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 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.

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 “Nymphomaniac”

* Unlike the movie I’m going to put the moneyshot at the beginning and say it’s boring; we left maybe halfway through “Vol. 1”.

Nymphomaniac* That being said the movie is mostly a comedy. Perhaps this is a function of living in New York, but I’d guess that at least a third of the audience was laughing at parts probably not intended to be funny, like the primal scream from a famous actress directed at her cheating husband. She also got the best line, asking that the children be allowed to see “the whoring bed.”

* The allegedly nymphomaniacal protagonist, Joe, doesn’t seem to have much fun doing what she’s doing, so why bother?

* The movie is consistent with the idea that women are the chief guardians of each other’s sexuality (see further, e.g. Leora Tanenbaum’s book subtitled Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation).

* The lighting is often amateurish, deliberately at first I thought, but less so as the movie went on. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Hollywood. Jittery camerawork has a more obvious artistic purpose in that it mirrors Joe’s internal turmoil about her actions.

* Despite point one in this post, Nymphomaniac still asks, “Do most people lead dull lives?”

Thoughts on the movie “In a World. . .”

* It’s surprisingly fun! I wouldn’t’ve guessed that a movie about voice-over artists would be compelling but this one is; half the reviews start this way and they’re right. Friends kept mentioning In a World. . . and I’m glad they did.

* In modern dating among young unattached people aggression wins: when in doubt err on the side of greater aggression. Few movies seem to emphasize this. Like Love, Actually, In a World over-relies on adolescent angst about making a move.

* I don’t see uptalk / babytalk as being as prevalent as it is in the movie. Perhaps I hang out with the wrong crowd?

* Voice itself, regardless of content, conveys tremendous information that I don’t think most people consciously consider.

* The micro-world or niche is an underrated setting for movies and sometimes books.

* Does celebrity affect / infect every field now? Does every field have groupies? Roosh may right that the future of game is fame, however niche.

* In a World. . . is unusually willing to be awkward without resolution. This is not a criticism.

Love, Actually: Make a move already

After reading a spate of essays about Love, Actually (“Loathe, Actually,” “The Six Cinematic Crimes of ‘Love Actually,’” “Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time“) I watched the movie and realized that none of the writers nail what started bothering me halfway through. It isn’t the gender politics of the movie, which are primarily disliked for the usual reason: people in reality behave differently than writers of essays and feminists would like them to behave. It’s because the characters in Love Actually are stuck at age 15.

The movie’s plot is essentially a series of attraction deferments: someone feels attraction, often quite strongly, and then doesn’t act on it. Instead of going up and saying, “Let’s get a drink later” or “let’s see a movie,” they blush and stutter and wonder. One character says, “takes me ages to get the courage up” to even talk to the other one. That’s a real problem I had when I was, say, 15, and would respond to attraction by hiding.

Why do teenagers do this? They’re stuck in a nasty social situation: high school. They’re inexperienced idiots. That described me fairly well.* There also might be good evolutionary reasons to avoid making romantic moves unlikely to be requited: for most of human history, humans lived in relatively small bands, and making a romantic move was probably a potentially dangerous and life-changing experience. Today, it’s relatively minor, and if one person says no you just move on to the next one. Humiliation is minor and generally forgotten by everyone except the person turned down. We live in a world so different than our ancestral environment that it’s hard to remember how poorly adapted we are to modern life.

The above paragraph might be wrong—it’s a just-so story, and I’m not even sure how to test these ideas—but it is plausible. Still, most of us realize what’s effective in modern life and start doing that as we get older, rather than persisting in endless crushes. In many domains a “no” is actually better than not knowing, or a “maybe,” since a “no” means that you can go on to find someone who says “yes.” Getting to “no” has value in itself.

In life most of us realize that missed opportunities just sort of suck—so when they arise, you seize them. Instead, the characters in Love, Actually pointlessly defer them; in real life, the opposing party often comes up with a boyfriend or girlfriend in the interim. But in movie-land, it all works out, and everyone gets laid. The fellow with the hot Portuguese flatmate should’ve tried speaking the language of love while he was there.

One definition of stupidity is the failure to learn from experience. But the experiences of the characters in the movie are so limited that there isn’t enough screen time for the ups and downs more typical of romantic comedies. All the characters, regardless of their age, also seem to have very little life experiences. The 50-year-olds are mentally 16, but with wrinkles. They lack the forthrightness uncommon in teens but fairly common by… let me make up a number and say 24.

Love Actually isn’t a terrible movie—I laughed, sometimes, and frequently when the exasperated, washed-up singer had to do his hilarious bit—but I can’t see wanting to watch it again. It was also British, which meant there were more nude scenes than an equivalent American movie would have, and those are always welcome. I also get that its characters are, if not caricatures, then at least “broadly drawn.”

* Some people would argue that it still does describe me.

Thoughts on the movie Gravity

* Gravity is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time and possibly the first to really make 3-D live up to its possibilities (Avatar, discussed at the link, was okay but overrated).

* Most movies described as “thrillers” use the term to connote a serial killer or supernatural beast or government conspiracy as the generator of primal fear of death, and yet to me they aren’t all that thrilling. Most feel silly and artificial. By contrast Gravity is one of the tensest, thrilling movies I’ve seen.

* The movie feels big—sublime, even.

* Few narrative works, whether movies or novels or TV shows, are genuinely about man versus nature.

* Few contemporary narrative works glorify astronauts or scientists (Contagion is an exception) or make people want to be one. Gravity is an exception. I’m amazed that it got made at all.

* One underlying message may say that we have to get off this planet or die on it or die trying. Rebirth is a potent motif in narrative art, as observed by Campbell, Frazer, and others; one could even argue that birth is a dominant motif in evolutionary biology. In Gravity it is enable by technology.

Thoughts on the movie Closed Circuit

* The movie, though still ridiculous, is less ridiculous than it would’ve been even a year or two ago. Yet it is less stupid than most movies of its type while still living up to its “thriller” designation. Most movies feel like a waste of time and this one did not.

* The language abuses Orwell described in 1946 are still alive in 2013, although in movies it’s easy to let those moments slide right by.

* I confirmed that I was not the only person disappointed by the lack of a sex scene, which was set up and then sadly unconsummated.

* Many if not most of us have secrets, and I wonder what the world will look like when the secrets of the watchers get revealed.

August links: Golden rice, the midlist, spy agency takeaways, RED cameras, and more

* Why most modern action films are terrible.

* Golden rice, lifesaver.

* How the Mars Spirit Rover died, an unexpectedly moving piece.

* “Can the Minerva Project do to Ivy League universities what Amazon did to Borders?” I hope so. Still I would note this: “Too much of undergrad education is the dissemination of basic information that at that level of student you should expect them to know.”

* We should be suing and charging parents who don’t vaccinate their kids.

* Midlist crisis, midlist life.

* Charlie Stross: “Snowden leaks: the real take-home;” hard to excerpt well but I would note this:

We human beings are primates. We have a deeply ingrained set of cultural and interpersonal behavioural rules which we violate only at social cost. One of these rules, essential for a tribal organism, is bilaterality: loyalty is a two-way street. (Another is hierarchicality: yield to the boss.) Such rules are not iron-bound or immutable — we’re not robots — but our new hive superorganism employers don’t obey them instinctively, and apes and monkeys and hominids tend to revert to tit for tat quite easily when unsure of their relative status. Perceived slights result in retaliation, and blundering, human-blind organizations can slight or bruise an employee’s ego without even noticing. And slighted or bruised employees who lack instinctive loyalty because the culture they come from has spent generations systematically destroying social hierarchies and undermining their sense of belonging are much more likely to start thinking the unthinkable.

Edward Snowden is 30: he was born in 1983. Generation Y started in 1980-82. I think he’s a sign of things to come.

PS: Bradley Manning is 25.

Still, I would also note that my generation’s thinkers are steeped in knowledge about how the Holocaust happened, how the Soviet Union happened, how Watergate happened, and, more generally, how these events can and will happen again. Right now the United States’s spy agencies have begun a power grab and turned, like an overactive immune system, against the United States itself. Snowden and Manning are symptoms and harbingers, revealers of evil not doers of evil.

* Why we should fear rapid methane release due to global warming.

* Jim Jannard of RED fame’s last forum post; see also the Hacker News discussion. Jannard built the infrastructure of the present, which was then the future, and he’s still building the future. Virtually anyone who has watched any TV show or movie made in the last five years has been the beneficiary of his work, either directly because he made RED cameras, or indirectly, because competing camera manufacturers were forced to compete at a higher level.

* “Affordable Excellence. . . This book is a clear first choice on the Singapore health system and everyone interested in health care economics, or Singapore, should read it. It is short, clear, and to the point.” I am struck by how many people have strong opinions about healthcare without really understanding the system. Sloganeering is rampant and understanding scant.

Links: Movies, critics, Franco Moretti, love and sex, peak oil, and other affairs of the mind and soul

* Why do so many movies feel formulaic? Because they’re using a formula: “Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* The case for professional critics.

* On Franco Moretti: “Adventures of a Man of Science,” which is about the effort to apply statistical methods to literature.

* “Role Reversal: How the US Became the USSR.”

* “Love, Actually: Adelle Waldman’s Brilliant Debut;” though I feel like I have read the book after reading the review.

* Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is both interesting and painful; it brings to mind Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010, much like the movie Rust and Bone. In the backstory to Lost Girls, there are many moments like this, when Megan, one of the eventual victims, “found out she was pregnant. The father was a DJ, thirty-two, with one child already in New Hampshire. Megan met him at a club in Portland—a bathroom hookup, nothing more. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ she said softly” {Kolker “Girls”@53}.

If you’re going to get pregnant from a stranger, a random DJ seems like a bad choice, but it’s the sort of choice that millions of women appear to be making (which may explain why millions of men are responding by learning game, so they can be more like the DJ and less like the guys playing Xbox and watching porn at home.)

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* “Difficult Women: How ‘Sex and the City’ lost its good name.” I especially like this:

So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* “Let’s shake up the social sciences;” the humanities could also use a strong shaking as long as we’re at it.

Thoughts on the movie Spring Breakers

* “Spring break forever” is a refrain in the movie, but spring break forever is actually hell. You need “normal” life to contextualize the party and make it special. Not every day can be a festival if a “festival” is to have any meaning. Tucker Max says in Hilarity Ensures that he “worked in Cancun, Mexico for six full weeks during my second year at Duke Law School” and by the end he says “Cancun beat me, like it eventually beats everyone.”

* A lot of the people in the theater were laughing, and so was I, because the absurdity of the movie. Is this a New York cynicism thing? Would the theater have been laughing in Oklahoma or Kansas? It was hard to tell if most of the movie was supposed to be funny.

* I don’t grok in fullness the spring break ideal, because to the extent I want to drink, take drugs, and hook up with random girls, I can do so at home, and it’s triply easy in college. That being said, I understand intellectually that for many people the distance and otherness of spring break lets them decide that “normal” rules don’t apply. . . but if they don’t apply there, why not just decide they don’t apply at home, either? Is this a lack of imagination?

* Young, attractive women very rarely commit armed robberies, as they do at the beginning of Spring Breakers to fund the trip, because armed robberies are not worth doing: from what I’ve read, the going rate for reasonably young, attractive hookers is about $200 – $250 per hour. The characters could have made more money with way less risk with a couple hours and Craigslist. But the armed robbery functions as a symbolic stepping outside of normal boundaries for them. Still, selling sex makes more sense than robbing banks.

* The movie conveys altered states effectively: the jump cuts, the voiceovers, the visual and audio not matching: for the first 50 or so minutes it’s mesmerizing, like some drugs.

* It’s axiomatic that people who do stupid, dangerous things often die. It’s possible to do things that are stupid but not dangerous, like most reality TV, or things that are dangerous but not stupid, like be an astronaut or test pilot, but the convergence of those two is uniquely irritating.

* Spring Breakers is less fun than Magic Mike but shares many points; both movies are set in Florida, and what does that say about the state?

* Related to point #3, spring break as a concept, like Vegas, fascinates me, especially from a woman’s perspective. If you’re a woman, and especially a reasonably attractive one, it isn’t hard to go out and get laid. So why bother pretending that spring break (or Vegas) is fundamentally different than any other part of your life? Some psychological / anthropological mechanism is at work here.

* The reviews that make it sound interesting are exaggerating the movie’s content; if you want porn, go watch porn, and if you want a story, watch a better movie (it’s not impossible to reconcile nudity and story—HBO does it constantly, and well, but too often movies sunder the two, which is strange given how much our early lives are devoted to stories about nudity or seeking it). Also, Tyler Cowen’s characterization is interesting, and I agree about the vitality, at least in the movie’s first half.

* Leaping from the last point, movies in general are in an interesting spot: in an age of Internet porn, there’s no particular reason other than history and path dependence for them to avoid explicit sexuality, but, on the other hand, in an age of Internet porn, showing T&A isn’t sufficient to make a movie interesting.

* I was ready to leave with about twenty minutes left, and offered to go, but she said, “Don’t you want to know what happens?” and I said, “No. Some of them are going to die, but who cares?” In the context of the movie, “Who cares?” is an important, unasked question.

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