Michel Legrand — 1932 - 2019

January 28, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

As a callow youth, I dismissed Michel Legrand as a guy who wrote pretty tunes and scores. In fact, he did write 200 or more scores for movies and TV. Then I heard Legrand Jazz (1958) with his arrangements for three different groups — 1. a big band, 2. a group centered on Ben Webster and four trombones, and 3. the core of Miles Davis’s 1958 sextet (Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers), Phil Woods instead of Cannonball, plus a few other instruments including flute and harp.

The tunes were  eleven jazz classics, from Dixieland (Louis Armstrong’s “Wild Man Blues” ) through swing (Benny Goodman, “Stompin’ at the Savoy”) to bebop (Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia”). The arrangements were “far out” for the time, and even 60 years later, they hold up well.

Legrand later described the recording session with the Miles.

Everyone said to me: “Miles will come to the meeting and stand near the door, keeping his trumpet in his closed case. He will listen for five minutes, and if he likes music, he will sit down, open his case, and play. If he does not like, he will leave and he will never again contact you.” I was so afraid that I had flare-ups of sweat! I started rehearsing with the orchestra. The door opened, and Miles listened by the door for five minutes. Then he sat down, opened his case and began to play. After the first catch, he asked me, “Michel, is my game [playing] suitable?” That is how it all began.

Here is that group playing Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.”

The record went out of print and out of sight. I rarely met anyone, jazzers included, who knew of it. It was something of a collector’s item. Somewhere along the line, I lost my copy and wound up paying the equivalent today of about $75 for a used copy. Eventually, the album was re-issued as a CD, and now you can stream it anytime, anywhere.

Confidence Games

January 19, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Timing is crucial in comedy. In can be important in survey research as well. If you ask about satisfaction with government, and you take your survey at a historical moment when the Republican party controls the government, don’t be surprised if Republicans are more satisfied than Democrats. But also don’t write up your findings to imply that this means that Republicans have a deep and abiding faith in American institutions.

We’ve been here before, not with “satisfaction,” but with something similar — happiness. People who make claims about the relation between happiness and political views — people like Arthur Brooks, for example — often don’t bother to look at which party was holding sway at the time the survey they’re using was done. But that context matters a lot, especially now that the country has become so partisan and polarized, with people remaining loyal to their party the way sports fans are loyal to their team. In a post two years ago inspired by a Brooks column, I put it this way

When you’re talking about the relation between political views and happiness, you ought to consider who is in power. Otherwise, it’s like asking whether Yankee fans are happier than RedSox fans without checking the AL East standings. [the full post is here.]

I had a similar reaction to a recent thread on Twitter about who has lost confidence in American institutions. The answer is: everybody. But some more than others.  Patrick Egan of NYU looked at the “confidence” items in the General Social Survey and created these graphs showing the average confidence in twelve different institutions.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Confidence has dropped among all categories. But the steepest decline has come among non-college Whites. Their overall level of confidence is the lowest of any of these groups. They are also the strongest supporters of Donald Trump. This reinforces the image of the core Republican constituency — Trump’s staunchest supporters — as dissatisfied, even resentful. They have lost confidence in traditional American institutions, and they acclaim the strong outsider who could bring sweeping changes.

In response, Joshua Tucker posted a link to a report he was co-author on — the American Institutional Confidence Poll (AICP) from the Baker Center for Leadership & Governance at Georgetown University. The AICP found that demographic characteristics didn’t make much difference. Politics did. Here is AICP’s Number One Key Finding:

Why the discrepancy between the GSS data the AICP conclusions? I wondered if it might be the sample. It wasn’t.

The interviews were conducted online from June 12 to July 19, 2018, by the survey firm YouGov. The sample includes 3,000 respondents from the U.S. general population. Additionally, the poll includes samples of 800 African-Americans, 800 Latinx Americans, and 800 Asian Americans.

Their sample, as they note elsewhere, is larger than that of most political surveys, plus the  oversampling of smaller populations they want to have good data about. No problem there.

But what about the timing? We know that on November 1, 2016, Democrats were much more likely than were Republicans to say that the economy looked good. Two weeks later, those positions were reversed. The economy did not change in those two weeks. The occupancy of the White House did.

The AICP survey was done last summer, months before the midterm elections, when the GOP controlled the White House, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court. That seems like kind of an important fact, but to find it, you have to scroll down to the methodology notes at the end of the report. 

Even in the GSS graphs, Egan has drawn a trend line that smooths out these shifts that are possibly caused by electoral changes. Egan also has lumped together twelve institutions. Separating them in to categories (e.g,. government, non-government) might allow us to see even sharper demographic differences.

The AICP, on the other hand, does report about confidence in specific institutions, twenty in all. The authors conclude that “confidence in institutions is largely driven by party affiliation.” They neglect the corollary: who has confidence in which institution can shift quickly when an election changes the party in power. This volatility makes it a bit misleading to talk about confidence in “institutions” as though people were thinking about them in the abstract. For example, the authors say, “The executive branch is the institution in which Democrats have the least confidence, while Republicans rank it the fourth highest.” Surely this difference is not about what people think of “the executive branch.” It’s about Donald Trump. These days, isn’t everything?

“Cold War” — A Love Story

January 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Like “Ida,” his 2013 film, Pawel Pawlikovsky’s new film “Cold War” is visually stunning. Like “Ida,” it is shot in black and white, often with high contrast, and in the old 4:3 aspect ratio. And like “Ida,” it departs from movie conventions we’ve come to take for granted. (My post on “Ida” is here.) The storytelling is elliptical. It skips over long periods of time, and the characters rarely explain their choices. The audience must fill in the gaps.

“Cold War” is set in Europe — mostly between Communist Poland and Paris, mostly  in the 1950s. That’s half the implication of the title.  It’s a love story, but not the kind we’re used to. That’s the other half. In “Cold War,” love is a powerful force of attraction between the couple, Wiktor and Zula. But while it brings them together, it brings them little joy. The main publicity picture for the film (the freeze frame below) shows a moment of happiness and tenderness between them. But in the film, such moments are rare.

The film spans fifteen years. For much of that time, the lovers are apart, in different countries having joyless, passionless affairs and marriages with other people. Yet when Wiktor and Zula are together, their relationship is marked by conflict, anger, and betrayal. They separate, sometimes for years, but they cannot escape the force that makes each reunion passionate and painful. That force could be called love, but it’s far different from the love played out in most American films.

In our movies, love makes sense. It brings together two people who should be together. It infuses their relationship with passion, warmth, contentment. Conflicts may arise, but love can overcome them. Usually those conflicts are internal — the person’s own thoughts or problems that prevent him or her or both from realizing their love for the other person. Or the problem may be external — another man or woman trying win one of them away. Usually this person is flawed, acting on some selfish motive, The main character eventually sees through it all and frees himself or herself from whatever hold this person has on them and returns to the one who was right for them all along. If the movie is drama and not comedy, the lovers might not wind up together in the end. One or both may die. They may go their separate ways. But they’ll always have Paris.

In “Cold War,” Wiktor and Zula have Paris, where the freedom of the West allows them to develop their music (he’s a pianist, she a singer). The folk tunes that in Poland they had to transform into large choral numbers and then hymns to Stalin in Paris become sultry, smoky jazz songs, notably the one in the trailer.

You can imagine how this would play out in an American film. With artistic freedom, the lovers blend their Polish traditional culture with jazz, find success, and live happily ever after. In “Cold War,” the transition from Poland to France brings little comfort. The translation of that song from Polish to French falls flat. (I assume the symbolism is deliberate.) The words are meaningless. “The pendulum killed time.” Worse, the translator is a woman Wiktor is sleeping with. Nor is Zula exactly faithful. (“Michel is great,” she tells Wiktor, “he fucked me six times in one night.”)*

Love in “Cold War” also has a decidedly unAmerican relation to the larger forces of government and society. In our films, these forces may keep the lovers apart for a while, but either the lovers fight against these constraints and win, or they escape. Even if they die, their spirit is undaunted. In “Cold War,” both Wiktor and Zula, in different ways, compromise themselves, or rather the state, personified by Communist bureaucrat Kaczmarek, forces compromise upon them. The solutions that are almost a cliche in movies set in the West are unimaginable in a totalitarian state, not even in the movies.

Bleak, yes, but well worth seeing. The film does not yet have wide distribution. It may not be coming soon to a theater near you. Currently it’s playing in only six theaters, three of them in New York. But if you have the chance, see it while you can.


* The only other clip from the film that I could find on the Internet also gives the same sense of their relationship in Paris. Wiktor and Zula sit at the bar in a club. Wiktor talks to a man seated next to him, Zula looks bored. “Rock Around the Clock” comes up on the jukebox. Zula gets up and dances with one man after another and finally gets up on the bar, dancing solo, flouncing her skirt, while Wiktor looks on with what seems to be a combination of resignation and distaste. The video is here.

Mrs. Maisel — Expletives Then and Now

January 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the words that usually catch my attention are the anachornisms (see earlier posts here and here).  On Episode 7, which I watched last night, handsy, skill set, poster boy, and a few others sounded jarringly modern. But I also noticed a word that people in 1959 really would have used – goddam. The word stood out because on the show, it’s so rare.

The writers on “Mrs. Maisel” far prefer the word fucking. In fact, in the above scene, Susie’s brother-in-law has just said, “Give me the fucking chips.” The episode has just one other goddamn, but characters say fucking a total of sixteen times. That’s not unusual. Here are the totals for series.

In 1959, when educated, middle-class people wanted an expletive, fucking was not their go-to negative intensifier — especially among women and especially in mixed company. Think of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, stories set and written in the mid-1950s. (The Glass family lives just across Central Park from the Weissman apartment we see so much of in TMMM.) I found an extensive collection of excerpts from the Salinger stories (here ) – thirty goddamns and not a single fuck. Google nGrams searches all books and finds something similar.

In 1959, goddamn and variants appear ten times as often fucking. (The fucking boom that begins in 1965 continues. The lines cross in 1970, and by 1990 fucking is three times as frequent as goddamn

(The above graph goes only through 1990. In 2019 fuck was more than ten times as frequent. In a graph from 1920 to 2019, the dominance of fuck would be so great as to make the differences in earlier years practically invisible.)

Apparently, goddamn, like damn and hell, is an intensifier that has lost its intensity. Two years ago, I speculated (here) that these words derive their power from the power of the religion they blaspheme. As religion fades as a dominant force in American life, so do religion-based swear words. As I say, I am just guessing. What the heck to I know about it?

I’ve Just Met a Face

January 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Each month, the Harvard Business Review has a feature called “Defend Your Research.” I confess, I am not a regular HBR reader, but as I was searching for something else, a serendipitous click whisked me to an episode of “Defend Your Research” that was about names, something I am interested in. The researcher, Anne-Laurier Sellier, had found that people look like their names. More specifically, people shown a photo of a stranger can make a better-than-chance guess as to what that person’s name is.(The HBR article is here.)

I was a tad skeptical. Hadn’t we been through something like this before with men named Dennis choosing to become dentists and women named Florence living in Florida? At least that research had a theory to explain the supposed connection — “implicit egotism” — even if the data turned out to be less than what met the researchers’ eye.* And now we have people named Charlotte choosing to look like a Charlotte?

Plausible or not, the empirical findings about faces and names were interesting, and I was curious to try my luck. Conveniently, Sellier had provided HBR two examples.

George, Scott, Adam, Bruce. Which could it be? “What if it's just that the other names on the list were rarer and less likely?” asks Scott Berinato, the HBR interviewer.

We controlled for that by offering only choices that were as popular as the actual name, based on the frequency of use. We controlled for most things we could think of, including ethnicity, name length, and the socioeconomic background of the subjects and of the people in the photos.

Any good researcher would control for these things. Everyone knows that. But “Bruce?” My spider sense suggested that the names Bruce and Scott are not really equivalent in popularity. To check, I went to the Social Security database on names.

The guy on the left looks like he’s about 40, the one on the right, early 30s. The HBR article came out in 2017. I guessed that the research was done a couple of years earlier. So I looked up the numbers for boy baby-names in 1975 for the older guy, 1983 for the younger. Here are the results.

And what are the answers to the name-that-face quiz? The man on the left is Scott. The man on the right is James. The correct name is two to three times more frequent than the second-most popular name on the list. It’s possible that Sellier’s subjects were putting together their estimate of the man’s age and their intuitive knowledge of name popularity. A better design might have been to show people four pictures of men roughly the same age and ask, “Which one is Scott?”

Maybe Sellier just picked the wrong examples to illustrate her point. After all, she says that she and her fellow researchers did this study in the US, France, and Israel and got positive results in all three countries. And they do have a theory — that people change their appearance so as to conform with the cultural stereotype of their name. “In America people presumably share a stereotype of what a Scott looks like. . . and Scotts want to fit that stereotype.”

I haven’t looked at Sellier’s publications. All I know is what I see in the HBR. Maybe, knowing that the HBR interviewer was named Scott, she picked a couple of photos — one Scott, one not-Scott — just for this occasion and selected Bruce and the other names on the spur of the moment. Still, I assume that a researcher being interviewed for a feature called “Defend Your Research” would bring examples that best illustrate her ideas. If this is the best she’s got, I’m afraid I remain unconvinced


* For more on Dennis the dentist, see this 2018 post by Andrew Gelman (here  and follow the links.