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Improving ourselves to death

IF THERE'S ONE TOPIC liberals and conservatives agree on, it's the intellectual and artistic emptiness of America's cultural products -- which always seem to be declining, but somehow, like Xeno's arrow, never quite arrive at a state of absolute decrepitude. Recently, without actively looking for such stuff, I have read an article blaming lousy bestsellers for illiteracy, an argument that the glut of sequels and remakes demonstrates a new low in cinematic art, and a "think piece" claiming Sony's Walkman destroyed our ability to appreciate music.

But if our entertainments are getting dumber, why do they all seem to want to teach us something? The striking development in contemporary popular entertainment is not an increase in media demanding vapid or passive responses, but of media that make critical apparatus available to everybody.

DVDs offer a wealth of movie lore you once had to go to film school to get. Reading guides and discussion notes tacked onto book-club-friendly paperbacks have revived literary deduction, albeit in a manner nightmarishly suggestive of high school English. Boxed-set CD compilations come bundled with book-length liner notes discussing every angle of musicology. Everywhere you look, America has become a nation of grad students.

Much of this supplementary material functions more as marketing hype than as criticism. Behind-the-scenes documentaries, commentary tracks (where filmmakers give shot-for-shot appreciations of their own dazzling technique), and other extras helped get home viewers to upgrade from VHS cassettes to DVDs. Book publishers seed book clubs with Reading Guides, Questions for Further Consideration, and other scholastic material. ("Can you think of examples from your own life when you had to give up something to meet a goal and found the price too high?" asks HarperCollins' reading guide for Paulo Coelho's New Age hit "The Alchemist.")

Just a few years ago, nothing would have seemed more abstruse than a director or actor (or worst of all, a screenwriter) commenting on a film with the soundtrack turned down. It's an idea you'd expect would interest only the most flatulent film geek. Yet the concept has taken off -- possibly because the commentary track can make a mediocre movie seem like a lasting artistic triumph. Think "Legally Blonde 2 -- Red, White & Blonde" is just a quick-money throwaway? Wait till you take in the deleted scenes, the in-depth featurette, and a commentary track that required the efforts of not one but three of the film's supporting actresses.

But the popularization of critical apparatus feels like a bait-and-switch. We've been promised an ever dumber range of entertainment, and we don't have the luxury of paying only half-attention to it. Popular entertainment feels increasingly like an unending homework assignment, an art appreciation course where you're actually expected to attend class.

In the early 1990s, at the height of the vogue for "Director's Cut" versions of masterworks ("Blade Runner," "Amadeus," etc.) that had allegedly been butchered by studios, Spy magazine pulled a memorable prank: interviewing director Stan Dragoti about doing a director's cut of his execrable Tony Danza comedy "She's Out of Control." In entertainment history, the farce precedes the tragedy. If "She's Out of Control" were made today, the DVD really would feature deleted scenes, commentary from Dragoti and costar Amy Dolenz, interviews wherein cast members describe each other as down-to-earth geniuses, and maybe resources for fathers who (like Danza's character) must cope with their sexy daughters' coming of age.

It's part of America's glory that one nation can produce so much blessedly forgettable entertainment. But what happens when you're not allowed to forget it? When Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie" invites post-reading exegesis? ("Who do you think got more out of their Tuesday meetings, Mitch or Morrie?" asks a reading guide.) When even "Agent Cody Banks: Destination London" is not safe from a "Visual Cast Commentary?" ("One of the greatest things about making a movie is how they edit it," notes star Frankie Muniz.)

The strangest entry in the pop-crit field must be VH1's "True Spin." Like the revenge of every loser who spent high school poring over the lyrics to "Dark Side of the Moon," the show teases out the true import of pop music -- even songs (Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny") whose meanings would appear to be so crystalline you could cut yourself on the first listen. The show offers a contest element, in which you guess at various possible interpretations. Which raises the question: Is there anybody out there who didn't get the meaning of NWA's "Fuck the Police" the first time around?

Undoubtedly, this sort of critical machinery deepens the cultural experience. But it threatens something precious: disposability, and the confidence that most cultural offerings are things you don't need to think about. I'm pretty sure America could survive the end of NEA-sponsored Shakespeare festivals. But the end of trash culture would really be a loss worth mourning.

Tim Cavanaugh is the web editor for Reason magazine (www.reason.com). 

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