As is my habit on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, I rushed over to
the NYTimes.com 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 ScottN_86@yahoo.com, but really, posting in the comments is the way to go. Make your voice heard.