Overcoming the Cult of Easy

This weekend, I tweeted a link to an article about the new ABC series Last Resort, which argues that Andre Braugher’s character, Capt. Marcus Chaplin, is a bold commentary on what it means to be a black male in modern America.

In return, someone who follows me responded:

I’d read that column, but I don’t have an hour to kill. It lost me in the first paragraph.

I, too, got thrown by a run-on sentence in the first paragraph.  The site it’s linked from, The New Inquiry, is a purposely self-indulgent meta-critique of pop culture, and I’m used to their style.  But I can certainly see how someone who’s never read their work before might find it challenging, and maybe the article does a bad job of giving a newbie a reason to stick with it.

But here’s what really worries me about that response: because the reader had trouble following the article’s logic, he gave up.  Note that he doesn’t say he found the article uninteresting; he says he’d read it “if he had an hour.”  (The article runs about 1900 words; it should take an average reader approximately 7-10 minutes.)

Not only that, but his response makes it subtly sound like it’s either my fault for sharing something that was beyond his ability to comprehend, or it’s the author’s fault for not making the argument easier to understand.

In short: it wasn’t low-hanging fruit, so it was ignored.

Welcome to modern society, 2012.

But Would You Want to Have a Beer with Him?

Since 2000, when education, intellectualism and expertise became synonymous with “elitism” — and elitism became synonymous with “Un-American” — society has been skeptical of intelligence and the efforts to acquire it.

Politically, we reward the people who seem most like us, rather than the people we’d most like to become.  Artistically, we reward TV that serves up predictability and music that provides us with [danceable] emotional escapism.  Scientifically, we question everything, believe nothing, and prefer to rely on conventional wisdom rather than statistical probability.

When critical thinking is frowned upon, even achieving mediocrity can start to seem rebellious.

This explains why films that seem smart end up being touted as modern masterworks, when they’re really just modernized rehashes of classic tropes.  Inception, Looper and Prometheus aren’t particularly complicated films, but when compared to anything by Adam Sandler, I can see why critics are desperate to call something “smart.”

Lowering Our Common Denominator

The Graduate

On Salon, film critic Andrew O’Hehir mourns the death of film culture, noting that TV has replaced film as the source for our most intelligent and boundary-pushing stories.  Whereas previous generations could debate the morals, ethics and cultural commentary found in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Chinatown on a near-weekly basis, modern audiences must turn to The Wire, Mad Men and Game of Thrones for that same level of authorial analysis.

Not that this is a problem, per se.  The rise of TV as the standard-bearer for intellectual pop culture may be surprising compared to TV’s own past, but the serialized format does lend itself to greater depth than a 90-minute stand-alone film. No, the problem isn’t that TV is now “smarter” than film; it’s that audiences who crave “smart” no longer exist in meaningful, market-impacting numbers.

If you adjusted for inflation, The Graduate (1967) would be the #21 film of all-time in terms of box office, at a staggering $686M.

That’s higher than The Avengers.

Meanwhile, The Wire — regularly cited as the most intelligent TV show of all-time — averaged 4 million viewers per episode.  Granted, it aired on HBO, which isn’t a standard free TV channel.  But considering TV viewership was hitting all-time highs in 2006, which was the same year The Wire aired what’s often considered their finest season (Season Four, AKA the “school” season), you’d think it could have attracted at least a quarter of the 13.89 million people who were watching Two and a Half Men.

Don’t Write for People Who Can’t Read

I realize I’m connecting dots here that may not be actually be adjacent.

I realize I’m basing my estimation of America’s sociological decline on my own opinions about popular culture, mixed with the kind of sepia-toned “things used to be better” nostalgia that’s easily debunked by pointing out that some pop culture is always smart, and most of it is always stupid.

But I’m also connecting these dots due to my long-simmering frustration with the increasingly vocal ghettoization of knowledge.

I get that we’re a busy culture, so stopping to read when we don’t have to is an imposition.

I get that we’re a depressed culture, so having to think about problems isn’t as fun as avoiding them.

I get that we’re a remix culture, so learning what came before is never as compelling as seeing what’s coming next.

But maybe if we stopped to dissect our modern culture a little more, we might understand it better.  And if we understood it better, maybe we could improve it, or we could at least stop rewarding the producers of information who demand nothing from us beyond a glance, a “like” or a click.

Maybe we could stop seeing intelligence as the problem.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=873285079 Ara Bedrossian

    I think we don’t feel like digging deep because of all the access to data we have. Funny, I addressed this issue on my latest and greatest article, too. 
    Something else to consider with media. It seems to me movies have much more complex plot lines than they did years ago. And that reflects on more intelligent media consumers. What say you?

  • http://justinkownacki.com/ Justin Kownacki

    I’m not sure about media complexity. I think there are some convoluted plots out there (Inception), and some complicated plots (The Matrix), but I think there’s a tendency to confuse “lots of interconnecting parts” with “complexity.”

    For example, In Time is basically a heist movie where the prize is time, not money. If those characters had been arguing over actual cash, the film wouldn’t even have been necessary to make, because it added nothing to the heist film canon. But change one variable, and it becomes a potential cult hit, though it actually doesn’t merit that level of interest. (Although the leads are quite cinematic.)

    Looper is basically a time-shifted mystery. To me, its real cleverness is in how it obscures the actual point of the plot for as long as it does. It touches on a variety of emotional themes, but ultimately, it’s a shoot-em-up without a character I could actually root for, which might actually be the point, but it’s not necessarily a point I needed to consider.

    And yes, I’d much rather discuss where I thought these films fell short of greatness than have no nearly-great films to discuss. But if you’re asking, I’d rather see our stories get even more complex not just in terms of labyrinthine concepts or plotlines, but in terms of emotional journeys.

  • http://www.ianmrountree.com/ Ian M Rountree

    Long form content is a challenge – we deal with this all the time as bloggers, but article writers and reviewers kind of miss it. The only bit that is lacking on that New Inquiry article, far as I can tell, is a good self-describing precis.

    This is an issue with movies as well – I can’t even think about how many dates must have been ruined going to The Dark Knight Rises when one or both party hadn’t seen the first two movies.

    Programmers confront this; building appropriate headers for items which plug into others (precis or function descriptions, etc) is an art form.

    Being self-contained (especially by way of precis as a media artifact) is intensely underrated.

  • http://www.justinmccullough.com/ mccJustin

    The pendulum swings and it seems like we just couldn’t wait to get snack size content servings. 

    Your post is the front-runner for the swing back of the pendulum where the greater mass gets fed up with snack size content and wants to sink in to something with substance.  But in between all that, more and more content producers are flooding in and being “trained up” to write snack size content. 

    In the end, I’d argue it’s an issue with intellectual maturity and being able to break away from the spell-binding instant gratification of our society.  To do that, requires intention.

  • http://justinkownacki.com/ Justin Kownacki

    Personally, I not only have to fight the urge for instant gratification, but the urge to be perpetually in contact with The Possibility of Something New Happening as Soon as I Refresh This Browser Just One More Time.

    Lately, the more free time I have, the less I get done because I get caught in a refresh loop. It’s a frustrating paradox: being so busy that I actually have something to talk about but no time to do so, vs. having so much free time that I could talk about anything… except I have nothing to talk about.

  • http://www.justinmccullough.com/ mccJustin

    “refresh crack” – Guilty here too, Justin.

    Why don’t you have anything to talk about – and why all the free time?