Film

A.O. Scott considers that question in The New York Times.   I am not sure I can sum up his view in a sentence, so I don’t know if this is criticizing him or partially agreeing with him.  In any case, I don’t see growing income inequality as the main driving force behind the decline of middlebrow American culture.  An individual’s level of education often predicts cultural consumption better than does his or her income, and education has not in general declined in this country.

Furthermore many forms of culture have grown much cheaper.  Once you are paying for cable, the marginal dollar cost of watching a show or a movie at home is zero.  Songs and music are much cheaper than twenty years ago, and eBooks make many (not all) books cheaper.  In other words, if stagnant income groups wanted middlebrow culture, they still could afford it.

Global markets are growing and those markets are often relatively middlebrow in their orientation, which should maintain the return to producing middlebrow culture.  And the United States continues to grow in population, even though the middle is shrinking in percentage terms.  The supply of creative activity is quite elastic, so it is hard to argue the wealthy have placed all relevant artists in their employ and thus choked or starved the middle.

It is much more expensive to organize a middlebrow art exhibit than fifteen years ago, and we see fewer good ones, but that is mainly because of 9/11 and insurance rates and related institutional issues, not income inequality.

My view is a lot of people never wanted middlebrow culture in the first place, at least not in every sphere of their cultural consumption.  The internet gave them more choice, they took it, and much of middlebrow culture lost its support base.  Consider one area where the internet still doesn’t play that much of a role and that is theatrical productions.  You can watch plenty of theatre on YouTube, but it’s not such a close substitute to seeing the show live.  And if you look at Broadway theatre, it seems more relentlessly and aggressively middlebrow than ever before.  Ugh, that is why I stopped going.  NFL football seems middlebrow to me and the audience base still is there, again because the internet has not come up with a close competitor.  If the sport has a problem it is the violence and injury, not that we’ve evolved into a mix of polo ponies and roller derby.

Liam Boluk has written an excellent four-part series, which should be read by anyone with an interest in movies or cultural economics.  He addresses whether movies are a dying or shrinking business, and the installments are here:

 

Here is one excerpt from number three:

One of the primary barriers to indie success and growth comes from screen distribution. In 2013, 50% of indie films were released on fewer than ten screens – nearly half of which maxed at only two. The reason for this is simple: the audience for the average indie film tends to be small and heavily concentrated in select cities (New York, San Francisco, Portland). As a result, expanding a film’s footprint into additional markets – even cities such as Seattle, Washington DC or Atlanta – can be financially destructive. Yet, even as the theater count is scaled, total performance can remain modest.

And here is Boluk’s blog.

Will Amazon copy Netflix?

by on July 17, 2014 at 12:07 am in Books, Economics, Film | Permalink

According to Gigaom, the e-commerce giant [Amazon] is working on a subscription ebook service called Kindle Unlimited, which would offer unlimited ebook rentals for $9.99 a month.

There is more here.  According to one estimate it would be for 638k titles or so, of course it will matter a great deal which ones.  I would consider this “developing,” but also “not yet confirmed.”

Addendum: Virginia Postrel offers a good analysis.

Transformers: Age of Extinction opened this weekend with $100 million in America and $92 million in China (with $22 million in Russia).

Here is more, mostly a series of broader points about China, many of which I do not agree with but interesting nonetheless.  Here is my previous review of Transformers.

Here is a bit on Chinese product placement in the movie:

…everyone in the audience was puzzled as to why Jack Reynor was drinking Chinese Red Bull in Texas. Is it even available there?

Culturally, some aspects did not translate. There was puzzlement in the audience when Reynor pulled out a laminated photocopy of a Texas legal loophole that meant his relationship with Nicola Peltz, who is 17 years old in the film while he is supposedly 20, does not come under statutory rape laws.

The article has a variety of points of interest.  There is also this:

One Chinese man who was dumped by his girlfriend seven years ago for being too poor spent $40,000 booking four whole IMAX cinemas for the first-day showings of Age of Extinction.

He then posted the receipts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, which is banned, presumably in case the Decepticons plan to try and attack China.

I like to experience aesthetic extremes, so it is appropriate I ended up sitting through this one.  It is perhaps the most beautifully choreographed movie I have seen — ever — with one perfectly arranged ninety second sequence after another, in seamless fashion yet summed into something quite incoherent and meaningless and indeed even obnoxious at times.  But did L’Avventura make much sense either?  (And like L’Avventura, Transformers 4 is way too long.)  Michael Nielsen was correct in his advice to view this new release as an art film.

The movie poses the question of how the world would look if technologies of defense were no longer clearly superior to technologies of offense.  The public choice answer seems to be that power shifts away from the Presidency, to the intelligence agencies, and to intellectual property holders, at least as first order effects.  Output is reallocated toward rural areas.

The political subtext of the movie is indicated rather clearly by the eventual military alliance of the red, white, and blue-wearing Optimus Prime with the Chinese dragons, consummated in China of course.  Unlike with the recent Godzilla movie, Japan is not the main intended Asian audience.  The Hong Kong scenes are spectacular, but the film reaffirms the importance of “central government” (i.e., Beijing) control over Hong Kong in rather heavy-handed fashion.  (This is done so transparently you could call it an anti-Straussian move — “hey, let’s make sure we get those shooting rights in Hong Kong again!”)  You also get to see a Chinese guy beat up on the CIA, gratuitously, using some kind of traditional Chinese boxing technique.

I am still fond of this this review and this one too of an earlier installment.  If you are tempted, you probably should see this movie, but I am not sure you should feel tempted to feel tempted.

Artistic musts

by on June 11, 2014 at 2:33 am in Books, Film, Music, Television, The Arts | Permalink

Not long ago, a group of people were sitting around a New York City Laotian restaurant and a challenge was made.  The challenge was to create a list of a particular kind, drawing upon the wisdom of the groups.  The producer of the dare (not myself, the person wishes to remain anonymous) put it like this:

…these are MUSTS, not “here’s something I like.”  You aren’t recommending, you are obligating.  That is a much larger responsibility and I urge you to use it with extreme caution.  Also, adding to the list constitutes a commitment to take in the list [emphasis added by TC], with the one caveat.

There is currently no food or visual art on the list.  We briefly discussed adding some food but I think it was going to get out of hand, plus Amazon can’t drone you tacos from Tyler’s favorite gas-station Mexican restaurant.  If the food or visual art is in NYC and readily accessible it could be considered.

Yes, we all obliged ourselves to consume the resulting list.  And what did we put on it?

Primer (movie)
[I am going to remove Upstream Color from the list.  I think it's a better movie than Primer, and I would watch it again twice back to back right now, but it's less of a cultural touchstone. ]

The Power Broker (book)

Nature’s Metropolis, especially Chapter 3 (book)

“Blink” (episode of Dr. Who from TV)

Before Sunrise trilogy (movies)

A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 (music)

The Forever War (book)

A Deepness in the Sky (book)
[Redacted and I agree that the first book, A Fire Upon the Deep, is excellent but not as good as this.  All voices say the third book is a pass]

Prisoners of War (TV series, Israeli)

Loveless (music, 1991 album by My Bloody Valentine)

The Lives of Others (movie)
[there was some controversy around this one]

Thought of You (animated short)

Persona (movie, Ingmar Bergman)

The Godfather (movie)

Beethoven String Quartet Opus 132 (music)

What would you add to such a list?  Of course from this list I do not endorse every pick, but I can report that I do not have “too much extra work to do.”

I know I am late on this one, but I thought it was pretty damned good, well above expectations.  I feel comfortable placing it in the top five Godzilla movies of all time.  The visuals are spectacular but not overdone, and it pays appropriate homage to its sources, including the Japanese original but also Hitchcock’s The Birds.  The movie also treats nuclear weapons use with the moral seriousness it deserves, which is rare these days.

And is there a Straussian reading?  Well, yes (did you have to ask?).  The film is really a plea for an extended and revitalized Japanese-American alliance.  The real threat to the world are the Mutos, not Godzilla, who ends up defending America, after the lead Japanese character in the movie promises the American military Godzilla will be there as our friend (don’t kill me, that is not a major spoiler as it is telegraphed way in advance).

The Mutos, by the way, are basically Chinese mythological dragons, and an image of two kissing Muto-like beings is shown over the gate of San Francisco’s Chinatown three different times in the movie, each time with greater conspicuousness.  The Mutos base themselves in Chinatown in fact.  Note that the Mutos can beat up on Godzilla because of their greater numbers, but as for one-on-one there is no doubt Godzilla is more fierce.  And the name of the being — Muto — what does that mean?  I believe loyal MR readers already know, and apologies for reminding you.  General Akira Muto led the worst excesses committed by Japanese troops during the Rape of Nanjing, perhaps the single biggest Chinese grievance against The Land of the Rising Sun, and thus the beings are a sign of the Chinese desire for redress and revenge.  Unless of course the right military alliance comes along to contain them and save the world…

The references to Pearl Harbor and the Philippines are not accidents either.

So says Neal Stephenson:

In both games and movies the production of visuals is very expensive, and the people responsible for creating those visuals hold sway in proportion to their share of the budget.

I hope I won’t come off as unduly cynical if I say that such people (or, barring that, their paymasters) are looking for the biggest possible bang for the buck. And it is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. That’s why New York keeps getting destroyed in movies: it’s relatively easy to take an iconic structure like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and knock it over than it is to design a future environment from scratch. A few weeks ago I think I actually groaned out loud when I was watching OBLIVION and saw the wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground. The same movie makes repeated use of a degraded version of the Empire State Building’s observation deck. If you view that in strictly economic terms–which is how studio executives think–this is an example of leveraging a set of expensive and carefully thought-out design decisions that were made in 1930 by the ESB’s architects and using them to create a compelling visual environment, for minimal budget, of a future world.

As a counter-example, you might look at AVATAR, in which they actually did go to the trouble of creating a new planet from whole cloth. This was far more creative and visually interesting than putting dirt on the Empire State Building, but it was also quite expensive, and it was a project that very few people are capable of attempting.

…That [dystopian] environment also works well with movie stars, who make a fine impression in those surroundings and the inevitable plot complications that arise from them. Again, the AVATAR counter-example is instructive. The world was so fascinating and vivid that it tended to draw attention away from the stars.

There is more here, via Morgan Warstler.

Make Work Bias

by on May 9, 2014 at 2:30 pm in Economics, Film | Permalink

Here is our colleague Bryan Caplan with a great video on the Luddite fallacy or make work bias:

Le Weekend explains why the Coase theorem does not hold in the marriages of aging British whinersThe Lunchbox, in addition to having an interesting plot (imagine a lower-tech Indian “You’ve Got Mail”), is the best movie I’ve seen on the nature of Indian micro-transactions, whether in relationships or in the workplace.  Erving Goffman would be proud,  and the mention of Harvard is the funniest line I’ve heard in a movie in years.   Under the Skin, as I understood it, asks what kind of trades might be possible between us and one of Rilke’s angels, if the latter were to come down to earth.  The movie does indeed answer that question, and the underlying connection between Rilke and Islam is discussed here.  And here is a fascinating article about the most memorable actor in the movie.  Maybe the best piece you will read today.

I thought all three movies were excellent, and full of social science, though none is a movie that everyone will enjoy.

When I am watching a movie I often think “why isn’t the Coase theorem holding here?”  There are few movies — outside of sappy romantic comedies — in which the Coase theorem explains much of the plot.

*Particle Fever*

by on April 1, 2014 at 8:25 am in Film, Science | Permalink

That is the new science documentary about the Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs particle, reviewed here.  I enjoyed it very much, and it makes being a scientist seem glamorous, in the good sense of that concept.  The visuals of what goes on at CERN are striking, all the more so for being juxtaposed against mooing Swiss cows.  And reheating a super-cooled magnet, and removing some helium contamination, is not easy to do.

The scientists in this movie seem to think their success will be measured in binary up/down fashion, and yet so far the results are mixed and inconclusive, as if they had been doing macroeconomics.

During one early part of the movie, at a public meeting, a self-proclaimed economist stands up from the audience and asks what is the economic rationale for the project, in front of a group of people drawn mostly from the scientific community.  The man presenting the project responds proudly that such a question does not really need to be answered, and his audience of scientists cheers.  The film audience in Greenwich Village was emboldened by this retort and there was audible positive murmuring, and some apparent scorn for the economist.

I wonder how the same scene would play out if the question concerned high-frequency trading?

Taub and Smith, stunt nudity experts, wore clothing that could be taken off quickly. “The photographer said, ‘Once people start getting on the bus, get naked and jump in line and pretend like you’re getting on the bus,’” Taub said.

The photo at the link does show nudity from behind, though not obscenity.  Maybe it is not safe for work.  The article has some other interesting angles:

But it was the Google-bound commuters who surprised Taub the most.

“They were quite uptight. Your average San Francisco bus — we would have gotten more of a reaction. People would clap or take pictures,” she said. “These buses, it was more like very uncomfortable.”

Jessica Powell, vice president of product and corporate communications at Google, said that this is not something Google condones.

“No, no nudes on the bus. It might interfere with the Wi-Fi.”

For the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

That is a new Kickstarter project from Dan Ariely and Yael Melamede.

For the pointer I thank Yogesh.

Your porn is not Canadian enough

by on March 8, 2014 at 6:10 am in Film, Law, Television | Permalink

For failing to broadcast sufficient levels of Canadian-made pornography — and failing to close-caption said pornography properly — a trio of Toronto-based erotica channels has earned a reprimand from the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission.

Wednesday, the CRTC issued a broadcast notice saying AOV Adult Movie Channel, XXX Action Clips and the gay-oriented Maleflixxx were all failing to reach the required 35% threshold for Canadian content.

Based on a 24-hour broadcast schedule, that translates to about 8.5 hours of Canadian erotica a day.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank TH.

Jugaad sentences to ponder

by on February 18, 2014 at 1:41 pm in Film, Science | Permalink

The budget of India’s Mars mission, by contrast, was just three-quarters of the $100 million that Hollywood spent on last year’s space-based hit, “Gravity.”

There is more here.