The Dumbing Down of America

Dumbing Down of AmericaOr, Whatever Happened to Hayley Mills?

People assume that Americans today are more sophisticated and less gullible because we have become a more visually-oriented society. But in the process of becoming more visual, we have become less literate and less literary, less educated and less informed, less conversational and less relational, less “thinking” (both logically and in regards to “horse sense”); we have a shorter attention span and are more inclined to addiction, violence, etc. What that means is that our society is more vulnerable to sensationalism by the media, manipulation by advertisers, gullibility of a new sort, emotionalism, repeating the mistakes of the past, following after the latest “star” (whether rock, movie or sports), etc. More than ever, we are a society of sheep going astray and less a nation of individual thinkers and doers as our forefathers were.

I don’t know of any advantage of becoming a more visually-oriented society and I know of hundreds of disadvantages. The Egyptians were a visually-oriented society. What that produced, ultimately, was a weak society of god-rulers (stars) and slaves (fans).

Thinking and communication have always been based on words, not images. The Egyptians may have been great artists, engineers and builders, but they were by no means great thinkers. The Greeks and Romans were far more literary, and were therefore far greater thinkers. The British were probably the most literary of all societies and they have produced the greatest thinkers of all time, including our founding fathers.

Technology is not the measure of a society – literature, thoughts and concepts are. If our society is rich in visual imagery and poor in the literary arts, then we will be a poor society. It may take some time for our economy to reflect that, but, ultimately, it will. Technology cannot support a society artificially forever. Ultimately, the people in charge of the technology will be such poor thinkers that they will not know how to use it for good, and will turn instead to using it for evil. Nazi Germany is a prime example of that.

The fact that dialogue in film has been on the decline since the fifties is a sure sign that intelligence in film is on the decline. The fact that technology has been on the increase is no sign that audiences are becoming more sophisticated. Younger audiences have traditionally depended more on visual imagery than dialogue to tell their stories. Mature audiences have traditionally depended more on dialogue. But that trend has reversed itself, indicating that mature audiences are becoming more like younger audiences. The only difference between films for younger audiences and mature ones now is the level of sex, violence and profanity. It used to be the level of the dialogue and concepts presented.

We can fool ourselves into believing that American audiences are becoming more intelligent if we want to, simply because the technology is becoming more sophisticated. But the facts tell a different story. When an audence goes to see a play, it has to supply much of the information and imagination itself because a play cannot, by its very nature, supply everything needed to tell a story realistically. The same can be said of a novel. But as film continues to supply more and more information, there is less and less requried of audiences. They can, in effect, sit in a dumb state, allowing the images to carry them along where they will. Thus, as the technology becomes smarter, audiences are becoming lazier and, consequently, dumber.

I am all for better technology, but I am totally against dependence on that technology. Story is still king when it comes to film, and dialogue is the heart of story. If we ever let technology totally supplant dialogue, it will destroy film as a story-telling medium. Instead, it will become the purveyor of pornography, images of violence and other forms of entertainment that are not dependent on story but on sensational effect. Once we reach that point, our entertainment will no longer be an extension of the Globe Theatre but of the Roman Coliseum.

Film is naturally made up of layers of information. Like a novel, it has a literary level that is contained in the script. Like a magazine, it also has a visual level made up of sets, costumes, hair and makeup, etc. Like theater, it has a dramatic level represented by the actors. Like opera and musical theater, it also has a musical level. But unique to film is the cinematic level, represented not only by the cinematography but also by the editing.

With all these levels of information, there can be – and should be – something for everyone. The best films will appeal to a wide range of people because they will communicate well on all five levels. A child may not understand all the dialogue or story, but she may appreciate the sets and costumes, enjoy the action and music, etc. And she should be able to discern the overall message, whether it’s one of compassion, faith or what have you.

The problem with most films today is that they communicate to only one audience, and they do so with no regard for the rest. Most films in the past were made for the whole family, because most families went to the movies together. Films like Ben-Hur, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and The Sound Of Music were that way. Try to find an outstanding film today that the entire family will enjoy. Other than Pixar films, you can’t, because filmmakers are making films for one reason: money. The desire to make a wholesome film that will entertain the whole family is a thing of the past.

But we can change that. We can make films that communicate well on all levels to all people groups. There are people trying to recapture the family market. I thought Walden Media was going to do that; but they’ve decided to go after the adolescent market instead. That’s a very narrow market. We need a broader vision. We need to get back to the big, blockbuster type films that entire families of all backgrounds can enjoy. Pursuit Of Happyness comes close, but it needs to be bigger and broader. The Blind Side comes closer. In a nutshell, what we need are modern-day versions of films like Swiss Family Robinson; which, again, only Pixar is targeting with any kind of consistency. They need to be films that cut to the heart of who we are as a nation, a people and a family – issues that everyone can relate to and visions that everyone can aspire to.

Waitsel Smith

Waitsel Smith, April 10, 2007

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Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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