January 15, 1995

Ignorance And Bliss Hollywood Is Cashing In On Anti-Intellectualism With Movies That Exalt Stupidity And Stigmatize Intelligence

Caryn James New York Times
 

Forget the theory of relativity. As the new movie “I.Q.” tells you, what really matters about Albert Einstein (played by Walter Matthau) is that he is a great little matchmaker, able to see at a glance that his brilliant mathematician niece, Catherine (Meg Ryan), is secretly pining for a local mechanic named Ed (Tim Robbins).

Ed is not a stupid guy, but he’s no rocket scientist. In the lexicon of current American movies, Ed’s lack of erudition is enough to hint that he’s a decent man.

“Forrest Gump” is the most successful film to equate low IQ with inner goodness, but it has a lot of company on screen. In “Nell,” which David Letterman more accurately called “Bride of Gump,” Jodie Foster holds the moral high ground as a backwoods woman deprived of education and ordinary language. The doctors who study her discover that book learning is bad, primitivism is good.

“Nell,” “I.Q.” and “Forrest Gump” are breezy and enjoyable, with vast amounts of surface charm. But underneath, they are chilling in the way they link virtue with lack of intelligence.

It is a theme that goes far beyond coincidence. Both “Nell” and “I.Q” were planned long before “Forrest Gump” became a catchword for holy innocence, so the newer films are not clones. Instead, they suggest a virulent anti-intellectualism in the air.

These anti-intellectual films are not the same as the goofy movies like the hit “Dumb and Dumber,” a thoroughly uninventive comedy in which Jim Carrey’s chipped front tooth and bowl haircut pass for humor.

There have always been silly comedies about characters so inept they’re funny, from “The Three Stooges” to “Wayne’s World” and “Beavis and Butt-head.” But films have rarely reveled in their own idiocy with the bluntness of “Dumb and Dumber,” whose very title suggests that you just can’t be stupid enough on screen.

Though there is a difference between thoughtless, goofy movies and more serious ones, like “Forrest Gump,” that think brains are bad, both may flow from similar sources.

As the historian Richard Hofstadter noted in his classic 1963 book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” suspicion of intellectuals runs deep in American history, ranging from the evangelical fervor of the colonists to the public distrust of an “egghead” like Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential campaign.

That suspicion recurs in cycles and is especially prevalent when rational thinking seems to fail society.

In movies like “Nell” and “Forrest Gump,” with their simple-is-good conservatism, the uneducated heroes reflect discontent with supposedly smart political leaders.

They also reflect discomfort with the technological sophistication that threatens to overwhelm everyday life. People who can’t yet navigate the information superhighway feel great next to Nell, who can’t even drive a car. Viewers are reassured by an Einstein who suggests that physics is piffle next to love.

No one wants to discount the importance of love, emotion and goodness, of course. What is insidious about these films is that they do the opposite, creating a head-heart split that makes intelligence the villain.

When people in the movie industry began to wonder why the critically praised “Quiz Show” was a box-office disappointment, a frequent guess was that the film was too intellectual for mainstream audiences.

In fact, honor, not intelligence, was the issue “Quiz Show” explored, and there were other factors, like marketing, that might have let the film down at the box office.

But Hollywood’s quick response was that viewers don’t want to think too hard and won’t warm up to characters smarter than they are, whether it’s the college professor Charles Van Doren or the knowledgeable working-class Herb Stempel.

That was not a problem with “Forrest Gump.” The film’s allure relies entirely on Tom Hanks, an actor so appealing he makes stupidity seem an attractive option.

As he floats through decades of U.S. history, Gump embodies the American dream: he is an uneducated, self-made millionaire. Gump does have a kind heart. The film’s bedrock belief, and most pleasant fantasy, is that simple virtue brings earthly rewards.

“Forrest Gump” is part of a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American movies. The new live-action “Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book” and the classic animated “Jungle Book” are part of that tradition. They are variations on the Tarzan myth, in which a man raised in isolation from the civilized world is all the better for it.

And though Jodie Foster is a far cry from Johnny Weissmuller, the theme of “Nell” is not all that different from that of a Tarzan film; Nell’s simple goodness come from her isolated upbringing, away from corrupt society. Directed by Michael Apted, “Nell” is much smarter than a jungle movie.

In fact, the film flatters its audience’s intelligence with Nell’s teasing private language, which viewers can partly figure out. “Chickabee, chickabee,” she says, a word that sounds like chickadee and seems to be some term of endearment.

Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, as the doctors who observe Nell in her shack, find that “eviduh” means evildoer and “ga injuh” is guardian angel. The audience gets to feel as smart as the doctors, only to learn, as they do, that smart isn’t everything.

There are no primitives in “I.Q.” Ed, the mechanic, reads popularscience magazines, making him unlearned only in relation to Einstein and his genius pals.

In this film, deftly directed by Fred Schepisi, intelligence is not bad until it interferes with the emotions. Einstein worries about Catherine, who thinks she should marry a man as intelligent as her uncle - or at least as intelligent as herself.

“She’s too smart here,” Einstein says, pointing to his head. “But not here,” he adds, pointing to his heart, and illustrating the great suspicion of the mind on which all these films rest.

Because Catherine will never let herself fall for a lowly mechanic, Einstein schemes to convince her that Ed has discovered cold fusion in his spare time - not Einstein’s most brilliant idea but not a bad one either. Ed almost pulls it off.

Still, in the way of all romantic comedies, the heroine will come to her senses. In “I.Q.” that means leaving her brains behind as she goes off with Ed. He is a vast improvement over her cold-blooded, professorial fiance. The film doesn’t provide the best choice of all - a warmhearted genius, a guy like Uncle Albert.

And despite the film’s apparent respect for intelligence, smartness is the butt of some hoary absent-minded-scientist jokes. Einstein and his friends - Godel, Podolsky and Liebknecht - trot around Princeton like the cutest of little old men, to whom science is a sideline and matchmaking the soul of life.

“Three of the greatest minds of the 20th century, and between them they can’t change a light bulb,” Einstein says of his friends.

There is an old attitude here as well as an old joke, but it is a powerful idea on screen, and it’s growing stronger. With films called “Dummies,” “The Stupids” and “The Magnificent Idiot” in the works, there’s one thing you can count on: no one will be making a movie called “Smart and Smarter” any time soon.


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