Thursday, May 26, 2011

“No decent career was ever founded on a public”

The actor James McAvoy has complained that British film-makers have taken to dumbing down their product in an effort to appeal to American audiences. It’s a charge that might have had a little more impact had not McAvoy  – a sort of 21st-century Dexter Fletcher – made it while he was supposed to be plugging his own leading role in yet another big-budget comic-book spin-off prequel. But, hey, let’s not quibble. Actually, scrub that, let’s quibble, if only a little, when it comes to dumbing down. Because in a culturally fragmented world, the world of the Long Tail, it’s increasingly hard to make accusations of dumbness stick.

There are exceptions. In a recent episode of the BBC current affairs show Panorama, on the subject of unemployment among the over-fifties, a luckless jobhunter explained that he’d sent out 490 applications; to which the presenter, Fiona Phillips, exclaimed “Four hundred and ninety? That's nearly five hundred!” Now that’s dumb, and especially egregious on a show that used to have a reputation for rigorous reporting and analysis. But once we move away from the empirical certainties of basic arithmetic, it’s harder to make a judgement. When the Ryan Giggs brouhaha began, I had no idea who Imogen Thomas was. Should reports of the case have explained her cultural significance in more detail, to remedy my ignorance? Would that have been dumbing down? Am I dumb because I don’t know who won America’s Got Talent the year before last, and wouldn’t be able to recognise the participants in The Only Way Is Essex if they sat in my lap? Or does that make me clever? How can I wear the stuff I don’t know as a badge of my cleverness?

Roger Ebert side-steps these conundra beautifully in his review of Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, which involves a 21st-century screenwriter who somehow finds himself hanging out with the expats who cavorted in the city in the 1920s. Ebert remarks:
Some audience members might be especially charmed by Midnight in Paris. They would be those familiar with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and the artists who frequented Stein's famous salon: Picasso, Dali, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel and, yes, “Tom Eliot”. Allen assumes some familiarity with their generation, and some moviegoers will be mystified, because cultural literacy is not often required at the movies anymore.
But Ebert doesn’t ram home an argument that those who do get the references are definitively better people, or even that Midnight in Paris is empirically a better film than, say, X-Men: First Class, the flick in which McAvoy appears. He simply says that he likes it, and that those who know who Man Ray are more likely to enjoy it that those who don’t. His only wider point is that “I’m wearying of movies that are for ‘everybody’ — which means, nobody in particular.” Whereas David Simon, creator of The Wire, achieved a level of bad-ass credibility by declaring fuck the average viewer”, Ebert acknowledges that these days, the average viewer doesn’t really exist. Even the biggest, mass-appeal reality (or structured reality) show still only attracts a minority of potential viewers, and if Midnight in Paris is elitist, so is The Only Way Is Essex.


GreatSheElephant said...

>How can I wear the stuff I don’t know as a badge of my cleverness?

The cleverness lies in editing your sources i.e. not going to seek it out. You don't gain that sort of valuable information by osmosis - you actually have to take the decision to spend the entire day when you are supposed to be learning about routing protocols reading every single thing in the Mail online just to avoid having to do something supposedly boring which is actually probably a lot less boring than what Lauren and co are up to.
Sorry, where was I?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a shallow passing knowledge of the dull and pointless is what we should be aiming for - to leave room for the good stuff, but allow us to interact with others.
Although you may be able to bluff it without any knowledge at all - which is what I had to do at primary school because we weren't allowed to watch ITV in our house.

tom owen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tom owen said...

I presume this is James McAvoy the same high-brow thespian who so masterfully portrayed Mr Tumnus in 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'?

Tim F said...

GSE: On similar lines, I remember the tale of a peer who took issue with something that had been written about him in a tabloid. He began the letter to the editor with "My gardener, who reads your publication, was kind enough to draw my attention..."

BWT: I had the ITV problem as well, Paul. All I knew about The Six Million Dollar Man was that he ran very fast, but in slow motion, which was funny.

That's right, Tom. How he squeezed his feet into those little faun hooves, I just don't know.

Annie said...

'a sort of 21st-century Dexter Fletcher'

How. Dare. You.

(I will admit he does make questionable career choices.)

Mapeel said...

I just watched "Gnomeo & Juliet," where McAvoy voices Gnomeo, with Emily Blunt as Juliet, Maggie Smith and Michael Caine the parents, Elton John did the soundtrack, the whole thing British to the core. I thought it was a charming, cheery ode to Shakespeare, but, gee, since it's a Brit production, maybe I didn't understand it.

Tim F said...

I simply compared the two because they have both looked about eight years old for as long as I could remember, Annie.

I haven't seen it, Mrs Peel, but the whole garden gnome phenomenon is so archetypally British, I can't imagine anyone else being able to work it out.

Andy said...

I believed it absolutely was a charming, cheery ode to Shakespeare
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