Renaissance Men

The ideal of the “Renaissance Man” is more evasive than ever before. For hundreds of years, a wide-ranging knowledge was the ideal of the intellectual world. Da Vinci and Franklin are often cited as the perfection of this ideal, but this makes it out to be a goal only sought by geniuses when in reality a broad base of knowledge was pursued by much of high society. Read any 19th century English novel, and the references in dialogue to history, philosophy, poetry, and myth are so frequent that they can feel grating and elitist (which, in the case of many novels that depict the lives of noblemen, was probably the goal).

Although reference-based one-upsmanship is irritating, there’s immense value in a shared cultural goal of broad knowledge. Familiarity with the old facilitates the exchange of the new. With a sizable common background of theory and history, mutual understanding is heightened and we can be confident that our conversational partners are equipped to extend, complicate, and challenge our ideas for the sake of a better mutual understanding.

A shift in priority towards financially lucrative skills and material information; rapidly deepening complexity within spheres of knowledge; a distrust of academic culture; the spontaneous being prized over the methodical. These causes may seem like societal trends outside of our control, but with information more accessible than ever before and non-Western knowledge becoming more accepted and celebrated, the qualities of the “Renaissance Man” might be worth resurrecting. If we do it right, an aristocratic ideal could be turned into a democratic one.

Dostoevsky and the “Pride of the Poor”

It seems intuitive that a consumerist system would benefit from a high level of general prosperity within its population. Such prosperity would, in theory, provide citizens with more resources to spend within the system, and their level of success within that system seems like it would incentivize them to stay invested in it. Despite these obvious arguments, I’m beginning to doubt that this is really the case; in fact, I’m beginning to think more and more that such an economic system benefits from having at least a segment of the population mired in abject poverty.

I started thinking about this because of a passage from Crime and Punishment. An extremely poor, recently widowed woman is donated a small yet relatively significant sum of money. Despite her destitution, she decides to spend a seemingly unreasonable chunk of it on a funeral banquet that seems rather extravagant given her economic situation. Dostoevsky theorizes about why anybody would do this, arguing that it could be “that singular ‘pride of the poor’,” which causes “many poor people [to] strain themselves to their last resources and spend every last copeck they have saved in order to be ‘no worse than others’ and it order that those others should not ‘look down their noses’ at them.” (Dostoevsky, Penguin Classics, 451-52)

This is a woman who cannot afford to feed her children, whose stepdaughter resorts to prostitution to prevent the family from starving. The twenty roubles that she is gifted would be pocket change to some people (including some of her neighbors within the same apartment building), but to her, that sum is nothing short of temporarily life-changing. Given these facts, it may be easy to read this passage as a criticism of this particular woman; however, the fact that Dostoevsky frames his observation as a theory about the “pride of the poor” rather than about the pride of this widow is significant. It becomes an observation on one of the psychological effects of a money-driven society rather than a character analysis of Katerina Ivanovna. Her plight is the plight of anyone that resides at the bottom rung of a consumerist, status-driven culture, and her irrational compulsion towards frivolous spending in the face of crippling poverty is shared by them as well.

This “pride of the poor” is the exact reason that a destitute portion of a population helps to sustain a consumerist culture. These people, through no fault of their own, are often ironically the system’s most invested devotees. Because this segment of society exists within a culture that prizes reputation and material success above all else, they try desperately to prove to their peers, to those above them in the hierarchy, and to themselves that they, too, are making it, that they, too, have staked out their place within the system’s machinery and have found some degree of prosperity. Of course, this isn’t actually the case, but when material prosperity is the only benchmark of success that a person has known for their entire life, then what’s to stop them from spending every last resource that they have at their disposal to at least appear materially wealthy? This dedicated lower segment of society sets an example for societal investment, providing the rest of the population with a model and a warning: engaging in material culture is a requirement, not a choice, so do everything you can to succeed within the system.

This is, of course, a generalization. Not every member of a consumer society’s lowest caste tries in vain to play the part of a successful person, and those that do are not at fault in the least. It’s not my intention to stereotype an entire economic class, and I don’t think that this was Dostoevsky’s intention, either. The crux of the issue is that material culture ensnares people of all levels of prosperity; the “pride of the poor” is just a single prong of its machinery.

Slacker and Storyless Films

Despite the laments of some film critics, I do believe that there is still plenty of innovation happening in the medium. Some mainstream directors (Iñarittu comes to mind) are combining new filmmaking technologies with exploratory attitudes to push the form to places that it’s never been able to go before, and there’s a wave of recent independent filmmakers who have continued to leverage the medium to address pressing social issues. In fact, it seems that more voices than ever are now able to tell their stories through film, which is certainly conducive to innovation. However, despite this optimism, I do feel like the medium has become stagnant in one particular way; that is, it seems that most directors nowadays possess a traditional, objective-oriented mindset when it comes to art.

When I refer to “objective-oriented” or “traditionally constructed” films, I’m not just talking about films with a chronological narrative structure; I’m referring to any film in which the vast majority of scenes contribute to some overarching narrative goal. For example, while a Tarantino film might not have a linear narrative structure, I would still consider that within the realm of “objective-oriented” films since every piece of the movie’s puzzle builds towards some narrative endpoint, even if those pieces are jumbled in a nontraditional way.

This has, of course, been the norm throughout film’s history. It makes sense that the majority of filmgoers want to consume a logically constructed piece of storytelling, as that’s the type of entertainment that is most easily understood and casually enjoyed. That’s not to undermine the value of such films; in fact, the majority of movies that critics include on “greatest of all times” lists (including mainstays like Citizen Kane and Vertigo) are put together with a particular storytelling goal in mind. Within the realm of traditionally constructed films, there’s still plenty of room for experimentation with film form and themes.

However, I think that restricting films to this kind of objective-oriented mindset limits the scope of what they can achieve. Having this tacit requirement that every film ought to have narrative consistency implies that film is inherently a narrative-focused form, but I don’t think that that’s actually the case. In fact, if filmmakers were more willing to push their movies out of the realm of narrative storytelling, I think the medium would feel much fresher than it currently does for a lot of critics and viewers.

The film that got me thinking about this in the first place is Richard Linklater’s Slacker; it’s a 98-minute film without any semblance of a plot. Instead, the film simply follows a character (almost always a beatnik-type college student or recent graduate) for a while as they go about their daily business before wandering over to another character and following them for a while. There’s no narrative mission that the film is working to achieve; it simply showcases a collection of small episodes from the daily lives of twenty or so characters. That sounds like it might get tiresome, but it doesn’t; the characters are varied and the snippets entertaining enough to always keep the film feeling fresh, and I found myself forgetting that there wasn’t actually a larger narrative. Moreso than any other film that I’ve watched recently, Slacker simply offered me a day in the life of a particular subculture and allowed me to lose myself in their daily business. Did it present me with nuanced commentary about any social or political issues? No. In fact, it didn’t present me with commentary about anything, as the film doesn’t seem to comment on the views of its characters at all. It did, however, show me something that film is capable of that I haven’t really seen before, and that itself is a valuable takeaway. I’m not downplaying the value of socially or politically oriented films; that type of art plays a crucial role in our cultural landscape. However, I think it’s important to keep film’s other capabilities in mind as well, so that we don’t develop a limited perspective on an incredibly flexible art form.

I’ve simply tried to argue that film is capable of doing more than just telling a story; for a more militant perspective about the dangers of popular culture, I’d recommend reading this article. It’s not quite on the same topic that I’ve just discussed (and it certainly takes a more radical stance), but it provides an interesting perspective on the purpose of art as a whole.

Regulation and Innovation

Proponents of the FCC’s movement to abolish Obama-era restrictions on ISPs often cite technological innovation to defend the landmark decision; service providers, they believe, will be free to expand their infrastructure and provide faster, more efficient internet when the burden of government regulation is removed from their backs. In a culture increasingly dependent on high-speed internet, such innovations will become more and more crucial in sustaining our hyperconnected lifestyle. Defenders of net neutrality, on the other hand, argue that ISPs will only “innovate” by pioneering new techniques for extracting as much money from consumers and businesses as possible.

There’s certainly reason to be skeptical that service providers will use their newfound freedom solely to improve services for consumers; namely, the fact that sizable swaths of the United States have very little competition when it comes to ISPs. Without significant competition spurring them to invest in upgrading their networks, ISPs in regions of light competition might have little reason to make expensive upgrades to their services. On the other hand, to say that deregulation of ISPs will by no means lead to infrastructural investment is to overlook historical trends. Freedom from restriction has, consistently throughout history, led to a quickened pace of innovation; the proliferation of telephones, for instance, was highly dependent on a restriction-light climate. But labeling net neutrality as “regulation” rather than sensible consumer protection appears to largely be a rhetorical technique on the part of those who stand to benefit from scuttling the policy.

The issue becomes more complicated when one considers the role that ISPs play in dictating the growth potential of other, internet-dependent businesses. The government works as an overseeing force that dictates what service providers can and cannot do; in much the same way, ISPs are forces that determine the capacity for the entities that they serve to expand their economic output. A film streaming service, for instance, is beholden to the service that ISPs provide it. Without the ISP’s dissemination of high-speed internet, there is no streaming service. Thus, while the FCC may be providing ISPs with room for growth by eliminating the restrictions of net neutrality, they may, inadvertently, be giving service providers the freedom to enact restrictions on the businesses that they serve. If a service provider decides to demand that internet-centric businesses must pay for prioritization, little-known streaming services like Filmstruck could have trouble competing.

There is, however, another force overseeing the success of internet-heavy businesses: technological advancement. While it’s true that ISPs unburdened by restriction might be free to pick the winners and losers in arenas like television streaming services, a dearth of technological innovation in infrastructure could also prove to be a challenge to such businesses. As our culture’s level of interconnectedness has increased, the population’s thirst for instant access to content and gratification has skyrocketed with it. Businesses will certainly want to capitalize on this demand, but it may not be possible unless the ISPs that form their backbone invest in the high-speed infrastructure to support it.

The debate over net neutrality, then, could come down to which restriction will be the least detrimental to economic progress: the restriction of overbearing internet service providers, or the restriction of stymied infrastructural investment. The ideal solution is one that encourages ISPs to invest in their infrastructure without giving them free reign to determine the fates of smaller ventures; getting rid of net neutrality is a far cry from this happy medium.

Villeneuve’s Arrival and Balanced Innovation

(spoilers for Arrival)

Decrying the state of cinema has always been popular, but now it seems to be particularly in vogue. Recently, I’ve heard people argue that cinematic innovation is not just slow as a result of cultural trends, but because of artistic limitations as well. That is, after a century of development, everything that is worth doing in film has already been done. I’m not talking about technical innovations and gimmicks like Cinerama or 3D; I mean in the sphere of storytelling and film form. Looking back at the French New Wave era, or even the German Impressionist movement, I can definitely see why some critics aren’t pleased with the comparative innovative spirit of today’s cinema. But to claim that film has reached the apex of its development is, I think, shortsighted.

And I’m not just talking about the most obscure, avant-garde corners of the art form. In fact, I think some mainstream films are innovating more meaningfully than the least accesible experimental pieces. I recently watched Villeneuve’s Arrival, which sits firmly in the mainstream sphere, and I think it’s a perfect representation of balanced, meaningful innovation in film storytelling. It encapsulates exactly what a modern film ought to do in order to maintain a substantial audience while also exploring new artistic territory: take an old trope or technique and turn it on its head. It’s an old trick; taking old motifs or expected patterns and inverting them in some way has been popular among experimental musicians for a long time now, but only a select few filmmakers seem willing to do it.

In the case of Arrival, Villeneuve takes a tried and true tool of cinematic storytelling, the flashback, and uses it in a way that few filmmakers have attempted. Throughout the majority of the film, the protagonist (Louise) experiences what appear to be flashbacks to her life before the death of her daughter. Just as in any other film, these visions give the viewer context that frames her actions during the events of the film. However, at the film’s conclusion, it’s revealed that these supposed flashbacks are actually flashes forward: the alien language that Louise is studying enables people to experience time in a nonlinear fashion, and throughout the film she is actually seeing premonitions of events to come.

It’s a simple inversion. Villeneuve takes a standard cinematic tool and turns it on its head. There are no ridiculously long takes, no experimental color flashes, nor even any particularly obscure storytelling structures or techniques. These things are certainly valuable at time, but filmmakers looking to make movies that are both innovative and accessible should be thinking like Villeneuve: take an old trick and make it new.

The Implications of Cheapening Movie Tickets

I’ve always bought into the idea that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And yet Moviepass, which has generated gallons of drool at the maws of hundreds of thousands of moviegoers, has still not revealed its Achilles’ heel. Unlimited movies in theaters for ten dollars a month (which, where I live, is cheaper than a single movie ticket) certainly sounds too good to be true, but it really does work, and I’ve been milking it as much as possible. Maybe its failure is inevitable, but for now it remains an exception to the rule.

And it’s certainly gotten plenty of coverage for its seemingly supernatural ability to break the rules of economics. The service was plastered all over film forums and news sites when it announced its new pricing plan, and a quick Google search as of this article’s writing garners countless listicles and opinion pieces that are still being written about its astoundingly low cost. And although I sound like a corporate shill, I can’t stress that fact enough: the cost really is astoundingly low. Someone like me can easily drive the per-film price down to a dollar fifty. But I think these articles touting the service’s cost are focusing on the wrong thing. Yes, Moviepass is changing the way we pay for movies, but I also think it has the potential to fundamentally change the way we watch them.

Movie theaters have always been a place of collective reverence. There are people who disregard the tacit social codes that usually keep audience members from staring at their phones for the entirety of the film, but for the most part these rules are obeyed. Beyond the fear of irritating everyone else in the audience, however, I think the price of entry drives people to actually focus on the film. A movie ticket, popcorn, and a drink can easily cost upwards of twenty dollars — most people want to get their money’s worth out of the experience, so they give the film their full attention.

But if you look at what’s happened with services like Netflix, people are willing to put a film or TV show on in the background and dedicate their attention to it only partially. This is because it’s so remarkably cheap. Someone who watches two hours of Netflix a day (which is easily attainable for many users) pays about twenty cents per hour of entertainment. Someone paying the traditional movie-and-popcorn price in theaters pays ten dollars per hour, or fifty times what someone pays to watch The Office in the comfort of their own home. That is a huge disparity in cost, and it certainly shows in the level of attention the average viewer pays to a film when watching it in a theater compared to when they watch it on a streaming service. I’m guilty of this myself; it can be hard not to casually check my phone when I’m watching a film that costs next to nothing alone in my living room.

Granted, theaters still have social pressures to keep audience members away from external distractions, but I think the cheapening of tickets thanks to services like Moviepass will wear away at the power that these tacit social mores hold. Part of the reason I get annoyed at audience members who talk or text during a film is that I paid a hefty sum for an experience that they’re detracting from. If that sum is reduced, isn’t it possible that people will feel less zealous about maximizing their own experience, enabling the desire to talk or text to override the desire to get their money’s worth?

In the 40s, sixty percent of Americans went to the movies at least once per week. Moviepass could have the potential to bring film back to this level of cultural prominence, which is a wonderful thing. The problem is that the world of 2017 is filled with far more distractions than the world of the 1940s. While the accessibility of the theater experience may skyrocket, the experience itself is at risk of being heavily diluted. Right now, it’s impossible to tell if this tradeoff will be worth it.

Dark Souls: the Future of Education

Claiming that education can learn some important lessons from a dark fantasy RPG may sound silly, but hear me out.

Here’s the gameplay loop of Dark Souls:

  1. Reach a bonfire. This acts as a checkpoint.
  2. Venture into a new area. Get killed by enemy A. Get sent back to bonfire.
  3. Venture back out into area (henceforth abbreviated as “VBOIA”). Defeat enemy A now that you know his/her position and moveset. Progress a bit, get killed by a swinging axe. Return to bonfire.
  4. VBOIA. Engage enemy A, get killed because you’re still fuming with anger from the swinging axe.
  5. Take a deep breath. VBOIA. Enemy A is dispatched with ease, the axe is carefully avoided. Walk onto a precarious ledge, hear the whump of a crossbow, get hit by bolt, get knocked off ledge, die.
  6. Die a few more times to various enemies and obstacles, returning to the bonfire and V-ing BOIA each time. Eventually, reach the area’s boss.
  7. Enter the boss’ lair (EBL). Hit him/her once with your sword, immediately die to a fatal combo.
  8. VBOIA, EBL. Hit him/her twice with your sword, immediately die to a fatal combo.
  9. VBOIA, die to enemy A.
  10. Continue V-ing BOIA and E-ing BL until, eventually, you manage to defeat the boss with a sliver of your health bar remaining.

Notice that the player is never penalized for failing. Whether dying to enemy A, getting hit by a swinging axe, or being trampled by the boss for the seventeenth time, the only consequence is that the player is sent back to the beginning of the gauntlet to try again. And every time they’re sent back, they’re given an extra chance to practice the entire run over again, improving each time thanks to sheer repetition and the development of muscle memory. Over time finger calluses are developed, reflexes are sharpened, and knowledge of the area is ingrained into the mind. I’ve found that, on subsequent playthroughs, I can return to an area I haven’t seen in months and complete it on the first or second try. That’s the power of the Dark Souls learning process, a process that is somehow brutally punishing and generously forgiving at the same time. The willingness to try a task over and over again until a solution is found is rewarded generously; impatience and an unwillingness to adapt will lead to frustration and failure.

I think the “gameplay loop” of our school system has a lot to learn from the Dark Souls formula. Rather than giving students a prescribed set of content with a deadline to learn it by (as in, the date of the test), give them the flexibility and freedom to approach the challenge at their own pace and with their own mindset. Encourage them to try it repeatedly to figure out what works and what doesn’t; in the same way that different strategies work better for different stages of the game, different critical thinking skills and tools will be better adapted to certain tasks. Emphasize to students that they shouldn’t be afraid to try and fail; the only consequence will be the opportunity to give it another shot. Rather than giving a sink-or-swim assessment at the end of the unit, give students the time and resources to think creatively and from different angles until they find a solution to the task that makes sense to them.

Difficult to implement? Certainly. Learning to face challenges with perseverance and creative thinking, however, is a far more valuable skill than preparing for a prescribed assessment.