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

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 but 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; it if  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 they 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. Lee goes inside, but he is incapable of conversation, and it’s good for neither of them.

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,” that’s all there is. 

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 looking 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 debt director (though Gomez-Rejon has 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.

A Most Unreflective Businessman

February 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I won’t do business in New York,” my father once told me.  When I asked why, he described how New York customers would cheat in order to push down the price they paid for his steel.

I hadn’t thought about that for a while. The memory came back just after I saw “A Most Violent Year” set in the grimy and graffiti-covered New York of 1981. The hero, Abel Morales, is trying to expand his heating oil business, but someone is out to thwart him. His trucks are hijacked, the oil stolen. His employees are threatened and beaten up.  In addition, the DA trying to clean up the heating oil business has gotten a 14-count indictment, and the bank withdraws the loan they had agreed to.

My father’s customers did nothing violent or illegal, just unethical and dishonest.  Why would they do that, I asked my father. I was young and naive. “Guys in New York,” he said, “it’s a tough market.”

I was amazed that he could be so understanding.  But he recognized that people in business acted not solely on the basis personal morality. In some markets, you had to be a little dishonest in order to survive. That’s the point that both Abel and the “A Most Violent Year” try very hard to ignore.  Instead, the movie, at least on its surface, seems to be trying to convey the message – that cliche that runs from old Westerns to the latest thrillers – that even in a corrupt world, an honest man acting honorably can come out on top. The bad guys may lie, cheat, steal, kill, kidnap, or whatever, unconstrained by any moral sense; yet the good guy, using only honorable means, will win. The good guy’s goodness and the bad guy’s wickedness are never in doubt. Doubt, in fact, is usually irrelevant.

Because Hollywood prefers this simplified view of morality, we have very few honest films about business. In “A Most Violent Year,” at least we see a more realistic businessman – successful, even wealthy, but not all powerful, running a small company, dealing with everyday crises, trying to negotiate loans so he can stay afloat. More often in Hollywood films, businessmen are the sinister, greedy, and powerful CEOs of large corporations. The Montgomery Burns caricature in “The Simpsons”  is not too distant from executives in serious movies.

I can think of only one movie centered on a businessman who faced with moral problems that have no simple, untainted solution – “Save the Tiger” from 1973.

“A Most Violent Year” could have been such a movie, but Abel never admits to himself that his motives and actions are anything but pure. The trailer gives some suggestion of his resoluteness. 

Others recognize that the the heating oil business is a compromised and compromising world. “Everyone in this room is fully capable of lying to their own mothers on their deathbeds,” says Peter Forente at a meeting of the fifteen important players in the business. Forente is the son of a mobster now in prison, but Peter is trying to do things differently to the extent he can. When Abel asks him for a much-needed loan, Peter tells him, “I don’t want you to be in this position. We are not nice people to borrow three quarters of a million dollars from.”

Abel’s wife – her father too was connected to organized crime – is aware of how that world works.  She has been keeping two sets of books, and she’s been skimming money over the years, apparently without her husband – the head of the company – knowing.  She has put  enough money aside that Abel won’t have to borrow from the “not nice people.”  She shows him a slip of paper with the sum on it.

What do you expect me to do with this?
Use it.... Abel...
Is it clean?
It’s as clean as every other dollar we’ve ever made.
That’s a fucking bullshit answer.

[a few moments later]

I’ll get it done. And it won’t be as a cheat.
(Yelling, but controlled enough to not wake the kids.)
Oh you are too much. You’ve been walking around your whole life like this all happened because of your hard work, good luck, and charm. Mr. Fucking American Dream. Well this is America... but it’s not a dream, and that wasn’t good luck helping you out all those years... IT WAS ME! Doing the things you didn’t want to know about...

Somehow, Abel acts as though he still does not to know about those things, continuing to believe in his own rectitude. In fact, compared with the other oil dealers, he is more honorable. Yet, despite the phony books (which he helps to hide under his house), despite the felony indictment, despite all those dollars he made being equally clean (i.e., not so clean), he fails to confront or even acknowledge the moral ambiguities. Abel is like so many other protagonists in American films.  All conflict is external. Life is about solving problems. Self-doubt would only get in the way.

“Whiplash” - The Little Drummer Boy

November 23, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I played my drum for him
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him
Pa rum pum pum pum

If you’ve seen “Whiplash,” you’ll get the irony. If not, watch the trailer.

Like most trailers, it pretty much tells you the whole story, though it inflates the boy-girl theme, which in the actual movie is an afterthought, a bit of romantic relief in lieu of comic relief (the movie has zero laughs). After all, we can’t have 105 minutes of non-stop sadism, intimidation, and humiliation. And blood. A lot of blood. Much more than you’d expect in a movie about jazz drumming. But then, this movie is not really about jazz.

Getting back to the Christmas carol, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons – the music teacher as drill sergeant) is no Baby Jesus, but he is a charismatic figure albeit a negative one.  He leads the band via charismatic authority. Andrew (Miles Teller) and the other students are in his thrall. They want only to please him and avoid his cruelty.  It is for him that they practice, it is for him that they play (“Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum, on my drum?”).

“Whiplash” is shot mostly in dim music rooms, and the lighting gives the movie a film noir feel.  But the link to gangster films is more than visual.  The constellation of conflicts and characters too reaches back to film noir. . .

. . . a night-time dream world . . . where the hero is involved in a conflict of crime and punishment with the older man, his boss, often the lord of the underworld

That’s from a book published in 1950, Movies, a Psychological Study, by Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites.  They sort out the dominant themes in American, Brtish, and French films of the late 1940s. Watching “Whiplash” you get the sense that little has changed. In the “night-time world . . .  the hero grapples with a dangerous older man and wards off entanglement with a desirable and yearning woman.” Even from the trailer, you can see that this is a good description of the place of romance in “Whiplash.” The character of Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is also foretold by Wolfenstein and Leites.  “The hero’s father is usually a sympathetic character, and almost always ineffectual.”

As in film noir, the conflicts are largely external. The hero need not admit the possibility of his own dark impulses.  That goes for the audience as well. These are all projected onto the bad guy.

It is the hero’s boss who attacks him and who commits numerous crimes for which he frequently tries to inculpate the hero. The violent impulses [of the hero],* acknowledged in much [other] Western tragedy, find a reverse expression here. The [hero] is in the clear because the older man attacks him first. Everything he does is in self-defense. Any bad actions of which the heroes of other dramas may accuse themselves appear as a frame-up against which the hero must fight. He would be amply justified in killing the unfairly attacking older man.

Andrew’s motives are pure mostly.  He starts off nearly as innocent as the little drummer boy, though with more ambition. He wants to work hard and become a good drummer, maybe the best. But then Fletcher insinuates himself into the boy’s dreams to distort those motives into a self-destructive obsession. It feels like a case of demonic possession, and Fletcher is the demon.

Because the conflicts are externalized, because the film dumps all negative impulses into the character of Fletcher, there can be only one resolution. The trailer doesn’t give away the ending, but you can guess. There’s going to be a showdown between Andrew and Fletcher.  Why? Because, as I’ve remarked several times in this blog (here for example), American films often hinge on the assumption that all problems can be solved by a climactic confrontation. The problems might be external – politics, crime, etc. – and the good guy and bad guy slug it out to see whose vision of the society will prevail.  But even when the conflicts are internal – the hero’s moral and psychological state – they are resolved by a contest, often athletic. Rocky and The Karate Kid find their true inner virtue in the ring. But the arena might just as easily be a chess tournament, a pool hall, a dance floor. Or a band performance.

In reality, transposing the film noir set-up to a jazz band is a bit of a stretch. In these movies, the question is who’s going to run this show – the good guy or the bad guy (as in “On the Waterfront,”  “High Noon,” and surely many others).  But in the real world, jazz students in band class aren’t learning to stand out as leaders.  Just the opposite – they’re learning to play as part of a band. Horn players learn to blend with their section. Rhythm section players have more latitude; where horn parts are carefully written note for note, the score for piano, bass, guitar, and drums will have sections that are less specific – chord symbols or general rhythmic indications. But rhythm players too, including drummers, must learn to meld with the ensemble.**

Unfortunately, a hero learning to be an integral part of a whole would not make for much of a movie, at least not an American movie. But to repeat, this movie is not about jazz, learning it or playing it. It’s about the conflict between the young hero and the lord of the underworld.


* Wolfenstein and Leities, writing in 1950 and much influenced by Freud, put this in Oedipal terms: “the violent impulses of sons toward their fathers.”

** There are one or two exemplary musical moments in “Whiplash” where you hear a well-rehearsed band doing some great ensemble playing.  That said, there are real-life drummers who do lead the band, loudly, and let the audience make no mistake as to who is the star of the show.  Most notably there was Buddy Rich, who seems to be an inspiration for the characters in “Whiplash” and perhaps for the filmmaker as well. Buddy had more than a touch of Fletcher, as you can hear in some of his rants on the bus, tearing into his young musicians, rants that were surreptitiously taped by the band’s pianist Lee Musiker. Listen here.

“Ida” – Less Is More

May 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw the movie “Ida” last night.  It’s a beautiful film.  Ken Turan in the LA Times   is right.
a film of exceptional artistry whose emotions are as potent and persuasive as its images are indelibly beautiful.
 More than that, as I left the theater, I realized how busy, frenetic even, most movies are.  “Most movies” means American movies.  “Ida” conveys those potent emotions without any of the gimmicks found in other films.

Poland, 1962.  An 18-year old girl, an orphan, has been raised in an abbey and is now a novitiate about to take her vows. The mother superior tells her to first visit her aunt, her only living relative.  The aunt tells her that her parents were Jews. They were at first sheltered by a Christian family but then killed.  The two women set off in the aunt’s car to find out what happened – where are the parents buried, where did they live, who killed them.

So it’s a road movie. You can imagine how this might play out in a Hollywood film. The bonding of aunt and niece, the reclaiming of the family’s home and property but only after much conflict, argument, and cleverly planned tactics by this undaunted duo, the girl finally embracing her true Jewish identity and deciding to leave the abbey and rejoin the real world . . . and that handsome musician, let’s not forget him.

Not in “Ida.”  The movie is striking for what it doesn’t have – all those things we so take for granted in films that we don’t notice them until they are absent..

Color.  “Ida” is shot in black-and-white and in the more squarish 4:3 aspect ratio (that’s 1.4 : 1; most films today are 1.8 or 2.4 : 1). The characters are at the bottom of the screen, with all that space at the top. Each shot looks like it might be a photograph in a museum. 

Cutting: Those shots are held longer.  The average shot in an American film these days is a couple of seconds. In “Ida,” the camera stays fixed longer, the characters move through the frame. 

Talk: No lengthy discussions or arguments to make the characters’ motives and emotions unmistakable. A transcript of the film would run to only a few pages. Ida herself is especially laconic.  And yet we know.

Music: Most films add music to tell you the mood of a scene.  In “Ida,” you hear music only when the characters hear it – the aunt’s Mozart records, the dyed-blonde singer doing cheesy Euro rock -n-roll in a club (the quartet behind her stays after hours and plays Coltrane tunes*).

Action:  Mostly walking and smoking. These are the actions which, in addition to the sparse dialogue, give us a sense of the characters.  Even the sex in the sex scene is elided. 

Happy or Uplifting Ending: In American road and buddy films, even when the heroes die – think of the freeze frame endings of “Butch Cassidy” or “Thelma and Louise” – there’s a sense of triumph.  The ending of “Ida” is not ambiguous, as it might have been. But it’s not what audiences steeped in American films would want or expect. (Spoiler etiquette prevents me from giving details.)

Here’s the trailer.  To get a more accurate feel of the film, first mute the sound, then hit the pause button frequently and just look at the composition of the shot.

* One of those Coltrane tunes, “Equinox,” wasn’t released until 1964. The movie is set in 1962, but who’s counting?

Snickers and the Last Laugh

April 1, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Advertisements echo with many reverberations and overtones. Different people hear different things, and with all the multiple meanings, it’s not always clear which is most important. 

Lisa Wade posted this Snickers ad from Australia at Sociological Images (here). Its intended message of course is “Buy Snickers.” But its other message is more controversial, and Lisa and many of the commenters (more than 100 at last count) were understandably upset.

The construction workers (played by actors) shout at the women in the street (not actors). “Hey,” yells a builder, and the woman looks up defensively. But then instead of the usual sexist catcalls, the men shout things like,
I appreciate your appearance is just one aspect of who you are
You know what I’d like to see? A society in which the objectification of women makes way for gender neutral interaction free from assumptions and expectations.
The women’s defensiveness softens.  They look back at the men. One woman, the surprise and delight evident in her smile, mouths, “Thank you.”

But, as the ad warned us at the very beginning, these men are “not themselves.”

Hunger has transformed them. The ad repeats the same idea at the end.

Here’s Lisa’s conclusion:
The twist ending is a genuine “fuck you” to the actual women who happened to walk by and become a part of the commercial. . . . I bet seeing the commercial would feel like a betrayal. These women were (likely) given the impression that it was about respecting women, but instead it was about making fun of the idea that women deserve respect.
I suspect that Lisa too feels betrayed.  She has bought her last Snickers bar.

It may be unwise to disagree with one’s editor, especially when the editor is a woman who studies sex and gender, and the issue at hand is sexism.  But my take is more optimistic. 

In an earlier generation, this ad would have been impossible. The catcalls of construction workers were something taken for granted and not questioned, almost as though they were an unchangeable part of nature.* They might be unpleasant, but so is what a bear does in the woods.

This ad recognizes that those attitudes and behaviors are a conscious choice and that all men, including builders, can choose a more evolved way of thinking and acting.  The ad further shows that when they do make that choice, women are genuinely appreciative. “C’mon mates,” the ad is saying, “do you want a woman to turn away and quickly walk on, telling you in effect to fuck off? Or would you rather say something that makes her smile back at you?”  The choice is yours.

The surface meaning of the ad’s ending is , “April Fools. We’re just kidding about not being sexists.” But that's a small matter. Not so far beneath that surface, progressive ideas are having the last laugh, for more important than what the end of the ad says is what the rest of the ad shows – that ignorant and offensive sexism is a choice, and that real women respond positively to men who choose its opposite.

*Several of the comments at Sociological Images complained that the ad was “classist” for its reliance on this old working-class stereotype. 

Location, Location, Location

January 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a much more important story than Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge. But it’s the Bridge that’s getting far more attention in the media. 

Anne Marie Cox has a good piece in the Guardian (here) about “how it came to be that Bridgegate continues to attract punditry while West Virginia only generates the kind of sympathetic-if-distant coverage we usually grant far-off and not too devastating natural disasters.”
In West Virginia, there are 300,000 people without useable water, and an unknown number who may fall ill because the warning to avoid the tainted supply came seven hours after the leak was discovered – and perhaps weeks after it happened. (Neighbors of the plant have told reporters they detected the chemical’s odor in December.)
Surely, that’s more important than four days of traffic jams, which, truth be told, are hardly a strange and new horror for New York and New Jersey drivers.

Cox has several explanations for the disproportionate weight given to the Christie story. Not only might Christie be president in a couple of years, but he’s known. He’s a political celebrity.* And for some reason, stories about the personal deeds and misdeeds of celebrities are newsworthy. Apparently we prefer a story about personalities rather than about policy (especially policy that involves science, especially environmental science). 

Cox lists other reasons, but the one I think is most telling is geography.**
It is taking place in the literal backyard of most national political reporters. It has very little to do with.
In the old days – with no satellite transmission, with no Internet –  stories from New York, Washington, and perhaps a few other places dominated the news because that’s where the news business was located. Stories from other places were more expensive to produce and transmit.  Film would have to be flown to production studios in New York. 

Today, remote stories do not run up costs. And in many ways the chemical spill should make for better news – the visuals are potential more striking, the potential interviews with the plain folks who are affected, the corporate baddies (it doesn’t get much better than “Freedom Industries”), the political influence, etc.

But it’s not just the cost. The sophisticated, cosmopolitan news people turn out to be just as provincial in their own way as are the rubes they tacitly disdain.  If the 4-methylcyclohexane-methanol had been polluting the Hudson or the Potomac, it would have been a national story.  As it is, the unstated message in the media coverage is, “Forget it; it’s only West Virginia.”

* Christie’s celebrity status is not an accident. One of the nuggets that the investigation has unearthed is that in choosing an ad campaign for the state to show its miraculous post-Sandy recovery, Christie chose a $4.7 million ad campaign over one that cost about half that much.  The pricier PR job Christie chose gave much greater prominence to Christie himself.

** Social scientists and media experts who know more than I do about how news is made must have written about this, but I have not come across any posts on these two stories.