By James DiGiovanna
JANUARY 25, 1999: JUST SAY NO TO 'DUH': The Man Without Qualities, Ulysses, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu...for those who like to make such lists, these are widely considered to be the three greatest works of 20th-century western literature. They all have one thing in common: None of their protagonists are sub-literate morons. How unlike our contemporary paradigm for the hero, who apparently must be an uneducated and empty-headed half-wit, lest we feel that he or she is in some way inherently superior to us. Tom Hanks, Jodie Foster and Adam Sandler, who otherwise have very little relation to each other, have all made moves wherein they play the mentally disabled.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the mark of wisdom was not one's childlike inability to parse complex sentences. Socrates may have lived a simple life, but he was not a simpleton; although their followers have given new derisiveness to the term "drones," Jesus and Gautama Buddha both spoke in complex metaphors that have yielded a rich and renewing supply of interpretations to centuries of seekers and critics who spent time thinking about their words.
Even as recently as the 1960s, there were public intellectuals like Norman O. Brown and Marshal McLuhan who didn't assume that a reader's cerebral cortex must be so thoroughly damaged by Fox TV and Big Macs that anything that requires thought should be expunged from their writings, if only so that their audiences would not be angered and go out on a junk-food-fueled road rage extravaganza.
In the U.S., we no longer have public intellectuals of any repute. Politicians, who once used complex tropes like anastrophe and chiasmus in challenging the public to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," now instead tell us, "It's the economy, stupid." And we respond to that....
Americans have actually begun to revel in their international reputation for being idiots. Look at our best-selling how-to books: Their titles are all a twist on "Scratching Where it Itches for Dummies" or "Operating your External Genitalia for the Complete Idiot." People are actually paying $17.95 to be told that they're too stupid to read a normal instruction book, and must go for this remedial help in operating their already-idiot-proofed home appliances.
For my part, I have to place a chunk of blame squarely on the shoulders of the movie executives who started, within the last 10 years, to force-feed the American public a set of mentally challenged heroes who are supposed to be better and wiser than their fully functional, nose-breathing associates.
In the '60s there was the occasional look at the mentally challenged. Such films as Charley and the fabulous A Day in the Death of Joe Egg attempted sympathetic portraits of the horrors and humiliations associated with mental dysfunction. While Charley ends up romanticizing the child-like intellect of its lead character, it does so only in a bittersweet mode, showing him happily playing with children after losing what had become an enormous intellectual prowess. Both sides of Charley--his extreme intellect and his childish playfulness--were placed on camera and played against each other, leaving an ambiguous conclusion that left open questions about the superiority of either productivity or happiness. While hardly a great film, Charley was neither a simple-minded celebration of the ethical superiority of the moronic.
Then came Forrest Gump. The conceit of this over-awarded film was that the lead cretin, Forrest Gump, was in fact morally better than those who used intellect to question the world around them. Protesters, seekers of alternate lifestyles and malcontents all wind up dead or in trouble, while the pawn-like Gump moves effortlessly through the most important moments in recent history.
With his simplistic catch phrase, "stupid is as stupid does," Gump condemns those whose experiments and adventures fail, while giving value to simple-minded rule-following. It's more than a catch phrase; it's sort of a Complete Idiot's Guide to Organizing Your Life (a title which is now actually available, along with Gumpisms: The Wit and Wisdom of Forrest Gump, and 1,200 more "Complete Idiot's" and "For Dummies" volumes.)
Nineteen ninety-four not only brought us Forrest Gump, it also delivered the increasingly annoying Jodie Foster hamming it up as the simpleton Nell, and Jim Carrey and Jeff Bridges fighting over which one was Dumb and which Dumber. It was also the year that Republicans gained control of Congress on a know-nothing platform, part of which was an attack on "the cultural elite" and "liberal intellectuals."
This two pronged, Hollywood and D.C. assault on refinement and intellect has left us with such filmic celebrations of stupidity as Black Sheep, The Waterboy, Beverly Hills Ninja, and the upcoming Dumb and Dumber II: The Early Years, scheduled for summer release.
The latest non-comedy to celebrate the pleasures of doltishness is The Other Sister, starring Juliette Lewis as a mentally challenged young woman who finds love. Due for summer release, the one thing this film has going for it is that it cast someone who is obviously brain damaged (Lewis) in the lead role, so that we're not forced to gawk at the spectacle of some otherwise intelligent actor making funny gestures and absurd vocalizations in order to put on the mentally handicapped equivalent of "blackface."
Still, doesn't anyone in this country realize that movies are our most important cultural export? The rest of the world judges America by the dullards we lionize on the big screen. When traveling in France and England, I was repeatedly asked, "Are Americans really that stupid?" Well, seeing as we accept as valid a book titled Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and seeing as Americans think that a spiritual quest for higher truth involves looking for "the inner child," I was hard pressed to say no.
It isn't just the adoration of idiocy that marks us as a nation: We also hate the intelligent. Movies portray scientists as evil (Jurassic Park, Frankenstein, The Avengers ), the brainy as nerdish losers (Revenge of the Nerds, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science), and those with calculating intellects as villains (Speed, Con Air, Mission Impossible, all the James Bond movies, etc.). As far as American cinema is concerned, the intelligent are warped, evil people, or ugly losers with no chance of ever getting laid. The last thing they could believably become are leaders, heroes and pioneers.
But there is an underlying irony to this that seems lost on the movie-going public and the Academy Awards committee: Such things as televisions, movie projectors, sound systems, the VCR, and hell, even plot and narrative, were actually invented by intelligent people. It seems odd for a film to teach that the world would be a better place if we were all more like Forrest Gump, when, in fact, if we were all like Forrest Gump, there would be no film to do the teaching.
Perhaps someone in Hollywood will remember this, and give us heroes like Leslie Howard in Pimpernel Smith, who, like Indiana Jones, was an archaeologist...but unlike Indiana Jones, was also articulate, well-read, and highly refined. In the meantime, we'll just have to sit through Home Improvement: The Motion Picture while reading The Carefully Thought-Out Positions of Jesse Helms.
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