Too Smart for Stupid: Underestimating the Audience for Inception

By brian longtin • Jul 15th, 2010 • Category: side notes • Popularity: 16%

An undercurrent of condescension mars the early praise for the summer’s most anticipated blockbuster.


I’ve been looking forward to Inception for nearly a year now. From the very first teaser trailer released last August, my immediate reaction was, “Thank you, Christopher Nolan, for doing something ambitious and mysterious and unlike anything I’ve seen before. It doesn’t matter what this movie ends up being about, just sign me the fuck up.”

Now I have tickets to see it tomorrow night. The time has finally come. And as the floodgate on reviews was opened this week, most of the buzz is spectacular. Every indication is that film fans, action fans, mystery fans — and especially Nolan fans — are in for a real treat.

But while all us geeks are shivering with excitement, there’s an undercurrent of counter-buzz that makes my blood boil. Normally I’d relegate this to a snarky tweet linking to headlines like, “Is Inception Too Smart for Audiences?” or “Will Inception Be Christopher Nolan’s First Big Flop?”, but my frustration can’t be contained in a 140 character burst.

To be fair, a lot of these posts contain their own counter-arguments, matching doubts about the marketability of the movie with high praise for its quality. It’s probably true that a lot of smart people who liked Inception are just trying to look smarter by predicting it’ll be over the heads of a lot of “typical moviegoers”, or that the obtuse advertising has failed to lure in the average Joe.

But Jesus Christ, why take part in this self-fulfilling prophecy?! Anyone who writes about movies is disheartened by film criticism’s waning influence on what people actually pay to go see, constantly wondering if what they do is relevant in an age of overwhelming access to media. They call Transformers a giant piece of shit but it breaks box office records anyway. Meanwhile, all their festival favorites struggle to even get on screens in Iowa.

Yet here is their one single chance, in a summer chock full of commercial filler, to unequivocally say of a movie they admire, “This is a great, great film. Go see it and you won’t be disappointed,” and they hedge their bets by saying it might not sell in flyover country. Hey, geniuses, maybe it’s because you’re preemptively warning people they’ll just be confused, while feeding into the stereotype of pretentious film critics whose tastes are horribly out of touch?

Add to that the other maddening stereotype of middle America as a bunch of drooling simpletons that will only pay money to watch white heroes blow up racially ambiguous bad guys, and they’re making matters even worse. I’m not suggesting those people don’t exist — I know they do, I’ve stood behind them in grocery checkout lines in several states — but the reality is that they exist everywhere. There are plenty of sharp film lovers in St Louis and Omaha, just like there are plenty of Cheeto-eating dimwits in New York and Los Angeles. And guess what, those people respond best to TV ads during Cops re-runs in which a sassy comeback ending in an expletive gets cut off by something exploding.

Which is to say, your opinion will never reach them. So for the rest of us who value quality and the opinion of professionals, please, can you maybe afford the general public the benefit of the doubt?

I haven’t seen Inception yet, but I’m guessing I’ll really like it. Let’s not make that out as a way to earn some sort of intellectual merit badge. Let’s give credit where credit is due: a talented director making a brilliant film that lots of people will love. Writers, please, use what small powers you have for good. Praising genuinely good films that don’t condescend to their viewers, and getting lots of our friends to go see them, is the only way we can hope to get the next Inception.

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brian longtin will eat these words if Inception doesn't end up being as brilliant as he expects.
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