I Love the World or Why Education Through Shock is Stupid (continued)

There are many reasons why people try to make others think All is Doomed from true belief to simple excitement (like Adam Savage's immense enjoyment in blowing things up). I believe one reason has to do with excessive youthfulness.

In his book Your Movie Sucks, Roger Ebert relates an exchange of public letters between him and the creators of a movie that Ebert awarded 0 (as in nada, zero, zilch) stars due to its nihilistic violence. The producer and director printed a reply, arguing (in essence), "But evil exists in the world. It is our awesome responsibility to point it out!!"

To which Ebert responded that pointing out evil just to point out evil is rather a waste of time. What, he asked the movie-makers, was your view on evil? (You see, my students, even movie-makers need a thesis!) He then provides one of the best statements ever made about writing:
Predestination may be useful in theology, but as a narrative strategy, it is self-defeating. 
Or, to quote David Foster Wallace:
Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?
(Thanks to my sister Ann for the latter quote!)

In his letter to the anxiously insightful movie-makers, Ebert states, "Your real purpose in making the movie, I suspect, was not to educate, but to create a scandal that would draw an audience."

Now here I have to disagree with Ebert and give the movie-makers the benefit of the doubt. I think at a fundamental level the movie-makers did think they were pointing out something that nobody else had noticed. I don't know if the movie-makers were/are young, but this hypersensitivity to the oddness/unfairness/haphazardness of the world is a characteristic of youth; they've just discovered evil, and they can't BELIEVE how the rest of the world just keeps going to work and shopping at the mall. Why isn't everyone curled into fetal balls sobbing?! We must shock them into knowing what we know! We must kick-start the angst!!

It reminds me of why I seldom read commentary on Internet news items. So much of it is filled with people informing other people that they just don't get "it" to which the other people reply that the first set of  people just don't get "it" more.

I recently came across such a, ah, parallel conversation (I hesitate to call it dialog) over a Mythbusters episode in which the commentators fluctuated between angry commentary ("I can't believe people think the show's conclusion regarding this particular myth was correct! All you people who liked the episode are hiding your heads in the sand!") to sanctimonious tut-tutting ("Don't you know that all television is pacifying entertainment? How could you believe anything you saw on this show? You are so stupid to take it seriously.")

Congrats to Arishicat for a great image!
Neither extreme is necessary. I'll state upfront that I've learned a great deal from Mythbusters, mostly about water pressure. It's the sort of thing that comes up in a lot of their experiments but is rarely remarked on directly (although the "Underwater Car Myth" episode was especially enlightening). I learned about water pressure in high school, but the visuals sure help!

I will also admit that I tend to ignore/dismiss the more sociological/psychological experiments on the show, like the ones  involving polygraphs and hypnosis. The reason is simple. When Jamie, Adam, and the build team blow up rockets, they can build 100, then blow them up one by one to get a pretty decent sample size. But the sociological/psychological experiments rely on two, maybe three, maybe five subjects, which is just not a big enough sample.

In neither scenario, however, do I need to be WARNED to save myself from the evil show/military-industrial-entertainment complex.* I actually don't believe anything that I see on television (or read on the Internet) or anything that people tell me any more than I (should) automatically dismiss it. Cynicism is no better than gullibility when it comes to making reliable judgments. And information can be shelved. It can wait. Since I'm no longer a student, I don't have to decide today that something is true or false although I will eventually. (And if someone tries to get me decide today, that person likely wants to sell me something.)

I've met far too many so-called educated people who ostentatiously dumped a set of ideas, information, or principles, only to promptly adopt another set of ideas, information, or principles without question. Their approach seemed to be motivated more by a desire to belong to the edgiest of edgy cliques than a need for real understanding.

Consequently, I am very wary of professors who use SHOCK to "help" me (or my students) develop critical thinking skills. "I'm going to make people think by showing them how awful things can get!" goes the cry. Setting aside this approach's bullying nature, from what I've seen, it doesn't work--at least not with the most perceptive students who keep their own counsel. After all, real thought is rarely accompanied by a complete reduction of the will. 

Which is all to say that to a relative degree, I can endure true belief in doomsdaying (something that someone believes on his or her own account) far easier that I can endure education through so-called shock.

*I actually don't even need to be warned by Jamie and Adam not to try their experiments at home, though I gather their warnings are mostly aimed at teens; remembering my brothers in their teens, the warnings are necessary--although how many teens actually listen is debatable. I can just see a mother somewhere staring down at a pile of exploded paint cans; "But Jamie and Adam told you not to do it!" she cries. (Of course, my own mother just told my brothers to go wash themselves off.)


Joe said...

Yet Ebert thought it justified to point out the evil of conservatism and the falseness of middle-America simply for the sake of doing so. Like many, if not most, intellectuals, it seems Ebert's real beef was that he disagreed with that particular portrayal of evil, not in the concept he so loftily expounded.

Kate Woodbury said...

I can't speak to his reasoning in this particular case (the movie that sparked the "controversy" was Chaos), but the exchange of letters is a pretty interesting example of an admittedly lofty response confronting a response made in retrospect.

Ebert's two book collections of negative reviews left me with the impression that the role of reviewer is a lot less glamorous than it sounds on paper. Do food reviewers suffer from such an extreme range of quality? I can see eating just about anywhere just for the sake of a free meal; I'm a lot less willing to watch anything (although, to be honest, if I had cable, I might be tempted).

I have a feeling that I would mostly agree with Ebert on his negative reviews--if I'd even heard of most of the movies in his collections, which I haven't. On the other hand, I'm curious to see if I agree with what he found to be great movies (I'm waiting for his first collection of "great" movie reviews to come in through interlibrary loan). After all, a movie with no plot and bad acting is relatively easy to spot. Good movies are less easy to qualify. I personally think a great story should outweigh great acting and even a great message. Ebert might not have agreed.

What about the guy who used to review movies for the Schenectady Gazette? Is he still in operation? Were his reviews trustworthy?

Joe said...

Ebert was largely a cerebral reviewer who liked to hear himself pontificate. I watched him and Siskel faithfully through much of the 80s and 90s. I don't readily recall any movie which Ebert just plain enjoyed. Siskel, on the other hand, seemed to make basic entertainment a key factor in his reviews. In the long run Siskel proved to be a far more reliable reviewer for me and Ebert largely a contra-indicator.

Another point is that I found Ebert's written reviews to be almost unreadable, especially toward the end of his career. They were more about him than the movie. And why can't a reviewer say that a movie was terrible, but they enjoyed it anyway (or the other way around)?

Kate Woodbury said...

I don't know much about Ebert (I do enjoy his negative reviews but then negative reviews are unrepentantly more enjoyable to read than positive reviews). However, your comment about reviewers not being about to say that a movie is terrible but they enjoyed it anyway reminds me of the pop culture professors I encountered in college. Initially, getting a Ph.D. in pop culture was part of my life plan. I changed my mind after I did some research and discovered how utterly self-conscious pop culture Ph.D.s act regarding their own field!

Every article I read was this embarrassed screed about how the Ph.D. WASN'T watching reality TV or reading romance novels out of enjoyment. Oh, no, he or she was searching for Marxist or feminist sub-texts! Sometimes, the theorizing got so belabored, it was almost funny. (And after awhile, I'd start yelling, "Oh, come on, admit it, you love The Amazing Race. Admit it! Admit it!")