Showing posts with label Movies TV etc.. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Movies TV etc.. Show all posts

The Marvelous Mrs. Anachronism

January 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The authenticity of the [ancient parchment] scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text.”*
Most language anachronisms are harder to spot. But why?

“Mad Men” begins in 1960, but the ad men and women use terms that didn’t enter the language till much later: niche marketing, iconic, enough on her plate, how’d that work out for you, key demographic, bi-coastal, and many others. (“Mad Men posts are here and here.)

And now we have “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, set in roughly the same time and place as “Mad Men,” New York City 1958, though the social geography is slightly different – downtown comedy clubs and Upper West Side Jews rather than Madison Avenue and WASPs. The trailer for Season One summarizes the concept and setting.

From the opening shot with Checker cabs through to the final frame, everything is visually perfect for 1958 – clothes, interiors. But then (at 1:42) Midge says, “This comedy thing – it has to work.” But that construction – “this _____ thing” with any noun in the blank – was all but unknown before the mid-sixties, and it didn’t become widely used until the 1980s.

Many other people have noticed the language anachronisms on this show. A twentysomething I know caught “touch base with.” My own list include: reach out to, alternate universe, scam, low bar, talking trash, I’m fine with, out of the loop, perp walk, kick [some big-time comedy] ass, she has been killing it, wackadoodle, crunching the numbers.

At first I thought that the writer/creators just didn’t care. But on a recent interview on KCRW’s “The Business,” they said this.

Here’s a slightly edited transcript

Q: Do you ever do the research and say, “Would a woman in the 50s do this?”

A: We have this delightful researcher who has like twelve masters degrees in everything in the world, and all she gets is like “Did they say *** back in nineteen-fif . . You [Palladino] had a couple where I was like that just feels too modern.

We don’t want to get caught out with that stuff ’cause everyone around us is so good – our production designer, our costumes, our props . .  And the last thing I want to do, when everyone is making sure that the piping on the wall and the colors are all correct, is that we’re the ones that come in and throw in a bunch of dialogue that’s not appropriate.

If they’re so good about the props and costumes, how can they throw in a bunch of dialogue that has so many anachronisms? Part of the answer, I think, is that our dominant sense is sight. We are much more likely to notice an object that doesn’t look right than a word that doesn’t sound right. Second, these things are the object of deliberate thought. We consciously choose our cars and clothes and colors. We also know that someone has consciously designed them and that the designers are deliberately trying to make them new and different. Not so our words. Nobody is advertising “wheelhouse” or “drill down” as the must-have word for this year. All the influencing and being influenced occurs out of our awareness. As a result, our language seems “natural” – unplanned and spontaneous rather than arbitrary. So we assume that this must be the way people always speak and have always spoken. 

That’s especially true for people who were not around during the historical period in question. If you weren’t watching club performers in 1958, you might just assume that the emcee then, as now, would say, “Let’s give it up for. . .” And if you weren’t familiar with stand-up comedy from that period, you might assume that comics then would ask, as Mrs. Maisel does, “What’s up with that?”

In fact, her whole style of stand-up is an anachronism, but that’s a matter for another blog post. The writers are familiar with the new comedy of  the late 50s – Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx, and others. And there’s a reference to Nichols and May that includes a glaring anachronism. When a male comic offers to work with Midge as a duo, her manager Susie advises against it.

SUSIE: He wants to fuck you.

MIDGE:  He wants me to work with him. He says we'll be like Nichols and May. Nichols and May don’t fuck.

SUSIE Nichols and May totally fuck.

Nichols and May did in fact have a brief romantic involvement. But in 1958, nobody “totally” fucked. Nobody “totally” did anything.


* From Woody Allen’s essay about six parchment scrolls discovered by a wandering shepherd in cave near the Gulf of Aqaba.

“Mindhunter” Needs a Sociology Checker

December 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Mindhunter” makes it to Huffington Post’s list of the best shows you can stream in Netflix. I’m not sure what Hufflepuff’s criteria were, but obviously precision in sociological theory was not among them.

The show is set in the 1970s, and the mindhunter-in-chief’s girlfriend, Debbie Mitford, is a sociology grad student at U Va. In Episode 1, she pretty much mangles Durkheim’s ideas about deviance.  (See “Debbie Does Durkheim”) Now in Episode 8, it’s Goffman.

In a scene in her apartment, Holden the mindhunter interrupts her studying – even though she has told him not to – to ask what she’s reading. Without turning from her desk she holds the book over her shoulder to show him. It’s a classic – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Props to the props department for finding a copy with its original cover, though to be picky, Debbie probably would have bought it in paperback. After all, judging from the lighting, her budget doesn’t even allow her to use much electricity. Holden asks her to explain Goffman.

So far so good. Goffman argues that we can understand much about human interaction if we see it as drama. The question is why – why do we play these parts and play them in particular ways?

Oy. I dread any forthcoming episode when Debbie takes her qualifying exams. In Goffman’s dramaturgy we are motivated not by altruism or conformism. We are not primarily interested in making others feel good. Instead, we are trying to have others think well of us – or at least to have them form the impression of us that we want them to have. It’s not altruism so much as it is manipulation. It’s not conscious manipulation. It’s just that we just don’t want others to get the wrong impression, which is another way of saying that we do want them to get the right impression. So we put on the costumes and speak the lines that will ensure that others think that we are the person we want them to think we are.

Confidence men and fraudsters provide the clearest example since their performance is deliberate, conscious, and cynical. But even the person who is sincere faces the same task of impression-management.

Let us now turn from the others to the point of view of the individual who presents himself before them. He may wish them to think highly of him, or to think that he thinks highly of them, or to perceive how in fact he feels toward them, or to obtain no clear-cut impression; be may wish to ensure sufficient harmony so that the interaction can be sustained, or to defraud, get rid of, confuse, mislead, antagonize, or insult them. Regardless of the particular objective which the individual has in mind and of his motive for having this objective, it will be in his interests to control the conduct of the others, especially their responsive treatment of him.[emphasis added]

We “control the conduct of others” by playing our part.

This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan. Thus, when an individual appears in the presence of others, there will usually be some reason for him to mobilize his activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey.[emphasis added]

For the presentation of self to work, it must be congruent with the setting. You’re going to have a hard time getting people to think you’re Willy Loman if the stage you walk onto is the set for “Wicked.” It’s Holden the Mindhunter, with zero sociology courses on his transcript, who is alert to this possibility.

The problem is not that Roger is a psychopath or pervert (though he may be). It’s that he’s giving the performance in the wrong setting.  Giving the wrong performance in the wrong setting leaves people confused. In fact, Goffman said something similar in Asylums, though I'm not really holding my breath waiting for Debbie’s summary.

Debbie Does Durkheim

October 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Remember “profiling” in the 1990s – “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and then the TV series “Profiler” (1996 - 2000). It seemed like half the students in my crim courses were there because they wanted be profilers,* untangling the twisted psyches of serial killers, figuring out where they would strike next, and nabbing them just before they killed again. What a disappointment my course must have been.   

They’re baaack. Not my students. Profilers on TV. The show is “Mindhunter.” It’s on Netflix, it’s set in the late 1970s, and it has some big names attached – David Fincher and Charlize Theron are producers, and Fincher directed some of the episodes. And another big name: Emile Durkheim.

In the first episode, the central character Holden Ford, in a loud and crowded bar (there’s a rock band playing), finds himself standing next to Debbie Mitford, an attractive young woman. They step outside to continue their conversation. That’s when she utters the kind of pick-up line that’s become such a tired cliche these days.

(Click on an image for a larger view)

Debbie is a graduate student in sociology. He’s a hostage negotiator for the FBI, but his boss has just assigned him to the classroom – to teach agents hostage negotiation. He confesses his ignorance about Durkheim, but the flirtation continues.

This struck me as not quite right. Alas, I was not called in as a script doctor on this show. I know something about theories of deviance. On the other hand, I know little about bar conversations. Anyway, once Debbie has lured him this far, she adds, with a twinkle in her eye,

I haven’t seen the rest of the series, but it looks like the Debbie-Holden thing will have a life beyond this one meeting in a bar. The relationship will probably hinge on some underlying and never-resolved sexual tension  – a flat, humorless version of  Cybil Shepard and Bruce Willis in the first seasons of “Moonlighting.” Just a guess.

The sociology lesson ends with this:

And my point is that the ideas she attributes to Durkheim might be ideas you could derive from Durkheim. But they are not what he actually said. The key passage is the one in The Rules of Sociological Method (here), where Durkheim says that even in a society of saints there will be crime. It won’t be the crime of the unsaintly world. But the norms for acceptable behavior will be raised so high, that actions that are unremarkable in our world will be treated as criminal.

Over a half-century later, this passage became the cornerstone of labeling theory – the recognition that deviance is a not a thing but a process. It is the interaction between those who make and enforce the rules or norms and those who break them. But Durkheim himself never used the word labeling, nor did he take the more conflict-based view that criminality is a response to “something wrong” in the society.

Sociological script consultants – never around when you need one.

* My inner dyslexic always wants to read “profilers” as “prolifers” – not exactly the same thing, though perhaps not entirely different. 

HT: Max for alerting me to this scene.

“black-ish” – Voluntary Conformism

April 30, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

 “Freedom of opinion does not exist in America,” said DeTocqueville 250 years ago. He might have held the same view today.

But how could a society that so values freedom and individualism be so demanding of conformity?  I had blogged about this in 2010 (here) with references to old sitcoms, but for my class this week I needed something more recent. Besides, Cosby now carries too much other baggage. ABC’s “black-ish” came to the rescue.

The idea I was offering in class was first, that our most cherished American values can conflict with one another. For example, our desire for family-like community can clash with our value on independence and freedom. Second, the American solution to this conflict between individual and group is often what Claude Fischer calls “voluntarism.”  We have freedom – you can voluntarily choose which groups to belong to. But once you choose to be a member, you have to conform.  The book I had assigned my class (My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan*) uses the phrase “voluntary conformism.”
On “black-ish”** this week (S3, E22: “All Groan Up,” April 26, 2017), the oldest daughter, Zoey, must choose which college to go to. She has been accepted at NYU, Miami, Vanderbilt, and Southern Cal. She leans heavily towards NYU, but her family, especially her father Dre, want her to stay close to home. The conflict is between Family – family togetherness, community – and Independence. If Zoey goes to NYU, she’ll be off on her own; if she stays in LA, she’ll be just a short drive from her family. New York also suggests values on Achievement, Success, even risk-taking (“If I can make it there” etc.)

Zoey decides on NYU, and her father immediately tries to undermine that choice, reminding her of how cold and dangerous it will be. It’s typical sitcom-dad buffonery, and his childishness tips us off that this position, imposing his will, is the wrong one. Zoey, acting more mature, simply goes out and buys a bright red winter coat.

The argument for Independence, Individual Choice, and Success is most clearly expressed by Pops (Dre’s father, who lives with them), and it’s the turning point in the show. Dre and his wife are complaining about the kids growing up too fast. Pops says, “Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this why you both worked so hard - movin’ to this White-ass neighborhood, sendin’ her to that White-ass school so she could have all these White-ass opportunities? Let. Her. Go.”  

That should be the end of it. The final scene should be the family bidding a tearful goodbye to Zoey at LAX. But a few moments later, we see Zoey talking to her two younger siblings (8-year old twins – Jack and Diane). They remind her of how much family fun they have at holidays. Zoey has to tell them that New York is far, so she won’t be coming back till Christmas – no Thanksgiving, no Halloween.

Jack reminds her about the baby that will arrive soon. “He won’t even know you.”

In the next scene, Zoey walks into her parents room carrying the red winter coat. “I need to return this.”

“Wrong size?” asks her father.

“Wrong state.”

She’s going to stay in LA and go to USC.

Over a half-century ago, David McClelland wrote that a basic but unstated tenet of American culture is: “I want to freely choose to do what others expect me to do.” Zoey has chosen to do what others want her to do – but she has made that individual choice independently. It’s “voluntary conformism,” and it’s the perfect American solution (or at least the perfect American sitcom solution).
* Not her real name.

** For those totally unfamiliar with the show, the premise is this: Dre Johnson, a Black man who grew up in a working-class Black neighborhood of LA, has become a well-off advertising man, married a doctor (her name is Rainbow, or usually Bow), and moved to a big house in an upscale neighborhood. They have four children, and the wife is pregnant with a fifth.

The Language Anachronism That Nobody Notices

January 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The opening of “Bridge of Spies” shows us New York, 1957. Federal agents tail Rudolf Abel as he walks through the streets and now into the Broad Street subway station. Here is a screenshot.

Hollywood does this sort of thing so well. Every period detail is perfect – the cars, the clothes, the street signs and advertisements, the subway station signs, the shoeshine stand,* even the candy bars inside the candy machine though they are on screen for less than a second. When the Feds come to arrest Abel a few minutes later, his Brooklyn apartment breathes the same authenticity. Ditto his false teeth (Abel is just coming out of the bathroom in his underclothes). The script continues.

One of these two lines is an anachronism – the equivalent of having someone drive up in a Toyota. It’s “need to.” I’ve mentioned this before, but once I became sensitized to it, every time I now hear “need to,” the actor may as well have shouted it.

Before 1970, “need to” was not an imperative. We told people that they “had to” do something, or that they “should” or “ought to” do something. You’ve gotta remember, this is 1957.

This chart from a post in The Atlantic by Benjamin Schmidt about the language in “Mad Men” shows  the relative use of “ought to” and “need to” in selected scripts all set in the 1960s. Some of them were written in the 60s, others in this century. The simple need/ought ratio is all you need to figure out which is which.

I checked a couple of those old scripts (“The Apartment,” “The Hustler” – both are great movies). The “need to” count is basically zero. And if Schmidt had used “have to” instead of “ought to” the differences would have been even more exaggerated.

My own speculation (here)  on why “need to” became so widely used starting in the 70s is that it was part of a general shift from a language of morality to a language of therapy. But I have no idea why the change went unnoticed. The lead scriptwriter on “Bridge of Spies,” Matt Charman, is only 37 years old. He grew up in the “need to” world. But the other writers, the Coen brothers, are in their sixties, and Spielberg, the director, is 70. They too were ignorant of the change from the language of their youth.

“Need to” appears fourteen times in the script. One of these lines manages to use it in tandem with yet another anachronism. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the American lawyer enlisted by the CIA to negotiate the spy exchange, is speaking with a Russian official.

“Conversation” – in the sense of a full exploration of issues and positions and options – is, I think, very recent. In 1957, governments may have had “discussions” or even “talks,” but they did not have conversations. 


* The shoeshine stand is on the platform where people stand waiting for their train. I wonder what happened when the train came in before the shoeshiner had finished. Of course, this is the Broad St. station, and on the BMT lines, there was probably plenty of time between trains. (And by the way, if anyone knows what year it was when the subway system finally stopped using the IRT, BMT, IND designations, please tell me.)

“La La Land” – Hooray for Hollywood

December 29, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The second movie I blogged about, nearly ten years ago (here), was “Words and Music,” a forgettable romantic comedy with several original songs and two big stars – Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. What I saw was a movie that was less about romance and more about career success.  In fact, I wondered if maybe all American movies were about success.* 

Yesterday, I saw “La La Land” and had the same reaction. The trailer, intentionally or not, makes this same point. It starts with the two stars – Emma Stone (Mia) and Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) – being hit with abrupt career setbacks.  Mia is rejected at an audition after she speaks one line. Sebastian is fired from his job playing piano in a restaurant because he plays one song of his one in addition to the simplistic Christmas song arrangements on the owner’s playlist.

In that earlier post, I said, “In a comedy about the romantic relationship, the plot throws all sorts of conflicts and obstacles at the couple — rivals, misunderstandings, deceptions, diversions, etc. — obstacles which they eventually overcome.” That’s not where “La La Land” goes.

In “La La Land,” what most concerns the lovers is not their relationship; it’s the other person’s career. Sebastian pushes Mia to pursue her passion to write and star in her own autobiographical play. Mia encourages Sebastian to pursue his passion – creating his own club as a home for mainstream jazz. In their most passionate scene, Mia tries to persuade him to be true to his dream rather than take a lucrative deal to go on the road with a pop-funk group headed by John Legend. Given these well-worn ideas, the dialogue is predictably predictable.

Fortunately, that’s not what the movie is really about. It’s not primarily concerned with telling you about Mia and Sebastian’s careers, or about their relationship. What “La La Land” wants to tell you about is movies – Hollywood musicals of the classical era. It’s full of the cinematic cliches (maybe tropes is the better term) of that period, and there are deliberate allusions to specific films. That’s what makes “La La Land” so enjoyable. It’s like pulling a school yearbook off the shelf and paging through it, recognizing old friends you haven’t seen in a long while and remembering what they were like. From the  opening scene – a freeway traffic jam that becomes a huge production number – you’re hooked. Sebastian and Mia are not real people; they’re movie characters. So if their motives and feelings are familiar cliches, that’s part of the game.

It’s not just Hollywood musicals that inspire the film. The Jacques Demy musicals of the 1960s – “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” and “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” with their bright colors – also get a large wave of the hand. At least one of the songs seemed like a deliberate attempt to emulate Michel Legrand. And the plot at the end strongly resembles that of “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” though with an added Hollywood-ending variation that may be the best thing in the film.

The wrong note, to my ear, was Sebastian’s piano playing. Big props to Gosling for learning to play the piano – that’s really him playing, they never used a piano double – but when he plays solo, it does not sound at all jazzy. He has a photo of Bill Evans that appears twice for a split second, but there’s no Evans in his sound, nor is there a hint of bebop-tradition pianists from Bud Powell on. The writer-director of the film, Damien Chazelle, has an obvious affinity for jazz. His previous film “Whiplash” centered on a young man trying to become a jazz drummer and had several moments of solid big band jazz. (For more on “Whiplash,” see this post from four years ago.) The combo scenes in “La La Land” do sound like real jazz, and it looked to me as though they too use real musicians playing, not actors pretending to play to the pre-recorded music we hear.

But to repeat, the movie is not about playing jazz or opening a club; it’s not about auditioning and acting writing a play; and it’s not about love. It’s about exactly what the title says – Hollywood.


* The first movie discussed in this blog (here) was clearly a critique of the American ideology of success – “Little Miss Sunshine.” It too seemed like an homage to a movie of the 1940s – “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“Manchester by the Sea”

December 17, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” is very good movie, not just for what it does but for what it doesn’t do. That is, it avoids several cliches of American movies; and for that, it is more honest and more powerful.

Lee Chandler (Casey Afflek), is a troubled man, forced to become guardian of his 15-year old nephew Patrick when Lee’s brother Joe (Patrick’s father) dies. Lee was not always troubled. The opening scene, seven years earlier, shows  Lee, Patrick, and Joe fishing on Joe’s boat near Manchester, north of Boston. It’s all good family fun. It’s also the opening of the trailer, which sketches the plot of the rest of the movie as well.

In the intervening years, tragedy has befallen Lee, and he lives with its pain. He works as a handyman in an apartment complex in Quincy south of Boston. He lives alone in a single room there. He is withdrawn – asocial with flashes of anger.

We know how this will go. The Lee-Patrick relationship will be rocky at first, with arguments and misunderstandings, but by the end of the film, Lee will not only become a good and willing surrogate father, but with Patrick providing subtle advice and help, he will become a better person. He’ll be more sociable and less angry, he’ll find a good woman, he’ll get a better job.

Not quite. That’s the scenario we’d expect from Hollywood, where children are in most ways better than adults. Adults become better people by dealing with kids (“Kramer vs. Kramer”).  Or kids help the adults overcome their silly problems (“The Parent Trap,” “Sleepless in Seattle”).  Even teenagers are more capable than adults at dealing with life’s problems. (See earlier posts on “The Descendants”  and “The Kids Are All Right.”). In fact, “Manchester” has what seems like a deliberate comment on films where children manoeuver adults into what turns out to be a successful relationship. As the two sit in the car outside his girlfriend’s house, Patrick asks Lee to come in and talk with the girl’s mother. (“Can you at least hang out with her so I can be alone with Sandy for half an hour without her mother knockin’ on the door and askin’, ‘How’s it goin’?’every twenty seconds?” “This could be good for both of us,” Patrick says. In contrast to the Hollywood cliche, Patrick is wrong. It’s good for neither of them. Lee goes inside, but he is incapable of conversation with the girl’s mother.

In the end, the relation with Patrick brings not some grand transformation but maybe a glimmer of hope. Lee will still not become Patrick’s guardian. But he does move to Boston, a half-hour closer to Manchester, and takes he two-room apartment so that Patrick can visit. But Lee is still a janitor, he is still alone, and he still gets drunk in bars and starts throwing punches.

The other anti-Hollywood virtue of the film is its honest treatment of working-class people. “Manchester” refuses to portray them as noble in the face of adversity à la Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” And as A.O. Scott says (here), comparing it with other Boston working-class films, “This is not a pseudo-epic of redemption or revenge, with boxers and gangsters and their churchgoing moms and wives.” Nor is upward mobility an issue. You could imagine Lee insisting that Patrick go to college – trite dialogue like “You don’t wanna end up like me.”  But when Patrick says in passing, “I’m not going to college,” nothing more is said. 

The world of “Manchester” is White working class and largely male. But these are not the people at Trump rallies, resentful, on the attack, vowing to  take back their country. Lee is just a man trying to come to terms with the challenges and sorrows of his life, some brought on by his own actions, some handed to him.

Labor Day - Unions on Film

September 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A guy I know who hates teachers unions equates them with the corrupt and violent Longshoremen’s union portrayed in “On the Waterfront.” True, the union comes off badly in this movie. When Brando, having testified against union boss Johnny Friendly says, “I’m glad what I done to you, Johnny Friendly,” the audience is glad too. But what about other films?

Hollywood is much more likely to give us business executives than workers. The corporate biggies are usually corrupt and evil, but at least they’re up there on the screen. Workers, not so much.

I tried to think of American movies (non-documentary) where a union or even the idea of a union had an important role. The list I came up with on the spur of the moment was very short
  • Norma Rae (1979)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Putting the question out to my Facebook friends brought only a few more to the list (ht: Philip Cohen).
  • Matewan (1987)
  • Hoffa (1992)
  • Salt of the Earth (1954)
Googling “movies about unions” added
  • The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)                                   
  • F.I.S.T. (1978)
  • Bread and Roses (2000)
  • Blue Collar (1978)
  • Won’t Back Down (2012)
  • The Garment Jungle (1957)
  • Black Fury (1935)
Given the Hollywood depiction of corporated bosses as bad guys, I expected that movies would also portray unions as  virtuous organizations helping virtuous workers.  That’s sort of true of 40s and 50s, though obviously “Waterfront” is an exception.* But in “Hoffa,” “F.I.S.T.,” “Blue Collar,” and “Won’t Back Down,” unions don’t come off so well.  Of movies from the last 30 years, only “Matewan” is unambiguously pro-union, and it was a low-budget indie. So much for the idea that Hollywood is dominated by leftists and liberals.

My favorite nomination – one ignored even by Google – came from my cousin, who wasn’t even born till about twenty years after the movie came out: “The Pajama Game” (1957).

* The point of “Waterfront” was to make a virtue out of testifying to the government against the team you used to be on. Both the writer and the director, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, respectively, had testified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and had ratted out other Hollywood people – naming names and ruining careers. Kazan acknowledged the parallel – he was glad what he done to his former associates. But Schulberg denied that the movie had anything to do with HUAC investigations.

Take My Zeitgeist, Please

August 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

So many plays today, on and off Broadway, are small, character-driven dramas, the kind that let the actors show their chops. Jesse Tyler Ferguson in “Fully Committed,” Jeff Daniels and Michellle Williams in “Blackbird.” Perhaps America in the post-Bush era is becoming more inward looking, more cautious about external adventures, more attentive to problems at home. I mean, that’s the kind of bullshit interpretation favored by some op-ed writers and bloggers. They take some trend in popular culture as a reflection of an all-encompassing spirit of the times (in German, Zeitgeist). And why not? After all, popular culture is by definition popular. It must strike a responsive vibration in the psyches of lots of people.

Ken Levine has a different take. He’s a sitcom writer (Cheers, Frasier, The Simpons . . .), who blogs  (every day!) mostly about the entertainment industry.  Working in the biz, he is highly sensitive to the non-Zeitgeist constraints on what does and doesn’t wind up in the cultural stream.

He wrote recently (here) about “Fully Committed,” which he saw on Broadway. He must have gotten to the theater early because apparently he read all of the Who’s Who bios in the Playbill – offstage people too, not just the cast. Maybe that’s what people in the biz just do, read the entire Playbill. Or maybe it didn’t take him all that long to read the bios for the entire cast (n = 1) so he kept reading. The bio for the writer of the show (Becky Mode) reminds Playbill readers that since 2001, this play has been “one of the ten most produced plays in the United States.” Wow. Is this ranking a clue to the Zeitgesit? Does the popularity of “Fully Committed” reflect a 21st-century concern with full commitment? Or with trendy restaurants?

Not according to Ken Levine. He thinks it’s about the economics of theater.

It’s one actor, one desk, and two phones. It also must be one of the ten cheapest plays to produce in the United States. The actor gets quite a workout, but still, it’s very doable. Especially if a theatre is planning its season and has another play that requires say...actual costumes.

The theatre scene is really run today on a tight budget. . . . The requirements today (unless you’re Tony Kushner or Tom Stoppard) are this: No more than four actors, preferably one set or just a few props that can suffice for a set, and not a lot of wardrobe or effects. I feel bad for us playwrights because that severely limits the kinds of plays we can write . . .

This reminded me of Wendy Griswold’s classic 1981 article about American novels in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some culture analysts saw in them a “femininization” of American culture starting in the 1890s. Before then, American novels were more about masculine and uniquely American concerns (think Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Last of the Mohicans). The more sentimental novels read by Americans (mostly women) came from British authors, not Americans. But towards the end of the century, American writers began to pay more attention to domestic matters.

The feminization idea is consistent with other trends in American society. But Griswold shows that the change had much less to do with a shift in the Zeitgeist than with the enforcement of international copyright laws. Prior to 1891, American publishers did not have to pay royalties to a foreign author. They could reprint titles by British writers very cheaply (a copy of A Christmas Carol, which cost the equivalent of $2.50 in England went for six cents in the US). American authors were fully capable of writing sentimental fiction, but publishers preferred the cheaper imports. American novelists turned their efforts to subjects and genres where British writers couldn’t compete  (think Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Last of the Mohicans). Then, once copyright laws guaranteed royalties on both sides of the Atlantic, British “feminine” fiction lost its economic advantage, and publishers issued more and more sentimental work by American authors.

I don’t know. Maybe the spirit of the times in the US did change in the late 19th century, with religion and middle-class women feminizing the culture. Searching for the Zeitgeist is a game anyone can play. Or you can take Deep Throat’s advice and follow the money.

Producing Reality

July 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the end of the video about his famous prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo says, “Our behavior is much more under the control of situational forces and much less under the control of things like character and personality traits.” If you’re looking for a good example of what he means, try at least the first few episodes of  “UnREAL” on Lifetime.  The show is fictional, a behind-the-scenes look at a reality show called “Everlasting,” its fictional version of  the reality show “The Bachelor.” Are you still with me? A fictional, or simulated, prison and a fictional TV show about a fictional TV show are telling us something important about reality – not reality-TV but real life, real reality. (And yes, I am aware of Nabokov’s dictum that reality is “one of those words which mean nothing without the quotes.”)

The creator of “UnREAL”, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, worked on “The Bachelor” for three years, and   “UnREAL” is partly an exposé revealing how the producers of the show manipulate the girls (as the show usually calls them) into doing things that are good for the show’s ratings but disastrous for the contestants themselves. “Cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls, catfights,” the “Everlasting” show-runner Quinn yells to her producers.

(Vocabulary note. The “producers” are the assistants whose job is to manipulate the contestants and the “suitor” into doing what’s good for the ratings. The person in charge of the show, its creator, is the “showrunner.” The word produce is used unironically as a synonym for manipulate. In one episode, when the Suitor was pursuing his own strategy, Quinn, the showrunner, tells Rachel, a producer, to get him back in line, saying something like, “You know what to do. Produce him.)

The producer who serves as Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s alter ego is Rachel Goldberg. In the Season 1, Episode 1, we see her lying on the floor of a limousine full of beautiful, gowned contestants. She is out of camera range, wearing a t-shirt that says, “This is what a feminist looks like.” The t-shirt is frayed, threadbare, a relic from her student days at Vassar.

She’s a feminist, yet she knows that in the coming weeks, she and the other show staff will exploit these women psychologically and physically. They will make sure the girls get little sleep and much alcohol. They will tell them lies to bring about tears and fights. “The Suitor” is no place for female solidarity. As Shapiro put it in an interview, Rachel is like “a vegan working in a slaughterhouse.”

Shapiro says that her own morality suffered a similar conflict and quick erosion. Here’s a clip from that same interview.

(Here’s a transcript of the end of the clip.)

I went to Sarah Lawrence, and I remember some seminar where we were talking about what would it cost for you to torture another human being, and everybody was like, “twenty-five million dollars.” And I quickly discovered it was like fifteen hundred dollars a week without benefits was fine.

It’s not just the money. The show becomes its own world. The contestants are required to give up all contact with the outside world (no cellphones, no Internet) so that the staff can more easily manipulate their reality. For the staff too, 19-hour workdays leave little time for life off the set. So the world of the show, with its  overarching value on ratings, is their reality as well. Staff get not just money but admiration for producing heartbreak, catfights, and other drama. They also have contracts and career aspirations that make it difficult to walk away. And for the staff, there was the added attraction of power.

“What Would You Do?” asks ABC’s popular television show, which is basically a variation on a theme by “Candid Camera.” It contrives a situation, then sets the cameras running to catch the reactions of unwary people. What will they do when they see a bicycle thief in action, a rude barista, a drunken cab driver, a racist store clerk, etc.? We think that we are the kind of person who does the right thing even in the face of social pressure.

“What would you do?” The most accurate answer is , “I don’t know.” As we have learned from a half-century of social science experiments – the Milgram obedience experiments are the best known – we are not very good at predicting behavior in a novel situation. People wind up doing things that seem to go against their most cherished values. It happens in real life too, and the important difference from the the ABC show and the psychology lab is that real-life situations come with a longer history and a thicker context.

Of course, most of us do not spend our workdays trashing our moral principles. But is that a testament to our strong moral fiber? Or, as Zimbardo suggests, is it because the situations that life affords us do not push us in that direction.

Miles Ahead

April 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Don Cheadle didn’t want to do a biopic, and how can you blame him? As a person, Miles was not an attractive or sympathetic character. What he cared about was himself – his music, his painting, his drugs. He treated the women in his his life as though they were possessions, like his stylish clothes and cars, except that as far as we know he did not beat his suits or Ferraris. Besides, Cheadle probably wanted to avoid the biopic cliches – the significant childhood scene where the boy’s talent first becomes apparent, the early struggles, the success (fast montage of club posters with the hero’s name rising in the billing), the downfall, the redemption.

“I was born, I moved to New York, met some cats, made some music, did some dope, made some more music, then you showed up at my house.” Miles delivers this line, along with a right hook to the face, to a journalist who shows up at his door wanting to do a story. It’s as though Cheadle is saying to the audience, “You want biography? Here’s your biography.”

But the movie avoids only some of the biopic cliches. It keeps others.  That journalist who wants to track down the “real” person, for example, is a familiar movie device (“Citizen Kane”). At least the movie doesn’t end with him rolling a sheet of paper into his typewriter and tapping out the “The Real Miles” or some such.

Instead of biopic, Cheadle gives us a completely made-up story, complete with guns and high-speed
car chases – not exactly what comes to mind when you hear the name Miles Davis. The trailer, as usual, gives you the plot such as it is.

It’s another venerable plot line – the artist preserving his art from the  vultures who want it only because they can turn it into filthy lucre. The art in this case is that tape that Miles recorded privately and keeps locked in a drawer. (There may have been such a tape, but on it Miles plays organ, and from all reports, not very well. And nobody stole it.)

There’s even a song-origins scene hokey enough to be in a 1940s songwriting team “and then we wrote” movie. Miles, at home watching his wife Frances Taylor dance, picks up his horn and starts to play a melody that sounds like the children’s song “Put Your Little Foot.” Jazzers will get the reference: that melody turned up as “Fran-Dance” on the 1958 album “Jazz Track.”

Music was the best and most important thing about Miles, so the big disappointment (for me at least) is that so little of the film is about the making of music. The secondary role is logical given that Cheadle chose to set the film in the late 1970s when Miles stopped playing and disappeared from public view for five years. So it’s mostly in the flashbacks that we hear Miles’s music. Cheadle apparently learned to play trumpet, and he fingers accurately to Miles’s recorded solos from well-known albums like “Kind of Blue.” But these snatches rarely last more than about 15 seconds. There is one music-making scene: Miles and Gil Evans discuss some details in the arrangement of “Gone” during the recording session of “Porgy and Bess.”

Still, Cheadle carries the film. He captures an essential part of Miles’s character – the absolute confidence and the apparent indifference to what anyone else thinks. Miles, who, even in the 50s when jazz was struggling to be respectable, walked  off the set during his sidemen’s solos and literally turned his back on his audience, who then to the dismay of many turned his back on bebop for electric and rock (there’s a parallel here with Dylan and his audience). That’s the Miles we see. I just wish that we got to hear more of his music.   

Saoirse’s Choice

February 20, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a course I taught long ago, I would give students the set-up of a movie – act one – and ask them to write a plot summary of the rest of the film. When they had finished, I would tell them how the actual film went. It unfolded to something completely different from what they had thought up. That’s because it was French.

The students were very bad at thinking like a French cineaste, but they did a top-notch job of filling in the predictable character types and plot elements of American movies.

I remembered this after I saw “Brooklyn.” It’s certainly a pleasant hour and fifty minutes. The film is set in the early 1950s, but it cleaves so closely to America’s immigrant-story cliches that it could be taking place any time.  The trailer summarizes the story.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) must decide between two countries, Old Ireland and New America, and between two men, one in Enniscorthy, one in Brooklyn. In Ireland she lives in a small town and works for a particularly nasty shopowner, a snoop who uses her knowledge of everyone’s secrets as weapons. Eilis comes to America, an open land of opportunity where she works hard at her job and takes classes to improve her abilities. Predictably (i.e., just like in the movies) she keeps moving up.

The man she meets on her return trip to Ireland is at the top of the town’s social ladder. The man she meets in America is a working-class Italian, a plumber, but he has plans to start his own construction company (to build what we know will become the new suburbs). Like Eilis, Tony too is on the path to success.

In a post nine years ago (here) I speculated that all American movies, even romantic comedies, are really about achieving success. “Brooklyn” is firmly in that tradition. The movie presents both men as ideal, someone any girl would want to marry, and Saoirse Ronan is able to convince us that the choice is agonizing. But while Eilis may feel torn between the man who has already inherited a life of comfort and the man who is getting there through honest work, we in the audience, schooled on scores of American movies, know immediately who is preferable.

“Brooklyn” lays out its cards in such a familiar arrangement that the movie’s real achievement is in making us believe that the sides in this choice are nearly equal. It does that mostly with the pull of family obligations.  Eilis’s mother needs care, and now that Eilis’s sister has died, Eilis is the only family she has left. But that also means that an aging mother is the only family that Eilis herself has, her only real human bond to Ireland. Even if we weren’t Americans rooting for America, we know what the right choice is, and “Brooklyn” does not disappoint. To its credit, the movie avoids the impossibly perfect solution, the “Hollywood ending,” which might have been for Eilis to bring her mother to America to live happily ever after.

On the podcast “Culture Gabfest,” Julia Turner comments that “Brooklyn” could almost be a silent movie. This is said in praise of Saoirse Ronan’s acting – her face tells so much. But it could be a silent movie also because the plot and characters are so familiar – the spiteful shopowner, the kindly priest, the Italian family – that the dialogue doesn’t add anything to our understanding of them.

That said, the film is very good for what it is. It looks terrific, the story is well told, and Saoirse Ronan deserves her Oscar nomination. But “Brooklyn” is the movie equivalent of comfort food – familiar, pleasant, and easy to digest.

Auteur, Schmauteur

February 10, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Despite the maxim about familiarity breeding contempt, we usually like what’s familiar.  With music for example, familiarity breeds hits in the short run and nostalgia in the long run. The trouble is that it’s tempting to attribute our liking to the inherent quality of the thing rather than its familiarity.  With movies, film buffs may make this same conflation between what they like and what they easily recognize.

That’s one of the points of Scott Lemieux’s takedown (here) of Peter Suderman’s Vox article about Michael Bay.

Suderman hails Bay as “an auteur — the author of a film — whose movies reflect a distinctive, personal sensibility. Few filmmakers are as stylistically consistent as Bay, who recycles many of the same shots, editing patterns, and color schemes in nearly all of his films.”

But what’s so great about being an auteur with a recognizable style? For Lemieux, Michael Bay is a hack. His movies aren’t good, they’re just familiar. Bay’s supporters like them because of that familiarity but then attribute their liking to some imagined cinematic quality of the films.

My students, I discovered last week,  harbor no such delusions about themselves and the songs they like. As a prologue to my summary of the Salganik-Watts MusicLab studies, I asked them to discuss what it is about a song that makes it a hit. “Think about hit songs you like and about hit songs that make you wonder, ‘How did that song get to be #1?’” The most frequent answers were all about familiarity and social influence. “You hear the song a lot, and everyone you know likes it, and you sort of just go along, and then you like it too.” I had to probe in order to come up with anything about the songs themselves – the beat, the rhymes, even the performer.

Lemieux cites Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Circles and Squares” (1963), a response to auteur-loving critics like Andrew Sarris. She makes the same point – that these critics conflate quality with familiarity, or as she terms it “distinguishability.”

That the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgment. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?

Often the works in which we are most aware of the personality of the director are his worst films—when he falls back on the devices he has already done to death. When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don't think about the director's personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not much else to watch.

Assessing quality in art is difficult if not impossible. Maybe it’s a hopeless task, one that my students, in their wisdom, refused to be drawn into. They said nothing about why one song was better than another. They readily acknowledged that they liked songs because they were familiar and popular, criteria that producers, promoters, and payola-people have long been well aware of.

“In the summer of 1957,” an older friend once told me, “My family was on vacation at Lake Erie. There was this recreation hall – a big open room where teenagers hung out. You could get ice cream and snacks, and there was music, and some of the kids danced. One afternoon, they played the same song – “Honeycomb” by Jimmie Rodgers – about twenty times in a row, maybe more. They just kept playing that song over and over again. Maybe it was the only song they played the whole afternoon.”

It wasn’t just that one rec hall. The people at Roulette Records must have been doing similar promotions all around the country and doing whatever they had to do to get air play for the record. By the end of September, “Honeycomb” was at the top of the Billboard charts. Was it a great song? Assessment of quality was irrelevant, or it was limited to the stereotypical critique offered by the kids on American Bandstand: “It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.” Of course, this was before the 1960s and the rise of the auteur, a.k.a. the singer-songwriter.

Hollywood uses the same principle when it churns out sequels and prequels – Rocky, Saw, Batman. They call it a “franchise,” acknowledging the films had the similarity of Burger Kings. The audience fills the theaters not because the movie is good but because it’s Star Wars. Kael and the other anti-auteurists argue that auteur exponents are no different in their admiration for all Hitchcock. Or Michael Bay. It’s just that their cinema sophistication allows them to fool themselves.

(Big hat tip to Mark at West Coast Stat Views.)

Pigskin Preview (i.e., Football Cliches)

September 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about the University of Illinois football coach forcing injured players to go out on the field even at the risk of turning those injuries into lifelong debilitating and career-ending injuries. The coach and the athletic director both stayed on script and insisted that they put the health and well-being of the scholar athletes “above all else.” Right.

My point was that blaming individuals was a distraction and that the view of players as “disposable bodies” (as one player tweeted) was part of a system rather than the moral failings of individuals.

But systems don’t make for good stories. It’s so much easier to think in terms of individuals and morality, not organizations and outcomes. We want good guys and bad guys, crime and punishment. That’s true in the legal system. Convicting individuals who commit their crimes as individuals or in small groups is fairly easy. Convicting corporations or individuals acting as part of a corporation is very difficult.

That preference for stories is especially strong in movies. In that earlier post, I said that the U of Illinois case had some parallels with the NFL and its reaction to the problem of concussions. I didn’t realize that Sony pictures had made a movie about that very topic (title - “Concussion”), scheduled for release in a few months. 

Hacked e-mails show that Sony, fearful of lawsuits from the NFL, wanted to shift the emphasis from the organization to the individual.

Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league. . . .

Hannah Minghella, a top [Sony] executive, suggested that “rather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.” [source: New York Times]

I don’t know what the movie will be like, but the trailer clearly puts the focus on one man – Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. He’s the good guy.

Will the film show as clearly how the campaign to obscure and deny the truth about concussions was a necessary and almost inevitable part of the NFL? Or will it give us a few bad guys – greedy, ruthless, scheming NFL bigwigs – and the corollary that if only those positions had been staffed by good guys, none of this would have happened?

The NFL, when asked to comment on the movie, went to the same playbook of cliches that the Illinois coach and athletic director used.

“We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority.”

“Trainwreck” and Taboo

July 30, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw “Trainwreck” last night. The 7:00 p.m. showing at the 68th Street AMC was full. Maybe people had come just to get out of the apartment and yet avoid the beastly heat, but they enjoyed the movie.  Sometimes the laughter lasted long enough to cover up the next joke.

The “Trainwreck” story is standard rom-com: Amy Schumer plays a young woman who rejects the idea of commitment and love. Circumstances put her together with a man she seems to have nothing in common with. You can guess the rest. But this is Amy Schumer’s movie, so there’s an important twist – the conventional sex roles are reversed. It’s the man who is sweet and naive and who wants a real relationship; the woman has a lot of sex with a lot of different guys, drinks a lot, smokes weed, and resists love until at the end, she decides to become the woman he wants her to be.

Here is the R-rated version of the trailer.

What interested me was not the movie itself, but the reaction in some conservative quarters. For Armond White at the National Review (here), the movie triggered something like what Jonathan Haidt calls “disgust” – a reaction to the violation of strong taboos that surround things like food, sex, blood and other bodily matters, and death. These taboos are often arbitrary, not rational. Pork is an “abomination” because . . . well, because it is, and because pigs are “unclean.”

“Trainwreck” has no pork, but it does have what some find unclean.

Schumer’s tampon jokes and gay jokes, female versions of locker-room humor, literally drag pop culture to the toilet. A girl-talk scene set in adjoining restroom stalls — one revealing dropped panties, the other panty-less (obviously Amy) — is just Apatow using women to show off his indecency.

Indecency indeed. But something is indecent only to members of groups that deem it indecent. Some groups are not at all disgusted by pork.  And for some audiences, tampon jokes and toilet-stall conversations about Johnny Depp movies are not indecent; they’re just funny. What audiences might those be? Women.

As a comedian and now as a filmmaker, Schumer talks about women-things – body functions and body parts. These jokes seem to elicit two different kinds of laughter.  Back when researchers studying small group interaction were trying to code and categorize behavior, laughter posed a problem. It could be coded as “Shows Tension,” but it might also be “Shows Tension Release.” (See this earlier post on laughter.)  With Amy Schumer jokes, the male laughter is mostly nervous, full of tension about a taboo subject. But the female laughter seems much less inhibited – tension release, maybe even a relief, as if to say, “Someone is finally talking publicly and frankly about things we could only whisper about,” since most of the time they have had to pretend to share the male taboo..

Take the tampon joke that the National Reviewer finds indecent. It would seem obvious that used  tampons look different depending on where you are in your period – less bloody on the final day, more so a few days earlier. But at the mere mention of this fact in “Trainwreck,” hilarity ensues, especially among women in the audience.                        

The thing about taboos – ideas about what is indecent or disgusting – is that entire social structures get built around them. To violate the taboo is to threaten the entire edifice. Powerful taboos on women-things often go with male domination. So for the National Review, the “Trainwreck”reversal of rom-com gender roles makes the movie dangerous and subversive. Here are some excerpts from the review just to give the flavor of this Purity-and-Danger-like conflating of taboo, female sexuality, and social/political threat to the established order.  (I have added the boldface.)

Schumer turns female sexual prerogative into shamelessness
the degradation of sex — and women

uses sex to promote feminist permissiveness.

She enjoys a sexual license

Amy brazenly practices the same sexual habits as men

. . . old-fashioned sense of shame,

It’s merely brazen, like Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls (also about a promiscuous female writer

Schumer’s film can be seen to distort human relations into smut.

This is not just disrespectful, it confirms Schumer’s project of cultural takeover,

she aims to acquire cultural power

Schumer disguises a noxious cultural agenda as personal fiat. She’s a comedy demagogue who okays modern misbehavior yet blatantly revels in PC notions about feminism, abortion, and other hot-button topics


I should add that not all conservative publications felt so threatened. Joe Morganstern at the Wall Street Journal gave the movie a warm review. Breitbart saw the movie’s essential conservatism (“The anti-slut message is a healthy one,”) and praised Schumer as a comic actor.  Still, the National Review piece seems emblematic of something broader in the cultural conservative camp – a taboo-like reaction to female sexuality.

Me and Earl and the Diffusion Curve

June 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How does a movie gain an audience?

Saturday night, I went to the 7:30 showing of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” The movie had just opened, so I went early. I didn’t want the local teens to grab the all the good seats – you know, that thing where maybe four people from the group are in the theater but they’ve put coats, backpacks, and other place markers over two dozen seats for their friends, who eventually come in five minutes after they feature has started.

That didn’t happen. The theater (the AMC on Broadway at 68th St.) was two-thirds empty (one-third full if you’re an optimist), and there were no teenagers. Fox Searchlight, I thought, is going to have to do a lot of searching to find a big enough audience to cover the $6 million they paid for the film at Sundance. The box office for the first weekend was $196,000, which put it behind 19 other movies.
But don’t write off “Me and Earl” as a bad investment. Not yet. According to a story in Variety, Searchlight is hoping that “Me and Earl” will be to the summer of 2015 what “Napoleon Dynamite” was to the summer of 2004. Like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Me and Earl” was a festival hit but with no established stars and a debut director (though Gomez-Rejon had done television – several “Glees” and “American Horror Storys”). “Napoleon” grossed only $210,000 its first week, but its popularity kept growing – slowly at first, then more rapidly as word spread – eventually becoming cult classic. Searchlight is hoping that “Me and Earl” follows a similar path.

The other important similarity between “Napoleon” and “Earl” is that both were released in the same week as a Very Big Movie – “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” in 2004, “Jurassic World” last weekend. That too plays a part in how a film catches on (or doesn’t).

In a post three years ago (here) I graphed the growth in cumulative box office receipts for two movies – “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Twilight.”  The shapes of the curves illustrated two different models of the diffusion of ideas.  In one (“Greek Wedding”), the influence came from within the audience of potential moviegoers, spreading by word of mouth. In the other (“Twilight”), impetus came from outside – highly publicized news of the film’s release hitting everyone at the same time.*

You can see these patterns again in the box office charts for the two movies from the summer of  2004 – “Harry Potter/Azkaban” and “Napoleon Dynamite.” (I had to use separate Y-axes in order to get David and Goliath on the same chart.)**

“Harry Potter” starts huge, but after the fifth week the increase in total box office tapers off quickly. “Napoleon Dynamite” starts slowly. But in its fifth or sixth week, its box office numbers are still growing, and they continue to increase for another two months before finally dissipating. The convex curve for “Harry Potter” is typical where the forces of influence are “exogenous.” The more S-shaped curve of “Napoleon Dynamite” usually indicates that an idea is spreading within the system.
But the Napoleon curve is not purely the work of the internal dynamics of word-of-mouth diffusion. The movie distributor plays an important part in its decisions about how to market the film - especially when and where to release the film. The same is true of “Harry Potter.” 

The Warner Bros. strategy for “Harry Potter” was to open big – in theaters all over the country. In some places, two or more of the screens at the multi-plex would be running the film. After three weeks, the movie began to disappear from theaters, going from 3,855 screens in week #3 to 605 screens in week #9.

“Napoleon Dynamite” opened in only a small number of theaters – six to be exact.  But that number increased steadily until by week #17, it was showing in more than 1,000 theaters. 

It’s hard to separate the exogenous forces of the movie business from the endogenous word-of-mouth – the biz from the buzz.  Were the distributor and theater owners responding to an increased interest in the movie generated from person to person? Or were they, through their strategic timing of advertising and distribution, helping to create the film’s popularity? We can’t know for sure, but probably both kinds of influence were happening. It might be clearer when the economic desires of the business side and the preferences of the audience don’t match up, for example, when a distributor tries to nudge a small film along, getting it into more theaters and spending more money on advertising, but nobody’s going to see it. This discrepancy would clearly show the influence of word-of-mouth; it’s just that the word would be, “don’t bother.”


* I was working from a description of these models in Gabriel Rossman’s Climbing the Charts, which had recently been published.

** All the box office information comes from BoxOfficeMojo.

Don Draper and The Pursuit of Loneliness

May 26, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston
Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.       (Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 1)
The ending of Mad Men was brilliant. It was like a good mystery novel: once you know the solution – Don Draper creating one of the greatest ads in Madison Avenue history – you see that the clues were there all along.  You just didn’t realize what was important and what wasn’t. Neither did the characters. This was a game played between Matt Weiner and the audience.

The ending, like the entire series, was also a sociological commentary on American culture. Or rather, it was an illustration of such a commentary. The particular sociological commentary I have in mind is Philip Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970, the same year that this episode takes place. It’s almost as if Slater had Don Draper in mind when he wrote the book, or as if Matt Weiner had the book in mind when he wrote this episode.

In the first chapter, “I Only Work Here,” Slater outlines

three human desires that are deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture
(1) the desire for community – the wish to live in trust, cooperation, and friendship with those around one.
(2) the desire for engagement – the wish to come to grips directly with one’s social and physical environment.
(3) the desire for dependence – the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.
The fundamental principle that gives rise to these frustrations is, of course, individualism.

Individualism is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence. One of the major goals of technology in America is to “free” us from the necessity of relating to, submitting to, depending upon, or controlling other people. Unfortunately, the more we have succeeded in doing this, the more we have felt disconnected, bored, lonely, unprotected, unnecessary, and unsafe.

Most of those adjectives could apply to Don Draper at this point. In earlier episodes, we have seen Don, without explanation, walk out of an important meeting at work and, like other American heroes, light out for the territory, albeit in a new Cadillac. He is estranged from is family. He is searching for something – at first a woman, who turns out to be unattainable, and then for . . . he doesn’t really know what. He winds up at Esalen, where revelation comes from an unlikely source, a nebbishy man named Leonard. In a group session, Leonard says:

I've never been interesting to anybody. I, um –  I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down. . . .
I had a dream. I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.

People are silent, but Don gets up, slowly moves towards Leonard and tearfully, silently, embraces him.

On the surface, the two men could not be more different. Don is interesting. And successful. People  notice him. But he shares Leonard’s sense that his pursuit – of a new identity, of career success, of unattainable women - has left him feeling inauthentic, disconnected, and alone. “I’ve messed everything up,” he tells his sometime co-worker Peggy in a phone conversation. “I’m not the man you think I am.”

The next time we see him, he is watching from a distance as people do tai-chi on a hilltop.

And then he himself is sitting on a hilltop, chanting “om” in unison with a group of people. At last he is sharing something with others rather than searching for ego gratifications.

And then the punch line. We cut to the Coke hilltop ad with its steadily expanding group of happy people singing in perfect harmony.

A simple product brings universal community (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company”). It also brings authenticity. “It’s the real thing.”

Esalen and Coca-Cola. Both are offering solutions to the frustrated needs Slater identifies. But both solutions suffer from the same flaw – they are personal rather than social. A few days of spiritual healing and hot springs bring no more social change than does a bottle of sugar water.

It’s not that real change is impossible, Slater says, and in the final chapter of the book, he hopes that the strands in the fabric of American culture can be rewoven.  But optimism is difficult.

So many healthy new growths in our society are at some point blocked by the overwhelming force and rigidity of economic inequality. . . . There’s a . . . ceiling of concentrated economic power that holds us back, frustrates change, locks in flexibility.

The Mad Men finale makes the same point, though with greater irony (the episode title is “Person to Person”). When we see the Coke mountaintop ad, we realize that Don Draper has bundled up his Esalen epiphany, brought it back to a huge ad agency in New York, and turned it into a commercial for one of the largest corporations in the world.

Predicting the Oscars

February 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Of the films nominated for Best Picture, “American Sniper” is the clear winner at the box office. But will it will win Best Picture? or Director? or Actor?  Nobody thinks so, even its ardent supporters on the political right. How do they know?

It’s not like elections, where a hundred polls blossom to survey voters. Google Consumer Surveys did as the public (though not a random sample), and Sniper easily picked off the competition. David Leonhardt at the New York Times (here) provided this graph:

(Click on a graphic for a larger view.)

But the Oscars are decided not by the public but by the Academy. Nobody is polling them. Their views are not those of the public (or those on both the right and left put it, they are “out of touch”). So we are left with the equivalent of what readers of the racing from know as “past performances” - other races against the same competition. That means the critics’ ratings, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and SAG. In all these the Sniper crew were pretty much left out in the desert.

We also have the prediction markets, where the price of an investment reflects roughly the collective wisdom of the bettors. Several posts in this blog have contrasted this  “wisdom of crowds” with the views of “the smart money,” a relative handful of professional bettors. By watching the moves of the point spread, you can make a pretty good guess as to which side the crowd is on. If you had bet against their wisdom on NFL games this past season, you’d be well on the plus side.

With the Academy Awards, while the public may have an opinion, they do not place bets, except in office pools. My guess is that the action at the prediction markets comes mostly from a much smaller and better-informed number of participants.  It’s all smart money. And they do not think much of Sniper’s chances.  Predictwise has “Birdman” as having a 67% chance of winning, “American Sniper” only a 0.3% chance. The comparable figures at Betfair are 60% and 1.5% respectively.

The prices at Hollywood Stock Exchange tell a slightly different story.

How do the HSX bettors decide what to bid? I don’t know. I thought that history of the price changes might provide a clue. In some cases, the betting suggests a kind of cascade. People see the price going up and follow what they assume is smart money. The performances of J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore were no better – relative to the competition – yesterday than they were a month earlier. But in that month the price of Arquette relative to that of Felicity Jones has gone from about 2.5-1 to 9-1.*

Other changes are more puzzling. Here are the prices for “Birdman” and “American Sniper.”

On  Jan. 23, a bet that would pay $25 if  “American Sniper” won cost $8.91, while a similar bet on “Birdman”was only $1.51.  Now a “Birdman” bet costs six times as much as “American Sniper.” What happened on Jan. 23? I don’t know. It wasn’t the announcement of winners at BAFTA, Golden Globes, or SAG.  Maybe some more knowing reader can provide some enlightenment.

UPDATE: Feb. 22, 8:30 p.m. EST.  Since I  grabbed those HSX graphs yesterday, the bettors have been hitting “Birdman”and abandoning “Boyhood.”  As the market moved to the close, “Birdman” would have cost you another $10. “Boyhood” was cheaper by a similar amount. If this were football, I’d be going with “Boyhood.”

* Simmons, Arquette, and Moore now look like sure things. For my favorite anecdote about Oscar predictions, see this 2007 post  about the time I put a multiple-choice question on the midterm asking what would win Best Picture.