement. I'm referring to the denizens of pop culture, the scholars of art in all its forms, people like you and me.

Indeed, the term "torture-porn horror" was created by a film critic to deride films like Saw and Hostel and Captivity. There's a pretty thought-provoking defense of modern-day horror movies and an attack against its finger-wagging naysayers in this week's LA Weekly. In "Why 'Torture Porn' Isn't," Luke Y. Thompson charges that critics "seem unable to make the distinction between fantasy and reality when it comes to some of the best contemporary horror films." The inability to distinguish fantasy and reality is, interestingly enough, what some critics worry most about when it comes to extreme horror. (This is not limited to cinema. Just observe parents snatching away gangsta rap from their kids because children supposedly can't separate the "characters" in gangsta rap from the artists who create them.)

This entry is not meant to be a defense of the Saw and Hostel movies and that whole genre because I don't like them enough to want to stand by them. But the ensuing "controversy" that these types of films leave in their wake point to a larger problem, not only in modern-day cinema but in modern-day creativity in all its forms. It's simple, really: cultural elitists are destroying art.

Okay, when I use the word "destroying," I am grossly exaggerating because I wanted a titillating title, but I think it's fair to say that the elite are at the very least stifling the expansive, evolving, and multidimensional creative spirit.

The spate of articles that bristle at contemporary horror are compounded by other articles that attempt to devalue other forms of art as well, just because it doesn't conform to some indefinable ideal of what art should be. What prompted this entry was not horror's bad press (because, again, I really don't care all that much), but all those other critics who have been attacking other aspects of pop culture in subtle but nonetheless pretentious ways.

When the film critic I most admire, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman (yes, I like some critics!), reviewed Captivity, he made me roll my eyes. No, he didn't say anything particularly derisive about the film itself, but he referred to the film's director, Roland Joffe, as a "middlebrow humanist." (Joffe won Oscars for helming the historical dramas, The Mission and The Killing Fields.)

And I've seen this all my life—in film, in the theater, in the literary world—the word "middlebrow" used as an artistic insult, as a weapon to cut down anyone who dares to make a piece of art meant to reach more than a chosen few.

I'm not sure that Gleiberman meant the phrase to be an attack, but it reeks of a kind of elitism that is wholly unaware of the damage it is doing. I know that Gleiberman, of all people, is able to enjoy all kinds of movies and see their value no matter what genre they fall in, so perhaps I am misinterpreting his intentions. But anyone who's been an artist a day in his life knows that, when someone calls your work "middlebrow," that is not high praise. In fact, that's not any kind of praise. That's a slap in the face.

In the same week, I read a jaw-droppingly pretentious article from The Washington Post called "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading," in which book critic Ron Charles seems to issue contempt at "perfectly intelligent, mature people, poring over 'Harry Potter' with nary a child in sight"—as if the intelligent and mature should not waste their time with anything as purportedly pedestrian and trivial as the Harry Potter books. Indeed, any adult with an interest in Hogwarts is suffering from "a bad case of cultural infantilism," according to Charles. Furthermore, he seems to want to blame the Harry Potter phenomenon for the decline of literacy.

Again, I didn't particularly like Halloween, Saw, or Hostel; I never saw and never will see Captivity; and I have no interest in reading any Harry Potter book ever in this or any other lifetime. But the seemingly widespread attempt to devalue particular types of creative expression, different types of art, is a cultural sickness. And it must be stopped in the interest of preserving a vast and varied cultural landscape. There is a place for Shakespeare, for horror, for Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, for Harry Potter, for Rob Zombie, for Roland Joffee, for Ingmar Bergman, for Bjork, for Justin Timberlake, for Bach—and that place is on the same shelf.

Certainly, you'll have your preferences when it comes to art, but let's not devalue the types of art that don't appeal to us and let's not undercut the people who like them. We can indeed dislike and even hate stuff, but it doesn't make that stuff less valid as an artistic expression. Indeed, on this very blog you'll see me rail against movies that suck, but it's because I think they suck on their own terms. I do see them a valid cinematic expressions.

And since when did "socially redeeming value" become a requirement for good art, for worthy art? Guess what? All art is worthy. Now, don't misinterpret my words—I'm not talking about snuff films or "art" that physically harms people. You know what I'm talking about; you really do.

There's real artistry that went into Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia, sure, but do you know how equally difficult it is to pull off something like Superbad or The 40-Year-Old Virgin? And there's real poetry and genius in Hamlet, but can you deny the mastery of language and human understanding necessary to create something like Where the Sidewalk Ends? You know what I'm talking about.

When it comes to art in all its forms, I propose that we remove certain phrases from the lexicon (or at least from our own everyday speech) because they, in subtle ways, damage this nation's relationship to art and its creators and serve to stifle the variety of creative expression:
  • middlebrow
  • lowbrow
  • guilty pleasure
  • escapist
  • veg out
And please let me know if you can think of other terms I should add to this list.

When I first launched this blog, it had a tagline that declared, "Where writer/performer PRINCE GOMOLVILAS navigates through high and low culture." I italicized the word "and" to emphasize that I made no judgmental distinction between "high culture" and "low culture" because, when you really think about being an artist and the nature of creativity, there's really no difference.

Agree? Disagree? Still think Eli Roth needs to be banned from the planet Earth? Discuss.


  1. the best compliment i've ever had was during my recent garage sale... people went on and on over the mixed titles in books, films, and music from my father and my collections

    'caddyshack' sat next to 'schindler's list'... a romance novelist from the mid 1950's was with ayn rand.

    no one has the right to decide what you read, watch or listen to places you in any particular area of intelligence, wit or social class.

    i think those who do make those decisions are scared of anything that may make THEM look silly. and to be honest, nothing is more entertaining than a silly film, good popcorn and friends to enjoy said film, or a trashy novel when you really don't want to have to think...or a well written bodice ripper. i applaud anyone who can keep my interest in a book where they have countless boinks, and never, well, smell.

    great post. for a high/low brow kind of guy.

  2. On the low end, the word 'art' is only one letter away from the word 'fart.'

  3. I think I shall begin referring to myself as "culturally infantile" instead of "immature", so people know what they're getting into.

    Oh, wait. They know that anyway.

    Never mind. I'll leave the multisyllabic elitism to the elite.

  4. I think we should start referring to Quin as "culturally infantile." I mean, c'mon--Schindler's List? Please.

  5. Oh, god, I'm the very definition of "culturally infantile." What that Post critic *really* is decrying is fun. Fun is for children, adults aren't meant to have fun. They're supposed to see serious movies about serious adult topics and read serious books about people's relationships and listen to serious music by serious artists writing about serious topics.

    PLAH. Nothing makes me more angry than cultural elitism because as a guy who's essentially made up of a series of guilty pleasures strung together by 70s retro candy, they're my bread and butter and I can defend them as articulately as douchebag Washington Post douche can tear 'em down.

    (you should seriously read the Harry Potter books. No, seriously.)

  6. Honestly, that Post article is more stomach-turning than anything in Saw III. Seriously.

  7. I actually think Ron Charles agrees with you in way. He too is saying that the cultural shelf should be big and non-discriminatory. He's not saying, "Let's boot Harry off" so much as, "Let's make a shelf that doesn't boot off any writer who doesn't sell a million copies."

    I don't like critics of the crabby hater variety, and I do like me some good Lindsay Lohan gossip, but nevertheless, I think cultural elitists are sort of a fake enemy. First of all, they never win. Second, American hatred of elitism is part of what got Bush in office.

    Yeah, there are a handful of people who shouldn't be so quick to turn their noses up at horror flicks. But there are millions who would be surprised to learn that subtitles are not fatal.

  8. Jojo Barker9/10/2007

    Hi Prince,

    I'm not disagreeing with you regarding freedom of speech/artistic expression. Anyone should be free to write/film whatever they want. But to be honest, I'm kind of relieved at the current backlash against torture films. I'll explain why...

    I read an interview a few years back with one of the writers of Saw (I can't remember which one, or what interview it was) and he described how the story came from his own illness. Literally. He had been sick and the writing was a result of that illness. The reason this interview bothered me so much is that it seemed to fit so well with my own writing experience. When I made the decision a few years back to write only horror, I didn't realize the impact it would have on me. Because, the bar has been raised so high on horror now, that you have to really go out on a limb to shock anyone. That means that you really have to find new ways of torture. And they have to be real. I pored over anatomy and medical books for long hours, trying to make sure that my brilliant little sick inventions were actually possible. That's long hours contemplating how to dissect limbs from bodies, how to carve up a victim, how to make sure they lived while enduring the torture.

    My rewards were immediate. The first ever short story I sent out was published immediately. Yes, that's right. My first short story I ever submitted. Ever. Violence pays.

    Then, after a little while, I caught myself one day in the middle of writing. I was sitting there, in a dark basement, trying to think up new ways to torture a person. It shocked me.

    But other things happened in my life at that time. I was incredibly miserable (whether this was a result of the writing or the other way around, I don't know). But... you know... the whole thing just made me feel bad. Other strange things happened too. My inventions started to oddly "manifest" into the house, being picked up by my roommate in the middle of the night as terrifying nightmares or odd smells in the house (I'm not making this up, honestly, these strange manifestations really happened and were totally unexplainable).

    Long story short... I gave up writing horror. I just didn't want to bring more misery into my world.

    You see... I think that the new wave of shockers has gone into an area that's not healthy. There's a kind of stupid bravado in people of the ilk that drunk British men get when it's late at night and they've been drinking and they go for a curry and just have to order the hottest curry to prove their manhood. "I can eat it and it won't affect me" they boast, and meanwhile they're sweating bullets and burning their guts out for no good reason. I find the same thing in people who say "I can watch this ultra-violent flick and it won't affect me." Wrong. Yes it will. Perhaps not immediately and in an obvious way, but it will definitely have an affect on you. Now, I'm not saying that watching a violent film will make a person violent. Of course not. But it's stupid to say that ultra-violent films have no affect on their viewers. The brain doesn't work like that. Input is input, and if it's violent then that violence is stored in the brain somewhere.

    I watched Saw1 and I thought it was a brilliantly constructed film. I watched Saw2 and thought it was equally good. But after I saw the second one, I made a conscious decision not to see any more. I just didn't want to see more of that violence. What's the point?

    About two years ago, I was a member of an online writing group, which was very well-run. I submitted a story that was basically a sicko rape fantasy. A young woman is brutally attacked for no good reason, as young women always are. I waited for the deluge of criticism at having submitted such a story. It never came. Out of the 30 or 40 writers that submitted feedback only one, an older woman, pointed out what I knew already, that this story was just another cheap version of a familiar story, and then she said "you'll probably do really well with it." It was strangely saddening that out of this group of 30-40 writers, only one had realized the cheap manipulation I had used, and she also knew that this kind of fodder would be sellable. Apart from that one writer, everyone else praised the story.

    So... if a group of writers couldn't figure out the obvious gimmick, how can we hope the general public can?

    Sure the word middlebrow sounds pretentious. But in the case of the current wave of gratuitous gore, I'm kind of glad of this label. The writer for the LA Times makes a good case, but what he doesn't mention is the sheer volume of these films at the moment, and the reasons why they're popular. It's well known that the military show violent films to the troops before sending them into battle. With our current deluge of torture films, what are we preparing ourselves for?

  9. Cheryl, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you that "American hatred of elitism is part of what got Bush in office." But on the same token, in some respects, isn't American LOVE of elitism the reason why so many countries hate us, wage terror, and create a climate where Bush CAN get elected? It's one of them vicious cycles, I suppose.! Thanks for your thoughtful response. It certainly does make the issue even more complex than it already is.

    To add to the dialogue, you (and others) might be interested in the comments that have been posted on the LA Weekly site. Click here to access them.

    One reader points out that moderation is the key: "I abhor censorship in general. I do however have doubts about the type of unbalanced outlook on life it might reflect if someone's taste in films/music/culture were to be dominated by such pleasures. In much the same way, I would worry about the health of someone who never ate fruit or vegetables, or a politician who believed in the use of fear to the point of cracking down on individual liberty as a threat while demanding his own house be pixilated on Google earth... Having said that I also dislike the way certain people will only ever watch feelgood romances or rom-coms and turn a blind eye to everything real and horrible in our world - this makes, in my view, for an equally disturbing shallow life (if slightly less disturbing to the comfortably vocal majority)."

    Another points out that horror films tend to--at least subconsciously--reflect the cultural climate at the time: "Horror movies almost always reflect the political climate of the country at the time they were created. The fact that our government has been caught several times now engaging in torture lends itself to an understanding as to why the people go for this type of entertainment. Basically, if Mom and Pop (the government) are doing it, the children (the masses) will follow."

    I think Eli Roth (Hostel) has made that last point before, but I tend to buy it more when coming from a third party. Eli should just defend his art as art; when he suggests that he has some kind of political agenda, well, I'm not picking up what he's putting down. (I think that's how Roth has sometimes framed his argument, but I could be wrong. So correct me if you must.)

  10. Jojo Barker9/11/2007

    Yes interesting point about how horror films reflect current cultural fears. 2004 was a pretty torturous year from memory, in all respects.

    My reasons for giving up writing horror (...not completely of course, any story can use some shock value...) were more personal than political. It's natural for horrific elements to rise up in dreams and in other ways, as a way for subconscious fears to make themselves known, but I just got to the point where I felt I was "feeding the fire" unnecessarily and I had the odd feeling that I was making horrible things more possible. It didn't feel like catharsis any more, it felt like I was just creating new fears for no good reason.

    Anyway, my little diatribe is starting to become both horrific and torturous... Time to get some joy in the form of caffeine...

  11. I have a couple issues with your comments.

    1. All art is created with the intention of displaying it and expressing something. And because of that the artist is saying that the audience for that art is free to criticize it any way they want. I don't see an inherent problem in people criticizing horror porn if they genuinely don't like it any more than I would someone criticizing Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia. Art is there because someone wanted you to enjoy it, think about it, and yes, criticize it.

    2. Your argument only works if people are unfairly comparing things incongruently. Like if someone said Saw is not as good as The Godfather. But if someone said Saw is not as good as Halloween or Scream or another contemporary horror film, wouldn't that qualify as fair criticism? In fact, your decision to include Justin Timberlake and Bjork, two of the best pop artists out there, says something about how you are critical of "low" culture, ie in relation to other artists who cater to a similar audience. In criticizing Die Hard 4, I am comparing it to the original Die Hard, a great great movie that might qualify as "lowbrow" that elitism or just a fair analysis?

    3. Titillation and emotional engagement are entirely different things. The reason people are calling it torture PORN is because PORN itself is a form of titillation that has nearly no narrative or emotional engagement. Similarly I would call some Jackie Chan films martial arts porn (and I'm a big Jackie Chan fan!). The level of difficulty in creating titillation is not material in whether it has good qualities or not.

  12. Oh, Howard, I didn't know you would ACTUALLY come to this blog entry after I told you to come to this blog entry. I should've said something like, "Howard, give me a hundred dollars."

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. The only thing I feel compelled to rely to is this:

    "PORN itself is a form of titillation that has nearly no narrative or emotional engagement."

    ...I don't know what porn you're watching, but my collection if rife with narrative and emotional depth and complexity.

  13. A porn connoisseur! That explains oh so much...

  14. Okay, you're not off the hook yet...

    I don't agree with this false distinction between high and low culture. Is Die Hard high or low? It works as both. Is Bjork high or low? Again, I could argue both. Is Bach high or low? In fact, when he was alive, people thought he was a hack musician doing an outdated style. The "low" culture of 100 years ago, say ragtime, is now revered as high culture. It's a matter of time and the forces of cultural values shaping what we perceive.

    Also, I should mention that I mostly hate critics myself. I don't like Owen although he's far superior to Lisa. But that doesn't mean that their criticism is somehow "destroying art and creativity." It means rather that artists must either confront their weaknesses and/or continue pissing people off by doing what they want. The slow down in production of torture porn is mostly due to lackluster ticket sales, not the rantings of Nikki Finke and others.

    Finally, you must show me your *ahem* collection sometime.

  15. Oh, for the love of god, Howard, why do you insist on picking a fight? I don't wanna fight, I tell ya! I want to share, civilly :

    1.) "I don't agree with this false distinction between high and low culture."

    ...I don't either. That's my point. I'm trying to bridge that gap. Because you cannot deny the fact that that false distinction exists, particularly in the realm of entertainment criticism.

    2.) Let me say this about Owen: the reason I like him is not because I agree with him most of the time (in fact, our tastes are very dissimilar); I like him because he's a very good writer and thinker. You see? I am very willing to like someone's work regardless of whether or not I share their point of view.

    3.) Please recall that I write: "Okay, when I use the word 'destroying,' I am grossly exaggerating because I wanted a titillating title."

    ...Since you're a new reader to my blog, you probably don't know that I deal in gross exaggeration and grand declarations all the time. It's my gift...and my burden. (YOU SEE?! I did it right there!)

  16. Okay, truce...but remember you asked me to come here.

    I guess the only point on which we actually differ is that I think fun doesn't equal good. Any thoughts or are these fighting words?

  17. Howard, I agree that that is the only point on which we actually differ.

    And no, your words are not fighting words. These are:

    I'm right, and you're wrong.