Thoughts on “The Martian,” the movie

* The Martian is thrilling and the best movie I’ve seen in recent memory. The people telling you to see it are right. It’s a definite win in 3D.

* Very few contemporary movies are pro-science and optimistic about the abilities of humans to get things done and solve big problems, as Michael Solana argues in “Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology” and Neal Stephenson argues here (and elsewhere). Although many of us fear what will happen technologically in the future, few of us would want to return to the technologies of the past—which will probably also be true in the future. Few contemporary movies depict engineers as heroes.

* The absence of SpaceX or an analogous company (Blue Origin, for example) seems odd, as private companies seem poised to win the race to Mars. The presence of China’s space agency seems wise, though.

* The movie is a lesson in perspective: most of us are mired in minutia instead of thinking about how to concretely make the world a better place, one day at a time. Spacecraft happen through trillions of tiny decisions. What have you done, today, to make the world a slightly better place? (Imagination can count.)

* The Martian depicts “ah-ha!” moments well, in ways that are compatible with Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. I also didn’t expect to hear phrases like “The Hohmann transfer window” used correctly.

Thoughts on the TV show “UnREAL”

* UnREAL is shockingly good until the end of the sixth episode, at which point it devolves, and it’s shockingly good despite the network on which it airs. How’d I find it? I can’t remember. One could read Arts & Entertainments in conjunction with the show.

* In highbrow literary culture “creative nonfiction” and “memoir” are terms that map to “I can make shit up if it works for the story, while being loosely true.” By now readers don’t expect “creative nonfiction” and “memoir” to actually be true, so making some shit up is okay because of the wink-wink situation between reader and writer. “Reality” TV does the same thing, with producers and people on the show acting like joint authors. The stories are about truthiness, not fact. Joseph Heath describes the pervasiveness of truthiness and why that’s bad in Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives. In reality TV truthiness at least doesn’t have real consequences. In politics it does. Maybe that’s why I prefer art to politics.

unreal_poster* The term “selection bias” is important when thinking about reality TV: What kind of person aspires to get on reality TV? Probably not a person representative of all people in all places and probably one who makes for good TV rather than good-for-other-things.

* Like The Americans, the show has a small group of passionate fans, but I’ve seen very little about it in the larger media.

* Until the end of the sixth episode UnREAL was willing to go to the distance in terms of watching bad or amoral people do bad or amoral things. The seventh episode was unwatchably bad. Shows and books can recover from such missteps. EDIT: The eighth episode was a return to form.

* There is a greater family resemblance between UnREAL and the HBO show Entourage than may be obvious at first glance, or from the status markers around each show.

Thoughts on “Hot Girls Wanted,” the Netflix documentary

Is it a sign of getting older that more than seeing the hot girls featured be nude, I want to see them take an economics, psychology, and human sexuality class? I’m not ideologically or otherwise opposed to porn—quite the opposite, actually—but I am opposed to ignorance and Hot Girls Wanted is arguably about that subject, rather than its putative subject. The girls followed remind me of my least sophisticated students and do not seem to have a sense of future (or life trajectories) or of past (and where their industry comes from). Often on this blog I write about the perils of academia, but if this is the alternative then academia looks really, really good. Ignorance has tremendous costs and rarely have I seen those costs made as stark as they are here.

That being said I wish the filmmakers had asked more questions about what these girls would otherwise be doing. What’s their opportunity cost? At what margin are they operating? They are getting paid for what they do, and from what I’ve heard, usually after a couple drinks, from women I know who’ve been in adjacent industries the college hookup scene is often not much better or more satisfying than getting paid.

hot_girls_wantedThe New York Times and similar publications have a trope: some Bad Trend occurs and then the writer adds, “Women and minorities hurt most.” Hot Girls Wanted does something similar; although perhaps being a porn actress is for many women not the world’s best job, it is possible for straight women to have straight sex on camera and make a lot of money at it, which isn’t even an option available to the vast majority of men. How many attractive 18- and 19-year-old guys would love to make a couple hundred or thousand dollars to have sex on camera? I haven’t done a formal study but let me guess “a lot.” Yet those jobs don’t or barely even exist. Having an option to trade heterosexual sex for money is still valuable, even if the makers of Hot Girls Wanted disapprove and/or think women don’t really have the agency necessary to consent to the job.

To me the girls seem sad not because they’re doing porn, exactly, but because they’re dumb and don’t understand what they’re doing. How was their relationship with their high school teachers? My reactions to them doing porn would actually be similar if they were doing, say, currency trading: The people on the other ends of the trade are not there to help them. If you want to trade currency you really need to understand what you’re doing. Failure to know will have real consequences. Arguably porn is similar.

Hot Girls Wanted could be compared and contrasted with Belle de Jour’s work. Both are about women in sex work but the tones couldn’t be different.

There are intelligent, empowered ways of being in the industry depicted in Hot Girls Wanted, but they are not evident here. It is at best very difficult to protect people from being from themselves, and attempting to do so usually has distortionary outcomes in other areas that make the protection itself not worthwhile. Arguably much of the sexual revolution since the 1960s is a demonstration of this, and we’re now seeing the outcome in terms of family and economic structure (link goes to Robert Putnam’s latest book). The wonk-o-sphere is abuzz about family structure issues but I wonder how many, if any, wonk-o-sphere members will connect them to Hot Girls Wanted. People want what they want and the elite pundit class, left, right, or Alpha Centauri is maybe not good so good at understanding or emphasizing this.

You will not learn much. That said I don’t regret watching and my interest did not waver.

On “50 Shades of Grey” and Alan Moore’s “Lost Girls”

There are good parts of 50 Shades but it feels like a luxury “lifestyle”* commercial, written and executed by people with no experience of actual rich people imagining what rich people might be like. It also feels like a bondage story by people with no experience of actual BDSM imagining what BDSM people might be like. Reality is of course often not the primary purpose in a given movie but reality can be bent in an intelligent way to make a significant point or in an unintelligent way that detracts from the point.

fifty-shades-of-grey_poster50 Shades of Dull” gets it right: boredom is the movie’s real enemy, and the movie is unwilling to go “all the way,” with “all the way” defined broadly. The male lead is like a walking piece of injection-molded plastic. The woman is better but both have an essentially impossible acting test. On the way out of the theater I mentioned that he seems more like a serial killer than lover, and someone else said that he’d actually played a serial killer before. Makes sense.

The real fairy tale or fantasy aspect is that a guy like Christian Grey would pick out and obsess over a girl with nothing special about her. This is an interesting reversal of many movies and TV shows, in which a pretty girl improbably picks the quirky, initially low-status guy (“Don’t follow Hollywood movie examples if you want to get laid” analyzes this well, though I don’t endorse everything in the post or indeed much of the site). Anastasia is annoying and generically pretty, without any personality, and yet this very high status guy chases her around—and in ways that, if he were low status, would elicit a restraining order. “Creepy” is a term most often used to describe someone sexually interested in someone who does not reciprocate that interest. Both of us agree that the roommate and brother seem like they’re having a better time and are much more fun than the protagonists.

Still, the lighting was astoundingly good, particularly compared to the movie’s likely relevant comparison pieces. An unrated DVD edition may be a better movie. Much analysis focuses on the audience / societal signals the movie’s popularity emits, rather than the qualities of the movie itself, because the latter are so weak and the former much richer and more interesting. Something is being said, but by the consumers much more than the producers.

Auden said that “the proof that pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, say, as a psychological case-history of the author’s sexual fantasies, one is bored to tears.” By this standard 50 Shades is porn but another book, commonly described as porn, is not: Lost Girls.

lost_girls_mooreLost Girls describes the way entire societies decided they hated each other much more than they loved themselves. The really horrific, shocking acts in the book are not threatened rape or young girls or incest; they’re wholescale industrialized death. Next to the latter the former may be serious and vile on an individual level but death is so final, and the delusions around war are even more powerful than the delusions around erotic life. Lost Girls is much weirder, scarier, and truer than 50 Shades and for that reason it will never be as popular, at least in its own time. But 50 years from now, I suspect people will still pick up Lost Girls and the rest of the Moore oeuvre. Like American Sniper, Lost Girls is vehemently anti-war, but it comes to an anti-war place from a much different direction and cannot be reliably read as a pro-war movie, as many have read American Sniper.

Lost Girls is also a novel or set of novels that bend reality in interesting ways that convey the characters’s psychological states, fears, desires, and lives. In this sense too it is not pornography. Sexuality is not automatically pornographic, and though this point is often made I don’t think most people act or interpret as if it’s been accepted.

Lost Girls is art and 50 Shades is commerce. Neither is really porn. Readers of either or watchers of 50 Shades should read Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, in which Miller points out that most women judge men much less on their material possessions and much more on their health, bodies, and minds. Men tend to do the same. For most people most of the time it’s not about the money, though the money is nice. Men who say women only want money are usually covering for their own deficiencies (this embarrassing post may be relevant).

As usual, books can go deeper and have fewer restrictions on them than movies. Even today there is a freedom-to-depict in books that doesn’t extend into movies and TV, at least in the U.S. It’s also possible to turn a book that’s not very good on the level of the sentence into a movie (or TV show) that’s better.

50 Shades’s great antecedent is the Marquis de Sade; like de Sade, the movie is actually funny when read properly. But the movie is unlikely to be read properly (Tyler Cowen’s post “Two misunderstood movies, two Rorschach tests” is relevant here. Camille Paglia’s chapter on de Sade is excellent.

Despite the above I didn’t regret seeing 50 Shades and you probably won’t either. It’s a very popular movie but not a stupid one, unlike, say, Transformers, or many action movies. I wonder if (following link NSFW) is doing unusual business this weekend.

Here is the NYT on the movie’s director. Here is a characteristically elegant evisceration, from The New Yorker. The London Review of Books is also good: “When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh.” There was much laughter in my theater.

* The term “lifestyle” is so vague and yet so popular among marketers. If you hear a real person use it, be wary. She’s probably been  corrupted by marketers and marketing language. Despite saying this I feel like participating in modern life makes everyone who pays attention a connoisseur of marketing talk.

Thoughts on “Mozart in the Jungle”

* Mozart in the Jungle is charming if sadly devoid of the sexposition that HBO and Showtime have become famous for. Most writers take a too-holy-for-nudes attitude. Bullshit. The show also provides many, many opportunities for double entendres and obvious metaphors.

Related perhaps to the above, charm is hard to define but easy to feel.

*mozart-in-the-jungle-poster Why aren’t there any classical venues that let listeners stand up and drink beer and buy t-shirts with clever slogans on them? Or do such venues exist and I’m unaware of them? I’m interested in listening—see this, from 2008, for example—but the symphonic experience I find stultifying.

* The show admittedly chose many clichéd pieces. Hardcore classical music people—all nine of you—may dislike it for that reason, or may dislike it for the same reason cops dislike cop shows and doctors dislike hospital shows.

* The unions are reasonably vilified. So are police over-responses. Though this hasn’t arisen much yet in the show, “You can’t protect yourself from the market” could be one Cowenian economic takeaway.

* Arts and artists are inevitably more glamorous in TV shows and in movies than in real life.

* Here is the New York Times on Mozart. I haven’t seen many intelligent pieces on it. Like Entourage before it, Mozart may be too light and charming to attract essayists. Why write an essay when the first asterisk in this post encapsulates the show?

Thoughts on the movie “Birdman”

* The first three quarters are excellent. The last quarter is too long but still good; audiences don’t need to be hit over the head with symbolism. We laughed, though not always at the parts that the rest of the theater laughed at. A few times I was the only person laughing.

* Birdman is among other things functional review of the Transformers series; Birdman is not merely conceptual art, as Transformers 4 may be.

birdman-poster* I didn’t feel stupid watching it.

* What might the camera work signify? To most it will be brilliant or hateful, but it is at least distinctive, and distinctive in a “that must have been very hard to do” way.

* Theater folk are fucked up, but we already know that, don’t we? From the works of Michael Tolkin, among others.

* This is the kind of movie about which movie people like to say, “It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore.” See also point #3, above. Good movies are harder to find but still get made.

* Birdman is different than Gone Girl and yet both are absorbing.

* The rants are winners.

Thoughts on the movie “Gone Girl” by David Fincher

Some minor spoilers are below.

Gone Girl is great and you should see it, albeit not on a first or even second date. The spirit and structure of the book are there, and the pivotal murder scene didn’t “feel” as much to me in the book but sure did in the movie. The casting is perfect. The theater was full and there were lines both to buy tickets and to snag a decent seat; I haven’t noticed lines for movies in years.

* The movie is by, for, and about adults, and it’s about adults in an intelligent but well-plotted way. Few modern movies even attempt to hit all those buttons; TV has primarily assumed that role. Attitudes towards and depiction of sexuality are fundamentally adult, not in a pornographic sense but rather in a post-adolescence sense that one finds more often in novels than movies.

* We are often interested, in art and life, in the concept of being “likable,” but that concept is often both poorly defined and easily manipulated. Yet it persists, and Gone Girl effectively criticizes it and criticizes the media more generally by extension the people who create the media—which is to say, “us.”

* Both movie and book work for many reasons, one being that they take existing tensions and faults in many relationships and magnify them by an order of magnitude. A lot of people will walk out of Gone Girl and into discussions about character and compromise. One does not see that in movies about saving the world, in which the good guys are obviously good and the bad guys bad for all the usual reasons.

* Though I’m usually loath to use this term, Desi is the ultimate beta male. Arguably there is no alpha male in the book or movie, with the possible exception of Tanner Bolt, and one could read book or movie as critiquing the “alpha male” ideal.

* David Fincher made Gone Girl and The Social Network, both of which are among the best movies in recent memory.


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