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Stupid is as stupid does

Every Presidential election the out-of-office party usually says something like, "Do you feel better than you did four years ago?" Now that election 2008 is over, the "smart" guy is in the White House, and people are asking, "Do you feel dumber than you did 8 months ago?"

Bill Maher, for example, doesn't feel any dumber, but he's disappointed that everyone else does, or at least should feel that way. In his column "New Rule: Smart President [does not equal] Smart Country" in the Huffington Post he passes up such obvious evidence of stupidity as Sarah Palin, the Teabaggers, the Health Care Town Meeting goon squads and Rush Limbaugh. Instead, he cites some damning statistics:

"...a majority of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, or explain what the Bill of Rights is. 24% could not name the country America fought in the Revolutionary War. More than two-thirds of Americans don't know what's in Roe v. Wade. Two-thirds don't know what the Food and Drug Administration does. Some of this stuff you should be able to pick up simply by being alive."

Fair enough. But compared to when? Maybe people aren't more stupid, they're just prouder of it.

Film critics have also gotten into the controversy, basing their concerns on a decline of intelligence in audiences' tastes. You can't get kids to go to see a smart AND entertaining movie like "The Hurt Locker,"

 

they note, but they swarm like lemmings into "The Transformers" and "G.I. Joe." The latter film declined to screen their film for critics (except for on-line fanboys who they flew in to LA for special screenings and surprisingly loved the film). As said  Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore, "Our starting point for this movie is not Hollywood and Manhattan but rather mid-America. There are a group of people we think are going to respond to the movie who are normally not the first priority. But we're making them a priority."


Take that, you elitist Obamaite eggheads.

Responding to these developments, Roger Ebert wrote that it  "confirmed my fear that American movie-going is entering into a Dark Age."  He adds: "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."

Now what recently retired elected official does that sound like? 

Meanwhile, Glenn Kenny tries to take a broader outlook at the situation, chiding Ebert and others for there despair and concluding that stupidity is nothing new: "The kids of today didn't invent dumb. They inherited it."

So, is stupidity on the rise?  Do you feel dumber now than you did four years ago?

Well, let's check the bottom line, the box office.

On Aug 14, 2005, "The Fantastic Four" (26% on the Tomatometer)


was cruising into the $150 million range after taking in over $56 million  (fractionally more than "GI Joe") its opening weekend of July 10.  It was by that time already taking at hit from  "The Dukes of Hazzard" (14 % on the Tomatometer),

 

which took in over $30 million from the clueless and deceived when it opened the August 5 weekend (final tally around  $80 million) and from "Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo" (10 % on the Tomatometer)

which earned close to $10 million when opened on the August 14 weekend. But, to the enduring credit of the nation, "Bigelow" would fizzle and only gross ultimately $22 million, audiences perhaps preferring instead the infinitely more challenging "40 Year Old Virgin" (85% on the Tomatometer)  opening the next weekend at around $21 million and grossing in total around $110 million.

So maybe we WERE smarter then. On the other hand, I don't remember "Broken Flowers" (87% on Tomatometer;  opening weekend $ $780,408 ) or "Last Days" ($454,711 total gross; 59% Tomatometer -- though I'd give it four stars),both of which were in the theaters that summer, packing in audiences.

But movies are barometers of trends in intelligence not just in terms of their box office grosses. Take the very smart Hal Ashby film "Being There" (1979), in which Peter Sellers plays a simpleton whose inane utterances are  turned into government policy. Who knew that would be the model for leadership in years to come? Or the obvious example of "Forrest Gump," (1994) which "The National Review"  put at number four in its top 25 Conservative movies, observing that "Forrest's IQ may be room temperature, but he serves as an unexpected font of wisdom." And remember, Forrest won every race he ran.

 
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