Archive for film
I’d never seen an earlier installment in the Mad Max franchise when I went to see Fury Road at Grauman’s Chinese IMAX Theatre. I felt it was a movie I needed to see because so many people were asking me whether it succeeded in its effort to be a feminist action flick. But what really captured my imagination – and inspired me to watch all three of the previous films – was its singular vision and its relentless originality.
I often judge the sci fi I read by its ability to avoid exposition – to simply immerse me a world that is completely unfamiliar. This is a standard feature of cyberpunk style, which Bruce Sterling recently summarized at a terrific conference I attended at USC called Cyberpunk: Past and Future (videos are available).
Turns out that Sterling’s description fits Mad Max to a T. He argued that cyberpunk style typically entails
- “Oozing stuff out in all directions” – aka, sensory overload
- “Beatnik eyeball kicks” – surprising details that give a sense of a lived world. He also called them “small visual assaults.” An iconic instance in Beyond Thunderdome: a frightening child named Scrooloose cuddles a Bugs Bunny doll.
- Weird mood switches – in Mad Max, the heartbreaking intermingling of the tragic and the comic (e.g., cute little feral children toting giant guns).
- Lack of explanation; not stopping to “coddle the straights.”
Reading a cyberpunk novel should be like entering a foreign country – stumbling into the wasted world of Mad Max surely qualifies. If we manage to get beyond the shock of witnessing the intoxicating collision of life force and death drive that characterizes all Mad Max films, we can start to appreciate the intricate aesthetic policies driving the implementation of George Miller’s bizarre vision.
While film lovers like myself typically complain about Hollywood’s addiction to financially safe franchises, Mad Max should remind us of the deep pleasures of engaging in a long-term relationship with a truly cinematic story. Lots of people like to say that the best storytelling these days is for small screens, and I would heartily agree. But I think Mad Max demonstrates what a big blockbuster movie franchise should be able to offer its fans – we shouldn’t necessarily expect the psychologically nuanced investigations of social mores that get in spades on TV these days. Mad Max doesn’t provide that pleasure, but what it does offer – at approximately 11 on the dial – is a distinctive audio-visual experience, with a mysterious internal logic that feels simultaneously ridiculous and inevitable.
The final credits of Fury Road are a testament to the tremendous craftsmanship necessary to bring this peculiar world alive. I suspected that many of these people would consider themselves hackers and it occurred to me that that might be the engine driving this noisy road-ragey enterprise. As we marvel at the countless clever hacks in all four movies – my primary source of pleasure in this franchise – we also feel the dull dread of a ruined world and the insidious power structures that have emerged from it. We see the re-inscription of tyranny at every turn and I’m reminded of another one of Bruce Sterling’s insights: “The problem with the hack is that it doesn’t seize the means of production.” By the end of Fury Road, we see Imperator Furiosa (a steely Charlize Theron) grasping the means of production after initially running away from it. Is this the feminist heroine we’ve all been waiting for or another tyrant in the making? Guess we gotta wait for Mad Max: Wasteland to find out.
I was asked recently to speak at a symposium on Media Choices at Drexel University. The event drew a fascinating array of scholars who were studying things like Internet addiction, online dating, and political polarization in media consumption.
When someone mentions “media choice” to me, I automatically start thinking about the algorithms that have been developed to help shape that choice.
I have followed avidly the growing use of recommendation systems that you see on sites like Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Pandora. I saw these mechanisms as a significant move away from demographic marketing (which I find deeply flawed) to marketing based on customer taste.
I did have my reservations though. I was very moved by Eli Pariser’s TED talk about the danger of “filter bubbles,” which effectively insulate us from opinions and content that we don’t understand or like. His talk really resonated with me because of the deeply divided ideological and taste communities that I found in a major survey research project I conducted on the correlation between entertainment preferences and political ideology (spoiler: they are even more deeply connected than you might think.)
But, when I conducted further research about collaborative filtering systems, I made some rather counter-intuitive discoveries. YouTube, for instance, found that “suggesting the videos most closely related to the one a person is already watching actually drives them away.”
Of course YouTube’s goal is to get you to sit and watch YouTube like you watch TV: to lean back and watch a half hour to an hour of programming, rather than watching for two minutes, getting frustrated trying to find something else worth watching and then going elsewhere. So, in short, it’s in YouTube’s best interest to introduce some calculated serendipity into their recommendations. Read the rest of this entry »
The New York Times devoted significant ink this week to The Participant Index (TPI), an effort by Participant Media to quantify and compare the relative social impact of films, TV shows and online video. The article also mentioned the Lear Center’s $4.2 million Media Impact Project: I’m the co-principal investigator on that project and we’ve been consulting with Participant on the development of TPI.
Here’s a little back story: Participant approached the Lear Center because of its academic expertise in measuring the impact of educational messages embedded in entertainment content. Our Hollywood, Health & Society program (for which I wrote the initial grant) has partnered with the CDC for the last 14 years to look at how health story lines in popular TV shows affect viewers’ knowledge, attitudes and behavior. The survey component of TPI includes a combination of questions that have become standard in entertainment education evaluation: the “transportation scale” identifies the type of emotional involvement that the entertainment content triggered and the outcome questions indicate what real-world actions a subject has taken after exposure to the content. TPI combines these two measures to create a score for each piece of video content in the study. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week I attended a high-caliber symposium co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the UK’s Cultural Value Project. They brought together a dizzying array of researchers (demographers, cognitive scientists, arts policy wonks, “recovering” academics, etc.) to discuss how we ought to measure participation in arts and culture on the local, regional, national and global scale.
“Participation” and “engagement” are key metrics for arts institutions and their funders. But the inquiry often ends right there. I think the vast majority of people in the arts – including artists and administrators – take it as a given that art has a beneficial effect on society. I happen to agree with them. Wholeheartedly. But many powerful people in this world – including those who hold the purse strings – are not necessarily convinced. Funding for the arts is paltry compared to expenditures on science, where, lo and behold, we have a lot of convincing evidence about the importance it holds for humanity. Read the rest of this entry »
I was honored to give the Industry Keynote at Hot Docs, a giant documentary film festival in Toronto. I don’t know what they put in that water (which was delicious, by the way) but Torontonians love, love LOVE documentaries. They have a 700 seat theater that, year round, shows docs only, and I was completely charmed by its tagline: ESCAPE TO REALITY.
Of all conventional TV and film genres, you could easily argue that documentary is the one that is most self-conscious about its artful manipulation of reality. Since much of my research focuses on the impact of entertainment and media on individuals, communities and society at large, documentaries have proven an especially exciting object of study. (I have a TEDx talk about some of this research.)
In order to prep myself for the fest – which included a whopping 197 documentaries – I thought I’d revisit some survey research that we conducted at the Lear Center on the relationship between political beliefs and entertainment preferences. We discovered in those studies that predictable patterns emerged suggesting that even our escapes from reality – to ballets, tractor pulls, and blockbuster films – were tethered quite tightly to our deeply held beliefs about the world and how it ought to be.
For a nerd like me, this is absolutely fascinating stuff.
Our archive of data – from two large American representative sample surveys, and from a smaller version we conducted in Tunisia after the Arab Spring – includes detailed demographic, ideological and taste information about documentary film fans. Hot Docs gave me an excellent excuse to mine that data. Read the rest of this entry »