Category: Film

How to extract information from on-line reviews, or why Star Wars is still a thing

Online reviews promise to provide people with immediate access to the wisdom of the crowds. Yet, half of all reviews on Amazon and Yelp provide the most positive rating possible, despite human behaviour being substantially more varied in nature. We term the challenge of discerning success within this sea of positive ratings the ‘positivity problem’. Positivity, however, is only one facet of individuals’ opinions. We propose that one solution to the positivity problem lies with the emotionality of people’s opinions. Using computational linguistics, we predict the box office revenue of nearly 2,400 movies, sales of 1.6 million books, new brand followers across two years of Super Bowl commercials, and real-world reservations at over 1,000 restaurants. Whereas star ratings are an unreliable predictor of success, emotionality from the very same reviews offers a consistent diagnostic signal. More emotional language was associated with more subsequent success.

Here is more from Matthew D. Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, and Loran F. Nordgren, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

In Praise of Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison

Here’s a great video on FastGrants, the fast funding-institution started by Tyler and Patrick Collison to fund COVID research at a speed that could make a difference on the ground. And it did.

Lots of other people stepped in with funding including Arnold Ventures, The Audacious Project, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, John Collison, Crankstart, Jack Dorsey, Kim and Scott Farquhar, Paul Graham, Reid Hoffman, Fiona McKean and Tobias Lütke, Yuri and Julia Milner, Elon Musk, Chris and Crystal Sacca, Schmidt Futures, and others.

The list of funded people and projects is long and impressive and while the grants were fast, the payoff is going to last well beyond the pandemic.

Thanks, Tyler and Patrick!

Godzilla vs. Kong (no real spoilers)

In Florida, even when Godzilla attacks, the schools stay open.  It seems the intransitivity of sovereignty is underrated.  There is a case for UBI for very large creatures.  If your country depopulates too much, they no longer feature your cities being destroyed.  The best and most interesting Godzilla movies focus on the Japanese bureaucracy, not the special effects.  Hollywood movie-making continues to become worse, soundtracks all the more so.

The nature of fame

In the early 1930s, so the story goes, Albert Einstein was in Hollywood, entertaining a visit by a friend, the comedian Charlie Chaplin.  They were enjoying some tarts baked by Elsa Einstein and idly chatting when Einstein’s son turned to Chaplin.  “You are popular,” he said, “because you are understood by the masses.  On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.”

That is from Charles Seife’s new book Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity.

Jeff Holmes does a CWT with Tyler

Here is the summary:

On this special year-in-review episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to talk about the most popular — and most underrated — episodes, Tyler’s personal highlight of the year, how well state capacity libertarianism has fared, a new food rule for ordering well during the pandemic, how his production function changed this year, why he got sick of pickles, when he thinks the next face-to-face recording will be, the first thing he’ll do post vaccine, an update on his next book, and more.

Here is the full dialogue, with audio and transcript, here is one short excerpt:

I also tell you what I thought of the guests we had on for the year, and also which episode had the most downloads.  Self-recommended.

And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year.  Thank you!

*The Way We Were* (with broad spoilers)

Oddly, I had never seen this 1973 movie before, and found a number of points noteworthy.  It is a more effective critique of the “white male patriarchy” than today’s performative yelpings, and makes the latter look, if anything, both hysterical and understudied.  And imagine a two hour movie which consists of little more than having two major stars — Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford — talk to each other.  I miss this in more recent Hollywood cinema.  And remember when movies generated hit songs?  By today’s standards, the sexual relationship between the two starts with her raping him while he is drunk (with implicit commentary on the famous bedroom scene from “It Happened One Night.”)  Circa 1973, the main sympathetic character (Streisand) could be shown as a fan of Lenin and Stalin (and Roosevelt) without anyone being too offended.  Nor does anyone mind that she smokes, drinks (more than a sip), and gets into scuffles while pregnant.  The core substantive takeaway from the plot seems to be “Jewish people should marry their own,” which is not the brand of segregationism that has remained popular today.

As stated, this movie for me was a first-time watch rather than a rewatch, but still it felt like a rewatch, as the most interesting elements were all a look into the past.  The more our world moves away from its previous moorings, the more “what to rewatch” will become an important skill.  Or what to reread, or what to listen to again.  This topic and this skill is underdiscussed.  When it comes to the past, increasingly “the uncensored” is more interesting than “high quality” per se.

Overall this movie is more interesting now than it was at the time of its release, so I guess I am glad I waited.  Here is an OK but quite cliched 1973 review of the film.  And here is Ebert from 1973.

Best movies and films of 2020

I categorize them on the basis of when I watch them, so there is always some slippage at the beginning and the end of the year, all the more for foreign films, which can come to the U.S. as much as a year or two later than their original release dates.  Of course this year was very different and there was hardly anything wonderful from Hollywood.  Here is the list, as usual in the order I saw them:

Monos, Spanish-language, Lord of the Flies-type elements.

The Guilty, Danish police story, mainly talk, limited settings, really good.

Just 6.5, Iranian war on drugs movie, brutal at times, culturally fascinating.

The Wedding Plan, a few years older, a Rama Burshtein movie, imagine an Israeli woman setting out to get married by a particular date no matter what.

Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy.  I think you need to have a preexisting connection to Mexico and Mexican food to enjoy it.  I do.

Graduation, 2016 Romanian movie about trying to cheat on your kid’s exam.  Excellent.

An American Pickle, Straussian critique of the Woke.

Tenet, if only to see a blockbuster again.

Cuties, yes it was really good, even if sometimes uncomfortably exploitative in its treatment of the source material, namely dancing young teen girls.

My Octopus Teacher, god-awful sentimental and storified, but everyone loved it.

The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, set in Cameroon, about cross-cultural differences.

Chez Jolie Coiffure, set in a Brussels hair salon, women from Cameroon and DRC talk to each other, from the same director as Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, they make a nice set piece and are both quite short.

The Wild Goose Lake, set in Wuhan, a kind of Chinese noir, you have to already like Chinese cinema for this one.

Talking About Trees, Sudanese movie about the reopening of cinema.

Lovers Rock, Small Axe, Jamaican emigres in 1980 London.

Usually I put this list out later in the year, but what is the point of waiting?

My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

Recommended.  And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

Recommended.

Against digitalized subscription services for the movies

Quality public taste is a public good, and right now we are taxing it:

Another response to my whining might be to tell me that I live in a world of cinematic plenty, especially considering my various subscriptions and DVD collection. That is also entirely fair, but do keep in mind the original worry: that the future flow of movies is being broken up and that Hollywood is not regenerating the notion of a cinema with cultural centrality and import. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” and “Annie Hall” had real meaning to generations of Americans. Movies might now be in danger of becoming like board games: Many Americans love and play Scrabble, chess and Clue, but they are not a strong part of our common culture…

Now consider the landscape for movies: Streaming services include Disney+, Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and Fubo TV. (I’m not even counting services such as the Criterion Channel, which are not large in terms of revenue but crucial to anyone, like me, who loves foreign films.) I’m not yearning for monopoly, but I do miss the good old days of paying $13.50 to walk into any theater and see the latest release. And I could watch without being constantly nagged to join their popcorn subscription service.

That is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column. If instead everyone watches Rear Window or 2001 on a large screen, over time they help make each other’s tastes better, and to the benefit of broader society.

And no, I am not a huge fan of musical streaming either.  It makes the lower quality taste too easy to cultivate and preserve.

*Tenet* — a review (no real spoilers)

Although liquid securities markets play no role in the plot, this is nonetheless a movie where the value of information is repeatedly very high.

You can think of the movie as constructing a world so that a high value for information is ruling all of the time.  And how strange such a world would have to look.

Most plots are about effort, character, moral fortitude, luck, or preexisting conditions (“are they really meant for each other?”).  It is about time we had a film about information, even though the final world that is built is stranger than you might have expected.

“We must go now.”

But in fact, in the real world, you hardly ever need to “go now.”  You can go just a little bit later, and it won’t matter much.

But this is not the speed premium, rather the game-theoretic concept is that of last mover advantage, the opposite of Schelling’s first mover advantage.  Few of us are intuitively ready to take that concept literally and to order our understanding of a movie around it.

If you have studied Steven Bram’s book Biblical Games (and his other writings), this film will flow naturally for you — otherwise not!

Unlike most slacker films, this movie takes a decided stance on Newcomb’s Paradox, though to reveal that would be a total spoiler.

The movie also has genuine innovations in its chase and fight scenes, a rarity and indeed near-impossibility these days.

The soundtrack is excellent, and might at least some of the music be palindromic?

As for inspirations, you might consider Raiders of the Lost Ark, most other Nolan movies, the Book of Exodus, the Sator Square, James Bond, Frank Tipler and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and most of all Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr.

To be clear, I don’t love most of Nolan’s films, and Inception bored me, so I wasn’t expecting much from Tenet.  I walked away happy.

Should I now be rooting for a sequel? Or would that be a prequel?

Kudos to Alex for renting out the theater, he is the real Protagonist is this one.