H.L. Mencken said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” In these globalized times we can now remove that “American” qualifier. This past summer was the highest-grossing season on record for the movie industry, despite the complete lack of originality, surprise, or any big-budget entertainments that deserved any real praise beyond, “Well, anyway, it was better than Green Lantern.” Currently, the halls of Hollywood are filled with cackling corporate fat cats, popping champagne and plotting future villainy: Green Lantern 2, why not? But not everyone is celebrating the film industry’s stupid-is-as-stupid-does gravy train. According to the Guardian, recent Oscar winner and emergent cinema hero Colin Firth used the Venice Film Festival opening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to offer his own opinions about the dumbing-down of movies. “I do think there is a tendency to underestimate audiences,” said Firth. “I do think there is an appetite to be stretched.”
Now, it’s not exactly like Firth is hurling a Molotov cocktail at the establishment here. He’s a respected actor speaking to an audience of cinephiles at a film festival that marks the beginning of the Oscar season. (Firth is also in the unique position of never mortgaging his dignity on a Hollywood blockbuster; his only outright sell-out film was Mamma Mia!, a film so suffused with goodwill that criticizing it feels like criticizing a play put on by kindergarteners.) Still, there is something bracing about an intelligent actor making a quiet plea for non-stupidity. “I do think people want to hear language at its best on the screen.”
Still, there’s a part of me that wonders if Firth is right… or if we just badly want him to be right. At a certain fundamental level, people like movies, and people will generally see the movies that Hollywood creates. How else to explain this past summer, a season in which the fourth-worst Pirates of the Caribbean, the second-worst Transformers, and the fifth-worst Harry Potter all grossed over $1 billion at the global box office? And it’s not just the blockbuster entertainments that have generally aimed for the Lowest Common Denominator. The most recent winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture was Colin Firth’s own The King’s Speech, a film which (as recounted by Christopher Hitchens) brutally trimmed the complex story of the British Royal Family in the years leading to World War II into a triumph-of-the-human-spirit story in which a Nervous-But-Lovable protagonist defeated the Mean Old Nazis by Learning to Talk Good.
The movies have always been a populist medium, and there’s no shame in that. But there is a general sense that, in the last few decades, “populist” has come to mean “being dumb enough that everyone can understand.” Even Inception, a famously complicated blockbuster, provided plenty of narrative hand-holding for the fifth-graders in the audience; the second half-hour of the film is almost like a PowerPoint Presentation to prepare you for the film’s latter half. PopWatchers, do you agree with Firth that the film industry is underestimating people’s yearning for intelligent movies? Or have we all just given up and moved on to Red Dead Redemption?
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