Archive for film
I recently gave my fifth talk for the TED network – this time on one of my favorite projects at the Norman Lear Center, where I’m the director of research. The Lear Center has conducted many studies demonstrating that entertainment plays a key role in people’s lives, igniting curiosity, inciting conversations, and importantly, influencing attitudes and behavior. One of my favorites was a series of U.S. national surveys that explored whether there is a correlation between entertainment preferences, what we enjoy, and political ideology, what we believe.
One thing you learn in survey research is that it’s not very helpful to ask people to label themselves politically. So we created an instrument that would diagnose the respondent’s ideology based on their responses to dozens of statements about hot-button political issues. Using statistical clustering analysis, we discovered that three groups emerged from our national sample. ”Conservatives,” as we decided to call them, “liberals” and “moderates.” These same respondents were asked about their preferred leisure-time activities and their favorite radio and TV shows, Web sites, movies, games and sports and much more.
What we found is that each of these clusters had distinctly different entertainment and leisure preferences. (For a full run-down, check out our white paper.)
Now this kind of research doesn’t allow us to determine causation: I can’t tell you whether your politics determine taste or taste determines politics. But, if I had the chance to ask you enough questions, I would be able to predict your politics based on your taste. And vice versa.
I’ve always wanted to scale up this research to a global sample, where we could see what kinds of clusters emerge on a trans-national scale. Because as you know, in a networked world, culture, media, and politics are not constrained by national boundaries. So, last Fall, I leapt at the opportunity to administer a similar survey in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring.
Working with Mobile Accord, the company that created the SMS platform for the Haiti relief effort, we administered our survey to over 2,300 Tunisians on their mobile phones. We knew that our sample would skew younger and more Internet-savvy than the general population, which would provide us with a valuable glimpse into the mindset and media habits of a population that will most likely play a leading role in shaping the future of Tunisia, and perhaps the Middle East.
Because it was a mobile phone poll, we had to make the survey much shorter. So, in order to diagnose a respondent’s ideology we decided to focus on cultural politics. We asked questions about how their religious beliefs inform their entertainment choices, and the role that they believe government should play in that negotiation.
We also included specific questions about the controversial TV airing of Persepolis, an animated film which included an image of God, and the violent protests surrounding the anti-Islamic film, Innocence of the Muslims.
We identified three groups that fell on a spectrum from conservative to moderate to liberal. The group that most fascinated us was the largest group: conservatives. Among these young wired culturally conservative Tunisians, we found entertainment and media preferences that we would expect from liberals in the U.S.
- “Surfing the Internet” was their favorite way of entertaining themselves (conservatives in the U.S. had chosen “reading” as their favorite.)
- They were more into video games than reading.
- When they do read books, they prefer romance novels and sci fi to religious texts.
- We were amazed to discover that they were the most passionate consumers of American entertainment,
- They demonstrated a strong preference for Hollywood films and they had less interest in local Tunisian fare than Moderates or Liberals.
- They were also the most likely to say that U.S. entertainment has had a positive influence on the world.
So much for stereotypes about religious conservatism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The picture is far more complicated than you might think. The key is asking the right combination of questions on the right platform.
We know that politics are important but we tend to be dismissive about taste and the pleasures we take from TV so bad that it’s actually good. All too often we assume that entertainment is too trivial for serious critical inquiry. But I believe that entertainment preferences often go unrecognized as powerful indicators of personal and social aspirations. And, since the Cold War, we have found over and over again that popular culture can bridge deep national and political divides in the most surprising ways. In fact, many have argued that Hollywood films and TV shows have more impact on global public opinion than our foreign policy.
We can get so caught up in looking at people through the lens of demographics and ideology that it often obscures our view of what people really care about, what gives them pleasure. And when you know that, I believe you know the most important thing you can know about anyone.
For more results of the U.S. and Tunisia surveys, check out my TEDxOrangeCounty talk, The Politics of Personal Taste. The Lear Center site offers a lot more background materials on the U.S. entertainment and politics surveys.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that I would be a judge for a short film contest alongside Padma Lakshmi, Michael Pollen, Eric Schlosser, and Alice Waters! We’ll be looking for short films that provide a deeper understanding of the US food system. Here’s the low-down:
“The contest invites aspiring filmmakers, or teams of food changemakers alongside communicators, to create 30-second to four-minute films in one of four styles: documentary, advocacy, experimental, or ‘wildcard.’ Entries must be submitted by 9 p.m. EST on February 3, 2014.”
Yesterday, I was very excited to launch the Media Impact Project, which aspires to be a global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media. Supported by $3.25 million in initial funding from the Gates and Knight Foundations, I’m optimistic that the Norman Lear Center can help make media more accountable to audiences and contribute to a better understanding of the role that media plays in people’s lives.
The New York Times picked up the story and I was thrilled to see reporter Michael Cieply focus on this aspect of the program:
Created by: Paralegal.net
Big thanks to Peter Kim for alerting me to this great new infographic about Hollywood’s convoluted history with piracy and its battle to embrace and defang new technologies.
One of the best cinematic experiences I’ve ever had was watching Wim Wenders’ new 3D film about dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch. I was moved by his interview on NPR, where he explained that he’d been intending to make a film about Bausch’s work for several years, but he just couldn’t figure out how to do it . . . until he watched a 3D film. He felt that the new technology would allow the audience to “be in the same water” with the dancers, and let me tell you, when he achieves that, the effect is blissfully visceral. Bausch’s work deals quite dramatically (often violently) with power relationships, gender divides, misunderstanding, affection: to be in the physical midst of all that motion and emotion is intoxicating.
So. It’s in theaters now. But not for long! See it while you can in 3D . . .
During a recent trip to Seattle, I finally had a chance to visit the Experience Music Project, Paul Allen’s eccentric Frank Gehry-designed museum committed to Allen’s passions: rock and roll, digital technology, science fiction and the geekier side of American pop culture. A little tear welled up in my eye as I drifted through the somber Nirvana exhibition, but the highlights of my trip were to be found in the Sci-Fi wing of the museum.
The highly interactive Avatar exhibition was a delight to experience: I was not the only one who had a hard time tearing myself away from the interactive table-top, which allowed you to shuffle through cards that triggered the retrieval of multimedia resources on the making of Pandora. I was also smitten by the fact that they let museum visitors try out Jim’s handheld virtual cameras, which he used to shoot scenes with actors after they already went home. It reminds you how magical motion capture really is, and I’m sure it puts the fear of Jesus in actors who thought they could never be replaced. I’m sure the gadgets installed at the museum are dumbed-down versions of Cameron’s cool invention (the zoom button felt like something circa 1972), but wow – it’s a brilliant way to give fans a taste of the creative process behind something they love.
I also could NOT wipe the smile off my face as I wended my way through the exhibit devoted to horror. Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror starts off with a descent in a soulless spiral stairwell, lined with pictures of people screaming. Once you land in the exhibit you realize that all those people are visitors who visited the “Scream Booth,” which gives everyone an opportunity to screech like Janet Leigh or Drew Barrymore. Such fun.
I also made an idiot out of myself in the “Shadow Monsters” interactive installation. As you move various parts of your body at various speeds, your projected shadow is transformed into a variety of monstrous forms. It’s pretty addictive but, man, I was little disappointed that I couldn’t get a decent shot of my monstrous shadow. I would have frightened you.
I knew I had to write something in response to A. O. Scott’s Sunday New York Times piece about all the movies out right now which give an insider’s perspective on industries that we find fascinating. Moneyball and Margin Call were two of the films that inspired him to write about our perennial interest in lifting the veil and seeing what’s really going on inside baseball and Wall Street.
I don’t think the irony was lost on Scott that we like to turn to pieces of fiction in order to get the real story. And some poststructuralist scholars might tell you it’s as good a place as any to look for the truth. But I don’t think that Scott went as far as he could in establishing the tremendous power that commercial storytelling has in influencing individual attitudes and, if it’s enough of a cultural juggernaut, public opinion. We may not care to admit the degree to which our knowledge of the Holocaust, for instance, is dependent on Hollywood’s depiction of it, but often these well-produced, tightly scripted fictional narratives can do more than entertain us for a couple hours, they can fill in the blanks in our knowledge. Just think about how much you learned about global pandemics in Contagion, cancer in 50/50, the founding of Facebook in Social Network and Jim Crow in The Help… Read the rest of this entry »