Sunday, August 9, 2009

Infants and Their Formula

As is my habit on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, I rushed over to the movies section to see what their feature articles would be this week (a habit born from the days when my parents’ subscription to the Sunday New York Times coincided nicely with my burgeoning interest in film), and was thrilled to find the kind of well-written elitism I just absorb upon contact in the A.O. Scott feature, “Open Wide: Spoon-Fed at the Cineplex.” A selection:

“From Wolverine and Mr. Spock in May through the Decepticons and wizards of July it has been a triumph of the tried and true, occasionally revitalized or decked out with novelty, but mostly just what we expected. No surprises.

What kind of person constantly demands something new and yet always wants the same thing? A child of course. From toddlerhood we are fluent in the pop-cultural consumerist idiom: Again! More! Another one!...Children are ceaselessly demanding, it’s true; but they are also easily satisfied, and this combination of appetite and docility makes the child an ideal moviegoer. But since there are a finite number of literal children out there, with limited disposable income and short attention spans, Hollywood has to make or find new ones. And so the studios have, with increasing vigor and intensity, carried out a program of mass infantilization.”

It’s a great observation that people who choose to seriously consider their entertainment (or increasingly, culture itself) have been aware of for some time. It’s the next logical step from “the dumbing-down of America” (to paraphrase Roget Ebert, an unavoidable cliché), that many Americans, and, increasingly, the worldwide market as well (it’s important to export the dumb), have been and are continuing to be mentally reduced.

But this is an incomplete assessment. We’ve all known dumb people throughout our lives, but think for a second and consider the dumb. Sure, they may never advance terribly far in life, but being dumb does not automatically remove the excitement of gained knowledge. It just might take a few tries to get that knowledge working.

No, the infant idea is more compelling – young children may possess a certain curiosity for the world, but they’ll always be happiest when they feel comfortable and safe. So it is with the modern moviegoer. They may thrill at some deviation from formula (The Dark Knight) or artistic flourish (Wall-E), but those must be couched in the familiar, and instead of taking that thrill of the uncertain to its next logical step (i.e. seeking out films with more than a flourish of artistry), they immediately retreat into the familiar and the expected (Star Trek, Wolverine, Transformers 2, The Hangover, Monsters vs. Aliens).

My only gripe with Scott’s piece is that he doesn’t go all the way with his idea – maybe he’s unaware of this, but does he know that fully-grown adults aren’t only passively being reduced in mental capacity and curiosity, but actually actively yearning to reenter childhood?

In a comment on Roger Ebert’s Journal, a haven of required reading, “Khalid S.” said the following (in fairness to him, I included his disclaimer):

“Just to let you know I'm 30 years old, and very successful in my field of finance, to counter being labeled 'dumb'. But if I get a chance to relive my childhood by watching a live action movie about my childhood toys, comics, and cartoons, please don't call me 'dumb' and allow me this indulgence as a way of tuning out the problems of the real world for a while. Also, it would be interesting to see an audience profiling based on age and their opinion about Transformers 2.

It should be noted that he lists among his favorite movies Braveheart, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark Knight, the Spider-Man trilogy, and Iron Man. Not that there’s anything wrong with those films. Quite the contrary. But when you’re watching entertainment as finely wrought as Iron Man or Spider-Man 2, why settle for Transformers 2? Do they not offer the necessary escape from “the real world”? I understand that not everyone can find escape in Bergman, but if you’re only willing to watch what’s being marketed to you, can’t you still have SOME sort of filter? Just because the TV told you to watch it doesn’t mean you should.

All of this relates back, of course. I’m a young man of 23, but I’m sure (and, in fact, pop culture—A Christmas Story, for example—has taught me that this is true) that even someone of Ebert’s many years (or, say, someone of 30) can remember back to being a child and demanding something from their parents because the television, radio, or magazines told us we MUST have them. It’s just that many (increasingly fewer, I suppose) of us grow out of this and begin to want things because we feel they will enrich our lives.

And what’s even more troubling is that so many people seem to love this so much. It’s one thing for a film to make you feel like a kid again. Speed Racer and The Incredibles do this for me – one’s based on a cartoon I could never stand; the other is *gasp* a wholly original idea. It’s another to go see a film, and further, to actually enjoy it, apparently solely because it shares the brand name of something you played with when you were eight. I hear this CONSTANTLY, too, as justification for, as an adult, rewatching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers cartoon series (two things I devoured rapturously in my youth, for what it's worth), or listening to some shitty band, or yes, for seeing the live-action/animated (how quickly the lines blurred between the two) remake of any of the above, because “well, it was kind of a big deal when I was a kid, so, you know.”

Imagine if they did a sequel to A Christmas Story (crap, now the idea’s out there) and picked up with Peter Billingsley taking a few hours out of his day to fire his Red Ryder BB gun at a target in the backyard. You know, just to relive his childhood. To “tune out the problems of the real world.” That wouldn’t be considered sweet, a desirable activity, or even understandable. It would be considered pathetic.

Scott can be reached at, but really, posting in the comments is the way to go. Make your voice heard.


Unknown said...

"Beginning of article."

"Whine whine whine whine whine."

"End of article."

THIS is formula and it's the same one every elitist snob I know has used for decades.

PS: Just got home from 500 Days of Summer and I loved it, saw Transformers 2 earlier in the Summer and thought it was a fun bit of juvenile cinema (i.e. I didn't hate it as your elitist self thinks I should). People can love all types of cinema, the fun but stupid, and the intelligent, without having to hate one or the other and rant these cynical rants to fit in with the arthouse snobs. Life is not black and white and neither is good taste.

Scott Nye said...

I liked 500 Days of Summer a lot, too. I had my problems with it, but nothing overwhelming to hold me back from embracing it. I like to think I love all types of cinema, and I don't think anything in the article indicated otherwise. I adore Iron Man and Spider-Man 2, and in the article I mentioned Speed Racer and The Incredibles.

As Michael Bay goes, I love Armageddon and Bad Boys II, fun but stupid movies if ever there were. As long as there's SOMETHING new and exciting to grasp onto. Transformers 2 didn't even make basic sense, and the action scenes were beyond incoherent to the point that I saw two (two!) separate articles claiming he may have become a surrealist.

Thanks for reading; hope you stick around even if we disagree.

b said...

scott, you are too kind. though yeah, i do wonder if bay is avant-garde up to his eye balls and just mocking the system. or something

dragon dude, if you want to talk about cliches, let us touch upon the classic 'pile hate on an enthusiast for knowing more than me' if you bothered to read much here, you'd notice scott goes out of his way to extol those films that can appeal to the masses without pandering. i think some politico forum is missing you