Category: Film

The Tyler Cowen Guide to 10.5 hr layover in Los Angeles

That is a reader request, here goes:

I sometimes describe L.A. as the world’s best city to live in, but one of the worst to visit.  Nonetheless you have some pretty good options.  With half a day, make sure you have a rental car with the appropriate soundtrack(s).  If you start from LAX, pick one road to drive east on, another to head back east to west — how about Sunset and Pico?  Wilshire?  Stop and walk as you can, convenient parking is often available.  Use Jonathan Gold to pick the right eating places, perhaps Thai and Mexican?  Veer off a wee bit and visit the La Brea Tar Pits, or for a longer trek Watts Towers.  Time the sunset for Griffith Park.  Deemphasize “Downtown” but consider the new Broad Museum for contemporary art.  Work in a beach walk at Santa Monica or Venice, preferably the former.  See a movie.  See another movie.  Avoid Beverly Hills.  The truly ambitious can drive all the way down Western Ave. and stop for Belizean food along the way to that chapel at the very bottom of the road.

Basta!

Psychology and behaviorism in *Blade Runner 2049*

From my email, by Jason N. Doctor:

You provide a good perspective on Blade Runner 2049.  In addition to the biblical references and themes, I was also impressed by the psychology and philosophy of mind references:

1)  After every event where he eliminates a replicant, “K” must take a cognitive interference test similar to those used most recently by Sendhil Mullianathan and Eldar Shafir to study the effects of economic scarcity on cognition–but to test if killing a replicant heightens his emotions by perhaps putting him in a moral quandary.

2) On the door to his apartment, some graffiti reads “F*** off Skinner”.  This seems odd in its prominence.  B.F. Skinner developed, to an extreme, John Watson’s radical suggestion that behavior does not have mental states. Skinner’s ideas shutout discussions of whether or not machines could support mental states. Of course, rational economics by similar methodologic scruple ignores mental states.

3)  The movie promotes the idea that there is no computation without representation.  Ana de Armis’ character formulates mental symbols in her relationship with K and behaves in accordance with interdefined internal states (we can’t predict some of her actions directly from stimuli). We are led to believe that she qualitatively experiences real love (though we cannot know) .  In irony, one of these mental symbols involves a longing to be a “real girl” by means that are unrelated to the mind-body problem.  She wants to being taken off the network, so that she can be in one place, just as are neurophysiologic organisms.

>All in all, the movie legitimizes the notion of (hardware agnostic) mental representations and takes a fairly hard stance in opposition to behaviorist constraints on psychological explanations. So it is a critique of behavioral psychology and indirectly rational economics.

*Blade Runner 2049* (some Straussian spoilers)

I hardly expected the movie to be so drenched in Tarkovsky (“The Zone” and Solaris, maybe a bit of The Sacrifice), and the now-famed sex scene draws from Bergman’s Persona.  Overall, the colors and palette were stunning, and the use of sound was as impressive as in any movie, do see this one in IMAX.  It hardly makes any concessions to the Hollywood vices of this millennium and indeed much of the Tysons Corner audience seemed to be baffled.

Think of the main plot line as showing a world where the Christ miracle is inverted and what that would have to mean for everything else.  Much of the plot is sprawling, some of the references are too heavy-handed or scattered (Moses and the Dalai Lama and Kafka and Star Wars 1-2 are thrown in for good measure, and few will grok the Galatians reference), and the whole thing could have been fifteen minutes shorter.  Still, this is a worthy sequel to one of the best movies of the 1980s or is that the 1990s?  Carla Juri steals the show, and furthermore it resolves the main plot puzzle of the original Blade Runner rather economically.

Also on the plus side, Adam Driver does not appear in this movie.

Slower turnover for songs and movies

From my email:

Hi, Mr. Cowen. I recently read The Complacent Class recently and enjoyed it. I’m writing because there’s an another example of American complacency that’s only come to light in recent weeks…

Specifically: the Billboard music charts..

Shape of You by Ed Sheeran last week broke the record for most weeks in top 10, with 33 weeks. The song it beat, Closer by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, set the previous record less than a year ago. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/7948959/ed-sheeran-shape-of-you-record-most-weeks-top-ten

(And yet another song in last week’s top 10, That’s What I Like by Bruno Mars, currently holds the 8th-longest record on that metric — and potentially still rising.)

Meanwhile, Despacito by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber tied the all-time record with its 16th week at #1: http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/record-labels/7942315/luis-fonsi-daddy-yankee-justin-biebers-despacito-ties-for

Meanwhile, the biggest country song in the nation right now, Body Like a Back Road by Sam Hunt, is currently in its record-extending 30th week at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart: http://www.billboard.com/files/pdfs/country_update_0905.pdf

This did not happen in decades past. Look at the Billboard charts from the ’80s — it was a new #1 song almost every week!    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Billboard_Hot_100_number-one_singles_of_the_1980s

Just like how you describe in your book how people are moving less and want to stay in the same town where they were before, or how they’re switching jobs less and want to stay in the same job where they were before, people apparently just want to listen to the same songs they’ve been listening to already.

That is from Jesse Rifkin, who is a journalist in Washington, D.C. who writes about Congress for GovTrack Insider and about the film industry for Boxoffice Magazine.  Jesse sends along more:

And if you want links for statistical evidence, here are two — one about which movies have spent the most weekends in the box office top 10, the other about which songs have spent the most weeks in the Billboard top 10:

Why I am opposed to Netflix streaming

Reed Hastings, the Netflix CEO who co-founded the company long before “streaming” entered the popular lexicon, was born during a fairly remarkable year for film. 1960 was the year Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho astounded and terrified audiences, influencing a half-century of horror to come. It was a year of outstanding comedies (Billy Wilder’s The Apartment), outstanding epics (Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus) and outstandingly creepy thrillers (Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—a close cousin of Psycho).

But in the vast world of Netflix streaming, 1960 doesn’t exist. There’s one movie from 1961 available to watch (the original Parent Trap) and one selection from 1959 (Compulsion), but not a single film from 1960. It’s like it never happened. There aren’t any movies from 1963 either. Or 1968, 1955 or 1948. There are no Hitchcock films on Netflix. No classics from Sergio Leone or François Truffaut. When Debbie Reynolds died last Christmas week, grieving fans had to turn to Amazon Video for Singin’ in the Rain and Susan Slept Here. You could fill a large film studies textbook with what’s not available on Netflix.

Netflix’s selection of classic cinema is abominable—and it seems to shrink more every year or so. As of this month, the streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970, and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries). It’s the sort of classics selection you’d expect to find in a decrepit video store in 1993, not on a leading entertainment platform that serves some 100 million global subscribers.

The bottom line is that streaming rights are expensive, whereas for shipping around DVDs the company can simply buy a disc.  Alternatively, you could say that the law for tangible media — such as discs — is less infested with special interests than the law for digital rights?  What does that say about our future?

Here is the article, via Ted Gioia.

Those new service sector jobs

Plastic surgeons who give you Vulcan and elfin-like ears:

Of course, looking naturally elflike is not everyone’s goal. Luis Padron, 25, who owns a cosplay business in Argentina, said he has spent over $35,000 in surgeries and procedures including skin lightening, nose surgery and hair removal for his sylvan shape-shifting. His look has been influenced by Katherine Cardona, a contemporary illustrator specializing in fairies, and Sakimichan, a gender-bending fantasy digital artist.

Padron plans to change his eye color to violet using an intraocular implant procedure in New Delhi (not approved by the Food and Drug Administration) because “it is the color of magic, fantasy, dreams and imagination,” he said. The idea is on point, elfishly speaking, when you consider that Bloom, who wore blue contact lenses in the Tolkien film, once described elves as “incredible angelic spirits who create and appreciate great beauty.”

To complete his elflike transformation, Padron is planning a heart-shaped hairline implant and PRP scalp injections in Beverly Hills, California, because “elves have long hair,” he said. He is also planning more plastic surgery in South Korea, including Adam’s apple reduction, jaw reshaping and limb lengthening, and plans to finish his look with ear pointing surgery, which he calls “the cherry on top.”

Waiting time for ear pointing, however, is over a year, and over 40 percent of elf-ear wishers don’t have the right cartilage to perform the modification, Von Cyborg said. Black was one of the lucky ones.

Here is the full story.  Should this be subsidized or taxed?

My Conversation with comedian Dave Barry

Here is the transcript and audio (no video).

We discuss what makes Florida special, why business writing is so terrible, Eddie Murphy, whether social conservatives can be funny (in public), the weirdness of Peter Pan, how he is so productive, playing guitar with Roger McGuinn, DT, the future of comedy, and much much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If I look at old slapstick, it doesn’t seem funny at all. Intuitively, you would think slapstick, being only physical, would have a much longer half-life. What I find funny is very culturally specific references. Now, am I strange?

BARRY: Well, not about slapstick. When I was a little guy, I maybe thought that the Three Stooges were kind of funny but that stopped a long time ago. Some physical humor is still funny to me. Abbott and Costello were pretty physical, but they were funny without being slapstick. Just hitting each other in the nose and going, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” never struck me as funny at all. I have forgotten the second part of your question.

On different comedians and what’s not funny anymore

COWEN: You mentioned Abbott and Costello. If you’re willing, I’ll talk about a few comedians, or mention a few, and you can tell me what you found funny with them, didn’t find funny.

Let’s start with Abbott and Costello. Favorite of my father. I’ve watched almost all the movies. As I kid, I didn’t find them funny, but I actually started to find them funny in retrospect after having watched a bit of Seinfeld and Larry David. What’s your take on Abbott and Costello?

BARRY: Yeah, I can see the connection there. It more relies on you letting it — the humor — slowly develop and the characters themselves being the humor without coming right out and saying what’s funny about it: The one who never understands what’s going on, the one who’s always losing his patience with the other one. The first, maybe, three or four times, it’s just mildly amusing. But after a while, when you see it coming, that becomes very funny to you.

It’s very rare to find that kind of patience in humor anymore. I don’t think the audience is as generous as it used to be, allowing humor to build the way it did in an Abbott and Costello sketch.

COWEN: And is Abbott or Costello funnier to you? Abbott being the straight man.

BARRY: Yeah, I think Abbott is funnier.

COWEN: I think he’s much funnier.

Most of all, I was impressed by Dave Barry as a managerial force for his own career.  Again, here is the link.

Rewatching *Enter the Dragon* (some minor spoilers)

Yana and I saw this Bruce Lee movie last night over Dan Klein’s house, for me it was my first viewing since my undergraduate days.  A few points struck me:

1. Hong Kong is portrayed as a poor, dumpy ghetto; this was 1973.  The Technicolor shots of the city are gorgeous.

2. Black Power, in the character of Williams [Jim Kelly], is shown to be a fundamentally moral and emancipatory force.  And as was so common in movies from the 1970s and 80s, the black guy “gets it.”

3. The main villain, Han, reminded me of Chairman Mao, except that the role of the West in the opium trade is inverted and placed on Mao [Han] himself.  It is no surprise that Mao’s China banned the movie.

4. Bruce takes on and defeats a whole group of unimpressive karate experts — was that intended as an anti-Japanese slam?

5. Angela Mao, who played Bruce Lee’s sister, steals the show.  She now lives in Flushing, Queens (NYT).

6. The American male heroes seem not to mind that the women they are given to sleep with are essentially slaves, held under coercion or otherwise dubious circumstances.  The movie seems not to mind that the male heroes do not mind.  And an analogous film today would not have nude scenes, for several reasons, one being the desire to sell it to…China.

6b. The politically incorrect ranking in terms of libido is black > white > Asian, without any apology or attempt at subtlety.

7. Many scenes reminded me of the James Bond flick You Only Live Twice, and also Dr. No.  It is a common theme in movies from that time that a hero can use a diversion to take over a command center; is that still done?  The final mirrors trick seemed to be taken from Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai.  Yana remarked that many of the underground sets looked like they were borrowed from Star Trek, and that the “turn the corner” suspense scenes seem to have anticipated Star Wars.

8. “Jackie Chan appears as a guard during the underground lair battle scene and gets his neck snapped by Lee.”

9. The score by Lalo Schifrin remains compelling and Bruce dominates every scene he is in.

10. As was often the case in those times, the exposition is relatively slow, much of the action is saved for the last half hour, and finally the film just ends.

My favorite things Delaware

I am in Delaware only briefly.  I have not covered the state before, so here are some of my picks:

1. Chemicals manufacturer: I think that one has to go to the Duponts, I enjoyed the Gerard Zilg biography of the Dupont family and history.

2. Economic historian: Alfred Chandler.

3. Monetarist who studied policy instruments and uncertainty: William Poole.

4. Semi-libertarian journalist: Dave Weigel.

Hmm…music?  I don’t like George Thorogood.  A quality novelist?  How about a painter or sculptor?  Some big time NBA star?  Biden is my favorite of Obama’s VPs.  It is claimed that the movie Fight Club is set in Delaware.  So many special dishes too, in the local cuisine.

The bottom line: Small wonder it is!

*Paths of the Soul*

That is the title of an extraordinary Chinese-Tibetan film (with English subtitles, even in Kunming), here is one description:

A birth, a death, a pilgrimage. A film about the 1,200-mile journey of a pregnant woman, a butcher who wants to atone for his sins and a rag-tag band of villagers who go on foot from their small village in Tibet to the sacred Mt. Kailash has become a surprise winner at the Chinese box office.

It is doing better here per screen than Transformers 5 (or is that 6?).  Here is more about the plot premise;

They travel wearing thick aprons made of yak hide and wooden planks tied to their palms. Every few feet, they raise their hands high above their heads in respect for the Buddha, then lower their worshipping hands to their forehead and then to their chest before diving into the ground, touching the earth with their foreheads. To an outsider, the ritual looks like bodysurfing on solid ground. While they chant a simple mantra, devotees lie flat on their stomachs with their hands bent at their elbows, pointing toward the heavens in a sign of prayer. Then they stand up and repeat these steps as the summer’s scorching asphalt roads turn into slippery ice-covered tracks in the winter.

It turns out this is a real thing, as they say back in The Great NJ, and they keep it up for 1200 km over the course of a year (really).  Strapped babies and small children partake as well.  And this isn’t a pure outlier, as my Yunnanese friend Jimi tells me he has seen it many times in Tibet on the open road.

You may think it all sounds silly, but by the end of the film you realize that what you are doing with your own life isn’t actually so different and is perhaps in some ways less valuable.

 

I’m calling this as one of the two or three best movies of the year, or indeed of any year.  Highly recommended on the big screen, though here you can find it on Amazon.  It goes without saying that the film is full of social science.

My Conversation with Jill Lepore

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.

COWEN: Yes.

LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.

And:

LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.

Recommended…

Why do American movie theaters now have assigned seats?

Jeff Ely has a hypothesis:

Everyone who has armchair-theorized why movie theaters don’t sell assigned seats in advance is now obligated to explain why this has changed and how that’s consistent with their model.

I will start.  My theory was based on the value of advertising to movie-goers who must arrive early to get preferred seats and then are a captive audience.  This has become significantly less valuable now that said movie-goers can bring their own screens and be captive to some other advertiser.

Scott Sumner’s 25 best movies of the new millennium

Top 25 of the Century

First Tier:

Mulholland Drive

Nobody Knows

2046

Lord of the Rings

In the Mood for Love

Three Times*

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives

Spirited Away*

Inland Empire

Second Tier:

Oldboy

Melancholia

Winter Sleep

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Three Monkeys

The Wailing

Mountains May Depart

Happy Hour

Third Tier:

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Poetry

Yi Yi*

Japanese Story

Dogville

Memories of Murder

Mother

Her

Here is the link, that is not even the main point of his post.  Scott’s list is much better than the NYT “weak tea” effort.