The people of Wichita, Kansas have taken issue with Johnny Depp. Or, more accurately, certain members of the film community in the city have responded to a comment the actor made that seemed to disparage the intelligence level of the citizens of Wichita at large.
In a recent interview with The Guardian to promote the UK release of “The Rum Diary,” the actor appeared to theorize that the reason the adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson novel is not performing well in the states is that the American appetite for thought-provoking films is limited. "I believe that this film, regardless of what it makes in, you know, Wichita, Kansas, this week – which is probably about $13 – it doesn't make any difference,” he said. “I think it's an intelligent film…And a lot of times, outside the big cities in the States, they don't want that."
The implication is, of course, threefold. One, that there is some categorical and static standard that defines an “intelligent film”; two, that Depp’s “The Rum Diary” meets said standard; and three, that the citizens of the United States (outside of the larger urban areas) are simply not interested in cerebral nutritious cinematic fare.
The people of Wichita were (as we can well imagine) less than pleased with Depp’s remarks.
"People have these preconceived notions about cities like Wichita and cities in the Midwest,” Lela Meadow-Conner (director of the Tallgrass Film Association) told The Wichita Eagle. “Because his movie has been deemed a critical stinker…and audiences haven't gravitated toward it, obviously he is trying to displace the blame on to audiences here who he deems unintelligent."
The film, in fact, has received a mixed critical response, has earned roughly $11 million at the North American box office and may find itself with the unique distinction of becoming Depp’s largest wide-release box office flop top date.
The merits of “The Rum Diary” aside, what is truly interesting for me are the first and third assumptions present in Depp’s statement. For the sake of clarity, we in no way wish to demonize Depp. The statement was likely offhand and had no malicious intent. He is a talented actor who makes interesting choices and is, by all accounts, a kind and compassionate human being.
What we do want to look at (particularly given the whip-lash inducing events of this week’s “Oscargate”) is when and why it is okay to publically or privately disparage one group of people vs. another, as well as the (commonly accepted) notion that cinemagoers in the US have less refined palates than those abroad.
A thoroughly researched essay could (and perhaps should) be done to address the actual box office numbers that may or may not reflect the notion that aesthetically superior films fail in the US while they thrive outside of its borders.
In general terms, however, we can say that what we would consider “art house” films tend to draw in a smaller audience than epically scaled action films (for example) no matter where they are released (with a few notable exceptions). It also feels dangerous to assume that one individual’s version of “intelligent” necessarily matches another’s. Of course, we can agree on some broad definitions for the term, some measure of native analytical ability combined with a formal or informal education.
As it relates to the cinema, however, I can think of three films off the top of my head that were deemed distinctly “smart” by the majority of critics that some would argue are, in fact, quite intellectually sparse.
It should also be noted that there are entire film franchises that are critical failures and box office disappointments domestically that continue on because they thrive in the international marketplace. Yet, that does not translate into an accepted belief that the people of the United States have a higher standard for cinema.
What strikes me is how commonplace xenophobic remarks about the US have become. In the course of just a few years of interviewing filmmakers and traveling to various festivals and events I have been repeatedly alarmed by the casual way entire populations are dismissed as stupid, useless and otherwise less than. What concerns me is that if we collectively allow that sort of thinking in one case, then we by default legitimize it in the grander public discourse.
We don’t want to make “much ado about nothing” as it were, but just to notice what appear to be double standards where we see them, and examine the circumstances that created them. None of this is to say that there is absolutely no truth in Depp’s statement. It is simply to question why, and how, we develop generalizations that we then, by route, accept as given fact.
I can summarize my response to the idea that Depp believes that the people of the United States aren’t savvy enough to “get” his films thusly: You’re so French.
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