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” in 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 short sighted. 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 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 in 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 the level of society’s 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 of net neutrality, then, at least as far as small businesses are concerned, 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.

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 payed 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 avoid offending others 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.


A Response to Kyle Smith’s Review of mother!

The review that I’ll be responding to comes from the publication that called Get Out a “get-whitey movie”, so nobody should expect much from it. Nonetheless, I think Kyle Smith’s review of mother!, Darren Aronofksy’s latest film, is worth looking at, as it is one of the most flawed film critiques that I’ve read in quite some time. Spoilers for mother! follow.

“Ordinarily when a filmmaker goes trampling all over your senses with an eye toward maximizing disgust…”

Right off the bat, Smith provides us with a profoundly naive idea of what constitutes “maximum disgust” in cinema. There are only two, perhaps three sequences throughout the entire film that managed to turn my stomach, and each of them lasted only a few moments. Although I wouldn’t call myself squeamish I’m certainly not the most hardy filmgoer, so to call mother! a film that seeks to “[maximize] disgust” is to take its most visceral sequences and pretend that they make up the entire film, which is just plain wrong. Yes, there are times when the film can be tough to watch, but those moments are thematically significant and don’t linger long enough to become distasteful. Gratuitous films like Hostel seek to achieve maximum shock factor with constant brutal imagery; mother! uses it sparingly for emotional potency, just like a million other R-rated films made for serious audiences.

“It may be the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios”

In 1975, Paramount released a movie called Mandingo. It’s pretty much a two hour racist fantasy about wealthy plantation owners in the antebellum south sexually abusing their slaves. Mother! doesn’t even come remotely close to being the most disgusting movie released by Paramount, let alone by any of the major studios. I’d even call The Jazz Singer, one of the art form’s most historically significant films, far more offensive than Aronofsky’s latest. Our reviewer certainly doesn’t shy away from bold statements, but anyone with five minutes and access to Wikipedia could easily find counterexamples to his claims.

“Mother…  stars the filmmaker’s girlfriend, Jennifer Lawrence, as a timid, frail housewife who wishes she could have a baby with her husband (Javier Bardem), an acclaimed writer. She is painstakingly restoring their house, a glorious country manse, which was previously destroyed in a fire, while her man grapples with writer’s block.”

Smith’s characterization of Lawrence’s character as “timid and frail” is not just untrue: he disproves it himself in the following sentence by telling his readers that she is “painstakingly restoring” her beautiful house. I’ve never heard of a “frail” person single-handedly restoring an entire mansion.

“In Mother, the Bible parallels emerge as sophomoric and sloppy — was the Virgin Mary actually present at the murder of Abel? I don’t think she was. But then again Aronofsky wrote, or spat out, the script in only five days.”

Mother! contains biblical parallels, yes, but the purpose of the movie is not to painstakingly adapt every last detail of stories from scripture. The point of literary and historical allusions is to comment upon an event or idea, not to just transport an old story into a different setting. That would make for an incredibly boring and derivative piece of art. Who cares if the film doesn’t reflect the murder of Abel with perfect accuracy? Aronofsky is telling a psychologically intense story with religious undertones, not teaching a theology class.

“Mother is the kind of film that makes you want to walk out, demand your money back, then file for a restraining order that would forbid the director from coming within 500 miles of any filmmaking equipment again. The following groups of people should take care to avoid Mother at all cost [sic]: pregnant women, those with nervous constitutions or heart conditions, and anyone who happens to be burdened with good taste.”

So a film should strive to avoid being challenging for anyone? Should Apocalypse Now not exist because veterans with PTSD could find it challenging to watch? Should Citizen Kane never have been made because the tragic arc of its protagonist might resonate too strongly for people with certain backgrounds? We should certainly work to ensure that viewers are aware of what difficult content they’ll be exposed to in a film, but it’s absurd to propose that challenging art just shouldn’t be made.

“Critics will no doubt enjoy calling the film, particularly its second half, ‘subversive,’ ‘brave,’ ‘transgressive,’ etc., as though any satirical impulse were less risky than mocking Christian dogma.”

Perhaps commenting upon, or inverting, or criticizing, but mocking? Family Guy and Saturday Night Live mock things; this psychological thriller does not.

I’ve yet to read a review from this publication that isn’t marred by inaccuracies and an absurd critical lens, but I suppose that’s all I should expect from it.


Sincerity Vs. Sardonicism: Infinite Jest and Fight Club

There are some obvious ones: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous. The program, however, has evolved to include a whole slew of twelve-step fellowships: Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Crystal Meth and Sex Addicts and Workaholics and Overeaters Anonymous. The twelve-step lifestyle may have hit its parabolic maximum in the late 90s, but it continues to carve out a niche in American culture, a culture that has a particularly addictive personality. It makes sense, then, that (vice) Anonymous programs occupied a prominent role in American media of the late nineties. A program with a faith-based foundation is bound to be targeted by an increasingly secular, skeptical media industry. Two juggernauts of nineties culture come to mind.

Fight Club is a firmly postmodern film. A character that directly addresses the audience; a twist based entirely on the subjectivity of reality; an atmosphere marked by a general skepticism for authority and traditional power structures. Twelve-step fellowships are approached by the film with the same sardonic attitude. From a group dedicated to parasitic brain parasites (sic) to one called “Remaining Men Together”, the film suggests that these fellowships exist for any ailment that could possibly afflict a human being. The people who participate in these groups are portrayed as pitiful, weeping husks. The protagonist himself attends these meetings, but as an outsider, as somebody who would never really buy into something so gooey and sentimental. The film’s finger points at human sensitivity and vulnerability while its distrustful postmodern face contorts and laughs.

Infinite Jest seems to portray these fellowships in a similar light. The stories shared by the twelve-steppers border on the absurd; most of the participants suffer from laughably bad lots in life, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves about it. The same exaggerated sentimentality portrayed in Fight Club also exists in Infinite Jest, but there’s one important difference: it’s shown to work. While Fight Club makes twelve-step programs out to be ineffective and cheesy, Jest portrays them as effective and cheesy. Yes, there’s a whole lot of recitation of trite cliches and blathering on about a “Higher Power As You Understand It” and hugging other members and crying into their shoulders, but it’s honest and therapeutic and helps the addicts see that they’re not alone. Gooey sentimentality may not be cool or edgy, but for some people it might be just what they need.

This difference, I think, highlights a significant divide in our culture. Some are happy to point and laugh at the bits of our culture that seem silly; others do the same, but are also willing to recognize their merits. Malicious cynicism versus a sincere sense of humor. Perhaps if more artists cease to be content with stopping at the pointing and laughing, if more are willing to fuse their satirization with sincerity, then perhaps that sincerity will begin to infuse into our culture.

A Feminist Interpretation of Diabolique

Diabolique, the French thriller by Henri-Georges Clouzot, is often called the most Hitchcockian movie that Hitchcock himself never made. We’ll look at that claim in a bit more detail later on, but for now it’s enough to say that despite its similarities with the work of the Master of Suspense, this 1955 classic has an identity all its own. The picture stars Simone Signoret (the first Academy Award winner from France) as Nicole, Véra Clouzot (the wife of the film’s director) as Christina, and Paul Meurisse as their mutual lover, Michel. Diabolique is described as one of “French cinema’s most acidulous films of the 1950s” thanks to Clouzot’s status as a “fatalist who saw life as a continuous battle” (Dixon & Foster, 147). This pessimistic worldview is certainly on full display in the picture, as it presents a winding tale of deceit, betrayal, and apprehension. Diabolique is an unrelenting, deliberate thriller, a film that builds a world in which nothing is certain.

The film begins in a boarding school owned and operated by Michel and his wife Christina. Christina is close friends with Nicole, a teacher at the school who happens to be Michel’s mistress. The two women are both physically abused by Michel and mutually decide to murder him. They lure him to Nicole’s apartment in a distant city, drown him in a bathtub, and then cart his body back to the boarding school to dump it in the swimming pool. If executed properly, the plan would make Michel’s death look like nothing more than a tragic accident; however, when the swimming pool is drained, Michel’s body is no longer there. Afterwards, the two women enter a state of shocked confusion and desperately seek to uncover the mystery of what happened to Michel’s body, to no avail. Finally, Christina hears a noise late at night and walks throughout the boarding school to investigate it until she reaches the bathroom; there, she sees Michel’s clammy body slowly rise out of the water, frightening Christina so much that her heart (already weak due to a chronic condition) gives out. Nicole walks out of a nearby room to meet Michel, and it is revealed that the whole “murder” was a ruse to kill Christina and take her fortune; this plan, however, is thwarted when a retired police officer overhears their conversation and catches the duo red-handed.

The many twists and turns of the film make it difficult to pinpoint a singular message within it. It’s a complex work. Oftentimes I found myself coming up with theories about what it’s saying, only to throw them out as the picture rounded the next sharp bend in the road. One theme, however, persisted for much of the film’s runtime, only to be seriously complicated by the plot’s final twist; that theme, a quasi-feminist message, is the necessity for women to band together with one another to overcome the vice grip of control that men exert over them. It’s perfectly encapsulated by a scene in which the two women are driving together across France to Nicole’s apartment in order to begin their scheme against Michel. As Christina drives, she expresses some trepidation about the upcoming murder to Nicole. To reassure her that killing Michel is the best course of action, Nicole tells Christina that Michel had expressed his desire for Christina herself to die so that he could live in peace with Nicole. Christina then asks how Nicole replied, and Nicole insinuates that at first she agreed with Michel because she was not good friends with Christina at the time. The women then drop the subject and return to the task at hand.

This scene captures the idea that women, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable male oppressor, must band together to overcome his rule. The conversation shows that the women have a tense, rocky past, but nonetheless they look past their former conflicts and steel themselves to tear down a common enemy. This scene leads the audience to believe that the film is a meditation on how women can overcome the powers that have dominated them in the past, how they must join together with other women to empower themselves. This message, however, is turned on its head when Nicole’s betrayal is revealed at the conclusion of the film. When the fact that Nicole was plotting against Christina the whole time is brought to light, deep feelings of betrayal and mistrust are evoked. The film turns from a message about how women will band together and take drastic action to improve their lot in life into a precautionary tale; those who present themselves as allies are not always on your side. They may purport to be your friend, they may even claim to be willing to commit murder for mutual benefit, but in the end everyone is looking out for their own interests. The film claims that nobody, even those who seem to have a common goal or a mutual enemy, can be fully trusted.

As somebody who has studied Hitchcock fairly extensively and enjoyed many of his films, one of the most enjoyable parts of watching Diabolique was tracing common threads between the French thriller and the work of the British master. Comparisons are often drawn between Diabolique and Hitchcock’s Psycho, and for good reason; both pictures craft weaving tales of deceit, double identities, and gruesome murders. The feelings of anxiety and dread that I experienced during Diabolique were remarkably similar to those that I experience when I watch Psycho. However, I think it’s also worth comparing the film to another of Hitchcock’s works, the slightly lesser known Rope. While Diabolique details the experiences of two women desperately trying to find a dead body, Rope tells the story of two men doing everything in their power to hide one from their party guests after they murder a man and leave his body in a chest. Both films are a fascinating inversion on the other, but despite their differences they manage to evoke similar emotions of trepidation. It seems entirely possible to me that the corpse-centric suspense of Rope helped inspire the similar thrills of Diabolique, which then went on to lay the groundwork for the two-faced excitement of Psycho. There’s a fascinating, weaving interplay between Clouzot and Hitchcock; it serves well to illustrate the iterative, collaborative development that the medium of cinema has gone through over the years. No matter what may have inspired Diabolique, or what it may have inspired itself, the French classic is a worthwhile thrill ride that stands up to modern audiences.