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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: We Are Not as Dumb as They Think

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Just when I fear we are dumbed down to a hopeless degree, hope is restored.

Ah, the yins and the yangs. I saw a documentary last week called Me@thezoo, which centers on a lonely young man who physically emulates and verbally pleads for the privacy of Britney Spears. His wail was heard around the world and got a zillion hits on YouTube. I left the theater thoroughly depressed that someone who proudly claims he can't talk to people but can only communicate with a camera, is deemed worthy of so much effort.

Hey, more power to anyone who can play the system, I suppose. And we all have our own stories to tell. But I'd like to believe they are more interesting than Britney is misunderstood and paparazzied to death.

Just as I was bemoaning the short attention span/'followers and friends ain't what they used to be' state of things, I went to see a play in our nation's capital. The Invisible Man, based on the seminal Ralph Ellison novel, is a three hour and two intermission long drama about the black experience in America. As they did in a previous Chicago run, people in Washington are pouring into the theater and I didn't see one leave before the end.

The play has received mixed reviews in Washington, most of it constructive criticism. People are showing up due to word of mouth, affection for the book, and because they appreciate artists who tell difficult tales. Another play -- this one off-Broadway -- is going through a similar experience in New York. Red Dog Howls deals with the Armenian genocide and has about as many laughs as Sophie's Choice. Furthermore, it received what many considered a run-killing review in the all-powerful New York Times.

Guess what? Audiences continue to fill the seats and more than 50 people wrote thoughtful responses to the Times, pretty much all asking, "did we see the same show?" The presenting company, the New York Theatre Workshop, could simply offer David Mamet or Neil LaBute pieces, which continuously find new ways to say f*** and demean women. It does not, and Red Dog continues to howl nightly to satisfied customers. (While some real dogs are charging three times as much on larger stages with bigger stars but less to say a few miles away.)

We can choose to believe that everything and everyone is dumbing down: Katie Couric has gone from serious nightly newsreader to BFF in the afternoons. Or we can remember that Katie did the mornings for years and will surely do newsworthy interviews in the new format; Yes, the august 60 Minutes gave 30 of them to the sleazy Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the program cleverly allowed the body builder-actor-governor-philanderer to hang himself; one can say the TV landscape is filled with stupid comedies and contests. But we can take solace in noting that a highfalutin program called Downton Abbey came along and we all got hooked.

At the movie houses, virtually every $20 million star, from Sandler to Ferrell to Stiller to Cruise, is bombing in silly material. At the same time, Searching for Sugarman, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Master are finding a demographically diverse audience eager for offbeat fare. In the bookstores, those shades of gray still sit atop the best-seller lists. But just when we are told no one is reading anything serious anymore, authors like Bob Woodward, Walter Isaacson and Laura Hillenbrand manage to write -- and sell -- challenging, even dry material.

I am told that reading Fifty Shades is culturally important to understand the hidden lives of women. Likewise, that Me@thezoo captures a particular zeitgeist that we should all be apprised of. I don't buy that. And I think a lot of others also don't want to be told what to think. People who -- if it's smart and sturdy -- will come, and sit still for as long as it takes.