Film

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.

From a 2012 report:

The Satellite TV Providers industry is in the midst of a revolution, supplying popular family shows, news, movies, sports, documentaries and other products to a growing swarm of eager subscribers willing to pay for in-home entertainment. For example, the introduction of high-definition (HD) TV vastly improved the quality of shows and attracted subscribers even as disposable income dropped during the Great Recession. “In addition to a dramatically improved reputation for quality, new networks, channel offerings and bonus features are strengthening the industry’s appeal to consumers,” says IBISWorld industry analyst Doug Kelly. Higher spending on industry services is anticipated to result in 5.6% annualized revenue growth to $41.4 billion in the five years to 2012. This climb includes an expected 3.8% increase in 2012 as more consumers continue subscribing to satellite TV…

Over the next five years, the industry will face escalating competition from other media.

Have I mentioned Hulu TV and YouTube and Netflix, especially the non-broadband requiring discs?  How about reading the internet?  How about using your iPad to watch downloaded movies and TV shows?  New social media for sharing?  “Let them download somewhere else”?  There is a reason why “cable” and “cord cutting” appear so frequently in the same sentence.

There is no big deal with Comcast acquiring Time Warner, also because the two companies serve separate districts.  If anything the new consolidated entity will have stronger monopsony power over programs and can bid their prices down.  (Isn’t ESPN with its sports contracts a monopoly of sorts, just as the sports leagues are?)  We all know that monopolists facing lower marginal costs tend to lower price (contrary to Tim Wu), even if not by as much as we might like.  Krugman worries that “This would, in turn, make it even harder for potential competitors to enter markets served by ComcastTimeWarner, strengthening its monopoly position.”  A better sentence would have been “No five year period has so increased the contestability of the cable sector than the last five years in the United States.”

One might also add that if ComcastTimeWarner can bid down prices on programs, this need not keep out other competitors.  Those programs are non-rivalrous in consumption, and the sellers can extend whatever price discounts they might wish to new competitors, to increase the demand for their products.  The final equilibria here are complex, but in general the ability of a strong firm, in this setting, to bid down input prices is not a bad thing.

Addendum: If you wish to worry about something, it is how to get more competition within a single market, as you might for instance do through municipal wi-fi, the successor to 4G, and so on.  Worrying about the horizontal spread of trading in one monopoly for another is beside the point.  What I am seeing in various comments on Twitter is people with objections to cable monopolies, some of them valid objections, then objecting to possible changes in the market out of basic mood.

Gabriel Axel, RIP

by on February 13, 2014 at 12:34 am in Film, Food and Drink, Philosophy | Permalink

He was the director of Babette’s Feast and he just passed away at age 95.  What stuck with me most from that movie, and what is one of my favorite sentences ever, Axel himself cited upon receiving an Oscar:

Mr. Axel was a week shy of his 70th birthday when he took the podium in Los Angeles in April 1988 to accept the award. After saying his thank-yous, he quoted a line from his film: “Because of this evening, I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”

The obituary is here.

Law and Literature syllabus 2014

by on January 8, 2014 at 12:34 am in Books, Education, Film, History, Law | Permalink

The first class is today!  Here is my reading list:

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.

Billy Budd and Other Tales, by Hermann Melville.

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.

Conrad Black, A Matter of Principle.

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville, excerpts, chapters 89 and 90, available on-line.

Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman.

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

Haruki Murakami, Underground.

Honore de Balzac, Colonel Chabert.

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49.

M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath.

Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl.

Some additions to this list will be made as we proceed.  We also will view a few movies on legal themes, I will be back in touch on these.

I am likely to use A Separation and Memories of Murder as two of the movies, along with a new release depending on schedule.

*Her*

by on December 29, 2013 at 7:55 am in Film, Web/Tech | Permalink

As I tend to find Jonze’s work contrived I didn’t expect much, but I was bowled over by what is a must-see movie for anyone interested in tech or the social sciences or for that matter cinema.  Two of its starting premises are a) we as humans now face shadow prices which lead us to deemphasize the physical world of things and live in a world of information, and b) if we are going to have AI, which consumes real resources, which Darwinian principles will govern what kinds of personal assistants survive or do not?  Will they enslave us, will they be our dogs, our friends, our trading partners, or something else altogether?  This movie is the single best place to start on that question.

The rest is, as they say, solve for the equilibrium.  I found the dialogue, performances, and cinematography very strong.  The skyline blends Los Angeles and Shanghai.  The movie toys with the viewer in a clever manner as to whether it is about the future, the present, or both.  Several of the scenes (reluctance to spoil prevents further specificity) were some of the best and most creative and most conceptual movie-making I have seen, ever.

The “sources” for this movie, whether Spike Jonze is aware of them all or not, include Cyrano de Bergerac, various Mermaid legends, Blade Runner, Spielberg’s AI, 2001, Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, Philip Pullman, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, Pinocchio, Girard and indeed Shakespeare on the triangulation and intermediation of desire, Electric Dreams, Battlestar Galactica, Annie Hall, and even the Mormon doctrine of the Holy Ghost, as well as Jonze’s previous movies.  This is perhaps the most accurate review (some spoilers) I have seen.  This too is an insightful review, but the spoilers there are massive.  Best is not to read either but just to go see it.

Definitely recommended, for me this was one of the cultural events of the year.

Best movies of 2013

by on November 23, 2013 at 5:35 am in Film | Permalink

This has been an excellent year for movies, in fact I can’t remember a period so good.  Here is what I liked, noting that foreign films are classified by “what year did I have a chance to see them?” and not by their initial years of release, which are usually pre-2013.  Here goes, more or less in the order I saw them:

Amour, by Michael Haneke.

The Chilean movie NO, which is an account of how, even in the strangest of circumstances, democracies filter policy outcomes, as indeed autocracies do too (in different ways).

Spring Breakers

The Gatekeepers, I taught that one in Law and Literature class last year.

Room 237, an excellent mock on Straussians, through the medium of the fandom cult for Kubrick’s The Shining.

Oblivion

Stories We Tell

Before Midnight, completes the trilogy realistically, with charm and bite.

In a World…, “a subtle and entertaining movie with much economics in it, most of all the economics of superstars in the “voiceover” sector.”

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceacescu, “is mesmerizing, like watching one of the great silent films of the past, and the scenes where the Chinese communists praise the Romanian communists are some of the best ever filmed.”

Pieta, brutal Korean brutal tale involving money lenders and non-price compensation schemes.

Fill the Void

World War Z

In Another Country, Korean and French juxtaposed.

The Attack, possibly my favorite of the year, if I had to pick.  Lebanese and Israeli in its sources.

The Act of Killing, mostly set in Sumatra, brutal, has lots of social science.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, don’t tell Stevenson and Wolfers.  Directed by Werner Herzog.

Gravity

Captain Phillips — treat the two embedded stories as implicit commentary on each other.

12 Years a Slave

Hollywood redeemed itself with those last three, after what was otherwise a dismal year for mainstream releases.

I loved the documentary In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, although perhaps it is for fans only.

The crop of Christmas movies isn’t even out yet.

Companies, academics and individual software developers will be able to use it at a small fraction of the previous cost, drawing on IBM’s specialists in fields like computational linguistics to build machines that can interpret complex data and better interact with humans.

That is a big deal, obviously.  The story is here.

Maybe not.  In a new paper, “Who’s Naughty? Who’s Nice? Experiments on Whether Pro-Social Workers are Selected Out of Cutthroat Business Environments,” Mitchell Hoffman and John Morgan report:

Levitt and List (2007) conjecture that selection pressures among business people will reduce or eliminate pro-social choices. While recent work comparing students with various adult populations often fails to find that adults are less pro-social, this evidence is not necessarily at odds with the selection hypothesis, which may be most relevant for behavior in cutthroat competitive industries. To examine the selection hypothesis, we compare students with two adult populations deliberately selected from two cutthroat internet industries — domain trading and adult entertainment (pornography). Across a range of indicators, business people in these industries are more pro-social than students: they are more altruistic, trusting, trustworthy, and lying averse. They also respond differently to shame-based incentives. We offer a theory of reverse selection that can rationalize these findings.

Hat tip goes to Kevin Lewis.