Is Today Any Different?

by DeanM

Roger Ebert has never struck me as a public scold, so it surprised me to see a recent blog post of his where he bemoaned the fact that young people don’t read film critics anymore, which, to him, is a sign that they’re getting dumber.

If I mention the clich√© “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.

Obviously Ebert is stretching his conclusion to include far more than movies, although that’s still the focus of his post. His main evidence is the lack of success of The Hurt Locker, the Iraq War movie that came out this summer. Young people are not going to see this film, Ebert complains. Most of them don’t want to try anything out of the ordinary.

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. They’re looked at strangely if they express no desire to see that weekend’s box office blockbuster. Even some of their teachers, they write, are unfriendly to them “always bringing up movies nobody has ever heard of.” If you hang around on these threads, you know the readers I’m referring to, including “A Kid,” who writes so well that if she hadn’t revealed her age (just turned 13) we would have taken her for a literate, articulate adult.

My question: Has it ever been any different? That last excerpt could’ve been written about me when I was growing up. Have teenagers ever taken film criticism seriously or flocked to the more offbeat movies? Face it, moviegoers have been flocking to mindless action movies for as long as I can recall, and it’s not just young people.

Yes, I saw The Hurt Locker, and it’s a great movie. I wish more people would have seen it — young people and adults alike. It gives us a vivid look at the thankless, life-risking work that our soldiers are doing. Why do so many more people want to see the escapism of Harry Potter or The Transformers or G.I. Joe instead? I don’t know. Maybe The Hurt Locker was badly marketed. Maybe after a long day’s work, people just want to shut out the world and watch something that makes them feel good. Probably there is a lot of groupthink at work.¬†But it’s hardly the first time that a superior movie was ignored.

There’s a lot of change happening and there’s always the temptation to predict the end of civilization. There’s plenty of supporting evidence for such a hypothesis and always has been. I’m just going to need something a little more definitive before I believe it.