Trojan Tub Entertainment

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Defense of High Concepts

Pop into the airport bookstore, or browse the bestseller shelves at Barnes & Noble. Read the loglines of the movie posters in the lobby at the Cineplex. Study the teaser ads for your favorite prime-time drama. In such places you will note the call of stories driven, in Hollywood parlance, by a “high concept.” An alien becomes stranded on Earth. Dinosaurs come back to life. An orphan learns that he’s a wizard destined to save the magical world.

Our culture is saturated with high concept fiction of all kinds—in movies, television, and books. It is tempting to consign all of it to the cultural dustbin. So much of it is vulgar, puerile, cheap. And yet—our love for the high concept is something that deserves a defense.

“One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar.”

So argues G.K. Chesterton, in a marvelous little essay entitled “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls,” published in his book, The Defendant, back in 1901. Penny dreadfuls are cheap fiction, cheap in more than one sense, no doubt. But not in every sense. Chesterton’s essay focuses on the boys’ book—i.e., the story of pirates or outlaws, of Robin Hood and Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine—stories light on literary merit but heavy on excitement. He asks whether boys should be kept away from such fiction. His answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “no.”

The “boy’s novelette,” Chesterton claims, “may be ignorant in a literary sense…but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual center of a million flaming imaginations.”

Chesterton urges us not to discount the importance of high concept fiction for culture. “People must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important.”

Why is the need for what Chesterton calls the “true romantic trash” infinitely deeper and more important than the rules of good art? Why does my son go every morning to his “Lego table,” and the city he has built there and the adventures of its citizens? “Literature is a luxury,” Chesterton affirms, “fiction is a necessity.” Is this because the need to be amused or distracted is deeper than the need to be intellectually stimulated? Or does it have more to do with the wonder provoked by the high concept? For isn’t this what makes a fictional concept “high”—that it generates maximum wonder on the part of an audience?

The high concept is a way of wondering, and philosophy, Aristotle says, begins in wonder. When we engage with a story, we wonder at a fellow human being set out on a path in which he will achieve either happiness or misery. How will it turn out for him? Will he find happiness? Or will he find out that what he thought was happiness really isn’t? To wonder about these questions is the beginning of the quest for wisdom.

Whether it is with the help of Legos or of popular movies and television shows, to wonder about the truths, and even the truisms, of life is an inescapable part of being human. This is why high concept fiction will always be “the actual center of a million flaming imaginations.”

My name is Daniel McInerny, and welcome to my new blog, High Concepts. I hope you will join me as I reflect upon questions having to do with the impact of the entertainment industry and new media upon our culture. As this initial post makes clear, I bring a philosophical eye to my reflections. Chesterton and Aristotle, as you see, are favorites. With their and others’ help, my aim in this blog will be to explore what a movie or book or industry trend is saying about what it means to be a human being trying to pursue the good life, a life, Aristotle tells us, always lived in company with our families, our friends, and our wider communities.

What sorts of posts can you expect from this blog?

• Reflections on the very nature of art, entertainment, media, culture—and what forms these take in our society
• Discussions of particular content trends in movies, television, and publishing
• Dialogues with pieces from other blogs and publications
• Movie, book, and media reviews
• Invitations to discuss questions generated by all of the above

I look forward to our conversations.


  1. Damn.
    Great blog start.
    (found you from your cousin @irishgirl on Twitter).
    I, like the masses, find escape in high concept movies, but quiet films that describe in fine detail the moments of a life are just as fascinating to me, if not more.

  2. Thanks. I also found your blog from @irishgirl and I also have a thousand cousins (fun holidays) Over coffee this morning, I asked a film friend to consider producing a documentary on Why people love Art? Do people love art for loves sake or because it tells a story of who they are, how rich they are, how smart they are? Are we all just interesting oneliners in someone's story or do we still genuinely want to know and even love each other? Sorry to wax on the philosophy. I look forward to following your blog. @kgillh

  3. I'm glad to have all three of you aboard--Benjamin, theredhead, and Karen. The power of the McInerny cousin network! I'm especially grateful for your comments and encouragement. To theredhead I will say, yes!, great filmmaking is not all about high concept, summer tentpole movies. Some of my favorite movies, after all, are period pieces based on 19th-century novels. Nonetheless, I do think it is important to think why so many millions flock to high concept films and television shows and books. There's a deeply human impulse at work there that, if properly cultivated by a great artistry, can help lead us to the truth about ourselves. And that is the beginning of my answer to Karen, I think. Why do people love art? At bottom, it is because we are gripped by the beautiful. And what we love in stories is a beautifully-crafted narrative that, again, resonates with the truth about what it means to be human.

    Please pass the word of this new blog along to your friends. I'll typically be posting three days per week.

  4. Great start! Subscribed. (Found via your cousin on Twitter as well)

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. High concept as a term, I take it, refers not so much to a genre as to a highbrow versus popular art forms?

    Lowbrow forms have been made iconic by Pop Artists. Maybe there is a similar impulse in Batman movies, for example, where comic book plot and character go BIG screen.

    High concept, then, refers to the waging of good and evil, with heroic virtues called forth?

    Literary writing has gravitated away from the common reader and requires increasingly sophisticated interpretations or reconstructions of plot and narrative.
    Popular movies, though perhaps hackneyed in form, can appeal to and suggest the force of traditional virtues...and carry on a dialogue with the noble ideas of the past as they prove still to surface in the persent.

    The Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow capitalized words such as Truth and Courage, suggesting these words were considered abstractions and had thus lost currency among the modernist writers.

    Maybe if our Arts culture has kicked such language out, one recourse has been for it to go elsewhere-- to be heard in more popular art forms, such as the high concept movie. go where no highbrow artist has gone before....

  7. Hi Daniel! Enjoyed your blog. I found it, should you be curious, by googling "high concept." I'm in the process of dissecting a would-be viral online marketing campaign that combines "high concept" as used in the movie and TV biz, with commonplace online tools. The age of "high concept" internet campaigns, that seek to go viral, has arrived. But this time, not from Hollywood, but rather, from guerilla filmmakers and low-end production houses (where everyone's working for the logo credit at the end of the Youtube video they want to go viral)... Look forward to seeing more. Steve Eggleston, aka The Eggman aka #TheEggman411 lol (