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

“Her” – the Magic Pixie Dream OS

December 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Random thoughts after seeing “Her” (which I highly recommend), a film about the relation between a man and his computer operating system.  Here’s the trailer, which, as usual, gives a better feel for the film than any description I might write.

1.    Futuristic, but not by much.  The next day, the front page of the Sunday Times had this headline (above the fold).

Brainlike Computers, Learning From Experience
Computers have entered the age when they are able to learn from their own mistakes, a development that is about to turn the digital world on its head. . . . artificial intelligence systems that will perform some functions that humans do with ease: see, speak, listen, navigate, manipulate and control. [the full story is here]
    Samantha the OS doesn’t manipulate and control – well, just a little, and it’s for Theodore’s benefit – but she does the rest. And much more.

2.    External and internal, doing and understanding..  “Her” is about the blurring of boundaries between the technological and the human.  But one of the many trailers that preceded “Her” was for another film based on this same human/technology melding – “Robocop.”

But the technology here seems to be all about accomplishing some external task, mostly the crime-fighting that we usually associate with cops. Will the good guys’ technology beat the bad guys’ technology?  (I should probably add that I find “Action” movies tedious, full of sound and fury – also full of special effects and CGI – signifying very little. I’d gladly trade a dozen chase-fight-explosion sequences for one honest conversation among robocops sitting around eating robo-donuts.)

In “Her,” the characters face no external challenge. Instead, they are struggling to understand the feelings, desires, and reactions of someone else and how these mesh with their own.  It’s about relationships, not winning.  Action movies exaggerate the physical at the expense of everything else (an emphasis they share with porn). “Her” is about the near absence of the physical.  The one attempt to make the relationship physical is a disaster.*

3.    Ideal and effortless. Samantha (the OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is the perfect soul mate.  Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) can expose his entire life to her – she scans his entire hard drive in the first microsecond of her existence – yet we know she will never use the information in any way that hurts him.  She is like a child’s imaginary friend, but better. The child must think up the actions and reactions of the imaginary friend. Samantha requires no such effort on the part of Theodore.  And everything she does helps him.  Siri as girlfriend and therapist.

4.  MPDG.  As Super-Siri, Samantha resembles the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  This phrase, coined in a 2005 movie review  by Nathan Rabin, refers to "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."** At the start of the film, Theo certainly qualifies as brooding and withdrawn.  “I can’t even prioritize between video games and Internet porn,” he says to his neighbor (Amy Adams), who says that she’d laugh at that line if she didn’t think it were true. It is. And true to her type, Samantha brings Theo back into the world just as a MPDG should. They even go to Catalina on a double date (with a two-human couple).

5.    Control and surprise.  The wonderful thing about imaginary friends is that we have total control over them.  The same goes for servants or slaves or prostitutes or others we pay who must relate to us exactly as we want them to. (Of course, it’s more fun when we pretend that they are doing so voluntarily.) The more we control our environment, the more we give up the rewards and delights of the unexpected.  The difficulties of relationships with real people make the illusion of control all the more attractive.  But, as in “Lars and the Real Girl,” a relationship with the mere extrusion of one’s own fantasies may work for people whose emotional repertoire is severely limited, but ultimately it proves to be thin and brittle. Control certainly has its benefits.  But why do we find it so much more gratifying to hear a favorite song unexpectedly on the radio than to select the same track out of our own hard drive and play it?   You can’t tickle yourself. 

Pandora and other make-your-own-radio-station sites try to let us have it both ways – control with surprise. “Her” holds out the same seductive possibility but with something more important than music.

“Her” is a wonderful film. I’ll be surprised if Spike Jonze doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.  It’s funny and touching and thought-provoking. 

* *In a post a few days ago, I referred to the outline of American culture sociologist by Robin Williams.  The first element he notes as a dominant theme in American culture is “Active Mastery.”  The second is that American culture
tends to be interested in the external world of things and events, of the palpable and immediate, rather than in the inner experience of meaning and affect. Its genius is manipulative rather than contemplative. 
Maybe that’s why “Her” seems so unusual while the multiplexes teem with action movies.

**Natalie Portman in “Garden State” epitomizes this trope. For other examples, see the Wikipedia entry.

Is That a Thing?

October 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Sunday, both New York tabloids put the same story on page one – the stabbing death of a woman and four children in their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Early word from the police was that “it’s looking a domestic violence case.” Apparently the killer knew the victims and may have been a relative. 

What caught my attention was the “related” story that the Daily News linked to on its website version of the story. What kind of story might be related? A story about the family? about difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants or conflicts within an immigrant community? about mental illness and violence? about ethnic and demographic changes in Sunset Park?  No. None of the above.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The story the Daily News chose as “related” concerns the “Green Gang goon who was caught on video slugging a female New England Patriots fan in the face after the Jets’ upset victory” a week earlier. It turns out that in a fight twenty years ago, when he was 17, he fatally stabbed another kid.  He served three years. 

How are these two stories related? There is no connection between the two killers or their victims. The incidents are separated by two decades.  The motives and circumstances are entirely different.  If the Jets fan had not been caught on camera punching the female Patriots fan, no journalist following the Sunday killing would have dug up information on this crime of twenty years ago in an attempt to elaborate on the Sunset Park killings.  Knowing about that “related” crime gives us no better understanding of Sunday’s stabbing. 

Instead, the two stories are related by a common theme – they are both about killing where the weapon is a knife.  The Daily News seems to be taking a page from Amazon’s marketing strategy. “Readers who liked this story also liked . . .”  or Netflix recommendations. (I wonder what the stabbing-death-story demographic is.)  Television news often groups stories thematically. A story about a commercial arson in one part of town will be followed by a story about an accidental fire in a house in a distant neighborhood. The circumstances, location, and causes of the two fires are completely different, and if the big fire had not occurred, that house fire might not have been newsworthy.  But that night, it fit with the fire theme.

Mark Fishman wrote about this thematic organization of TV news in his 1978 article “Crime Waves as Ideology.”  We’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice it.  Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping.  A possible consequence that Fishman pointed out is that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves – sudden increases in the number of stories while the the actual number of crimes remains unchanged.  Once the theme is established, it’s just a matter of combing the city or the entire country for incidents that fit.

Here is another screen from the Daily News website.

A stabbing at the University of Indiana. The related stories are a stabbing death of a teacher in Long Beach, California and of a teacher in a Texas high school.

So, students stabbing people at schools – is that a thing? Probably not, but it is a news theme.

The Revenge Fantasy - Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave

October 23, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many critics are praising 12 Years a Slave for its uncompromising honesty about slavery. It offers not one breath of romanticism about the ante-bellum South.  No Southern gentlemen getting all noble about honor and no Southern belles and their mammies affectionately reminiscing or any of that other Gone With the Wind crap, just an inhuman system. 12 Years depicts the sadism not only as personal (though the film does have its individual sadists) but as inherent in the system – essential, inescapable, and constant.

Now, Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic  points out something else about 12 Years as a movie, something most critics missed – its refusal to follow the usual feel-good cliche plot convention of American film:
If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat.
Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. In the typical version, our peaceful hero is just minding his own business when the bad guy or guys deliberately commit some terrible insult or offense, which then justifies the hero unleashing violence – often at cataclysmic levels – upon the baddies. One glance at the poster for Django, and you can pretty much guess most of the story.

It’s the comic-book adolescent fantasy – the nebbish that the other kids insult when they’re not just ignoring him but who then ducks into a phone booth or says his magic word and transforms himself into the avenging superhero to put the bad guys in their place.  The classic example is the Charles Atlas ad that used to grace the back page of those comic books.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

For the sake of brevity and clarity, here is the Reader’s Digest version in three frames – one before the magic transformation, two after.

As I’m sure others have pointed out, this scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of US foreign policy. An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture –  and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened.

Django Unchained and the rest are a special example of a more general story line much cherished in American movies: the notion that all problems – psychological, interpersonal, political, moral – can be resolved by a final competition, whether it’s a quick-draw shootout or a dance contest.  (I’ve sung this song before in this blog, most recently here after I saw Silver Linings Playbook.)

Berlatsky’s piece on 12 Years points out something else I hadn’t noticed but that the Charles Atlas ad makes obvious: it’s all about masculinity. Revenge is a dish served almost exclusively at the Y-chromosome table.  The women in the story play a peripheral role as observers of the main event – an audience the hero is aware of – or as prizes to be won or, infrequently, as the hero’s chief source of encouragement, though that role usually goes to a male buddy or coach. 

But when a story jettisons the manly revenge theme, women can enter more freely and fully. 
12 Years a Slave though, doesn't present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.
Scrapping the revenge theme can also broaden the story’s perspective from the personal to the political (i.e., the sociological):
 12 Years a Slave doesn’t see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices.
From that perspective, the solution lies not merely in avenging evil acts and people but in changing the system and the assumptions underlying it, a much lengthier and more difficult task. After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish. When men start talking about their manhood or their honor, there’s going to be blood, death, and destruction – sometimes a little, more likely lots of it. 

One other difference between the revenge fantasy and political reality: in real life, the results of revenge are often short-lived. Killing off an evildoer or two doesn’t do much to end the evil. In the movies, we don’t have to worry about that. After the climactic revenge scene and peaceful coda, the credits roll, and the house lights come up. The End. In real life though, we rarely see a such clear endings, and we should know better than to believe a sign that declares “Mission Accomplished.”

“Blue Jasmine” – Social Class Made Simple

August 4, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Long ago, some comedy sketch team did a parody of Tennessee Williams style Southern drama. At one point, the young woman asks what she’s doing that has turned people against her.  The Big Daddy-ish character tells her: “Drinkin’, lyin’, and puttin’ on airs.” 

The joke is that in American culture, all sorts of sins can be overlooked.  Lying, cheating, drinking, robbery, drug dealing, murder and other forms of violence – none of these necessarily disqualifies a character from being an admirable person or what we used to call a hero.  Puttin’ on airs is another matter. 

The line popped into my head as I was watching “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s retelling of the “Streetcar Named Desire” scenario.  A pretentious and slightly delusional woman suddenly falls from her life of great wealth and has to move in with her working-class sister Ginger in San Francisco.  Hilarity does not ensue.  (Come to think of it, “Streetcar” doesn’t have too many laughs either.) We cringe at each scene where Jasmine disdains the tastes of the people in her sister’s working-class world. We egalitarian Americans are put off by the character who takes pride in his or her educated, sophisticated tastes.  That character is heading either for a bad end or perhaps a redeeming turnaround complete with a slice of pizza and a lite beer.

“Streetcar” was a fish-out-of-water story – delicate Blanche in the home and world of the coarse Stanley Kowalski. “Blue Jasmine,” with flashbacks that contrast Jasmine’s former life of opulence in New York with her sister’s working-class world, is more of a morality tale about social class.  And that tale is none too subtle. The elite – especially as represented by Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin)  – are greedy, dishonest, selfish, and narcissistic. Hal is a Bernie Madoff type but with a string of sexual infidelities added to his financial frauds.  Jasmine, like Blanche du Bois, manages to keep herself from seeing the obvious.  (Blanche and Jasmine share a similar neurotic style, though Jasmine nourishes hers with seemingly unlimited quantities of vodka and Xanax). 

Worse, the elite (Hal and Jasmine) destroy the hopes and dreams of the working class Ginger and her then-husband Augie. When they win $200,000 in the lottery, they consult Hal, the successful businessman, about how Augie might use the money to start his own business.  Instead, Jasmine and Hal persuade him to invest the money in one of Hal’s ventures with a promised 20% return. The working-class couple lose everything, and their marriage dissolves.
This negative portrayal of the wealthy (seemingly a requirement in American films) is mirrored in the purity of virtue shown by the film’s working class. It was not always thus. In “Streetcar,” Stanley is not only coarse-mannered and insensitive to Blanche’s mental fragility. He beats his wife Stella, and in the scene that the play has been building to, he deals with his conflict with Blanche by raping her.

Stanley’s “Blue Jasmine” counterparts are Augie, Ginger’s first husband, and Chili, her current almost-fiancé, an auto mechanic.* These characters  are less conflicted, less nuanced. They are basically saints wearing wifebeaters. When Chili gets justifiably angry – Ginger has slept with another man – he breaks a lamp, but he doesn’t hit anyone, and later, he cries. 

Wealthy bad, working-class good.  It’s just about as simple as that.** Of course, you don’t go to “Blue Jasmine” for a realistic and complex depiction of class relations in the US. Movies must simplify some elements for the sake of others.  You go to “Blue Jasmine” to see a tour de force performance by Cate Blanchett in a well-told tale.

[As with most films today, the trailer provides a fairly complete plot summary.]

* The movie follows one other Hollywood convention: to signal working class status, a character must speak with a New York working-class accent.  It matters not whether the film is set in Pittsburgh, Chicago, or San Francisco.  Working-class characters have to speak as though it’s Brooklyn.

** The two middle-class men in the film are not evil but are seriously flawed, principally because of the way they act on their libidinal impulses. 

Pleasure - Danger or Distinction?

July 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

This 1960s poster (“L’Art de Boire” by Martin) in a neighborhood French restaurant reminded me again of the different ways of thinking about pleasure. 

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

In puritanical cultures, pleasure is a temptation to be resisted. In both the religious version, where pleasure leads to sin, and the secular version, pleasure is dangerous because it means excess and a loss of control. What is sin, after all, but too much of a good thing? The puritan approach to pleasure assumes that even one taste can crack the rigid structure of control.  If you don’t have total control, you have total lack of control. 

The hard-boiled detective story provides a classic example.  Any sex in these stories is always dangerous, usually with temptress trying to seduce the private eye away from his pursuit of justice, or worse, luring him into the hands of the bad guys, who beat him up, threaten him, or try to kill him.  Alcohol too sabotages the hero’s self-control, and he often winds up drinking too much since he’s drinking for all the wrong reasons. 

American comedies, too, may revolve around a similar theme of pleasure as an occasion for guilt and repentance (my earlier post on guilty pleasures in Judd Apatow films is here).  These films are not too far from the lite beer commercials, where pretty girls and alcohol, like the temptations of Circe, turn men into oafish creatures of swine-like mentality.*  The main difference from the noir take on this is that the audience is supposed to view this loss of control with good-natured affection.

The French, as illustrated in the poster, have a different message about pleasure. It is to be sought, not avoided. But it is not something you get just by letting your guard down or jettisoning your inhibitions. You must learn pleasure. You don’t just drink. You mindfully follow a sequence of steps – sniff the cork, note the color, inhale the aroma, taste the wine – each designed to maximize pleasure from the senses. Drinking is not an abandonment to desire, it is an art. The goal is not satiation but, as the last frame of the poster says, appreciation.

Of course, that idea of pleasure goes against the egalitarian American grain, for it implies that some pleasures are of a higher order than others, requiring greater sophistication, discernment, and distinction. 

The 1987 movie “Babette’s Feast,” set in a Danish coastal town in the 1870s,  is entirely about the contrast of these two views of pleasure. Babette, fleeing the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune, arrives in town and finds work as a housekeeper for two elderly sisters who are members of an austere Christian sect.

The dinner of the title is the film’s climax – a sensuous multi-course meal of the finest French dishes and wines that Babette prepares for the dour sisters and others.

Hesitantly and with suspicion, they eat and drink and finally come to experience what they had been so leery of and had deliberately lived without. Nor, as the sherry and champagne and burgundy and brandy are drunk, do they fall into drunkenness or debauchery, just pleasure. 

The entire film is available on YouTube.  It’s worth watching.

* In a TV show of some years ago, perhaps on “My So-Called Life,” a high school class is discussing the Circe episode in The Odyssey.  “Turning men into pigs,” says one girl dismissively, “Some magic.”

“Frances Ha” and Those Narcissistic Millennials

May 28, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Frances Ha,” the new movie by Noah Baumbach is basically “Girls” in black and white.  Twenty-seven year olds in Brooklyn. They move from one relationship to the next searching for a good one and never quite finding it.  The same goes for jobs and especially for apartments.* Fluidity rules. For the girls at least, only their friendships have something suggesting permanence, importance, and intensity.

Most of the reviews of the film were favorable, but at the New York Film Critics Circle, Armond White (here) would have none of it.
It offers an obnoxiously self-satisfied portrait of a young white New Yorker–played by Greta Gerwig–running out her parent’s stipend, roommating with other New York hipsters, sometimes skipping the pond to Paris, all the time pursuing her goal to be a professional dancer, even though she demonstrates no aptitude for it.
White tears into Baumbach’s “warped values,” values that White says also permeate Baumbach’s “detestable” movie “The Squid and the Whale.”  What really galls White are the concerns and desires of the characters in the film.
Maybe you have to be a Mumblehattan elite to love this kind of self-love.
I wouldn’t pay such attention to this obscure review except that it embodies a much more widely held view of “millennials” like the characters in this movie. They are narcissistic, they won’t work hard for the things they want but instead feel entitled to them. “They really do seem to want everything, and I can't decide if it’s an inability or an unwillingness to make trade-offs.”  “Their attitude is always ‘What are you going to give me,’” says a manager of human-resource programs.  (These quotation are from a WSJ distillation (here) of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace by Ron Alsop.

A Facebook friend of mine says much the same thing
 My work in HR teaches me daily that the younger generations entering the workforce are dripping with this undeserved sense of entitlement (not all, of course).        
A business researcher says,
Nearly 70 percent of survey respondents think Millennnials are lazy and uninterested in their jobs. What’s more, 55 percent of Millennials agree.
This moralistic hand-wringing about the younger generation – even when the hand-wringers are not so old themselves (my FB friend is 33) – reminds me of the song “Kids” from “Bye-bye Birdie,” a musical that opened more than a half-century ago.**

I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today! . . .
They a disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!

While we’re on the subject:
You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
But they still just do what they want to do!

The perception of millennials as “lazy” or “uninterested in their jobs” or doing only the things they want to do may not even be generally true of most of these twenty-somethings.  So the complaint probably tells us more about the complainers than about the objects of their contempt.  The complaint comes down to this: Frances Ha, Hannah Horvath, and their real-life counterparts are willing to forgo financial rewards in order to spend more of their time doing (or at least looking for) something personally meaningful. And for some reason, in the view of theses critics, that’s just wrong.  Those who castigate them seem to be saying, “For years, I spent forty or more hours a week at a job I disliked, making myself miserable so that I could make a lot of money. You should choose to make yourself miserable too.”


* You could even say that “Girls” and “Frances Ha” are really about the New York rental market.  In a 2007 post, I said that most American films are “about” Success in the same way that British films are “about” The Class System. Even if the characters do not discuss them explicitly, these ideas and structures (Success, Social Class) shape the actions and reactions of the characters in the way that grammar shapes their speech.The same goes for the NYC housing market.

** This post from years ago offers a more complete explanation of the moral nostalgia that this song is satirizing. 

And the Prize Goes To . . .

May 12, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
When you hustle you keep score real simple. At the end of the game you count up your money. That’s how you find out who’s best. 
        “The Hustler,” screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen
I missed this Freakonomics post by Dave Berri back in February* – the one arguing that the Oscar award for best picture should follow the money.  Why would a presumably intelligent economist make such an argument?  I have a guess. Read on.

According to Berri, box office receipts reveal the opinion of a different but more important set of judges – “people who actually spend money to go to the movies.” 
According to that group, Marvel’s the Avengers was the “best” picture in 2012. With domestic revenues in excess of $600 million, this filmed earned nearly $200 million more than any other picture. And when we look at world-wide revenues, this film brought in more than $1.5 billion.
To rule out The Avengers is an insult to moviegoers around the world
Essentially the Oscars are an industry statement to their customers that says: “We don’t think our customers are smart enough to tell us which of our products are good. So we created a ceremony to correct our customers.”
The only reason the Oscars are of any use at all, says Berri, is that the they get people interested in the nominated films, and this interest “generates value.”  See, it’s still about the money.

OK, it’s a really stupid argument. (Some readers may have thought that Dave Berri was a typo and that the author was Dave Barry.)  The 50+ comments on the post were not kind.  Many of the comments criticised Berri’s economics, noting that many factors besides the quality of the movie can influence gross sales –  advertising budgets, production costs, barriers to entry, etc.

But I think everyone overlooked the real point of the post.  It’s not about movies.  Consider that it was posted on Freakonomics.  Consider also that the Freakomics blog, books, and movie have far more viewers than do most other economic works, even widely used economics textbooks.  The implication couldn’t be clearer: when it comes time to give out the prizes in economics – the Nobel and lesser awards – the judges should factor in book sales, blog hits, movie tickets, and TV appearances.. 

Levitt, Dubner, and contributors like, oh, maybe Dave Berri would be shoo-ins . . . if it weren’t for competitors like Suze Orman and Jim Cramer.  As for Ostrom, Sen, Diamond, Schelling, Kahneman, et al. – nice try you guys, but really?


*Andrew Gelman dusted it off recently on his blog (here).

“This is 40" – Guilty Pleasures

January 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In “This is 40,” the recent Judd Apatow movie,  Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) run off to a luxury hotel in Laguna for a romantic weekend.  Stoned on a marijuana-laced cookie, they have room service bring them, among other things, a tableful of pastries. 

The sight of the couple stuffing their mouths with pastries reminded me of a similar scene from the 1975 French comedy “Cousin Cousine.”  In both films, the overload of desserts is a guilty pleasure, but in the French movie the emphasis is almost entirely on the pleasure, while the American film focuses on the guilt.  The French lovers slowly feed each other one dessert after another; the scene is almost erotic.  But Pete and Debbie seem like children, giggling and trying to eat as much as they can before they get caught. Both scenes mingle sex and pastry, but in the French movie the common theme is sensuality; “This is 40” plays both for laughs. (You can see the scene here.)

Pete and Debbie have other guilty pleasures that the movie grinds into laughs.  Pete sneaks off to the bathroom when he wants to play games on his iPad.  Debbie sneaks outside for a few desperate puffs of a cigarette.  Pete secretly eats the cupcakes he’s ostensibly throwing into the garbage.  Debbie browbeats and humiliates a thirteen-year-old boy to the point of tears.  All these scenes revolve around the question of guilt – will they get away with it? – rather than pleasure.  Add to that their Protestant Ethic regimes – Pete on his bicycle, Debbie with her demanding trainer – and the soundtrack might as well be a repeated loop of “I can’t get no satisfaction.” 

Married people in American movies and TV rarely have sex.  In the old days, married people were portrayed as asexual beings; they lived in a world swept free of sexual urges.  In “This is 40,” sex makes a frequent appearance, but something always happens to spoil the pleasure.  Kids interrupt, or one of the two adults does something to deflate the other’s mood.  The film begins with Pete and Debbie having passionate birthday sex in the shower until Pete reveals that he had taken Viagra for the occasion.  Debbie stops and gets out of the shower.

What’s the matter?
You just took a Viagra 
to have sex with me?
I thought it would make it better.It was 
better. It takes some of the pressure off.
Because you can’t get hard without
a Viagra? Is it because you don’t
think I’m sexy?
I thought you’d think it was fun
for me to supersize it for once.
That is the worst birthday present
you could ever give someone.

There’s much more to be said about “This is 40" and the popularity of Judd Apatow films – the scarcity of real grown-ups, for example, and the general ambivalence about being a grown-up.  The movie is about becoming forty, but Pete especially seems like an 18-year-old who has awakened to find that himself in the body of a forty year old man.  But this post is about pleasure, and “This is 40" does have one unconflicted pleasure.  The film is a comedy, and as the hotel scene makes clear, Pete and Debbie’s real pleasure is not sex or food or music but laughter.  What holds them together is their shared humor, their ability to laugh at themselves.     

“Hyde Park” Speaks to the Future

December 24, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Hyde Park on Hudson” has one jarring anachronism.  I’m sure the art design crew and the costume people worked hard to make everything authentically 1939.  The room decor, the clothing, that 1939 copy of Collier’s, the photographer’s cameras and hats, the cigarettes, and of course the cars.

But then why this?

(Click on the except for a larger view.)
No wonder Missy has to ask what Daisy means.  We wouldn’t have metaphorical things on our metaphorical plates for another fifty years.* 

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The only plates in 1939 were the literal ones, the kind that keep crashing in the Hyde Park dining room.   It’s as though when FDR turns on the car radio, instead of the Ink Spots, we hear Kanye West – and intsead of a radio, an iPod.

* I think “Mad Men” too used this same plate cliche, but that was rushing things by only 30-40 years.  Also, in “Hyde Park,” when Eleanor offers an unflattering view of the British royals, FDR says, “Let’s give them a break, can we?”  That sounded anachronistic to my ear, but Google N-grams shows the phrase rising in popularity starting in the late 1920s.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)


Compete Your Way to Mental Health . . . and Everything Else

December 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

“Silver Linings Playbook,” the new David O. Russell movie, starts off by making the audience uncomfortable.  We want to like Pat (Bradley Cooper).  We root for him to overcome the internal demons that landed him in a mental hospital for eight months.  We do like him.  But he keeps doing things we don’t like.  He is socially insensitive and often offensive, utterly absorbed in his own deluded ideas and obsessions, and although we know that these emanate from his psychiatric condition, it’s impossible to separate the personal from the psychiatric.  He is his mental illness, and it’s often not pretty.   We’re actually glad to see the cop who shows up to enforce the restraining order.  (Usually in American films, when a uniformed cop restrains the hero, the moral question is so clear the cop might as well be wearing a Nazi uniform.)

At some point, the film takes a turn away from the complicated and difficult.  It calls on a smooth, familiar recipe and gives us comfort food –  sweet chocolate pudding, spoonful after spoonful.  It’s made from good chocolate, but it’s predictable pudding nonetheless.
It all leads up to a climactic scene that we all know from countless other movies.  In this case, it’s a ballroom dancing competition:
The movie plays on one long-standing idea in American movies and TV: all moral questions, all questions of character, can be settled in a contest. Typically, the story sets out some difficulties for the hero — conflicts with the society, conflicts with some other person or organization, conflicts within himself. It all leads up to some climactic contest.  Usually the hero wins, occasionally he loses. But the outcome doesn’t matter so much as the nobility of the fight, for win or lose, the hero has fought, and that seems to resolve all issues. Rocky is the obvious example . . . .
That’s from six years ago in one of the first posts on this blog.  (I’ve edited it lightly.)  That post was about the first episode of “Friday Night Lights.”   But it could have been about “Silver Linings Playbook” – “Rocky” meets “Dancing With the Stars.” 

For a nearly complete plot summary, watch the trailer.

The contest seems to melt all problems no matter how complicated, no matter how seemingly unrelated to the competition itself – problems between a man and a woman, a son and father, friend and friend.
“Silver Linings Playbook” hits all three of those plus husband and wife, brother and brother, and maybe some others.  Other seemingly insoluble problems – from Pat’s obsession with his estranged wife to the side effects of medications – vanish.  And in case the pudding wasn’t already sweet enough, there’s an added Hollywood-ending bonus involving a large bet on the Cowboys-Eagles game, an outcome so predictable I’m not even putting in a spoiler warning.

And they all live happily ever after.

These themes are not inherent in movie contests.  In British films of the sixties – “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or “This Sporting Life” for example – athletic contests bring a heightened consciousness of the class system.* But in American movies, regardless of the setting – the boxing ring, the pool hall, the poker game, the karate dojo, the dance floor, etc. – competition works its magic and allows the heroes to overcome all personal and interpersonal problems. 

* The more recent “Bend It Like Beckham” is much more Americanized, with its Hollywood-like resolving of all conflicts and its theme of social mobility. 

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” and Cultural Relativism

September 28, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The crucial moment in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” for me at least, was the sight of Hushpuppy  in a new purple dress.  Hushpuppy, a seven year old girl is the central figure in the film, and up until that point we have seen her, dressed in the same clothes every day, living in The Bathtub, a bayou area south of New Orleans, on the unprotected side of the levee.

Life in The Bathtub is harsh.  The people there (“misfits, drunks and swamp-dwellers,” – WaPo) live in shacks cobbled together from scrap metal and wood.  They fish from boats that are similarly improvised.  They scavenge.  The children’s education comes from the idiosyncratic stories of one woman. 

They are wild people living among wild things, unconstrained by laws or walls, reliant on ancient prophecies and herbal cures, at home with the water that may overwhelm them at any moment. [New York Review]

After a Katrina-like flood, the authorities force the evacuation of The Bathtub.  Hushpuppy and the others are housed in a shelter - a large, brightly-lit room (a high school gym?) – and given new clothes.  This is when we see Hushpuppy in her new purple dress heading out the door, presumably to a real school.

No, no, no, I thought. This is all wrong. This is not her.  She belongs back in The Bathtub, for despite its rough conditions, the people there are a real and caring community.  Her father loves her and prepares her for life there.  The people there all love her and care for her, as they care, as best they can, for one another.

That was the voice of cultural relativism telling me to look at a society on its own terms, with understanding and sympathy.

At the same time, though, the voice of ethnocentrism was whispering in my other ear.  This is America, it said.  These conditions are the things you deplore and want to improve – lack of decent health care, education, clothing, shelter, and basic safety.  (In an early scene, Hushpuppy tries to light her stove with a blowtorch, nearly incinerating her shack and herself.)  It’s wrong that people in America live like this. 

It was not much of a contest.  Cultural relativism won.

In turning the audience into cultural relativists, the movie plays on old themes in American culture.  We’ve always had our suspicions of civilization and refinement, and we’ve had a romantic attachment to the unrefined and rugged.  In “Beasts,” the shelter – sterile, impersonal, and bureaucratic – is contrasted with The Bathtub – rough-hewn, but an authentic community nonetheless. 

Then there is Hushpuppy. I’ve commented before (here, for example) that children in American films are often wiser, more resourceful, and more honest than the adults, especially those who would try to change them.  Add Hushpuppy to the list.* 

In the end, the audience seemed relieved when she and the others make their escape.  We don’t want Huck to be civilized by Aunt Sally.  And we do want Hushpuppy to light out for the territory of The Bathtub. 

* I should add that much of the credit for convincing the audience goes to the six-year-old actress who plays Hushpuppy – the unforgettable girl with the unrememberable name – Quvenzhané Wallis. 

Charting the Climb

August 9, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Isabella was the second most popular name for baby girls last year.  She had been number one for two years but was edged out by Sohpia.  Twenty-five years ago Isabella was not in the top thousand. 

How does popularity happen?  Gabriel Rossman’s new book Climbing the Charts: What Radio Airplay Tells Us about the Diffusion of Innovation offers two models.*   People’s decisions – what to name the baby, what songs to put on your station’s playlist (if your job is station programmer), what movie to go see, what style of pants to buy –  can be affected by others in the same position.  Popularity can spread seemingly on its own, affected only by the consumers themselves communicating with one another person-to-person by word of mouth.  But our decisions can also be influenced by people outside those consumer networks – the corporations or people who produce and promote the stuff they want us to pay attention to.

These outside “exogenous” forces tend to exert themselves suddenly, as when a movie studio releases its big movie on a specified date, often after a big advertising campaign.  The film does huge business in its opening week or two but adds much smaller amounts to its total box office receipts in the following weeks.   The graph of this kind of popularity is a concave curve.  Here, for example, is the first  “Twilight” movie.

Most movies are like that, but not all.  A few build their popularity by word of mouth.  The studio may do some advertising, but only after the film shows signs of having legs (“The surprise hit of the year!”).  The flow of information about the film is mostly from viewer to viewer, not from the outside. 

This diffusion path is “endogenous”; it branches out among the people who are making the choices.  The rise in popularity starts slowly – person #1 tells a few friends, then each of those people tells a few friends.  As a proportion of the entire population, each person has a relatively small number of friends.  But at some point, the growth can accelerate rapidly.  Suppose each person has five friends.  At the first stage, only six people are involved (1 + 5); stage two adds another 25, and stage three another 125, and so on.  The movie “catches on.” 

The endogenous process is like contagion, which is why the term “viral” is so appropriate for what can happen on the Internet with videos or viruses.   The graph of endogenous popularity growth has a different shape, an S-curve, like this one for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

By looking at the shape of a curve, tracing how rapidly an idea or behavior spreads, you can make a much better guess as to whether you’re seeing exogenous or endogenous forces.  (I’ve thought that the title of Gabriel’s book might equally be Charting the Climb: What Graphs of Diffusion Tell Us About Who’s Picking the Hits.)

But what about names, names like Isabella?  With consumer items  – movies, songs, clothing, etc. – the manufacturers and sellers, for reasons of self-interest, try hard to exert their exogenous influence on our decisions.  But nobody makes money from baby names.  Still, those names can be subject to exogenous effects, though the outside influence is usually unintentional and brings no economic benefit.  For example, from 1931 to 1933, the first name Roosevelt jumped more than 100 places in rank. (That was in an era when the popularity of names was more stable. Now, names are more volatile. Nowadays, 50 or more boys names may jump 100 places or more in a single year.)

When the Census Bureau announced that the top names for 2011 were Jacob and Isabella, some people (including, I think, Gabriel) suspected the influence of an exogenous factor – “Twilight.”  

 I’ve made the same assumption in saying (here) that the popularity of Madison as a girl’s name – almost unknown till the mid-1980s but in the top ten for the last 15 years – has a similar cause: the movie “Splash” (an idea first suggested to me by my brother).  I speculated that the teenage girls who saw the film in 1985 remembered Madison a few years later when they started having babies. 

Are these estimates of movie influence correct? We can make a better guess at the impact of the movies (and, in the case of Twilight, books) by looking at the shape of the graphs for the names.

Isabella was on the rise well before Twilight, and the gradual slope of the curve certainly suggests an endogenous contagion.  It’s possible that Isabella’s popularity was about to level off  but then got a boost in 2005 with the first book.  And it’s possible the same thing happened in 2008 with the first movie. I doubt it, but there is no way to tell.

The curve for Madison seems a bit steeper, and it does begin just after “Splash,” which opened in 1984.   Because of the scale of the graph, it’s hard to see the proportionately large changes in the early years.  There were zero Madisons in 1983, fewer than 50 the next year, but nearly 300 in 1985.  And more than double that the next year.  Still, the curve is not concave.  So it seems that while an exogenous force was responsible for Madison first emerging from the depths, her popularity then followed the endogenous pattern.  More and more people heard the name and thought it was cool.  Even so, her rise is slightly steeper than Isabella’s, as you can see in this graph with Madison moved by six years so as to match up with Isabella.

Maybe the droplets of “Splash” were touching new parents even years after the movie had left the theaters.


* Gabriel posted a short version about these processes when he pinch hit for Megan McCardle at the Atlantic (here).

Blaming the Media II

June 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

If a person thinks that the media are infiltrating his mind and controlling his thoughts and behavior, we consider him a nutjob, and we recommend professional help and serious meds. But if a person thinks that the media are infiltrating other people’s minds and affecting their behavior, we call him or her an astute social observer, one eminently qualified to give speeches or write op-eds.   

The previous post dwelt on economist Isabel Sawhill’s WaPo op-ed channeling Dan Quayle, particularly Quayle’s speech asserting that a TV sitcom was wielding a strong effect on people’s decisions – not just decisions like Pepsi vs. Coke, but decisions like whether to have a baby. 

That was Quayle, this is now.  Still, our current vice-president can sometimes resemble his counterpart of two decades ago.  Just last month, Joe Biden echoed the Quayle idea on the power of sitcoms.  On “Meet the Press,” in response to David Gregory’s question about gay marriage, Biden said that “this is evolving” and added:
And by the way, my measure, David, and I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes.  I think “Will and Grace” probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.
“Will and Grace” ran for eight seasons, 1998 - 2006.  Its strongest years were 2001-2005, when it was the top rated show among the 18-49 crowd. If asked for systematic evidence, Biden could have pointed to GSS data on the gay marriage question.  In 1988, ten years before “Will and Grace,” when the GSS asked about gay marriage, only 12% supported it, 73% opposed it.  In 2004, six years into the W+G era, support had more than doubled, and it continued to rise in subsequent years.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

Because the gay marriage question was asked only in those two years, 1988 and 2004, we don’t know just when in that 16-year period, 1988 - 2004, things “really began to change.”  Fortunately, the GSS more regularly asked the respondent’s view on sexual relations between same-sex partners.  Here too, tolerance grows in the “Will and Grace” period (gray on the graph).

The trouble is that graph is misleading. To see the error, all we need do is extend our sampling back a few years  Here is the same graph starting in 1973.

The GSS shows attitudes about homosexuality starting to change in 1990.  By the time of the first episode of “Will and Grace” in 1998, the proportion seeing nothing wrong with homosexuality had already doubled.  Like Quayle’s “Murphy Brown” effect, the “Will and Grace” effect is hard to see.

The flaw in the Quayle-Biden method is not in mistaking TV for reality.  It’s in assuming that the public’s awareness is simultaneous with their own. 

But why do our vice-presidents (and many other people) give so much credit (or blame) to a popular TV show for a change in public opinion? The error is partly a simplistic post hoc logic.  “Will and Grace” gave us TV’s first gay principal character; homosexuality became more acceptable.  Murphy Brown was TV’s first happily unwed mother, and in the following years, single motherhood increased.  Cause - Effect.  Besides, we know that these shows are watched by millions of people each week. So it must be the show that is causing the change. 

It’s also possible that our vice-presidents (and many other people) may also have been projecting their own experiences onto the general public.  Maybe Murphy Brown was the first or only unwed mother that Dan Quayle really knew – or at least she was the one he knew best. It’s possible that Joe Biden wasn’t familiar with any gay men, not in the way we feel we know TV characters.  A straight guy might have some gay acquaintances or co-workers, but it’s the fictional Will Truman whose private life he could see, if only for a half hour every week.

Does TV matter?  When we think about our own decisions, we are much more likely to focus on our experiences and on the pulls and pushes of family, work, and friends.  We generally don’t attribute much causal weight to the sitcoms we watch.  Why then are we so quick to see these shows as having a profound influence on other people’s behavior, especially behavior we don’t like?  Maybe because it’s such an easy game to play.  Is there more unwed motherhood?  Must be “Murphy Brown.”  Did obesity increase in the 1990s?  “Roseanne.”  Are twentysomethings and older delaying marriage?  “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” And of course “The Simpsons,” at least Bart and Homer, who can be held responsible for a variety of social ills.

Blaming the Media I

June 2, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Cross-posted at Sociological Images

I’m not sure what effect prime-time sitcoms have on the general public.  Very little, I suspect, but I don’t know the literature on the topic. Still, it’s surprising how many people with a similar lack of knowledge assume that the effect is large and usually for the worse.

Isabel Sawhill, is a serious researcher at Brookings; her areas are poverty and inequality.  Now, in a Washington Post article, she, says that Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown. 

Some quick history for those who were out of the room – or hadn’t yet entered the room: In 1992, Dan Quayle was vice-president under Bush I.  Murphy Brown was the title character on a popular sitcom then its fourth season – a divorced TV news anchor played by Candice Bergen.  On the show, she got pregnant.  When the father, her ex, refused to remarry her, she decided to have the baby and raise it on her own. 

Dan Quayle, in his second most famous moment,* gave a campaign speech about family values that included this:
Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong . . . . Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. . . . It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.
Sawhill, citing her own research and that of others, argues that Quayle was right about families:  children raised by married parents are better off in many ways – health, education, income, and other measures of well-being – than are children raised by unmarried parents whether single or together.** 

But Sawhill also says that Quayle was right about the more famous part of the statement – that “Murphy Brown” was partly to blame for the rise in nonmarried parenthood.
Dan Quayle was right. Unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, the new trend — bringing up baby alone — may be irreversible.  
Sawhill, following Quayle, gives pride of place to the media.  But unfortunately, she cites no evidence on the effects of sitcoms or the media in general on unwed parenthood.  I did, however, find this graph of unwed motherhood (here). It shows the percent of all babies that were born to unmarried mothers.  I have added a vertical line to indicate the Murphy Brown moment.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The “Murphy Brown” effect is, at the very least, hard to detect. The rise is general across all racial groups, including those who were probably not watching a sitcom whose characters were all white and well-off.  Also, the trend begins well before “Murphy Brown” ever saw the light of prime time.  So 1992, with Murphy Brown’s fateful decision, was no more a turning point than was 1986, for example, a year when the two top TV shows were “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties,” sitcoms with a very low rate of single parenthood and, at least for “Cosby,” a more inclusive demographic.

  * Quayle’s most remembered moment: when a schoolboy wrote “potato” on the blackboard, Quayle “corrected” him by getting him to add a final “e” – “potatoe.”  “There you go,” said the vice-president of the United States approvingly. (A 15-second video is here.) Is anyone claiming a sudden drop in the spelling competence of America subsequent to the vice-president’s gaffe?

** These results are not surprising.  Compared with other wealthy countries, the US does less to support poor children and families or to ease the deleterious effects on children who have been so foolhardy as to choose poor, unmarried parents.

The Glee of Fielding

May 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Wednesday night I had just finished The Art of Fielding.  I closed the book, thought about it for a few moments, and then for some reason I decided to watch “Glee.”  I’ve seen the show only a few times; when I do watch, it’s to see and hear which songs are being covered.  

In one of the first posts in this blog, I watched “Friday Night Lights” and wondered why so many American fictions culminate in some kind of contest or competition that magically resolves or dissolves all problems.  Internal personal troubles, moral dilemmas, social problems, interpersonal conflicts, romantic uncertainties – it all comes down to the big game. And once that’s over, win or lose, everything falls into place. 

Fielding and “Glee” both draw on this theme, though Fielding, a 500-page novel, has much more going on than does a 44-minute TV episode.  They also  trot out the same cliche of the underdog.   McKinley is always going up against a much more affluent, successful, and perhaps talented glee club that looks down their noses at our heroes.  In the championship game in Fielding, the struggling college baseball team meet the well-heeled Amherst, who arrive complete with mean-girl cheerleaders.

“Glee” and Fielding reprise another theme common in American fictions.  It combines “It’s Your Decision”  with “Taking One for the Team.”  A character’s conflict with another member of the team, or perhaps his struggle with his own internal demons, is jeopardizing the team’s chances for success against some powerful and nasty opponent.   Others drop hints, but nobody tells our hero what to do – this is America, after all, and individualism means that each person decides for himself.  But in the end, he or she sacrifices self-based motives and helps the team win (or if they lose, to do so admirably and with nobility). 

The more powerful opponent can be a sports team, a glee club, a gang, a political organization, or even, as in Casablanca, Hitler and the Axis powers.  In the end, Bogart (Rick) sacrifices his love for Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) in favor of the war effort.  He takes one for the team.  As he explains to  Ilsa at the end on the tarmac,
It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.*

* As Michael Wood  has pointed out, Bogart here is repeating precisely the idea that Bergman has been trying to convince him of since she arrived in Casablanca

Friends, Kids, Sex

March 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The set-up of “Friends With Kids” seems very contemporary.  Jason and Julie (Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt) are  besties who decide to have a baby yet remain just friends.  They live in the same building, so they easily share baby-care while each continues to search elsewhere for a soul mate. Their open talk to each other about their sex lives is also something you don’t usually hear in romantic comedies. 

But the movie plays on an idea that goes back many decades. As Jeannette Catsoulis in the Times review put it, the “jokes about vaginal elasticity (in this case lack thereof) and other formerly unmentionable female concerns” seem like an attempt “ to veil the retrograde themes lurking behind them.”  Catsoulis doesn’t specify those retrograde themes, but the principle one is this: the assumption that marriage and children spell the death of romance and sexuality. 

In the early TV family sitcoms of the fifties and sixties, this assumption was a taken-for-granted part of the landscape.  It wasn’t just that prudish standards required separate beds for Ozzie and Harriet, Rob and Laura Petrie, Lucy and Ricky, and the other couples.  Their kisses and hugs were friendly, never passionate. There was never a hint that sex might exist between them. Even by the seventies, when Archie and Edith could share a double bed, we could be pretty sure they wouldn’t be doing much there except sleeping. More recent sitcom couples have been allowed to acknowledge sexuality, maybe because these are characters whose erotic encounters most viewers might prefer not to think about – Dan and Roseanne, Homer and Marge, Peter and Lois. 

In “Friends With Kids,” one of the two married couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) comes straight from this old sitcom stockroom. They are relatively happy and funny, but sex is a rarity.   Once a month, O’Dowd tells Scott.

The other couple (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) are married but sexy (they first appear on screen in a restaurant, returning to the table after a quickie in the bathroom). 

Over the course of the film, they suffer the same loss of sexuality, but their very non-sitcom marriage cannot survive it (“Once, she gave me a blow job on the Taconic,” Hamm shouts angrily in an uncomfortable dinner-table scene, “Now look at us!”)

It may be particularly American, this idea that parenthood makes sexuality impossible or irrelevant, and it may have something to do with our view of children and childhood.  In France, says Elaine Sciolino in a review of Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, mothers “refuse to make child-rearing an all-consuming vocation. Rearranging your schedule to fit the baby’s is a no-no. Getting back your sexy, pre-pregnancy self is a priority.”

In the US, children and childhood have a much more important and even enviable position.  Hence, in American movies, as I noted in a post on “The Descendants” (here), adults must often turn to children to tell them what to do. In comedies, it’s usually clear from the start that the male and female protagonists are made for each other – clear to everyone except the protagonists themselves. The only question is how they will come to this realization and overcome the barriers to their getting together.  In American movies like “The Parent Trap” and “Sleepless in Seattle” and probably others I cannot think of right now, the one who brings about this happy ending is a kid. “Friends With Kids” takes this theme to a new level – the kid is two years old and capable only of two-word utterances (“Daddy stay”).  But it’s enough to prod Scott to deliver the speech we’ve been waiting for since the film began. 

That said, I thought the film was funnier and more enjoyable than did the reviewers (WaPo, NYT, even Variety).  As usual, the trailer provides a better plot summary.  It has gotten only narrow indie-style distribution, but on a per-screen basis, it’s doing better than Eddie Murphy.

See What Turns Up in an Ad for Glue

January 6, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston 
This is a wonderful glue commercial, and it dates back 20 years.  But I doubt that you will ever see it on ar anything similar on American television.  It runs 1:20, and ads here are only thirty seconds.

(HT: S.A Livingston)

Myths That Move Us (and That Bus)

January 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Supportive Community is one of America’s most cherished myths.  By “myth,” I don’t mean that Community is some Gorgon or unicorn, a beast with no existence in reality.  Observers of the US going back to de Tocqueville have been impressed by our community spirit.
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations . . . . The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.  (DIA, II, 5)

The supportive community  is a myth in the sense that it represents an ideal – it is a story that we love to tell ourselves about ourselves.  When the story is true, so much the better.

Last week, David Brooks devoted his column  to such a story. A woman from a small town in Louisiana was diagnosed with cancer, and “the entire town rallied around her,” with fund-raising cookouts and concerts to pay for her medical care.  It’s all very touching and genuine, and Brooks uses it as an appeal to “communitarian conservatism.”

A much better known version of the myth is the television show “Extreme Makeover Home Edition.”  Each week brings us a needy but deserving family, usually in a suburb or small town, almost never a city.  Often, the family has been stricken by death, disease, or disability, but not despair.  Always their house, despite their best efforts, is a shambles.  The TV team comes in, sends the family on vacation (usually to Disney World – it’s an ABC show), and begins work on the centerpiece of its largesse, a new home. 

It’s the modern counterpart of the 1950s “Queen For a Day,” but with two important differences.  First, the sad story is always a family, not an individual. And second, the story always involves the community. Neighbors, co-workers, and others tell the camera what wonderful people the family are and how much they’ve given to the community. During the construction of the new house hundreds of people – a sort of town team wearing identical t-shirts and hard hats – turn up to help.

The show’s signature moment comes when the family is brought back from vacation.  With the hundreds of neighbors (we assume that they are neighbors and not ringers brought in by ABC) in their matching t-shirts and hard hats, the family stands opposite the new house, but their view is blocked by a large bus. “Move that bus! Move that bus!” everyone chants. 

The bus moves, the family runs to the house and goes through it room by room gasping “Oh my God.”

The stories David Brooks and ABC tell are heart-warming indeed. They show us at our best. They are our myth. But there are other stories.

On Sunday, “This American Life” reran a story about a woman who believed the myth.  She has lived in the same town, on the same block, for forty years, but she is approaching seventy, and she turned to the community seeking people who would help in caring for her autistic son, now 39, after she has died or become unable to look out for him. The short answer is that nobody volunteered. But take two minutes and listen to the entire excerpt, especially if you’re not familiar with  “Extreme Makeover Home Edition.”

The point is that myth is not a substitute for policy.  Not everybody who gets cancer is beloved by others in their town.*  Not every needy family, not even every virtuous and deserving needy family, is beloved by ABC  – and besides, the show has been cancelled.   These stories are one-offs, and we do ourselves a disservice to think that the myth represents workable solutions to our large-scale problems – problems like the millions of people without health care or affordable housing or jobs.**


* To quote my own tweet, only in America do we need fund-raisers for people who become ill. I recall one “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” family which  had been impoverished by medical costs and needed treatment they could no longer afford.  Both parents were employed as public school teachers.  In no other wealthy country would these people not be able to afford health care.

** Wrong thinking is a frequent theme on “This American Life.” (See this earlier SocioBlog post for another example.) A few years ago, NPR began a series called “This I Believe,” short essays by hundreds of different people stating their “core values.”  (The archive now has over 100,000 such essays.)   That prompted “This American Life” to run an episode called “This I Used to Believe.”
Here's host Ira Glass in an interview.
But the fact is, a lot of great stories hinge on people being wrong. In fact, we've talked as a staff about how the crypto-theme of every one of our shows is: “I thought it would work out this way, but then it worked out that way.”

A Teachable Moment

December 29, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross posted at Sociological Images)

This ad illustrates some sociological idea, something I could use in class. I’m just not sure what it is.  (You may have already seen it. It’s been around on the Internet for a few months.)

Yes, it’s a beer commercial, not a documentary, not “reality.”  But the couples are real and unscripted – like the victims in a “Candid Camera” bit (or the subjects in some social psychology experiments).  Real and unscripted too is our reaction as viewers.  I don’t know about you, but after the ad was over, I realized that I had shared something of the couples’ anxiety at being different and hence excluded.  The bikers are neutral, maybe they are even silently hostile, so when they suddenly became accepting, my sense of relief was palpable.  I laughed out loud. 

So sociological point one is that we are social animals.  Excluded we feel fear, accepted and included we feel comfort.  Point two is that laughter is social.  Here (and in many other situations) it’s a kind of tension-meter.  There ad had no joke that I was laughing at.  It was just a release from tension.  No tension, no laughter.

The ad also illustrates “definition of the situation.”  The rigged set-up shatters the couples’ standard definition of going to the movies. They are anxious not just because they are different but because they nave no workable definition and therefore no clear sense of what to do. 

Finally, the ad raises the issue of stereotypes.  Stereotypes may actually have some general statistical accuracy.  The trouble is that the stereotype converts a statistical tendency to absolute certainty.  We react as though we expect all members of the stereotype to be that way all the time or most of the time.  Is it reasonable when you see 148 bikers to be fearful even to the point of leaving (I think some of the couples didn’t take the available seats)?  You don’t need to have read Hunter S. Thompson  to know there is some truth in the image of bikers as above the mean on violence.  But in a theater where you find them quietly awaiting the movie? 

What other sociological ideas does the ad suggest?