Category: Film

House of Sand and Fog and Preferred Children

Economists like to say that behavior reveals preferences. I just finished watching House of Sand and Fog, which reveals a most discomforting preference, albeit in extreme form. Be warned: I’m going spoil the plot, so don’t read any further, unless you’ve seen the film or don’t care to.

The movie is about a woman (Jennifer Connelly) who loses her home as a result of tax delinquency. An Iranian immigrant (Ben Kingsley) buys the home at auction, hoping that the difference between the auction price and the market price will pay for his son’s college tuition. The woman and the Iranian immigrant get into a violent confrontation, resulting in the accidental shooting of the man’s teen age son. Here’s where revealed preference comes into play: When the Iranian man sees that his son has not survived being shot, he kills his wife and himself. The character does not believe life is worth living if his son is dead… however, his newly wed daughter is still alive!! Conclusion: The character believes life is only worth living for his son, not his daughter.

Just another case of twisted movie logic? Maybe not. I’d venture that this is an extreme case of favoring sons over daughters. Steven Landsburg discusses some strong evidence that this is the case, even in contemporary America – census data shows that couples with female children are 5% more likely to divorce. In Viet Nam, having a female child increases the chance of divorce by 25%!! A lot of people seem to believe daughters are not worth sticking around for, and Kingsley’s character takes this to an extreme.

Readers are invited to email me extreme or strange examples of films, or other popular culture, showing characters favoring sons over daughters.

The ten greatest business movies

According to Forbes, that is. Here is the list:

Citizen Kane, The Godfather: Part II, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather, Network, The Insider, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Tin Men, Modern Times.

Most of these movies portray business in a negative light. See a short comment from Professor Bainbridge and a long comment from Larry Ribstein.

Addendum: Here is some good commentary and some different picks, including a favorite of mine, Joe vs. the Volcano.

The Return of the King, French style

I just saw the third installment of Lord of the Rings in a French cinema, on the Left Bank. The crowd loved it, although they kept on laughing at all the faux endings. (I’m not giving anything away by noting that the movie is longer than it needs to be. In the last fifteen minutes it repeatedly feels as if it is just about to end.) Interestingly, “Frodo,” in the subtitles, is presented as Frodon. You know, like “Napoleon” and “Michelin.” That is just in case you might have thought that Frodon wasn’t French. Yes I know about the silent n, still I thought this was ridiculous.

Full disclosure of commercials?

Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert is complaining that movie theaters do not warn moviegoers about previews and commercials before a movie starts. The fear is that Americans are being tricked into wasting their precious time.

Is anyone so stupid as not to know about commercials and previews? At my favorite theater the preliminaries average between 17 and 18 minutes, I have it down pat and they glad volunteered this information to me.

Furthermore early ads promote efficiency. You can come early, and sit through the ads, and get a better seat. Latecomers miss the ads but have to sit behind a tall person or scrunch up their necks in the front row. In quality-adjusted terms, the theater offers different prices, depending on whether you are willing to endure the ads, and how good a seat you want. This, of course, is price discrimination, which as we know usually increases output. If only the television networks could be so clever.

And of course ads are not required:

According to the Los Angeles Times, New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. don’t allow in-theater advertising before their films.

To the extent there are problems, they follow from poor coordination and violated expectations. Most moviegoers know to expect the ads, if anyone should be nudged toward full disclosure it is the theaters without ads. But of course, if this is a problem, they already have a good incentive to advertise that the movie starts promptly.

Keep in mind also that most moviegoers are the young, and they go in groups. They talk during the ads and determine the future of their social alliances, and thus the future of the world. If the time is wasted, it is not the fault of the advertisers.

Commercial Alert is also trying to regulate neuroscience and television.

Against screen quotas

France, Brazil, Pakistan, Mexico, China, and South Korea are among the countries that set screen quotas for their domestic films. An astute reader/blogger Tony referred me to the following Korean opinion piece, critical of such quotas. The English is at times choppy, but the author is on the mark:

What the screen quota system provides is a shelter without any competition. But it is an age-old truth that true competitiveness is only bred through competition. If the Korean movie industry really wanted the kind of international competitiveness that could take on Hollywood movies, it should break out of its protective shelter and meet the challenge straight in the eye. We will never see the day when our industry will leave behind the danger of being dominated by foreign movies if it keeps on being obsessed with the screen quota system.
Second, supporters of the screen quota system claim that it is the last bulwark protecting Korean culture. Who on earth bestowed the sacred duty of protecting the culture of Korea to the movie industry? Culture is the form of life that every one of us takes part in creating. It is found in our mountains and streams, our cities, our history, culture, art and crafts. This writer finds it hard to believe that the Korean culture has become more refined because a few domestic gangster movies outdid foreign movies at the box office.

The author asks why we should not have comparable quotas for womens’ fashion or for alcoholic drinks, both areas where Korean culture competes against foreign imports. The author also complains of the “the self-righteous and exclusivist advice of the French,” the whole (short) piece makes for lively reading.

Hollywood Heavies

While Hollywood lobbies Congress for protection in the more gentile manner (see Tyler’s post today) the Teamsters have taken direct action. Axium International planned to hold a symposium in LA on the Canadian Tax Credit Incentive for film production. The Teamsters threatened to bring hundreds of supporters and 30-50 trucks to shut the hotel down where the symposium was to be held. Axium backed down, cancelled the lectures and wrote a craven letter to Arnie in Daily Variety – “please exert your utmost through the California legislature, the Governor’s office or the federal government to enact legislation ensuring that the entertainment production business remains, for now and ever, in California.”

Note that I have a bias on this issue – see the post below.

Movie IPOs

An investment firm is raising money to finance movie projects by letting film buffs buy a piece of Ethan Hawke, or at least a share in a project he’s involved with, and trade that as a stock.

This isn’t a pretend Internet stock exchange based on the rise and fall of Hollywood stars. Chicago-based brokerage Civilian Capital is letting investors buy actual shares in a film.

(More here.) Why not? You can own stock in the Green Bay Packers and bonds backed by the music of David Bowie. This is a method of generating buzz, a natural audience, and capital. Thanks for the link go to my brother Nic Tabarrok, a movie producer in Toronto. I once invested in one of his films. I lost money but a lot less than in Webvan – I’d do it again.

What Arnie wants for Hollywood

Privileges and protection, it would seem. Newsmax tells us the following:

Included in the Hollywood wish list is a bill now in a congressional conference committee that could provide about $250 million over five years in incentives for keeping small- and medium-budget productions in the United States.

Under an amendment, films would qualify for a tax deduction if half of the wages paid to actors, producers, directors and others are kept inside the United States.

According to a recent report, the U.S. economy has lost about $4 billion in economic benefits – about 25,000 jobs per year – since Canada began offering tax subsidies in 1998 to film production companies.

It is believed that Arnie can use his bully pulpit to help push the measure into law.

My take: If Canada wishes to subsidize Hollywood cultural exports, and then cry about the supposed decline of cultural diversity, let the production companies take the money and laugh all the way to the bank.

Movies

Hey, I wrote a book called In Praise of Commercial Culture, and even I think movies have stunk this year. The only three compelling Hollywood entries I can think of are Finding Nemo, Kill Bill, Part I (for a dissenting opinion, Gregg Easterbrook offers what is about the most negative serious review of a movie I have ever read), and now Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood. See the latter before it disappears from theaters. The celebrity system in Hollywood comes under much attack, but a movie this serious and this expensive probably could not have been made without Clint’s hold on the public imagination.

And, by the way, what would Dirty Harry think of Alex’s recent reassurance, directly below, that the government of Singapore tracks the movements only of “scofflaws”?

Ways in which movies assume away, or do not assume away, scarcity

Here is a list of twenty ways in which movies alter our usual presumptions about scarcity.

Here is one of my favorites:

6. The ventilation system of any building is the perfect hiding place. Nobody will ever think of looking for you in there and you can travel to any other part of the building undetected.

The entire list is amusing, courtesy of the ever-inventive geekpress.com.

Or how about this one:

8. Should you wish to pass yourself off as a German officer, it will not be necessary to learn to speak German. Simply speaking English with a German accent will do.

Nein?

Christmas gifts

OK, the end of the year is approaching, here are my “best of” lists:

1. Classical music CD: Bach, St. Matthew’s Passion, conducted by Paul McCreesh. As good a recording as you will find, and this is arguably the best piece of music ever. One voice to a part, as they did it in Bach’s day, but never stale or musty.

2. Popular music CD: Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Starts at hip-hop but spans the entire musical map, from an immensely talented duo.

3. Book, fiction: J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. The finest novel yet by this year’s Nobel Laureate in literature, deep and philosophical, but also a great read.

4. Book, non-fiction: Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Games. Baseball puts me to sleep, this book is actually about human irrationality and performance. Everyone should read it.

5. DVD: Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders. OK, so he was (is?) a commie. Still, he understands the power of cinema in a way that few other directors do. The screen sparkles in every frame, the release is of course by Criterion.

And if you really want to go on a shopping spree, here is an article about notable art masterpieces still in private hands. I would recommend the Pollock at $50 million, except that the owner is not selling at that price.

Not as bad as it sounds

The U.N. convention on cultural diversity, championed by Canada and
France, would take cultural goods such as films, plays and music out of
the realm of trade negotiations. It would exempt them from free-trade
rules, allow governments to protect and support their cultural industries,
and enshrine the “cultural exception” that European nations have defended
in international law.

It amazes me how many “free speech advocates” have no qualms about restricting consumer choice in the cultural marketplace, which of course is another forum for speech and ideas.

That being said, this news is probably not as bad as it sounds. First, American cultural presence is losing ground when it comes to both television and movies, the two most sensitive cases. Most people want to see locally produced TV programs, which reflect their language and culture. American shows dominate the television market only in parts of the English-speaking world, such as Canada. In cinema, France has shown some ability to capture more than half of its home market, thanks to films such as Amelie. Even Quebec, a very small region, has produced some box-office winners (“The Barbarian Invasions”) as of late.

Quite simply, most of the rest of the world is becoming more entrepreneurial in its cultural production. New technologies, such as digital moviemaking and editing, will only accelerate this trend. So putting in quotas is addressing a dilemma that the marketplace is already solving.

Second, the importance of the quotas is often more symbolic than anything else. France, for instance, does not strictly enforce its quotas against foreign films in French theaters. Anyone who has visited Paris knows it is a wonderful place to see foreign movies of all kinds. The French, for all their noises about the cultural exception, are remarkably open to outside cultures; the musics of Algeria and Zaire have been centered in Paris for some time now. In part, granting the French a symbolic victory on trade policy makes it easier for them to be more open in the long run, and this is what I predict from the U.N. convention. What the French, and many others want, is the ability to win a symbolic victory, and then the ability to choose what they want in the marketplace.

Here is full link, and thanks to Eric Crampton and Michael Giesbrecht for the pointer.

Movies and capitalism

I continue to be amazed at the high-quality specialized blogs out there. The latest: a new blog about how capitalism is portrayed in the movies, courtesy of Larry Ribstein, legal scholar.

From the blog, here is a list of movies that portray business and private enterprise in a favorable or semi-favorable fashion:

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Executive Suite
Charley Varrick (1973)
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Cast Away (2000)

Thanks to ProfessorBainbridge.com for the pointer.

Addendum: David Hecht points out that “Sabrina” and “Working Girl” are missing from this list. And I haven’t seen “You’ve Got Mail,” but I recall that the previews villainized book superstores.

Second addendum: Here is a very useful discussion of “You’ve Got Mail,” from ProfessorBainbridge.com.