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TRUST YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD CRITIC

Democracy, said H.L. Mencken memorably, is the theory that "the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."

You'd have thought on Nov. 3 that some of the loudest sufferers of the Blue State Blues were ready to open a vein. As it was, there was -- and still is -- open discussion of blue state recession and personal emigration in putatively sane places.

Let me, then, make a modest proposal for the, uhhhhhh, transition period back into the full-scale culture wars that the most pessimistic among us foresee. For those chicken littles who have convinced themselves that current American democracy is the Titanic, let me nominate their friendly neighborhood film and TV critics as on-deck morale officers.

It's very simple, you see. For America's movie and TV critics -- an overly-abused class these days -- every Monday morning is Nov. 3. Box office figures and Nielsen numbers abound and the leaders -- the democratic "winners" in audience "elections" -- are always predictable but are almost never the ones movie critics praised highest (as if anyone ever thought they would or should be).

Two examples: two of the best films, by far, that I saw at the Toronto Film Festival in Septemper were Alexander Payne's "Sideways" and Bill Condon's mildly embattled "Kinsey." "Sideways" opens Friday in Buffalo and "Kinsey" is slated to open Dec. 17 (not nearly soon enough, if you ask me but then date-juggling is a weird and inexact science in movieland.)

Despite being first-rate movies, neither is going to rack up numbers on the level of "The Incredibles" or even "The Grudge" on their opening weekends. Which, as any sane movie or TV critic will cheerfully tell you, is just business as usual. Nobody ever said that the numbers for "The West Wing" in its prime were going to equal the numbers for "Survivor" or, God help us, "The Apprentice." (In fact, the decline of "The West Wing" began at the exact moment the competition figured out how to counter-program reality TV junk.)

Mass taste in a democracy is infinitely more interesting and complex than a lot of media folks think. Mencken's solution to his occupational problem (he lived and wrote in a country that elected Coolidge and Harding) was to summarily dismiss the "booboisie." Which is all well and good but you have to be a name-caller of genius (which Mencken was) to keep that up.

Much more sensible and fruitful is to study the highways and byways of mass taste trying to figure out what's what. Horror movies -- no matter how awful -- always succeed because they allow those on date nights to grab hold of each other and any movie critic who thinks that a meager little thing like taste is going to interfere with the species' biological imperatives is an idiot. A movie like "The Incredibles" is a true family film. There is, literally, something in it for everybody. Even if it weren't as good as it is, it would be be a smash, no matter what critics said.

Not that movie critics are having an easy time of it at the moment. Of course, they matter no matter what some current wire service stories say (no one would ask the question so smirkingly if they didn't). The broadcast critics, though, led by Roger Ebert (otherwise known as Big Thumb) are having a tough year, true.

A combination of Internet gains, health worries and a 2004 record of staggeringly bad calls (thumbs up for "The Alamo" and "Van Helsing"; thumbs down for "We Don't Live Here Anymore") have sprained Big Thumb's rep badly.

But then Roger Ebert no more represents America's serious movie critics than George W. Bush represents all American politicians and the late lamented Old Dirty Bastard represents all American musicians. Movie companies always prefer that he might, of course (that way their search for publicity can be one-stop shopping.) But he doesn't.

So if the promised renewal of culture wars begins to wear you down, see if your friendly movie and TV critics can't provide soothing balm for the frazzled, alienated soul.

As Oprah and Bill Clinton might put it, believe me, they understand your pain.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com