The problem with Louis CK

I tried to articulate some of my issues with Louis CK’s new special, 2017, on the latest episode of the /Filmcast. I used to feel that CK was poking fun at politically correct people — that there was a broader purpose to trying to rile people up with his humor. Of late, I’ve lost that sense and started to perceive his humor as merely inflammatory, rather than commenting on comedy that is inflammatory.

Here’s his recent opening monologue for SNL:

Other people have deeper issues with his humor. Here’s Jeff Ihaza, writing for The Outline, about 2017:

We often look to comedians for philosophical advice or digestible interpretations of our current moment. (President Obama once quoted, and was later criticized for, a Chris Rock joke in a speech about race.) For fans of C.K., who has been accused on multiple occasions of sexual misconduct with women comedians, there are more pressing ethical quandaries and clear limitations of his endlessly cynical worldview. As the writer Vinson Cunningham pointed out in The New Yorker, “In Louis C.K. 2017, he acknowledges the fundamental absurdity of the standup’s recent designation as a purveyor of sociopolitical opinion. ‘Here’s what I think,’ he says, almost rolling his eyes at himself, as he eases into a finely parsed opening routine on abortion.”

Perhaps it is the fault of the modern age. Comedians like Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle — whose similarly timely Netflix specials premiered last month — were seen as soothsayers once upon a time, able to vocalize their fans’ anxieties and make them laugh. Today, there seems to be a deficiency of such voices. Louis C.K., whom I once considered an insightful, if absurd, philosopher, seems like too much of the wrong thing. In the context of the current mood and with the knowledge that he might be a predatory person, his style betrays something darker than mere self-deprecating wit.

SNL and the logic of interviewing Kellyanne Conway

SNL delivered a mixed bag of an episode with guest Alec Baldwin last night, but there were a couple sketches that really stood out. The first is the cold open with Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, which continues to be a highlight. The second is this bit about Jake Tapper and Kellyanne Conway:

I was surprised the Conway/CNN kerfuffle had risen to the level of SNL parody, but it is an interesting one to me: CNN passed on having Kellyanne Conway on “State of the Union” last week, a fact that Conway disputed. Why? Because the journalistic value of interviewing Conway has become suspect.

Jay Rosen has been on the anti-Conway warpath for awhile, and he makes some pretty astute observations about how journalists should treat Conway. In an interview with Recode, Rosen lays out his reasoning:

I don’t think the people interviewing Kellyanne Conway know why they’re doing that, meaning that the journalistic logic of it is growing dimmer with every interview […]

The logic is, “This is a representative of the president. This is somebody who can speak for the Trump administration.” If we find that what Kellyanne Conway says is routinely or easily contradicted by Donald Trump, then that rationale disappears. Another reason to interview Kellyanne Conway is our viewers want to understand how the Trump world thinks. If what the end result of an interview with her is is more confusion about what the Trump world thinks, then that rationale evaporates.

 

Melissa McCarthy’s impression of Sean Spicer on SNL

McCarthy’s impression was funny, but I’m more curious about what impact this will have on our actual politics, and on the White House’s relationship with the media. In saner times, Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin showed it could re-shape the popular perception of a vice presidential candidate from a major political party. That was before we had a president who actually seems to watch SNL somewhat regularly and complain about it on Twitter.

I appreciated Emily Nussbaum’s take on it:

It seems possible that Spicer, already a target of Trump’s occasional anger, may face some kind of reckoning for it.

Five Lessons on Virality from Felix Salmon’s Epic Jonah Peretti Interview

It took me awhile but I finally got through Felix Salmon’s epic(ally long) interview with Jonah Peretti. Peretti made millions working on The Huffington Post and now manages Buzzfeed.

Salmon’s interview is long and meandering, but it’s a an insightful discussion on the nature of virality. There’s lots to learn, but here are five points that I found to be particularly salient:

Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to break through, and when you do, you’re popular for a shorter period of time – Back in the day, Peretti created Black People Love Us, which skewered liberal PC sensibilities. But in the early oughts, making something viral had a higher potential to change the course of your life. According to Peretti:

Now you see people do a really cool project or a cool Tumblr and they don’t end up on the Today Show. We were on Good Morning America for Black People Love Us. We had the front page of Sunday Styles for Black People Love Us. The Rejection Line, we were on CNN and in People and in Elle. I think that some project like that today, would not have had the novelty to get the mainstream attention and would have a lot more competition on the web of cool things, and the rate at which they spread has been compressed a lot so things pop for a day or two.

As people/companies try to shoot for the next great viral hit, it’s important to keep in mind the ROI on projects. Building something that will have long-term equity is important, vs. a flash in the pan video that is seen today and forgotten in 48 hours.

The platform is just as important as the content – Peretti realized really early on that building a robust platform at Huffington Post was just as important as getting popular people to write on it:

There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together. One was to make the site itself viral, which was celebrities blogging. I was very focused on making sure that they used the default blogging tools of the Internet. I think that everyone expected us to have some Flash site that wasn’t a real blog…It had all the things that blogs were supposed to have so that people who knew about blogging would see it and say, “Oh, Larry David is blogging.” Not, “Larry David’s doing some weird new thing that Arianna Huffington invented.” We knew that was the piece that was going to make it take off and be contagious. Then Andrew posting links and headlines that were constantly updated would be the thing that made it sticky. You’d come to see the celebrities blogging, you’d say, “Wow, what does this mean? That blogging has evolved in this different way.” And then you would say, “Oh, there’s a good link here. There’s a good link here.” And you would just keep coming back every day. Even if Larry David didn’t blog again for three months, you’d be checking the site because you’d have great links to content around the web. That was sort of the idea.

Master search engines and you master the world – One of the things that Buzzfeed and HuffPo nailed perfectly was optimizing for Google. But it went beyond just standard SEO practices. As Google shifted to enable the surfacing of links in real-time, Buzzfeed shifted its strategy to do the same. Peretti explains:

[A]t BuzzFeed we had figured out that you could rapidly swarm a breaking news topic, particularly about a person, place, or thing that was new, like a beauty queen who loses her crown and no one’s heard of this beauty queen. If you make a great page about that thing, you often could get to the top of Google results just as searches were surging. It was partly because Google got faster indexing at that point. Google was slow indexing and then all of a sudden became quick, and BuzzFeed figured that out in the lab, but then HuffPost editors got really good at it and we’d swarm stories very quickly and often be the first news source to create a comprehensive page for what was happening, linking out to other multiple other sources. Those pages became huge growth generators for the site.

As search engines continue to shift into the real-time/social world, optimizing your site based on new functionality can help you gain traction in ways that were previously impossible.

Optimizing for any single metric can negatively impact other valuable metrics – This one was pretty interesting to me. People normally think that clickthroughs are the sacrosanct metric that drives much of the online publishing business. But Peretti realized that the clickthrough, in and of itself, was not a metric to be valued.

You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there. If they knew that it was Giorgio Armani — if you just did a post saying, “Here’s a picture of Giorgio Armani on the beach” — people who care about that sort of thing would click and people who didn’t wouldn’t. You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.”

In other words, you can optimize for JUST clickthrough but you’d potentially be alienating readers and not investing in the long term health of your site.

Furthermore, the rise of the social web, in the form of Twitter and Facebook, have made it more important for headlines to accurately represent the content they are labeling. People often share headlines and then describe what they think of them, thus personalizing articles in ways that aren’t possible with headlines that are devoid of info.

Instead, the focus should be on the quality of the content. Says Peretti, “If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, ‘Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?’ And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things. That’s really the focus.”

“Life is tricky because it happens once and there’s no opportunity for A/B testing” – For someone who works rigorously on optimizing his content, Peretti admits that there’s no way you can really optimize for your life. I just loved the way the piece ends:

[It’s possible] that this life you’re living is the best or among the top 5 percent of lives that you would have lived, and in lots of other ones you’d end up in an alley or in an unhappy relationship or with a job where you’re not intellectually fulfilled, and that you have found this amazing path. It’s also possible that you’re not even in the top 50 percent of lives and that your life is really tragic and that despite all the wonderful and impressive and amazing things you’ve done, that you had the potential to do all these incredible other things that would have been either bigger in scale or more fulfilling or more modest and simple, but more pleasurable or whatever. That there were all these other paths that would be better. It’s, I think, hard to say whether there is something I missed that would have made things much better. In general, I’m pretty happy, and all these imagined alternate lives, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to speculate on how they’d compare.

The Travails of a Wannabe Screenwriter

Man, I adored this piece by Stephen Harrigan about his struggles trying to (or not trying to?) make it big in Hollywood as a screenwriter (via Matt Singer):

I had wanted to be a screenwriter since 1962, when I walked out of the Tower Theater in Corpus Christi, Texas as a very different 14-year-old boy than when I had walked in. The movie was Lawrence of Arabia, and watching it was like being sucked into a wormhole and delivered to an alternate universe. The unworldly disorientation I experienced was due in large part to David Lean’s direction, to his unprecedented sense of scale and pace and purpose, and to the Maurice Jarre score, which half a century later was still so haunting to me that I sometimes use it as the ringtone on my cellphone. But Lawrence of Arabia had another dimension, one that I had never really noticed before. For the first time, I was aware that movies were written, not just somehow fortuitously assembled. It was obvious that the dialogue—“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts” or “What attracts you personally to the desert?” “It’s clean.”—had to have been set down somewhere in cold print, not just thought up on the fly. And it was more than the dialogue itself that made me take notice of the name Robert Bolt; it was the wordless action as well, the way the scenes steadily built and drew upon each other to produce such a satisfying impression of momentum and coherence.

How To Make a Hit Basic Cable Network

John Landgraf is the president of FX, a TV network that rose from the rubble to become one of the most exciting ones in existence. I found his recent interview with Kim Masters on KCRW’s The Business to be hugely insightful and fascinating. In particular, Landgraf reflects on his decision to pass on Breaking Bad, a decision that he doesn’t necessarily regret, but one that he certainly would have done differently today. Check out the whole thing below (the interview begins 6 minutes in):

 

One of my favorite bits occurs when Landgraf discusses the uselessness of focus groups:

People don’t always know what they want. That’s the problem with research and the problem with focus groups. I mean, what group of people could tell you “What we really want is Avatar,” or “what we really want is South Park” or “What we really want is The Simpsons“? Those things didn’t exist in anything like that form before they existed, and people love them. So, creative people’s jobs is to imagine the existence of things that don’t exist, and people can’t always tell you what they want and they’re often confused by really innovative work. Until they’re not. 

The Hard Knock Life of a Filmmaker

I’ve written about Bobby Miller’s film Tub before, but the short film randomly went viral on Reddit the other day. With his newfound fame, Miller took to Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” section to answer some questions. Miller’s always a fun guy, but I particularly liked his answer to one Redditor asking, “Would you recommend going into film?”:

This is a legit question and a hard one… I think if you choose any kind of art as a career, it’s going to be tough. I’ve struggled with money before TUB and after TUB. The last few years I’ve done a lot of digital content for companies like MTV, Next New Networks, and the Collective. And that’s what’s put a roof over my head. When it comes to jobs, you really just have to work your ass off on your first one and make an impression. Because every single job I’ve had past that first one has come from the first one! No one looks at resumes, they look at your work. And if it’s strong (or you bribe them money), they’ll hire you. Would I recommend going into film? I’d only go into it if there’s literally nothing else you can do with your life. If you go to bed dreaming of making movies and waking up with those same dreams, then unfortunately you’re screwed and you should join the filmmaking community!

The First 30 Days

What is one year like in the life of David Chen? We’re all about to find out.

Earlier this year, a woman named Madeline released an interesting video on Vimeo. She had shot one second of video for every day of her life during the year 2011. I found the result to be unexpectedly inspiring and moving.

Several months later, /Filmcast listener and all-around awesome dude Cesar Kuriyama took to the stage at TED to unveil his own “one second every day project“, which he’d been filming every day for the 30th year of his life.

Kuriyama is passionate about the project and believes everyone should engage in it. I think the final result is fascinating, a seemingly endless series of context-less images. Context-less, that is, to everyone but the filmmaker. It’s a compelling snapshot of one’s life, a video that is evocative for the creator and intriguing and enigmatic for the viewer.

So, I’m pleased to announce that I am also undertaking this project. My birthday this year was May 20th, right around the same time I uprooted my life from Boston and moved to Seattle. Starting on that day, I have filmed one second of video every single day. Around this time next year, I’ll plan to publish the result, a chronicle of my first year here.

In doing this project, I’ve made a few observations about how best to approach it. First of all, I think this project works best when the second that you record is somehow representative of the day that you had, or at least, how you want to remember that day. In practice, this can get a bit tricky; often times the most interesting that happens to me is an interaction I have with someone else. While I can frequently “anticipate” when a good “second” will arrive, it’s often inopportune to whip out a camera and start recording. Secondly, it’s useful to record multiple seconds for each day, giving you the option to choose from a number of them. As a result, it’s also important to have a robust cataloging system for all of your “potential seconds.” Finally, I don’t have experience with this yet, but it sounds like it’s useful to create a master file for the final video, then stitch the videos together intermittently and continuously add them to that file, as opposed to doing them all at the end. Alternatively, one could also create videos for each month, then bind them all together in the end. I may end up going this path because it will allow me to release regular video content, but it also robs the final video of some of its uniqueness. We’ll see. 

As a proof-of-concept, I’ve stitched together my first 30 seconds, representing my first month here. You can find this video below:

When I began working on the project, I asked Cesar Kuriyama, “What if you do this every day for a year and the resulting video ends up being incredibly boring?”

Kuriyama responded, “That’s good! Because then you’ll look back on how boring your life was and you’ll resolve to change things.”

Not a bad point, that. I don’t know what the end result will motivate me to do. I can only hope it will show a life lived full, with love, laughter, and friends, a humble aspiration for the beginning of my new life.

[I am indebted to Cesar Kuriyama for his counsel and for helping me to establish a workflow for pulling these clips together. Be sure to check out his other work.]

Vulture’s Great Aaron Sorkin Interview

Great Sorkin interview by Mark Harris, with tons of memorable excerpts including this one, on the advantages of making a show for premium cable:

[T]here are no commercial breaks, so you’re not, every eight minutes, building to a sort of phony climax. Fewer episodes per season, so you’re able to do a better job on each episode. There’s another advantage that nobody ever talks about. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. And it’s end credits. Why are end credits a big deal? Because no matter what you write, the last moment is meant to resonate. And with HBO or any of the premium cable channels, it does. You have music playing, you have end credits rolling, the audience has a moment to sit there and just kind of feel the way the storytellers are hoping you’ll feel. On network TV, the last line of the episode can be, “Mrs. Landingham’s dead.” And then we cut immediately to a Nokia commercial. And so I always felt like the episode was getting punched in the face right at the end.

Unfortunately the first reviews for The Newsroom are already out and they’re not pretty. Here’s Emily Nussbaum’s take:

The pilot of “The Newsroom” is full of yelling and self-righteousness, but it’s got energy, just like “The West Wing,” Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” and his hit movie “The Social Network.” The second episode is more obviously stuffed with piety and syrup, although there’s one amusing segment, when McAvoy mocks some right-wing idiots. After that, “The Newsroom” gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping. The third episode is lousy (and devolves into lectures that are chopped into montages). The fourth episode is the worst. There are six to go.

A Case Against File Sharing

The Trichordist (via Matthew) responds to a blog post by Emily White at NPR, in which White grapples with the ethics of file sharing:

“[S]mall” personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly “love”. And it is up to us individually to examine the consequences of our actions. It is not up to governments or corporations to make us choose to behave ethically. We have to do that ourselves.

Aaron Sorkin’s Self-Delusional NYTimes Interview

David Itzkoff recently conducted an interview with Aaron Sorkin about his upcoming new HBO series The Newsroom. I’m super-psyched about the show and hope it’s a return to form for Sorkin, who’s been on a roll after winning a Best Screenwriting Oscar for The Social Network.

Itzkoff does a good job at getting at some of the issues that Sorkin faces in creating a television show, but it struck me from reading the interview that Sorkin is either a skilled deceiver or he’s deluding himself when he makes some of his statements. Here he is discussing The West Wing:

I have no political background, and I have no political agenda. All of my experience has been in theater and writing. But I just thought it would be fun to write about a hypercompetent group of people.

Riiiight, so it’s just a total coincidence that Sorkin’s band of flawed but ridiculously noble political figures was Democratic? To be fair, Sorkin also had solid Republican figures on the show too (e.g. Ainsley Hayes, Glen Walken), but I could never shake the feeling that they were perfunctory characters, put in there to demonstrate how “balanced” Sorkin was. “Alright, so Democrats are the unquestioned heroes in this show, but we also have this super attractive and intelligent blond woman, see?!” I’m not saying that there aren’t any super attractive and intelligent blond female Republicans out there (in fact, I think their existence is well-proven by now), but taken in this context, these characters almost feel condescending through their very existence.

These issues are easily encapsulated in the promo for The Newsroom:

Linda Holmes has already brilliantly deconstructed this trailer:

Gender dynamics are a serious problem in nearly all of Sorkin’s writing, and here, we open with a condescending lecture from a wise man to a stupid woman who says something (“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”) that represents a real phenomenon he’s trying to get at, but which is an utter straw man in that it’s not typically expressed in that sort of “hit me, I’m a pinata” kind of way.

Sorkin seems to have trouble finding a balance between “extremely smart” and “extremely dumb” on his shows, and to use one or the other is to inevitably condescend to one side or the other.

Here’s Sorkin again:

It’s funny that you brought up “Studio 60” because Matthew Perry once said, “I think that if you wrote this under a pseudonym it would still be on the air.” With “Studio 60,” there was a thought that I was writing autobiographically when I wasn’t.

Riiiight, so it’s just a total coincidence that that show’s protagonist, Matt Albie is a flawed but ridiculously noble writer dead set on changing the world through his writing? Nathan Rabin has a great piece on Studio 60 where he delves into this very issue:

In premise and execution, Studio 60 was a work of unbearable, overweening arrogance. It began with making the lead character of Matt Albie both a clear Sorkin surrogate and a writer so ridiculously romanticized even M. Night Shyamalan might say, “Get over yourself, dude. You’re a fucking writer, not Jesus’ younger brother, the one God really likes.” 

I could go on but I think you get the point. Aaron, you are one of my heroes and one of the most gifted writers on the planet. OWN IT. Own your own opinions. And maybe understand that sometimes your point of view might leak out into the world through your work. We’ll forgive you for it.

Is the TV Business Collapsing?

Here are two competing points of view about how quickly the TV industry is collapsing. The first comes from Henry Blodget over at Business Insider, who argues that TV industry trends mirror the collapse of the newspaper industry:

[L]ots of newspaper companies went broke or almost went broke. And the stock of The New York Times Company, the country’s premier newspaper, fell from $50 to $6. In other words, newspapers were screwed. It just took a while for changing user behavior to really hammer the business. The same is almost certainly true for television.

Former Blodget employee (and all-around great writer) Dan Frommer points out that market forces in the TV industry are drastically different:

The reality is that, yes, the TV industry will change over time. Some of today’s winners will become tomorrow’s losers, and new entrants may grow to dominate. But barring some unforeseen technical or creative revolution, it’s going to happen a lot slower than you think. It is easy to complain that the cable/telco/satellite-dominated TV distribution system is inefficient, too expensive, or “ripe for disruption”, and many do. But that model is actually still very strong.

I tend to agree with Frommer here. Yes, the way we watch TV will soon change forever. But the entrenched forces are so intense that they aren’t going to go away nearly as quickly. Just look at how HBO has recently had to fight off willing payers with a stick. It will more likely be a slow and painful decline. Look forward to it.

Plot Holes Big Enough to Drive a Space Ship Through

Frank Swain (via Annalee) does a spectacular job deconstructing the scientific flaws of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. SPOILERS in the article:

The scientific techniques carried out during the movie are a bit hit and miss. Conceptually, items such at the moving arm scanner on the hospital bed, and what I will only refer to as the “coin-operated vivisection chamber”, are ace, and a good extrapolation of emerging technology. They’re swish and smooth and white and very much like Apple products. And like Apple products, the people using them don’t really seem to know what they’re doing.

Retaliation in March

The big news in the entertainment industry yesterday was Paramount deciding to move back one of its major summer tentpole releases until March 2013. I’m only tangentially covering the industry at this point but my guess is that this probably sent shockwaves through Hollywood. The ad campaign for G.I. Joe Retaliation was already in full swing. I’ve seen trailers in front of movies. Paramount spent millions advertising the film during the superbowl. I saw a giant banner for this film in Bellevue the other day, unfurled right next to one for Men In Black 3. In an industry where so much of a film’s success hinges on the first three days, squandering all of that advertising feels like madness, with maybe a hint of desperation.

Why did Paramount do it? Ostensibly it was to give the film time to be converted into 3D, thus generating increased revenue worldwide. I don’t doubt that a quality 3D conversion could be completed in that time, but seems like some pretty poor planning to decide that this late if you ask me
Spinoff Online has some interesting conspiracy theorizing about why the move. My best guess? The suits at Paramount saw the returns on Hasbro’s disastrous Battleship and got cold feet. Companies have been ended for smaller flops. Maybe give viewers time to warm up to the idea of a toy-based film again? 
Throughout all of this, my heart goes out to director Jon Chu. I was really rooting for him to break out into mainstream success with this film. He’s no slouch, to be sure: his past films have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. But Retaliation had the potential to single-handedly reach grosses in the hundreds of millions and cement him as a go-to action director with the chops to deliver a major blockbuster. This decision can’t have been an easy one for Chu (and I’m sure he didn’t make it, nor was he pleased with it – his Twitter account has been strangely silent, save for a cryptic photo that may have been unintentionally ironic). 
Also check out this Hollywood Reporter interview, in which Chu talks about how liberating it was to shoot in 2D. Curiouser and curiouser…
(Thanks to Peter Smith for hooking me up with some of these links)

Sci-Fi and Reproductive Rights

Annalee Newitz from io9 is so damn smart. Here’s a recent piece by her in which she describes what science fiction tells us about our fears and hopes about the future of human reproduction:

If everything from technology to politics will be different in the future, then so will human reproduction. That’s why so much science fiction deals with the question of how humans make babies — or don’t make them — in alternate worlds that are often quite close to our own. It’s also why reproduction is a political issue. After all, a political campaign represents the promise of a new kind of future.

Fascinating and insightful.

Anatomy of a Joke

From the New York Times comes a detailed analysis and evolution of a joke by comedian Myq Kaplan:

Looking back at the joke’s various incarnations, Mr. Kaplan said it was heartening to see improvement. Yet nothing was more fun than the first time. “When you introduce a joke into the world, and the audience laughs,” he said, “it’s the most invigorating, thrilling thing.”

What If ‘The Sopranos’ And ‘Seinfeld’ Had Switched Endings?

I enjoyed this brief profile of Mad Men creator Matt Weiner in The New York Times, but the best line in it comes from Sopranos creator David Chase, who reflected on how his show ended:

It’s just very difficult to end a series. For example, ‘Seinfeld,’ they ended it with them all going to jail. Now that’s the ending we should have had. And they should have had ours, where it blacked out in a diner.

I can’t tell if Chase is speaking tongue-in-cheek here, or if he actually has regrets about the maddening final scene from The Sopranos.

Either way, I think he’s right.

Two Hollywoods

Bill Wyman, on the problem with the Oscars these days:

There are two Hollywoods now. One makes those cacophonous entertainments, which kids flock to see in noisy multiplexes each weekend. The other makes films for adults, which we see in the calmer art theaters or in the comfort of our own homes on home video, Netflix, or on demand. They don’t make much money, so they leverage what influence they can. One of these has been their efficient hijacking of the Oscars race each year. If you don’t overspend in production and play the awards-season game well, you can do all right financially.

Someone Like You

The WSJ breaks down exactly why Adele’s “Someone Like You” is such an effective tear-jerker (there are scientific reasons!):

Twenty years ago, the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a simple experiment. He asked music lovers to identify passages of songs that reliably set off a physical reaction, such as tears or goose bumps. Participants identified 20 tear-triggering passages, and when Dr. Sloboda analyzed their properties, a trend emerged: 18 contained a musical device called an “appoggiatura.” […]

“Someone Like You,” which Adele wrote with Dan Wilson, is sprinkled with ornamental notes similar to appoggiaturas. In addition, during the chorus, Adele slightly modulates her pitch at the end of long notes right before the accompaniment goes to a new harmony, creating mini-roller coasters of tension and resolution, said Dr. Guhn.

Racism and Ethnic Stereotypes in ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’

I was doing my workout routine this morning and listening to AV Club’s Reasonable Discussions podcast when host Kyle Ryan introduced writer Noel Murray for a segment on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Menace is going to be out in theaters soon for an eye-rollingly unnecessary 3D re-release). In recent days, Murray has taken some unpopular positions on films (example: defending the Matrix sequels) but he’s super smart and I always find his arguments to be invigorating one way or the other, even if I disagree with him.

Murray made a few points about why he appreciated The Phantom Menace, but didn’t really say anything controversial (for the record, I can’t really agree with most of his praise for the film. At the very least, the positive is overshadowed by Lucas’s stunning incompetence in other areas – but the negatives about this film have already been well-documented). Then, the following exchange occurred (you can listen to the conversation here at about the 20-minute mark):

Kyle: The biggest stumbling block for this film is Jar Jar Binks, for a lot of people. When I saw this a couple of years ago, I remember enjoying the movie more than I thought I did until Jar Jar shows up, and then it kind of takes a turn.
Noel: …I can’t defend that character. He’s goofy, he’s got the crazy accent. I don’t think it’s racist, I will say that. I think that criticism is a little bit overblown. These are characters. Yes he’s got kind of a strange ethnic accent. What is it racist against? Floppy-eared people?
Kyle: …he has kind of a Stepin Fetchit thing going on? And then the hooked-nose alien, Watto? And then the sort of Asian aliens that were the Nemodians at the beginning? If you didn’t see the visuals and you just heard the audio, I would be put off by it.
Noel: I understand where it’s coming from, but I think it’s misguided. I think Lucas is trading on all of these old B-movie traditions which include kind of exaggerated villains with exaggerated characteristics. Theyr’e not specifically tied to any one race. They’re just kind of generally exotic. That’s always been my takeaway from it. That said, they’re not like well fleshed out characters or anything. And in some cases they’re actively irritating, so yeah, I certainly understand that.

Before I say anything else, let me just point out that as someone who hosts my own podcasts, I know what it’s like for people to totally rip something you’re saying out of context, so I’m going to try to be as cautious as possible here.

That being said, can we please stop pretending that the clearly racist caricatures in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace were a) not racist caricatures, and b) acceptable to our society? Like, at all?

Bruce Gottlieb over at Slate wrote up a pretty good summary of Lucas’s racial offenses when Phantom Menace was first released:

Crafty Japanese trade villains aren’t the only heavy-handed ethnic stereotype in The Phantom Menace. As the story continues, the heroes slip past the evil Japanese to a nearby planet. There, they attempt to repair their broken spaceship but are stymied by the hook-nosed owner of the local parts shop–Watto–who also happens to have a thick Yiddish accent! (To hear an example, click “Great.”) Psychological manipulations that work on almost everyone fail with Watto–“Mind ticks don’ta work on me … only money! No,” he cries–and the heroes get what they want only through the bravery of a gifted slave boy (Anakin Skywalker). At the end of the desert planet sequence, Anakin is emancipated but separated from his mother, who still belongs to Watto. Even in a galaxy far away, the Jews are apparently behind the slave trade.

And then there’s Jar Jar Binks, the childlike sidekick with the unmistakably West Indian accent and enormous buttocks. Jar Jar is likable, easygoing, and dumb as dirt–always being scolded or saved from death by the Jedi knights. His stupidity and cowardice are running jokes throughout the film. And his people, the Gungan, are a brave but primitive tribe who throw spears and rocks at the oncoming army in the climactic battle sequence. Only Hispanics escape Lucas’ caricature, which is actually something of a mixed blessing since Hispanics often rightly complain that they are ignored in the national race debate.

In a 1999 article for the Boston Review, Alan Stone corroborates Gottlieb’s take on things. He also identifies one of the reasons why Lucas got himself in trouble: he made the aliens English-speaking. Unlike aliens from the previous Star Wars films (see: Chewbacca, the Ewoks, all the people in the Cantina scene), the aliens in this film spoke our language and had accents and other characteristics reminiscent of the ones found in ethnic stereotypes:

What has made my student and many other cultists of his generation feel betrayed is the new ingredient in Lucas’s recipe: aliens who, unlike any of the previous exotic life forms, suggest racist stereotypes. The evil henchmen in this story seem to be Fu Manchu style Asians, and the primitive Gungan people who live under the sea suggest old Hollywood stereotypes of African-Americans.

A particular controversy has arisen around the Gungan character of Jar Jar Binks, who has been described as a science fiction version of Stepnfetchit. Lucas is outraged by this reaction; he claims that critics found it on the Internet somewhere and seized on it to disparage his film. He also says it’s in the eye of the beholders who have converted his orange amphibians into degrading stereotypes. He may be right, but I must report that I went into the film knowing nothing about the controversy and yet as soon as I saw Jar Jar Binks I knew why my student, an African-American, felt betrayed.

To be fair, Lucas has already responded to these allegations…in the most condescending way possible. In a 2000 article for Salon, Lucas was quoted as saying the following about critics of his film’s racial politics:

“Most of them that I’ve met are reasonably dim-witted,” he said of critics. “I mean, they aren’t like the rest of us. They don’t have any knowledge of anything. They’re not successful in any world that I’ve … They certainly don’t know anything about history; they don’t know anything about film. They don’t know anything about politics. They don’t know anything about sociology or psychology or anything. I mean, it’s like, you get into a conversation with them and it’s hard to find a subject that they can actually converse on.”

[I don’t need to respond incredulously here, because the author of that article, Alynda Wheat, already did it for me]

Many people have responded to the above allegation of racial stereotyping by saying “Well, they’re aliens. Aren’t YOU being racist by saying that these are ethnic stereotypes?” Good one. But hiding your ignorance behind the veil of a different species does not make it acceptable.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace clearly invokes imagery and audio from racist ethnic stereotypes. The fact that the recipient of these stereotypical characteristics are non-human aliens does not change this fact (and yes, I realize that in Star Wars, technically ALL the characters are aliens, so no need to point that out). If you want to deny this, we can go back to the movies and do some scene-by-scene comparison. I quite frankly can’t believe that I’m still having to even argue this point.

But to me, the question of whether Lucas has invoked these stereotypes (which I think he undeniably has) is much less interesting than the effect of his doing so. Does it make his movie “racist”? Does it lessen the film in any other substantive way? And what are its implications for how we talk about the film with children?

I’m going to try not to ascribe any intentionality to Lucas’s actions. I doubt he’s a racist at heart. In the above article, Stone suggests that these aliens came out of “suppressed stereotypes” from Lucas’s psyche.  What I know is that most of the non-human-appearing aliens are presented as evil, devious, and/or scheming. Their accents and varying demeanors add to their “other-ness,” and allow the audience to distance themselves, emotionally, from them.

It’s not rocket science, this storytelling method that Lucas employs. There’s a long cinematic history of using this type of imagery in this way. But I had hoped it was something that our culture tried to leave behind, not something that we still find defensible. Ultimately, The Phantom Menace is so artistically reviled that most people just throw the baby out with the bath water. Nonetheless, I feel a full accounting of the film’s flaws must include this racial footnote.

Having spent a significant amount of time in the past two years studying media and its effect on children, I’ve learned that there aren’t very many causal conclusions that can be drawn about whether or not violent imagery, sex, etc. actually have a concrete effect on child development. But one thing that I can confidently say is this: what we allow our children to watch matters. When they see The Phantom Menace, which features the triumph of (mostly) white characters over those people with the weird accents who talk, dress, and act differently than “us,” what message does it send them?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But I’m not going to pretend that it’s not worth thinking about.