Monday, August 10, 2009

Lonely Teenagers

In a recent blog post, Roger Ebert discussed his fear that movie-goers are entering a Dark Age. The post apparently struck a nerve: there are 635 comments at present, most of them in agreement. The problem is simple- teen audiences go to see movies based on marketing hype and not word-of-mouth or good reviews. And so many great movies make no money, while Transformers Part Deux has grossed roughly the gross national income of Uruguay.

"Why is that? They don't care about reviews, perhaps. They also resist a choice that is not in step with their peer group. Having joined the crowd at "Transformers," they're making their plans to see "G. I. Joe." Some may have heard about "The Hurt Locker," but simply lack the nerve to suggest a movie choice that involves a departure from groupthink."
But certainly, teenage conformism is nothing new. I remember High School containing a good number of young people who, if they were on fire, wouldn't stop, drop, & roll if they thought it might look 'uncool'. I don't think I've noticed any uptick in "groupthink" among teens, and certainly many adults are guilty of groupthink too. I do notice that when I'm around people in their teens and twenties in bars, I generally can guess all of the stock phrases they're going to use (i.e.: sweet! nice! Dude, what the fuck?!) with startling accuracy. The result is just that people in that age group can be really boring. But weren't they always?

In terms of movies, it's simple economics: the film industry is losing money, and teenagers go to see more movies than anyone else, so they're mostly making movies for teenagers. Morevoer, the dumbest buy the mostest. In conclusion: Transformers 2. The same thing is happening in the music business- they're losing money, so they sink more money in increasingly grandiose concerts and overpriced CDs. Actually, quite a lot of industries now rely on the "flooding the market with overhyped crap" technique.

"Of course there are countless teenagers who seek and value good films. I hear from them all the time in the comment threads on this blog. They're frank about their contemporaries. If they express a nonconformist taste, they're looked at as outsiders, weirdoes, nerds. Their dates have no interest in making unconventional movie choices..."
"If I mention the cliché "the dumbing-down of America," it's only because there's no way around it. And this dumbing-down seems more pronounced among younger Americans. It has nothing to do with higher educational or income levels. It proceeds from a lack of curiosity and, in many cases, a criminally useless system of primary and secondary education. Until a few decades ago, almost all high school graduates could read a daily newspaper. The issue today is not whether they read a daily paper, but whether they can."
Dude! WTF? OMG! LOL! Okay, but seriously folks, we've discussed the "lack of curiosity" thing here before. And how ill-served young people have been by the transformation of the educational system into a fake-grades-and-flattery-based service industry. I don't know if I'd call it a "dumbing down", since it does to be something of a lifestyle choice people make. Apathy is a choice; not something other people do to you. Intellectual incuriousness is also a choice- Arthur Schnizler called it "the flight into stupidity". That beautiful term should suggest that it's nothing especially new. Of course, he was describing Austria, which soon afterwards made the flight into criminal stupidity, so it's worth worrying about a bit.

That said, I'm a bit tired of the hand wringing about "the dumbing down of America". Part of it is that I live in Canada, where there are plenty of intellectually incurious people. Also, the inference is generally that the intellectual level of the American populace is somehow uniquely important for the future of the world. But the rest of the educated world can manage on their own, right? Lastly, I wonder if it's not just a waste of time to worry about why certain people make so little intellectual effort. It isn't like they care anyway, and it's sort of depressing to dwell on. Maybe it's better to make the flight away from stupidity.

I do feel for the kids who get ostracized for not wanting to feed at the trough; some of the kids in the comments talk about getting insulted for things like preferring Werner Herzog's films to Michael Bay movies. Nobody should ever apologize for loving Werner Herzog's movies. Claire and I dream of someday having him narrate our home movies in his dry, rambling, somewhat bizarre style. "When I look into the eyes of Rufus, I see only the dull, animal hatred of existence in a merciless universe." Okay, you sort of need to hear the impression...

Anyway, young people, here are two insults that should, from this point forward, mean nothing to you:
  1. "Gay"- This is one you often get called for adoring poetry or art films or gardening, or whatever. The people who think this is a clever insult are always douchebags, as a rule.
  2. "Pretentious"- People who assume the pretense of being stupid will often use this word to discount anything and everything outside of their thimble-sized comfort zone. At this point, this preferred, overused insult of frat boys everywhere is relatively meaningless.
And don't worry so much about your peer group. Just find people who are open to new and different things and try to articulate to them why you love the things you love. I love being turned on to new things by other people, and maybe we just need more people tubthumping for art from outside of the Stultifying Industrial Complex. Personally, I think the things I write here are a lot better when I'm basically trying to do just that, and probably a lot worse when I'm just bitching about other people being stupid. So, I'll start trying to do the former more than the latter too.


Brian Dunbar said...

The problem is simple- teen audiences go to see movies based on marketing hype and not word-of-mouth or good reviews

Ebert is really upset because he sees a dark future where people no longer will pay him to review movies.

There is something to this: we contributed to Transformers Two's revenue. Because we have two boys who love to see things go smash and bang and they wanted to see that movie.

We paid knowing in advance that they would love it (and they did) and we'd find it 'meh'.

We could have sent them alone ... but half the fun - for us - of 'the movies' is going as a family.

rufus said...

Eh, maybe. He's pretty old at this point and, given his poor health, he probably won't see too much of the future. I sort of doubt he's too worried about his income. He did clean up on 'At the Movies', especially after selling it to Disney.

I think his real issue is that just having critics who review movies presupposes that film can be an art form, instead of being only a branch of the entertainment industry. Most critics, and cinephiles, are actually fine with the smash and bang movies, especially since they make money that is put into making movies that adults can get something out of. But they also believe that a few rare movies really do amount to personal artistic expression on the part of a really good director. And, when you see a really great movie, like Raging Bull or The Godfather II, it's hard to really argue with them on that point.

The problem is that, while I think Hollywood feels the same way, they really don't make that many movies for adults anymore, probably because adults would rather rent serious movies and watch them at home. So, in most places, if you want to go out to the theatre, it's Transformers 2 or nothing. If you're not a kid, or someone with kids, the multiplexes don't want your business. Ideally, it would be better business sense to cater to as many different types of viewers as possible- have the kiddie matinee and Raging Bull too. I'm not convinced the multiplex chains have much business sense though.

I think I know what really irritates Ebert though. We have a friend whose husband absolutely refuses to eat anything but burgers and mac & cheese- basically, whatever comfort food his mother made for him as a boy. So, when we go out together, we have to find a burgers and fries place, or watch him sit there not eating. It's absolutely impossible to get him to try anything new. And it's not always easy to find a Fuddruckers to make him happy, especially in downtown Hamilton.

There are a lot of people who are like that with movies. It's not just that they love the boobs and explosions movies, because who doesn't? But you can't get them to watch anything else because it's like they get offended if the movie isn't trying to distract them with cool special effects every five minutes.

Me, I like both- I do like burgers and pop, but I also want to eat gourmet sometimes. You eat junk food all the time, and you get sick. If you eat gourmet all the time, it gets boring. I think Ebert wants to see more people who are willing to try something new. Because, if we run out of them within the next few generations, the result will be that making a movie like Raging Bull will be a losing proposition, so it'll just be robots and Harry Potter from here on out.

gregvw said...

I admit... I'm only doing a second Ph.D. because all the cool kids are doing it.

Rufus said...

Actually, I remember when I met you in High School thinking, "Oh Jeez, not another guy wearing vintage top hat and tails in the cafeteria!"

Kevin (Ket) said...

It isn't just about not paying attention to movie critics. Personally, I've read a pretty compelling argument that we need movie critics. It mostly stems from the fact that, often, movie critics are often the only way we will hear about some Indie or Foreign films. Hollywood certainly isn't going to tell us about them. It is in Hollywood's interest that movie critics are gone altogether, then nothing would stand between them and the consumer's wallets.

That Roger Ebert would rate movies like "Transformers 2" or "GI Joe" badly tells us, simply, that he does not work for or against their interests. Some might say he's too old and out of touch with what this generation wants. But consider: he gave "Batman Begins", "The Dark Knight", and and "Spider Man 2" 4/4 stars each.

Honestly, with movie options so abundant, from theaters, to Netflix, to YouTube (if you want to include the non-legal avenues. Ebert is not even against this. He bluntly says in reply to a comment on his blog, "See a great movie by any means necessary") to all the DVDs out there, I think critics are MORE relevant than ever. When there are so many options out there, and so many ways to get our information, why throw 12 dollars at a movie that we'd "know in advance that...we'd find it 'meh'"?

Rufus said...

Yeah, I'd agree with that.

I'm not eve sure why a critic would need to be in tune with the younger generation- older people just know more about the things they've spent their lives studying. That's why they're more useful than the dope on the bar stool, usually. It's like you'd want the literature professor to tell you about Gargantua and Pantagruel before Harry Potter.