YouThought So Too? I Had No Idea.

June 24, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The governors of Virginia and South Carolina have now taken stands against the Confederate battle flag. So have honchos at Wal*Mart, Sears, Target, and NASCAR.

NASCAR! How could this cascade of reversals have happened so rapidly? Did these important people wake up one morning this week and say to themselves, “Gee, I never realized that there was anything racist about the Confederacy, and never realized that there was anything wrong with racism, till that kid killed nine Black people in a church,”?

My guess is that what’s going on is not a sudden enlightenment or even much of a change in views about the flag. To me it looks more like the process of “pluralistic ignorance.” What these people changed was not their ideas about the Confederacy or racism but their ideas about other people’s ideas about these matters. With pluralistic ignorance (a term coined by Floyd Allport nearly a century ago) everyone wants X but thinks that nobody else does. Then some outside factor makes it possible for people to choose X, and everyone does. Everyone is surprised – “Gee, I thought all you guys wanted Y, not X .” It looks like a rapid change in opinion, but it’s not.

A few years ago in places like Ireland and Europe, people were surprised at the success of new laws banning smoking in pubs and restaurants. Oh, the smokers will never stand for it. But it turned out that the smokers too were quite happy to have rooms with breathable air. It’s just that before the laws were passed, nobody knew that’s how other people felt because those people kept smoking. The same thing happened when New York City passed a pooper-scooper law. The law is unenforceable, people said; cops will never see the actual violation, only its aftermath. And do you really think that those selfish New Yorkers will sacrifice their own convenience for some vague public good? But the law was remarkably effective. As I said in this post from 2009,

Even before the new law, dog owners had probably thought that cleaning up after their dogs was the right thing to do, but since everyone else was leaving the stuff on the sidewalk, nobody wanted to be the only schmuck in New York to be picking up dog shit. In the same way that the no-smoking laws worked because smokers wanted to quit, the dog law in New York worked because dog owners really did agree that they should be cleaning up after their dogs. But prior to the law, none of them would speak or act on that idea.

In South Carolina and Georgia and Bentonville, Arkansas and elsewhere, the governors and the CEOs surely knew that the Confederacy was based on racist slavery; they just rarely thought about it. And if the matter did come up, as it did in a recent Supreme Court decision about license-plates, they probably assumed that most of their constituents and customers were happy with the flag and that the anti-flaggers were a cranky minority.

With the support for letting that flag fade into history, it looks now as though for quite a while, many Southerners have been uncomfortable with the blatant racism of the Confederacy and the post-Reconstruction era. But because nobody voiced that discomfort, everyone thought that other Southerners still clung to the old mentality. The murders in the Charleston church and the subsequent discussions about retiring the battle flag allowed Southerners to discover that their neighbors had always shared their misgivings about the old racism. And it allowed the retail giants to see that they weren’t going to lose a lot of money by not stocking the flag.

James Salter, 1925-2015

June 20, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Sport and a Pastime
has long been one of my favorite novels. The author, James Salter, died yesterday. 

The novel was published in 1967. I don’t remember when I first read it – maybe in the 1970s. It had me at hello. Here are the opening sentences

September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, the roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps.

Unmistakably Paris. The narrator is in the station and then on a train leaving the station.

Soon we are rushing along the valley of departure, the houses of the suburbs flashing by, ordinary streets, apartments, gardens, walls. The secret life of France into which one cannot penetrate, the life of photograph albums, uncles, names of dogs that have died.

Salter paints with quick brushstrokes, somehow finding the perfect details that convey the entire scene and an idea – that the narrator, an American, can never know this secret but ordinary France.  The names of dogs that have died.

At first, I was a bit hesitant to recommend this book to others, mostly because of the sex. Even the Times obituary is circumspect.

Controversy surrounded “A Sport and a Pastime,” a slender book dense with eroticism about an American expatriate’s affair with a young Frenchwoman. Their lovemaking is described at close range by a third party, a none too reliable narrator, in a story that has been called, among other things, “intensely transgressive.”

Any guesses as to what about the lovemaking was transgressive? OK. It was anal sex – in 1967 still a rarity for serious writers. Only Burroughs in Naked Lunch (1959) and Mailer in An American Dream (1965) come to mind, and they were using it to epater le bourgeois; these were exertions, deliberate attemps to be “transgressive.”  In A Sport and a Pastime, the anal sex is part of the love affair.

Strange that the Times is so prissy nearly three decades after they first decided the AIDS crises had made the phrase “anal sex” fit to print. I long ago abandoned my diffidence about recommending the book because of it.

The narrator presents more of a problem. His identity and his relation to the characters is ambiguous. We can trust him about what he sees out the window of the train. But how can he know what has gone on in the hotel rooms of the lovers (Philip Dean and Anne-Marie)? He makes no secret of his unreliability.

I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.

But I confess, it’s mostly for the prose style that I reread this book.

Images of the towns. Sens. The famous cathedral which is reflected in the splendor of Canterbury itself rises over the icy river, over the still streets. . . . The little shops have grown close around it, cinemas, restaurants. Still, it cannot be touched. Beneath the noon sun the roof, which is typically Burgundian, gleams in the strange design of snakeskin, banded into diamonds, black and green, ocher, red. The sun splashes it like water. The brilliance seems to spread.

Snakeskin! I had looked at those roofs in Burgundy several times, but I had never really seen them.

Me and Earl and the Diffusion Curve

June 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How does a movie gain an audience?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

** All the box office information comes from BoxOfficeMojo.

Girl With a Disputed Ethnography

June 13, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Chronicle ran this photo to accompany its story about Alice Goffman.

I don’t know what the photographer, Narayan Mahon, had in mind; I don’t knowif he was using “Rembrandt lighting.” But the portrait suggests 17th-century Holland more than 21st-century Philadelphia. It is also much different from the way Alice Goffman comes across in person.