Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Testing preferential voting 

This year, the Oscars are using a preferential voting system to determine the winner in the Best Picture category on March 7. Although attempting to understand the system can seem like trying to divine the secrets of cold fusion, the process is actually logical -- sort of.

... (skipping long explanation of preferential voting) ...

What all this means in practical terms -- apart from a lot of slips of paper -- is that, because it's unlikely that auditors will work their way past most voters' fourth or fifth choices before arriving at a winner, it actually could be preferable for a film to garner a lot of second- and third-place votes than to be a polarizing choice that splits evenly between first-place votes and, say, eighth- and ninth-place on the ballot.

That, in turn, means a movie could pull a Bush v. Gore -- win Best Picture despite not getting the most first-place votes.
I swear, I looked at that for the longest time thinking Bush v. Gore was a movie I hadn't seen. Otherwise, I have no idea what that last sentence means. Do we really know what people's second choice was in 2000?

It appears that this method, at least in the writer's eye, will lead to less edgy pictures being made for fear of that love/hate vote. Does it also work that way in politics?

(h/t: Eric Barker.)

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Monday, February 01, 2010

An idiot's tale at Sundance 

The Sundance Film Festival was held in Park City, Utah this past week, and one of the films featured was Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. Most of my readers will know I found the book intellectually dishonest, and this long trailer does no better. Indeed, it is worse. I'll spare you a review; all I have is that 7-minute clip and it's obviously not any better than the book in its shoddiness. I outsource additional comments about the book to Mike Moffatt and Tyler Cowen.

I did find it curious that Ms. Klein had reportedly distanced herself from the film, while wishing them well. The narrator of the trailer (and I take it the rest of the film) is not Klein. In August she reported to the Independent:
"I can confirm that the original idea was for me to write and narrate the film. For that to have worked out, however, there would have needed to be complete agreement between the directors and myself about the content, tone and structure of the film.

"As often happens, we had different ideas about how to tell this story and build the argument. This is Michael's adaptation of my book, and I didn't want there to be any confusion about that. I wish the film success."
There is no mention of the movie on her website for the book. And the adaptation, says the Independent's Johann Hari, is awful.
Winterbottom serves up a cold porridge of archive footage and soundbites that have some vague link to the book, without the connecting spine of Klein's explanations. It is as though an idiot has explained the book to another idiot, who then made a film.

This film should have been another Inconvenient Truth. Instead, it's just inconvenient and a shocking waste of a masterpiece.
And he means "another Inconvenient Truth" in a good way.

And yet at Sundance Ms. Klein makes an appearance (a chance to sit with Robert Redford should not be rejected lightly.) I wonder what she would make of the fact that the Michael Spence, chair of the Commission on Growth and Development (and writer of a report on growth) agreed with her prescription for Haiti that its victims should come to the US. However he also says that it's hard to change a developing country when things are not going well, and that there's nothing there to rebuild from. You are literally starting over.

So what would she like to start over with? Thailand. She really thinks the underlying cultural norms, infrastructure, government, and economy of the two places are the same. One country has six times the per capita income of the other. And by size, a tsunami on the coast has a much different impact than an earthquake under your capital. But these are trifling details, about as important as those Colby Cosh discovered her prattling on about ever since she wrote this book.

Enjoy your time skiing, Ms. Klein.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Who buys DVDs? 

My colleague Dave Switzer posts something fascinating on the decision of a consumer to buy or rent a DVD. Key grafs:
I see that there are two kinds of movies that people rent: Academy Award Nominees and crap. People wanted to watch Michael Clayton (good movie, btw) and No Country For Old Men (boring, IMO) so they could have some idea of which should win the Oscar. And people wanted to watch Good Luck Chuck (for some unknown reason) but knew based on its horrible box office performance and reviews that they would probably only want to watch it once � and even then probably only for $1 at Redbox. Baby Mama and Fool�s Gold are in this same league too.

I think it�s noteworthy that The Dark Knight was the best-selling movie of the year at the box office, as well as the best-selling DVD, but it is nowhere on the rental list. I guess when everybody has already seen the movie and everybody knows someone who owns the DVD, there�s no reason to rent it.

Of the top 20 movies sold, 9 of them can legitimately be called kid�s movies. (And yes, it can be a kid�s movie if it has The Rock in it. He�s the new Ice Cube � Ice Cube after he sold out, that is, and did Are We There Yet? and Are We Done Yet? Now The Rock does Race to Witch Mountain and Game Plan. I smell what the Rock is cookin� and it doesn�t smell so good.) Only one of these 9 movies, Game Plan, is also on the rental list. Parents buy their kids the DVD, plain and simple.

Click his link to see the chart. I rarely rent DVDs except when I travel (and nowadays I just download a rental and toss it on the iPod.) The movies I own are ones I want to watch over and again, which are seldom on the TV. (Note: I do not buy premium movie channels with my cable.) I own about 50 DVDs, many of them TV series. When Littlest was littler, we bought all manner of movies for her. Why? Because your kid watches movies 20, 30 times in a week, and often it's just one movie. I was joking with colleagues about the one Number One Son watched one night five times, Harry and the Hendersons. Godawful crap, and every time it would end, even at 3am, he'd wake up from the couch and cry for someone to restart it (this was in the days of VCR, so someone had to rewind, and he was four and not as skilled at operating the machine as Littlest, who was potty- and VCR-trained at about the same time.)

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

From where comes hope? 

I was reflecting on a new Economist article on the middle class today and thought to relate this to an article in the local paper on St. Cloud residents from India and their reaction to Slumdog Millionaire. One of the people interviewed in the Economist article is Surjit Bhalla, who is doing research in New Delhi on the emerging middle class there and has written a review, The American in Slumdog.
I have been somewhat surprised at all the hoopla surrounding this India-based film, in India. Too much poverty � what, know you not, there are middle class and rich Indians also? Why do people always revel in showing India in a bad light � by showing the exploitation within, by emphasizing its dark poverty? ...

The portrayal of poverty is no grounds for divorce from reality. If this had been the accepted wisdom, the world would have been denied de Sica�s The Bicycle Thief and our own Satyajit Ray�s Apu Trilogy. We should be embarrassed for even bringing up the idea of protesting the film, let alone discussing it in a juvenile fashion on TV. The bet is not on Slumdog to win because it glorifies the tragedy of poverty. No, Slumdog will win because it tells a quintessentially American story. And the appeal is enhanced by the Indian setting, and a Bollywood (may not love it but can�t leave it because it is so enjoyable) treatment.
I've not seen Ray's films, but The Bicycle Thief is a very dark movie of postwar Rome that hardly portrays Italy in a great light. The movie isn't about Italy. (I won't give the plot away, but you don't know the point of the movie until the climactic scene. If you haven't seen it, please do. If you must spoil it, you can get most of the point in Roger Ebert's review.)

Likewise, the slums of India are not the point of this movie, as Bhalla tells it:

My first article in journalism was written in the winter of 1980. It was entitled �In Defense of Attenborough�. Many Indians then were up in arms � how dare an Englishman, and not an Indian, make a film about the Father of the Nation? And why not, I argued � perhaps he will have a more detached perspective. Ditto in the case of Danny Boyle � he has made a better film on Indian slums, and universal hope, than most Indians could. The reason no Bollywood filmmaker could have made as good a film on �poverty� is because, well, Bollywood is not that interested in doing so. Befitting the upward mobility and aspirations in our society (shades of being American?), Bollywood is much more interested in luxury and fantasy and Sydney Harbour and the Swiss Alps than even a stylized version of the �real� India. One does not have to be poor, or live in a poor society, to make a film about hope despite poverty. One just has to be human � thankfully, none of the jingoistic and mis-guided critics have denied Boyle his abundant humanity.

The movie tells an American story, or is it Indian? Rags to riches, and the worth of an education. Both American and Indian children need to know the names of the Three Musketeers. Fighting the odds and coming out ahead. Being optimistic about pulling through rather than being burdened by the pessimism of reality. Aspiring to be middle class, dreaming of a better life. And often, making dreams happen. Only in Hollywood-Bollywood movies or only in America and India?

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Americans believed in themselves, and their power to change their destiny. Always, the most positive person in the room was the American � the most pessimistic the German. A bit like Boyle�s and Ray�s treatment of poverty � one sees hope and emergence, the other sees despair and unrelenting loss.

One of the Indians interviewed in the St. Cloud paper, a colleague of mine, says "As soon as they showed the slum in the movie, I said we should have known that the West has made this movie � that�s what a Westerner would show of India." No, what a Westerner shows of India is quintessentially American. It is a place that still has a relatively low Gini coefficient (much lower than China's) which nevertheless will see increasing inequality as their IT-led expansion, fueled by easy connectivity to the world, increases their middle class dramatically. There are, as the Economist article points out, two middle classes in the developing world. One can be middle class anywhere in the world; some of these 'global middle class' make up the faculty quoted in the article. A second group, a 'developing middle class', can be so in their country but not in the West. The protagonist in Slumdog has that dream, and has that education. He learns because he lives in a country where that modest dream can be made -- he can be a millionaire in his own land, even if he would seem poor in another's. By one Indian think tank's projections, half of the urban dwellers in India will be middle class by 2016. Their populations are swelling now, and for now they move into low-rent housing, where they dream. Bhalla concludes that the movie
...is about rooting for the underdog � a clich� but never a truer one. Look at the villains in the movie � they are not an example of thinly disguised racial profiling, but you and me. Heck, even the hero of the movie is a Muslim.

The movie succeeds because everything portrayed is plausible � not likely, but possible. It is a movie about the celebration of hope, about the reach being further than the grasp. How can you get more American than that � or more Indian?
(BTW, I have been wracking my brain trying to think of an Armenian movie to fit this theme, but haven't come up with one. Perhaps cinema in Armenia is just too small. Comment please if you think of one.)

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