calling bullshit on: blaming audiences for Hollywood’s sins…

… as The Christian Science Monitor does in a piece by staff writer Gloria Goodale. Under the headline “Why intriguing ‘Inception’ is the Hollywood exception,” Goodale says:

The boffo audience response to a nearly 2-1/2 hour film full of creative mumbo jumbo about how dreams work and startling visuals – folding city streets, for instance – raises the question of why there aren’t more original films such as “Inception.”

Apart from the fact that how she presents this conundrum — is a movie crammed with “mumbo jumbo” actually something “original” to be celebrated, or is the writer suggesting that audiences are being snookered somehow, tricked into parting with their money? — comes the wildly contradictory reasons she uncovers to answer her own question.

[T]he larger answer is what both film and psychology experts call a “culture of familiarity,” in which consumers are continually nudged toward the known rather than the unexpected.

“Market research has pushed this notion that audiences should get what they want and expect,” says Seton Hall University film professor Christopher Sharrett. Nowadays, audiences are completely familiar with the routine of cards being handed out at movie screenings, he says, “and the final film is tailored to the information that comes back to the market research from those cards.”

This process of carefully managed expectations is in stark contrast to an earlier era, the pre-blockbuster days of the 1950s and ’60s. “The ’50s and early ’60s weren’t radical but people paid to be provoked and challenged,” he says, referencing such films as “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “Seven Days in May.” The “corporatization” of mainstream movies has utterly changed that, he says, pointing out that today’s films must not only sell hamburgers and T-shirts, but insurance and other extensions of the corporate brand.

That’s why Hollywood doesn’t regularly give us “original” films, Goodale says: because they’re too risky, and because audiences have shown that they’ll still regularly shovel money in the direction of movies that cater to those carefully managed expectations.

But wait just a second! Just because people pay to see those movies doesn’t mean that they won’t pay to see movies that thrill them far more by being unique and unexpected… as the popularity of Inception is demonstrating perfectly well. This is where Goodale goes off the rails:

Evolutionary biology may suggest deeper reasons for our attraction to the familiar, says Lou Manza, a professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. Continued exposure to the same thing reduces a sense of danger, he says via e-mail. Once safety is established, he points out, we’re comfortable with the idea, and humans, generally, prefer comfort over discomfort.

“On the flip side, we tend to perceive a lack of familiarity as bad … and, thus, we avoid those things. Hollywood simply takes advantage of this effect,” he says, trading the familiar for the more adventurous.

This is preposterous. Human beings have not evolved, in a biological sense, since the 1950s and 60s, when — Goodale implies — we were perfectly happy to be bombarded with provocative and challenging films. So “evolutionary biology” cannot explain why Hollywood was able to give us unfamiliar movies half a century ago but simply appears unable to do so 95 percent of the time today.

I complain often about how stupid mainstream audiences are, because it frustrates me that people will so readily pay for crap. But people who are hungry — for food, for entertainment — will take what is offered to them. That fact should not be used as evidence that spoiled table leavings are the only thing they’ll take, given a choice.

As seems to be the case with Inception. After a spring and early summer of cheap dog food, here’s a nice juicy steak, and audiences are gobbling it up, with every indication making it look like the film is gonna hang tough at the box office for the rest of the summer. Weekend estimates over this past weekend, its third, peg it as taking in another $27.5 million, for a total of more than $193 million in North America alone; worldwide as of this past weekend, it’s closing in on $400 million. The relatively small drops it has taken over its second weekend — 32 percent — and third — 36 percent — indicate continuing interest, and with no serious competition through August, it’s gonna be here to stay, if not at the top of the box office, certainly near the top.

It proves that we’re not necessarily “attracted to the familiar” but simply stuck with whatever familiar stuff we’re given. Blaming “evolutionary biology” for Hollywood’s cowardice sound an awful lot like blaming the victim and excusing Hollywood as merely doing what it has to in order to survive… even with lots of evidence that demonstrates that simply isn’t the way of it at all.

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