Thoughts on the movie “The Nice Guys”

* It’s charming: Charm is hard to define but easy to feel. The plot is ridiculous without being stupid, which is a more important distinction than it seems. Shane Black, the director, also did the underrated and forgotten Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In an age of Netflix and streaming, I’m surprised Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hasn’t been rediscovered.

Nice Guys* Like many caper movies (and books), The Nice Guys is about principled dirtbags, but observing life I’ve run into few, if any, principled dirtbags, and many unprincipled, standard-issue dirtbags. Shades of Elmore Leonard abound.

* One of the movie’s lessons may be, “Never lose your pistol.” But it’s not really a “lesson” movie.

* The Nice Guys‘s villain is unusual and unusually interesting, though not overstated or supernatural. You may be reminded of the second, not-very-good season of True Detective. But The Nice Guys gets tone as right as True Detective gets it wrong.

* The number of people who die in cars is amazing. Even today, around 30,000 people die annually in cars. You’d think this would lead to a transportation revolution and political outcry, but it doesn’t. About 3,000 people died, once, on 9/11. If the U.S. response to mass car death were proportional to the U.S. response to 9/11, we’d be living in a very different world.

* Seattle is now larger than Detroit, and Seattle isn’t even that big (this won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the movie).

* Were the ’70s as fun at the time as they’re now depicted in retrospect?

Thoughts on Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience”

* No one in the show evinces any enthusiasm. If I pitched clients with anything like the affect of the lawyers at the firm where Christine / Chelsea works, we’d have no clients. I don’t have any direct experience with the The Girlfriend Experience world, but I gather that escorts or hookers or whatever you want to call them are fundamentally selling people skills. In the show everyone is unbelievably uncomfortable with each other. Chelsea does say, “I don’t have any friends.” That’s believable. Distressingly believable. For her, there seems to be no there, there.

Girlfriend_Experience* There is almost no humor in the show, yet to my mind the situation is more humorous than dramatic. One sees a little humor in the episode when Chelsea / Christine says to her boss that she has a few clients, “including you.” The implications of that moment are rich, but there are too few such moments. Christine says that their relationship has “always been business.” Where does business end and personal begin? Does it ever?

* The spatial arrangements of The Girlfriend Experience are consistently interesting and revealing. But a show that starts out realistic-seeming and somewhat plausible becomes more and more baroque, ridiculous, soap-operatic, and ludicrous.

* I know it’s annoying when cops say cop shows are bogus and doctors say doctor shows are bogus, but in The Girlfriend Experience none of the lawyers seem to have specialties or areas of expertise (early in the series the firm consists of patent attorneys; later on, they do law far removed from that field). The scenes detailing law are weirdly generic and surface-feeling. The characters speak in word salad. There is no content to go with the form. I work in a field that is not law but is sufficiently adjacent to it to recognize total bullshit. The law discussions are unconvincing. In the real world real issues get discussed in depth by real people. Cryptonomicon depicts this convincingly in fiction. The Girlfriend Experience has a sprinkling of law talk.

* Maybe in the above bullets I’m small-minded and missing the point. The point is not about a realistic lawyer show. The point is about the acts. I will say that some of the foreplay or roleplay talk between lawyer / intern is plausible. Very plausible.

* It’s refreshing to see a woman shown as aggressive in a non-stupid way. Being hardcore is also underrated, and very few TV shows or movie depict being hardcore. Unreal does, which is one of the refreshing and admirable parts of it.

* For someone who is attempting to be a lawyer, Christine / Chelsea does not think very many moves ahead. I’ll avoid real spoilers and just say that episode 11 has to have any actual lawyer rolling their eyes. Her liking sex isn’t what should preclude her from being a lawyer; her being a terrible strategist for herself should.

* The TV show is oddly congruent with the movie Her.

* The protagonist sounds perpetually unconvincing. Maybe that’s intentional. Actually, it almost has to be intentional.

* Being fond of risk in erotic situations makes sense, but the level of risk Christine / Chelsea seeks is probably incompatible with a law firm internship. She’d be more believable as a hacker, in Paul Graham’s sense of the word, since that field is unusually open, unusually unencumbered by unfair occupational licensing, and unusually merit-driven. Law is none of those things. By now, six months in a coding school like the Flatiron School makes more sense than three years in law school. Maybe coding is less attractive because hackers rarely directly fuck with people’s lives the way lawyers sometimes do, but it is a more intelligent occupation for someone with Christine / Chelsea’s appetite for risk.

Hackers, though, are involved in a positive-sum world, rather than the lawyer’s zero-sum world. If you want ennui and anomie, law and management consulting are hard fields to beat. The hacker’s fundamental ethos is to make something new and make something people want. The lawyer’s fundamental ethos is to fight like hell and beat the other guy. The resonances are very different (and they are yet another reason not to go to law school).

* In the bullet above, I’m not knocking risk-seeking or risk-taking or being into stuff that other people don’t understand. I’m also not knocking Christine / Chelsea’s occupation or bifurcated life. Her occupation probably produces more value than many lawyers produce, and that value is more easily measurable in money than law is.

* Victimhood culture is out of control in the United States. We we already know that, but it’s unusual to see it confirmed on TV.

* In contemporary relationships there is a game-theory dynamic in which the person who cares less has control, or power, or “hand.” But following that dynamic to its logical conclusion seems like a crappy way to live, even if superficially rational actors might pursue it. Given the University of Chicago’s role in economics, law, and economics in law, it may not be a coincidence that the show is set there, instead of somewhere cooler like New York, Austin, or Seattle.

Then again, sometimes renting is better than buying.

* How often are people who accuse others of selfishness selfish themselves?

* The show gets better as it goes on. But: The ending? Of the first season? I’m reminded of the debates around the final, series-ending episode of The Sopranos.

* The Girlfriend Experience is also about technology. The Technology and Law Marketing Blog hits the same intersection between law and technology.

* Despite the critical tenor of the above points I’m glad I watched the show. This is one ecstatic review; others may be found.  The Girlfriend Experience isn’t stupid, and “not stupid” is distressingly uncommon characteristic. It also doesn’t feel like it’s a following a Save the Cat-style formula. It’s more willing to be weird and awkward than many TV shows or movies, which is a great, rare virtue. It’s not for everyone. That makes it more likely to be for someone.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

* The movie is remarkably funny, and it’s funny in a way that most supposedly funny movies aren’t. Comedies tend towards the scatological or sexual, which I’m not against but the relentlessness of the subject matter does become tiring. This one has a bit of each, but it’s more absurdistly funny. And politically funny.

* Afghanistan really is the forgotten war. I don’t really know what’s going on in Afghanistan right now. Do you? Don’t let this serious bullet point dissuade you from the movie.

* Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sticks the landing: The last two minutes are perfect and in tune with the rest. The last third of Magic Mike is like the first two-thirds but without the “magic” part.

* We are very much outsiders from there. The movie is congruent with “Soldiers of Reddit who’ve fought in Afghanistan, what preconceptions did you have that turned out to be completely wrong?” (See the seventh item at the link.)

* Being able to retreat from history is really, really nice. Even terrorism, while nice, kills less than 1% as many people in Western countries as car crashes alone. The average person has far more to fear from simple carbs than from terrorists.

Guest post: “Brooklyn” is movie of the year, or maybe the decade

This post is by Isaac Seliger; there are some minor spoilers.

Movie buffs know that the end of the year brings Hollywood’s “adult” (not that kind of adult) movie openings. This year Brooklyn fits that slot, and it’s easily the movie of the year if not decade. There’s not a single wasted shot.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who ends up in Brooklyn in 1952: This is not the hipster Brooklyn of today or the “dems” and “dosse” ethnic Brooklyn caricatures Hollywood usually presents. Instead, this Brooklyn is a mashup of hard working immigrant and first-generation Irish and Italians living side by side yet apart from one another. They strive for the American dream but are lashed to the fading memory of a romanticized old country. As the child of German Jewish refugees from the Nazis (Jake never knew his grandparents) who grew up in the 1950s in a not-too-dissimilar neighborhood in Minneapolis, I know these people.

The story swings back and forth from Brooklyn to a seemingly charming Irish village. Or is it charming? People don’t leave charming, happy places. While Eilis longs for the imagined brighter future of America at the start of the film, homesickness fills the middle third. With the film’s resolution, we learn why Eilis can’t go home again and must, as all immigrants/refugees, find a way to build a new home. America’s immigrant nature means that almost every family has an Eilis in their lineage.

Then there is the choice to name the heroine “Eilis,” an unusual Irish girl’s name and the Gaelic form of Elizabeth. Eilis evokes the timeless image of waves of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Brooklyn includes two scenes set in an Ellis-Island-like immigration arrival hall.

Brooklyn is the best movie about the American immigrant experience since Hester Street that I can recall. Hester Street tells a similar story: A young Russian Jewish woman named Gitl follows her husband to the Lower East Side in 1896. Like Eilis, Gitl struggles with the new land, but Hester Street is darker. The Lower East at the turn of 20th Century presented a much more uncertain future for immigrants than Brooklyn in 1952. The U.S. was much smaller and poorer. The fruits of industrialization and mechanization were less certain. And by the 1950s, the overt and virulent anti-immigrant feelings of the 19th Century had largely faded. The early 1950s America was a time of post-World-War-II optimism and economic growth. Brooklyn’s Irish and Italian immigrants are confident of a bright future.

Unlike many modern bloated films, Brooklyn is only 111 minutes long. Casablanca, my vote for best movie of all time, is only 102 minutes. In contrast, The Revenant clocks in at 156 minutes and The Hateful Eight at a butt-numbing 168 minutes. As grant writers, Jake and I can attest that writing shorter is often much harder than writing longer; I assume the same is true of movie making.

Individual stories humanize mass groups. Today’s news often presents Syrian refugees as a faceless horde with potentially ominous motives. In Brooklyn, Eilis places a human face on the overarching immigration theme. She chooses to come to America, rather than being forced, and choice matters. My parents and most of the Syrian refugees today are really just leaves being blown by The Winds of War. America is a big enough country to shelter many, and Brooklyn implicitly shows why and how.

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 economics, psychology, and human sexuality classes? 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 are those costs made as stark as they are in Hot Girls Wanted.

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) has a trope: some Bad Trend occurs and then the writer adds, “Women and minorities hurt most.” Hot Girls Wanted deploys a similar frame; 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, 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 ignorant 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. Porn is similar in this way.

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. Belle de Jour already had gone through British undergrad. She was (and probably is) an intense reader. She knew much better what she was doing when she started working.

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, and Alpha Centauri is maybe not good so good at understanding or emphasizing this.

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

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