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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: If it’s okay to worry that ‘Inception’ is too smart, where is the worry about movies that are too stupid?

Inception has finally arrived, and now we’ll see if audiences feel the same way about it as critics do: reviews range from pretty good to rapturous, with only a few detractors (and not just Armond White, either!)

But I’ve been noticing a particular tenor in the predictions of how audiences may react that I find deeply disturbing. All over the Web at lots of major outlets for the discussion of film are articles with headlines like these:

“Will Inception Be Too Smart for Moviegoers?” (TV.com)

“Is ‘Inception’ Too Smart for Audiences?” (Hollywood.com)

“Is Inception Too Smart To Be a Hit?” (Film.com)

“Will ‘Inception’ Be Too Smart for Audiences?” (Cinematical)

“Can You Enjoy Inception if You’re Not Very Smart?” (Vanity Fair)
Now, most of these pieces end up countering their own headlines, determining that, no, audiences are not stupid and everyone will enjoy the film just fine. But the fact that the question is being asked in this particular way really bugs me.

I mean, where were all the headlines wondering if audiences were too smart for MacGruber, or if Grown Ups was too dumb to appeal to ordinary moviegoers? There weren’t any, at least not that I could find. Sure, there were plenty of complaints about how dumb these movies are, but there didn’t seem to be any general handwringing over the lack of intelligence these movies evince, or whether they were appropriate for mainstream audiences.

Am I just being oversensitive here? Why does it seem that it’s just fine dandy to pick on movies for perhaps being too smart for some people, but not just fine to pick on other movies for perhaps being too stupid for some people? If it’s okay to worry that Inception is too smart, where is the worry about movies that are too stupid?

Is this just another example of the wide strain of anti-intellectualism that runs through American culture? Or is something else at work?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Christina

    Anti-intellectualism – you hit it right on the head. It’s rampant in Amerian Society, where every ad, every iconic image in our media exalts people doing insanely stupid things, sometime for food (mostly men), sometimes for chocolate (mostly women), and always for sex. So if someone has the unmitigaged temerity to make movies WE DON’T UNDERSTAND (because we’re too bloody stupid), well then… they must be stopped! Ridiculed! Burned at the stake! Let’s grab our torches and pitchforks and storm the castle… er… the studio.

    Feh. Dumb and dumber indeed.

  • Ryan H

    There’s also an undertone of ‘don’t get uppity’ in our current culture. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t call out anyone for being wrong or lying or dumb. Don’t show anyone up. Just smile and nod and go with the flow. Don’t question.

    It leads to the lowest common denominator being a very comfortable place to be and anything that challenges that is viewed as threatening.

  • Rachel Hartman

    Because there’s no shame in being stupid, but there’s plenty to be ashamed of if you’re smart.

    I’m more than ready for this trend to reverse.

  • I’m reminded of the reviewes complaining that the plot to Pirates of the Caribbean 3 was “too complicated.” Which is funny, because I know several elementary aged children who followed it just fine.

    I think this kind of think says more about CRITICS than it does about AUDIENCES.

  • It’s because we’re well on our way to making the predictions in Idiocracy come true. I see it every day in my college classes. Students who were spoonfed and allowed to skate by and then are shocked when we actually expect them to use their brains. The masses are considered (apparently) low brow and stupid. If education, entertainment, and other people don’t ever EXPECT them to be something else, I fear for the future of our species.

  • Brian

    I remember seeing these kinds of comments at least as far back as Mission: Impossible in ’96. A lot of reviews then painted M:I as some hopelessly Byzantine puzzle, but I don’t remember having any trouble following it; I just had to pay attention. This was when I began to suspect that critics and producers were starting to underestimate movie audiences.

    Of course, considering that the biggest hit of that year was Independence Day, they may have felt justified in their cynicism.

  • doa766

    but you’re forgetting that the vast majority of people is stupid, not smart, so stupid movies don’t have to worry about finding an audience, just look at the Transformers movies

  • Daniel

    Originally, I wasn’t going to add a comment, just nod sadly to myself and say, “Yup,” and, “That’s how Dubya got elected.”

    But I work in public service, and I know from experience that lots of people really are that stupid.

    Which should really be irrelevant. Some people like “smart” movies. Some people like “dumb” movies. Some people like “Traffic,” which is a dumb movie pretending to be for smart people. There’s something for every audience.

    But movie producers want to make as much money as possible, so they advertise the movies really widely, and make sure they’re accessible to every audience member. And they leave out anything remotely offensive, so no one can object to the content. No one can feel confused or left out.

    And if we’re lucky, the studio makes enough money to finance a couple of smart movies. (They’re released by an “independent film” company, which is also owned by the studio.) If we’re not lucky, we get [insert name of any of a dozen movies released in the past few years].

  • Isobel

    It’s not just the US that’s dumbing down, Kait, it’s here in the UK too.

    Just today, I was reading an Amazon thread on books people couldn’t finish, one response was from an A Level student who had it as a set text didn’t finish it, but still got an ‘A’ on the essay. . . !!!

  • Jolly

    First, is the following what you intended to write?

    without only a few detractors

    If so, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. Did you mean “with only a few detractors?”

    Second, I don’t see these comments as “picking” on Inception. They are really more a question of whether something that doesn’t cater to the LCD can be a commercial success. Given the number of times I’ve been told to “stop thinking and just enjoy” when it comes to movies, I think it’s a fair question. With regards to Nolan specifically, my problem with his previous work has little to do with it being “too smart.”

  • MaryAnn

    If so, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. Did you mean “with only a few detractors?”

    Yes, that’s what I meant, and I’ve fixed it.

    They are really more a question of whether something that doesn’t cater to the LCD can be a commercial success.

    But I think it’s more than that. It encompasses the assumption — which is perhaps an accurate assumption — that lots of smart people will see stupid movies *and not be angry about being talked down to.* I understand that the nature of Hollywood is that it must appeal to as many people as possible, but there’s a kind of judgmentalism in how the *Inception* deabte is framed, I think. There *could* be a tenor of flattery involved in selling a film such as *Inception,* one that suggests that seeing this movie and liking this movie means they’re smart. But our culture doesn’t value smartness. While we don’t consider anything unpleasantly elitist about, say, star athletes (who can do things and have a level of fitness or ability that most people could not achieve even if they wanted to), we don’t extend the same approval to people who are smart, even if they can think things or have a level of intellectualism that most people could not achieve even if they wanted to. Why is that?

  • Knightgee

    Star athletes provide us with entertainment. Intellectuals often make us just feel inadequate for not being as smart (or in some cases as privileged in opportunity) as them without really giving us anything in return. Or at least that’s the prevailing narrative when it comes to why those “darn intellectuals” are so bad.

  • mortadella

    Oh my god, has anyone else here ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”?

  • Jolly

    But our culture doesn’t value smartness.

    I agree. If you were a “gifted” kid in grade school, you learned that at an early age. Any intellectual interests were best hidden. The Simpsons have been lampooning this aspect of American culture for years. The episode where Homer exclaims “Is there no place for the man with a 105 IQ!” is one of my very favorite moments in TV.

  • MaryAnn

    Star athletes provide us with entertainment. Intellectuals often make us just feel inadequate for not being as smart (or in some cases as privileged in opportunity) as them without really giving us anything in return.

    But it could just as easily go the other way. Smart people do all sorts of things, like make movies and TV we like, create video games, and so on — things that entertain us! And athletes makes us feel bad for being couch potatoes, and remind us that very few people get to go to amazing universities on the basis of being good at kicking a ball. Also: They earn millions of dollars per year for just *playing* a game, which anyone can do! (Not everyone can *design* a game that everyone can play for amusement’s sake, however.)

    Why isn’t it that way?

    Not that I want people with amazing athletic ability to be put down, of course. But it does seem very odd indeed that we laud some people for being lucky in the genetic draw and/or for getting the training and encouragement needed to develop a skill, yet we denigrate or ignore others in the same position.

    If you were a “gifted” kid in grade school, you learned that at an early age.

    Absolutely. And not just from the other kids but from the administration as well. Where I went to school, in a relatively prosperous suburb that you might think would enough resources to benefit all students to the best of their abilities, the attitude was that special-ed kids of course needed some extra help — which I don’t disagree with — but that gifted kids could fend for themselves in regular classes because, well, we were just smart enough to fend for ourselves.

  • History of Bubbles

    H.L. Mencken was there first: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

    But I’ll tell you this—that selection of headlines has made me more excited about “Inception” than almost anything else so far.

  • lunarangel01

    Why isn’t it that way?

    Not that I want people with amazing athletic ability to be put down, of course. But it does seem very odd indeed that we laud some people for being lucky in the genetic draw and/or for getting the training and encouragement needed to develop a skill, yet we denigrate or ignore others in the same position.

    Agreed. I have wondered this for my entire life.

    I can understand disliking PSEUDO-intellectualism, however genuine intelligence should be encouraged and applauded, and it so rarely is.

    I think a lot of it comes from the mentality of “keep your head down” and do your work. Don’t show off. Etc. Etc. Don’t be different, because if you’re different and you think differently, there is something inherently WRONG with you (essentially group think). That’s always been my perception of it.

    I’m wondering if maybe highly athletic people are more “accepted” because they are still able to give off this perception of being “normal.” “Sure, they might have crazy mad skills on the court, but when they go home they still just like to crack open a beer and screw a beautiful woman like the rest of us.” (Whether or not that’s actually true).

    Whereas people who are highly intelligent are often viewed as eccentric, shut-ins (introverted), constantly absorbed in their head. Their lifestyle is therefore viewed as “different” and against the norm… And as religion has constantly shown us, it is BAD to go against the group (or what God says or whatever).

    Really, I think a lot of it has to do with PERCEPTION of a lifestyle or a personality type. People like what they identify with. They are highly suspicious of that which they don’t identify with.

    Either that or the general populous is afraid all intelligent people are crazy evil geniuses who want to take over the world. :-)

  • Boingo

    “Hollywood worrying about a movie being too stupid,”
    would be a nice change. What will help it head more in that direction – film critics being artistically sensitive,truthful, informed,and
    fearless.

    As for the cultural divide in perceptions concerning
    intelligence in general, I have no idea how to improve things. More balance, maybe? If only the Unabomber got out to see more feel good flicks …???

  • Lisa

    I’m betting that I understand Inception better than Pirates of the Carribean 3!

    I think with sports stars, there’s an element of them living the american dream. It’s aspirational, plus people enjoy watching them play exciting, high drama games. There’s no fun in quadratic equations!

  • RogerBW

    It’s easy to show someone doing something physical really well. There’s no way to do this with mental activities. In a culture based almost entirely on celebrities who look good on television, that’s clearly going to reinforce the existing bias.

  • Lisa

    Smart people make us feel insecure because nobody likes to think they’re completely stupid either.

  • MaryAnn

    Smart people make us feel insecure because nobody likes to think they’re completely stupid either.

    But — as I wrote in a comment above — why don’t elite athletes make people feel clumsy and awkward?

  • Martin

    I have an idea but I’m not sure how accurate it is.

    Back in school, the athletic types (let’s call them jocks) pretty much ruled. They picked on the smarter kids (let’s call them nerds) and pretty much got away with it.

    But in today’s modern world, filled with gadgets and such, jocks are needing to turn to nerds for help. We run the computers and we make the medicines. If a jock’s computer doesn’t work, he calls the IT guy. If he’s sick, he calls the Doctor.
    Now, in my experience, jock types tend to live by an ‘eye for an eye’ mantra and since now the subjects of their scorn years ago have better jobs and are needed when things go wrong, jock’s must think that one day, we’ll exact our revenge; we don’t fix things fast enough, we can’t heal them magically and our scientists do things that seem wrong to them.

    And in a increasingly computerised world where brute force is no longer necessary, jocks are starting to feel unnecessary, all because us nerds created stuff.

    Athletes, on the other hand, are one of them, ordinary guys. Their success is a conduit for their dreams and aspirations, they wish they were them.

    Athletes are entertainment and escapism to a simply time when might was right. Smart people are reminders that those glory days are over.

    Or maybe I’m over-analysing it.

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