Where is My Mind?

Last week, Matt Singer wrote a wonderful article at ScreenCrush with the title “Stop Telling Me To Turn My Brain Off During Movies”.  It was a refreshingly welcome, and long-overdue, answer to the too-frequent claim that, by paying any attention whatsover to a movie’s idiotic qualities, we are somehow betraying its nature as entertainment and cheating ourselves out of having fun.

This asinine idea has only increased its presence in recent years as blockbuster entertainment gets dumber, nerd dominance gets more entrenched and defensive, and the American culture becomes measurably more hostile to intellectualism.  Movies aren’t the only offenders here; of late, comics, music, and even previously highbrow domains like literature have been subjected to a progressive dumbing-down, and this draining of any subtlety, meaning, or content worth discussing for more than five minutes after it’s happened has been promoted as a virtue instead of a vice by people who seem to think the whole point of art is to be as artless as possible.  Even television, which is often said to be in a golden age of quality, gets its fair share of people advocating the bullshit-over-brains model, with a 1-2 combo of attacking shows with any intellectual pretense and valorizing shows of the past that were as dumb as dirt but just happened to air during the formative years of whoever’s making the argument.

It’s somewhat ironic that this turning away from smart analysis and criticism is happening at a time when, thanks to the 24-hour infotainment cycle and the oversaturation of media-mediating media, every single piece of entertainment that appears is subject to dozens or hundreds of ‘thinkpieces’, reading levels and layers into material that’s as shallow as a dentist’s spit basin.  But this, too, is just a manifestation of undercompensation manifesting as its opposite; the level of wishful thinking that occurs in so many purported long-form gassings about this or that movie or TV show betrays the fact that it’s an insecure viewer guiltily imputing meaning to a subject that doesn’t contain any.

None of this is to say that there’s no such thing as purely entertaining entertainment, or that there’s no joy in the stupid, or that everything you read, see, or listen to has to be charged with deep significance.  Each of us enjoys cultural output that can really only be enjoyed on a level of pure visceral pleasure, and the Ramones, to name just one, are proof that you can be dumb and artistically significant at the same time.  Strokes will forever belong to the folks, and I have no particular interest in taking someone to task for enjoying something that I think is as witless as a prune.  What rankles is the frequent suggestions coming from the other side of the argument that, first, people who actually do make and/or enjoy art that contains any more elevated intent than generating mild chuckles and the odd thumbs-up-emoji-accompanied “AWESOME” on social media are engaged in some kind of pretentiously malevolent campaign against the common man, and second, that engaging mindlessly with the culture is not merely a choice, but a virtue.

All culture, of course, springs from an active human mind, whether it is good or bad.  If we find ourselves surrounded with culture that is becoming actively stupid, we have only ourselves to blame if we have previously fulminated for approaching culture without respect, without engagement, without intellectual involvement.  If we think of film as something to be approached with one’s brain turned off, we certainly cannot complain when we are sold brainless films.  Time and again we’ve heard that we have to support a particular genre of entertainment, even if it’s lousy, because if we don’t, it might disappear; witness the legions of fans who said it would be disastrous if we all stopped watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. even though it was crummy because then — gasp! — they might stop making superhero shows!  Well, what if we all stopped watching movies that engage adults on an emotional and intellectual level?  All it takes is a glance at the box office over the last few years to find out.

Personally, I’m completely baffled by this argument.  When I’m intellectually engaged with a movie — when it draws me in and asks me to join it in seeing things build, reveal, and illuminate — I feel much more entertained, because there’s something for me to do, for Christ’s sake.  When a movie is insulting, poorly plotted, or badly crafted, I just feel ripped off and cheated; when it is boring, rote, and predictable, there’s literally nothing for me to do but sit around and wait for it to be over.  What’s particularly hard to understand is the claim that watching stupid, uninvolving media is a relief, a tonic after a hard day at work or a stressful personal life.  I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else, but for me, I get frustrated at my job because it’s mindless and boring.  Why would I want to try to correct eight hours of something pointless and dull, something that doesn’t engage me emotionally or intellectually, by watching two more hours of pointless, dull, unengaging stuff?  When I relax and enjoy myself, I want to turn my mind on.

You get out of art what you’re willing to put into it, and if you turn off the part of your body that’s responsible for both creating and understanding art, you’re going to get exactly what it gives you:  nothing.  If you turn off your brain, what are you saving it for, doing equations?  After a long day of doing stupid, uninteresting work to make money for a guy who’s even dumber than you but makes ten times your salary and treats you like shit, why would you really look forward to going home and sitting down with something that also insults your intelligence, demeans you, and makes you feel like you wasted your time and money?  Why would you want movies, books, or albums that think so little of you?  Is that entertainment?

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