Wednesday, March 30, 2016

More Pics and Pages

While tussling with the flu (see You Give Me Fever a few blogs back), I had time for some views and reads. Pocket reviews of four of them follow.

No Escape (2015)
Filmed in Thailand but set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country that borders Vietnam (which narrows the choice to two if we are to accept – as we shouldn’t – real-world geography), No Escape is an adventure/suspense/thriller that is competently, produced, directed, and acted. Nonetheless, it causes unintentional discomfort for reasons to which I’ll return shortly.

The business run by Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) in Austin, Texas, failed. Out of financial necessity he accepts a job from a multinational corporation that is building a waterworks in a third world (“fourth world” he says at one point) autocracy. We first meet Jack, his wife Annie (Lake Bell), and their two young daughters aboard an airliner en route to his new job. Also on the plane is Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) who represents himself as a grizzled voluptuary seeking only the country’s low-life pleasures, though we later learn he is some kind of British intelligence agent. They all arrive and settle into their hotel just in time for the country’s autocrat to be assassinated and for a violent popular uprising; the revolutionaries ruthlessly and murderously target all foreigners along with anyone associated with the old regime. The rest of the movie is filled by narrow escapes, desperate chases, and violent acts of self-defense as the Dwyers try to survive and get over the border with a bit of timely help from Hammond. Once again, so far as the action goes, the film is competently done.

The problem arises in the script’s bizarre attempt to be PC all the while that the film itself is anything but. Uprisings against autocrats don’t really need an explanation. Hammond, however, conflates private foreign investment with old-fashioned jack-booted imperialism in his explanation of how the murder of foreigners was simply self-defense by the locals. While this view long has been fashionable in some circles, that doesn’t make it any less silly whether we are talking about Chinese investors buying hotel chains in the US or Westerners building waterworks projects in an unnamed third world country. Sovereign governments, not private investors, have a legal monopoly of force; investors (even evil multinational corporations) and their investments exist at governments’ sufferance, not the other way around. However, the politics of the movie don’t really matter; they rarely by themselves are enough to harm a film and they don’t harm this one. What does harm it is that – despite their insertion of self-deprecatingly anti-Western dialogue – the filmmakers apparently failed to realize just how single-mindedly Western was their own perspective and just how offensive were their racial potrayals. It’s all about the Dwyers, their culture shock, and their struggle to escape. The local Asians in the film have no character development and have no other role than to kill each other or (more often) to try to kill the Dwyers. The irony is palpable.

Thumbs Down: rousing, but disturbing in a bad way


Ricki and the Flash (2015)
It’s hard not to be impressed by Meryl Streep as an actress. It’s not so hard to find the bulk of her movies unappealing – or so I’ve found them. Don’t misunderstand: most of her films are critically well-received (a few ecstatically so) and, if tasked with pointing a thumb for them, I’d have to join the mainstream critics and turn mine up, too. Yet, I’d have to add that I’m not really the right audience for them. Whether in drama, comedy, or even science fiction (The Giver), Ms. Streep almost unfailing chooses to act in films that, however objectively praiseworthy, for one reason or another (often just a matter of tone) just aren’t enjoyable for me personally. Call it an idiosyncrasy.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter an exception. The key difference was the script written by Diablo Cody, who has a special talent for capturing the look and voices of the off-beat characters who populate this strange country of ours. Meryl plays Ricki, lead singer for an aging barroom rock band. Though its forte is classic and country rock, in order to appeal to the bar’s younger customers the band (somewhat awkwardly) mixes in contemporary numbers by the likes of Pink and Lady Gaga. I don’t know for certain on whom Streep (and Cody) patterned the character, but I think a fair guess would be Lucinda Williams. The look and sound of Ricki and Lucinda are very close, and a Lucinda lyric plays in the background at one point and later plays a small role in the plot.

Ricki lives on the edge financially. Her romantic relationship with her guitarist/boyfriend is strained because her own insecurities. We learn that, decades earlier, Ricki had left her family in Indianapolis to pursue her dreams of rock’n’roll. Although she never became a star she never gave up. Yet, she does make a living (barely) in rock music, which in its own way is still dream-worthy. A family crisis occurs when her ex calls to tell her that Ricki’s daughter attempted suicide after a bad breakup. Ricki flies to Indianapolis. She discovers that her ex has become very well-to-do in her absence. While in Indiana she interacts with her kids, her ex-husband, and his very accomplished current wife who did most of the work of raising Ricki’s kids. Ricki is forced to face her past and, incidentally, her present and future.

Ultimately, the film doesn’t really make moral judgments about the choices made by the characters – nor did Diablo Cody’s Young Adult, one may note. It does let us understand them even as it notes the consequences. We might even conclude (I did, anyway) that, for herself if not for her family, Ricki made the right choice.

Thumbs Up: Sentimental in a good way with low-key dark humor

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
It seems that whenever Hollywood is at a loss for ideas (even stale ones) someone proposes making a movie based on a 60s TV show: Get Smart, The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, Lost in Space, Bewitched, et al. I suppose the studios’ hope is that Boomers will buy tickets out of nostalgia while young folks will find the material fresh.  (There is probably something to this: a Millennial friend of mine not only was unaware that Get Smart had been a TV show [1965-70] but was baffled by the cameos in the movie 21 Jump Street because she was unaware that it too had been a TV show [1987-1991].) The latest reboot to be out on DVD is The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The TV series ran 1964-68. The movie is set a year earlier in 1963, and so constitutes an origin story for U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement).

At the height of the Cold War former thief and current American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) clashes with KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) while on a mission in East Germany. Soon afterward the two are forced to team up as frenemies to help a supposed auto mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) find her father. He is a scientist who has been coerced into helping a bunch of rich neo-Nazi criminals build a nuclear bomb, something not in the interest of either the West or the Soviet Bloc. There is more to Gaby than meets the eye, and under the guidance of Waverly (Hugh Grant) U.N.C.L.E. is founded.

A serious and largely successful effort was made by the director Guy Ritchie to recreate 1963 in sight and sound. The action sequences are well choreographed and there is the sort of dry humor one expects in ‘60s spy movies. Yet, there is something missing. It’s not enough to derail the movie completely, but it’s enough to make one say “that could have been better” at the end of it. Perhaps the problem is precisely that it is an origin story: it clearly is intended to have a sequel, whether or not it in fact gets one. Constructing the framework for sequels often disrupts the flow of a first installment.

Thumbs very modestly up: good action, adequate character development, tired plot

Heroes and Villains (1969) by Angela Carter
Another post-apocalyptic tale? Yes, but don’t let that put you off. There is room for this one amid all the others. Heroes and Villains was Angela Carter’s fourth novel and her gratifying facility with the English language is fully realized in it.

The novel is set in a distant future when global civilization is a distant memory. The surviving human race – at least in the unnamed region in which the action occurs – is split among Professors, Barbarians, and Out People. The Professors live in isolated fortified settlements and try to preserve humanity’s cultural and scientific heritage. Barbarians move with the seasons and raid Professorial settlements for fun and profit. The Out People are diseased, deformed, and dangerous – presumably damaged by whatever catastrophe overcame mankind.

Marianne is a Professor’s daughter who is both attracted to and appalled by the Barbarian raiders. She leaves her settlement and seeks them out. The results are not at all what she anticipates. The Barbarians are at one and the same time more civilized and more savage than she expected. She is feted, fettered, and brutalized; she is forced to marry a Barbarian who once had killed her brother. Marianne finds that the difference between heroes and villains is often a matter of perspective. She also comes to understand that Barbarians and Professors lack what the other has. Without reason, spirit, and creativity together, the future belongs to the Out People whose devolution points back to the beasts.

Thumbs up: well-written, thoughtful, and intriguing


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sunt Lacrimae Rerum


As I've grown older I have grown more sentimental. Not across the board. In the big things I’ve become much more hardboiled, facing with equanimity funerals and major losses that in my youth would have been shattering. Yet in small and intermediate things I am much more likely to experience an involuntary (and not entirely welcome) upwelling of emotion. For example, 40 years ago I dug the grave for my dog of 12 years and buried him without shedding a tear – not because I didn’t care, for I did. It just wasn’t my response. Not so the cat I buried last fall even though I was much less attached to her than I had been to the Great Dane. When young, I was never emotionally affected in more than the most superficial way by movies or music no matter how weepy they were intended to be. While I have yet to cry at the movies – perhaps that event will signal the onset of senility – I have to admit they occasionally affect me much more than they once did. It feels strange.

If there is a common denominator to the things that affect me more, it probably is nostalgia. The nostalgic element might not be right on the surface, but it is there: the evocation of some memory or familiar experience. This could explain the age association. There is more about which to be nostalgic when we are older. In the 19th century this was considered a dangerous, potentially lethal, condition. A great many death certificates of soldiers in the American Civil War list “nostalgia” as a contributing cause of death – sometimes as the only one. Despite having stronger negative connotations back then, the word denoted the same thing in 1864 as today, so the doctors and coroners meant exactly what they wrote. Nowadays we don’t expect to die from nostalgia, and even seek out the sensation. (Today we’d probably identify what the soldiers experienced as “depression” or PTSD, but at the time they really meant nostalgia.) Nostalgia involves sadness but it usually is of a sweet kind that isn’t necessarily unpleasant.

The title of this blog involves a case of nostalgia. As every second-year Latin student knows, the line (“there are tears for things”) comes from Vergil. It is from a passage in The Aeneid in which Aeneas stares at a mural that depicts the destruction of his city and the deaths of his friends in the Trojan War. He cries. “Stiff upper lip” wasn’t really a thing in the ancient Mediterranean.

Mark Twain famously remarked, "Man is the only animal that blushes - or needs to." True, but it is not the only way we are unique. Humans are also the only animals that cry. Other critters vocalize distress, of course, but none of them actually sheds tears as a sign of emotion. Accordingly, there has been quite a lot of research on crying. Charles Darwin himself considered the matter. Among the things that he got right was the conclusion that causality runs both ways, which is to say that expressing an emotion can cause the emotion as well as the reverse. Recent studies confirm this; simply sprinkling saline drops (artificial tears) on subjects’ faces, for example, can induce sadness. Though usually an uncannily keen observer, Charles did make one significant mistake: he wrote that “savages” (hunter-gatherers in today’s more PC terminology) were more apt to cry freely than civilized peoples. This is wrong. What misled him was that the “uncivilized” people whom he met cried at different things than did Englishmen. He saw them crying over minor (to him) causes, such as when a Maori chief cried because his cloak was discolored by flour. So, he concluded they were more emotional, but he missed that the same people were unmoved by events that would set a Londoner to bawling. There is a lot of cultural variation in how many tears are shed and in what circumstances, but in general Charles got it backwards. There is an unmistakable (albeit not entirely perfect) correlation: People in more advanced societies cry more – a lot more. Abundant crying is a luxury afforded by wealth. Where life is truly harsh folks waste less energy crying over sentimental matters, and save most of their tears for true grief.

Some of the most extensive current research is being done by Ad Vingerhoets, professor in Social and Behavioral Sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and author of
Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears, in association with Michael Trimble, MD, at the Institute of Behavioral Neurology at University College, London. They have studied emotional habits in 37 countries. Said Vingerhoets, “Emotions are never caused by external events but rather by how we appraise certain events… There are cultures or periods in history when people cried much more than we do now, and probably we now cry more than we did 30-40 years ago.” They discovered, contrary to stereotype, that people in colder climates cry more than folks in warm ones. They confirm the wealth correlation with tears, and also reconfirm studies from the 1980s that show – in conformance with conventional belief – that women cry more than men by quite a lot, especially in countries with greater gender equality. The majority of women range between 30 and 64 cries per year as opposed to 6 to 17 for a majority of men. (It is likely that men more often deliberately suppress impulses to tearfulness, which lowers their numbers.) There is, of course, a lot of individual variation as well as cultural variation: stoics and chronic criers turn up in every group. Overall, though, the weepiest men are to be found in the United States and Australia; Nigerians, Malaysians, and Bulgarians are the least teary. Swedish women shed copious tears while women in Ghana and Nepal do not. It should be reiterated, though, that the quantity of tears is not a good indication of the actual level of distress; people can be dry-eyed when experiencing the most appalling misery and wet-faced when happy.

What is the evolutionary purpose of tears? Ultimately we don’t know, but Vingerhoets speculates it has something to do with social expression and empathy. Human social groups are vastly more complex than those of any other mammal and require complex communication – most of it non-verbal. This sounds reasonable, though it would relegate solitary crying bouts to the status of accidental side-effects. So, too, solitary nostalgia. Contrary to the fears of our recent ancestors, however, neither nostalgia nor tears will kill you. Sometimes they make us feel better. So, if the mood suits you, enjoy the prerogative of prosperity and shed tears ‘til you smile.

Question Mark and the Mysterians -- 96 Tears
 



Saturday, March 19, 2016

Robot Sunrise


A friend of mine is a capable physicist working for a tech company. He dabbles in Artificial Intelligence for fun with a particular interest in “deep learning.”  Deep learning machines are able to rewrite their own programs and devise their own rules of thumb in response to real world experience; they can be as basic as the “recommended for you” AI of Amazon, as specialized as diagnostic medical devices, or as generalized as IBM’s Watson, which famously won at Jeopardy in 2011 against reigning human champs despite having its response time deliberately slowed down in order to give the humans some hope of reaching the buttons. (“Devices” can be a misleading word, since the computing sometimes is done in the cloud rather than on discrete devices.) Watson’s achievement is more surprising than it first appears when one considers that it had to interpret human idioms and puns; the most recent version of Watson is twice as fast as the Jeopardy model and operates on the cloud.

I sometimes joke with my friend about how he is coming along with Skynet, but to some people this is no joke – and some surprising names (including Stephen Hawking, Moshe Vardi, and Elon Musk) are among them. Married to robots, AI according to Hawking could mean “the end of the human race”; Musk similarly calls robots an “existential threat.” The primary risk is not the prospect of Terminator-style lethal autonomous weapons systems, though (non-humanoid) robots are in fact a growing part of the battlefield. Most of the concerned analysts, including Vardi and Martin Ford (author The Rise of the Robots), see the indirect threat of economic disruption as more worrisome than direct threats to life. Robots, they say, will continue to eliminate ever more semiskilled jobs as they have done for decades, whether warehouse workers at Amazon or fast food chefs in burger joints. Self-driving vehicles eventually will eliminate jobs of taxi and truck drivers. What is more, AI is able to replace white collar workers – and not far down the road but right now. How about journalism? Ford gives this example:

“Guerrero has been good at the plate all season, especially in day games. During day games Guerrero has a .794 OPS [on-base plus slugging]. He has hit five home runs and driven in 13 runners in 26 games in day games.”

There is nothing very remarkable about that sports item other than that it was written by a computer with no other instructions than to write about the day’s baseball games. Numerous news organizations (Forbes, for one) use similar technology to produce business and news articles, some of which need a little touch-up and some of which don’t. According to the consultancy company McKinsey, 45% of the work people currently are paid to do could be automated economically including 80% of a file clerk’s job and 20% of a CEO’s. As everything from retail to education continues to move online AI can take over more of the tasks. Tech companies – the biggest business success stories in the past two decades – already employ very few workers for their valuation. Youtube was started in 2005 by three people and employed only 65 when Google bought it out for $1.65 billion, or $25 million per employee. Facebook acquired Instagram (13 employees) for $1 billion in 2012, which is $77 million per worker. This contrasts with the old metal bending industrial giants that employed thousands of workers. In consequence, some of the doomsayers project unemployment rates of 50% by midcentury.

But can a machine intelligence be truly creative? Can it compose music, for example? Yes. The London Symphony Orchestra in 2012 performed the neoclassical Transits – Into an Abyss, composed by an AI algorithm called Iamus [who communicated with birds in Greek mythology] running on several computers. Critics liked it, one calling it “artistic and delightful.”

I have no doubt that AI robotics will be disruptive both at work and in private life. I’m less convinced that the result need be mass unemployment, much less extinction of the species. Automation always has led to net economic gains in the past even though it was hard on the individual workers affected. The argument “this time is different” is rarely accurate; relying on it is what prompts investors to buy into asset bubbles and then miss the post-crash rebound. We will adjust, even if most of us eventually end up servicing robots for a living. Nonetheless, the road ahead might be a bit bumpy; fortunately, robot drivers are pretty good at navigating bumpy roads.


Dinner at Eight (1933) – Marie Dressler might be wrong

Sunday, March 13, 2016

You Give Me Fever


It was bound to happen eventually. My last bout with the flu was in 1995 despite repeated close contact with sufferers every year since. I was beginning to think I was immune. Some anonymous donor this past week disabused me of that notion. I am not alone. The CDC notes a widespread uptick in flu infections (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/) as spring approaches.

Studies of the flu virus indicate that (in endless variants) it has been in human populations for at least 6000 years, but the first pandemic identified as influenza was in 1580 in Europe and the Middle East. The first identified pandemic in North America was in 1731 when it spread outward from Boston, though almost certainly the presence of the virus predates this event. 1918 was notoriously the deadliest global outbreak for reasons that are still debated. But in mild form or severe, the bug is a constant and it finally bit me.

Accordingly, out of kindness toward whomever would have been sitting in the seats around me, I regretfully cancelled on last night’s final performance of Snow White at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village for which a friend had acquired the tickets. It was not a family-friendly version of Snow White, but rather one that might have been imagined by the Marquis de Sade. It had seemed worth a look.

The idea of adult fairy tales is far from a new one. In many ways it’s a natural: a lot of fairy tales have highly sexual subtexts, as even Disney’s version of Little Red Riding Hood in Into to Woods failed to miss. More than a few playwrights and screenwriters have tried a hand at making the subtext…well…text. The degree of success with explicit productions has varied. I can’t say first-hand whether Snow White was performed with style, though the facebook photos and comments my friend posted after the show indicate it was. When a show such as this fails, it usually does either because the writers treat the story as unimportant or because they ultimately have a bad conscience – especially about appealing to male lechery, which is politically unsound in some quarters. This can be self-defeating.

One sees similar reticence crop up occasionally in the revival of modern burlesque. Beyond the stultifying effect such concerns can have on a show, San Francisco-based burlesque instructor Bombshell Betty  warns it also can lead to unseemly bias: “I also think it’s funny how quickly many burlesque performers denounce our pole dancing sisters, calling burlesque ‘the good stripping’ and similarly distancing themselves by calling stripclub dancers ‘strippers’ and themselves ‘burlesque dancers’ or ‘burlesque artists,’ when to my way of thinking, the current strip clubs are a lot closer to the original environment and performance intention of the ‘original’ burlesque than the neo-burlesque shows of today.”

The “original” burlesque, at least in an American context, took shape in the 1920s, coinciding with the decline of vaudeville. Formerly family-friendly by design, vaudeville houses in the decade 1915-25 lost most of their audience to the movies, which offered grander spectacles and bigger stars at a cheaper price. Many (Minsky’s, most famously) responded by adding strippers, previously a feature primarily of traveling carnival shows; the term “pole dancer,” already in use, referred originally to tent poles. The conversion of vaudeville to burlesque at least preserved the adult male audience for the old vaudeville theaters. The best-known strippers became major stars, traveling the country in the same way as famous musicians and singers.

If the reader would like to see what shows of the classic era were like, try a DVD titled The Best of Burlesque, which, among other features, contains a recording of an entire burlesque show from 1955 subtitled “Too Hot to Handle” with its live band, songsters, comic acts, and, of course, strippers. The burlesque houses prevailed until the 1960s when all but a handful shut their doors, almost entirely replaced by the simpler modern-style strip clubs. Most of these are little more than bars with stages, but they serve their function and their customers well enough. The arrival on the scene in the 1970s of male dancers aimed at female audiences added another dimension.

Are these clubs in turn being pushed aside by the rise of neo-burlesque and legitimate erotic theater such as Snow White? No. For most customers the theatrics of the more upscale events are a distraction. But these other venues do supplement. Will Americans ever shake our puritanical streak enough to have an entirely good conscience about any of it? Probably not, and if we did we might stop attending all of the spots altogether. Guilt makes it better.

Tonight however, like last night, it is for me a moot point. My feverish ramblings do not come from any of those places, but from influenza.

[See The Roxy Caution at my Richard’s Mirror site for an account of a youthful experience with one of these clubs in the 1970s.]

Stevie Lange – The Stripper


Friday, March 11, 2016

Antipodal Ukes




Last night at the Mayo Performing Arts Center (formerly the Community Theater) in Morristown, I had the good fortune to catch the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra. Yes, you read that right. If your first thought is of gents and flappers in raccoon coats strumming to Yes, Sir! That's My Baby!, think again. Yet there is a sense in which this is not so very wrong after all: the 1920s ukulele craze was all about light-hearted fun, and so is the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra. Musicians and musical critics often take what they do very seriously – nothing wrong with that, but sometimes the pure fun element gets lost. The uke-players had a merry old time of it last night, as did the audience. Moreover, they did so while getting remarkable musical results from instruments “most people regard as toys.”

The whimsically dressed Kiwis came on stage and laid down the rules at the outset of the evening: “Tonight’s first rule is, if you know the words, sing along; the second rule is, if you don’t know the words, sing along.” We knew a lot of them. The eclectic playlist included the Kinks (Sunny Afternoon), Blondie (Pretty Baby), Dolly Parton (Jolene), Britney Spears (Baby One More Time), and the Rolling Stones (Honky Tonk Women), just to scratch the eclectic surface. There was even a Maori chant. WIUO interacted casually with the audience including dancing with the first couple of rows.

The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra is on the last leg of a US tour that has zigzagged West to East for two months. It works south for 7 more gigs, ending in Fort Lauderdale, FL, on March 20. If one happens to be near you, stop for a listen and – if you’re up for it – maybe even a singalong. The experience won’t be profound, but it will be fun.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

Months of local derby dearth ended last night with the NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby) All Stars on its home track in Morristown hosting the Black Rose Rollers All Stars from Hanover PA. The bout didn’t disappoint. It was hard-fought between two well-matched teams who repeatedly traded the lead. Despite fancy footwork by #44 Maulin Rouge in and #123 Bacon 4 Mercy in early jams, both encountered fierce blocking that limited gains on both sides, even during power jams. Black Rose overcame an NJRD early lead, and at 10 minutes in the score stood at NJRD 21-Black Rose 26. At 20 minutes Black Rose led by 22 points. With notable jams by #12 Shannanigunz and #352 Olive Havoc the half-time score stood at NJRD 86-Black Rose 97.

11 points is not much of a spread in derby and both teams returned to the track energized in the second half. Maulin Rouge fought through brutal defenses to close the gap to 93-97. A successful jam by #13 Sukkubus Strixe recaptured the lead for NJRD. #908 Jeno-go-go in a multiple pass jam expanded NJRD’s edge 132-97. Olive Havoc returned the favor, putting Black Rose ahead once again 145-147. NJRD clawed back in front and built up its advantage for the rest of the bout. Sukkubus Strixe skated as final lead jammer adding the last points of the match for NJRD. Final score of NJRD 208 - Black Rose 164.

MVPs Deja Blue and BrieAnn Jam for Black Rose

Rosa Ruckus and Shannanigunz for NJRD

There are few sports as fun to watch. If the reader has his or her doubts, I recommend giving it a try.



Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Singular Option

In past reviews I’ve proposed the curious state of contemporary gender relations as a possible reason that romantic comedies – once the prime staple of Hollywood – haven’t done well with critics or audiences since the beginning of this century. By and large, folks are too cynical to buy into the premise anymore. They buy into infatuation, which pretty much everyone has experienced, but that is different from romance of the romcom sort (it is likely to be one-sided for one thing) and is broadly acknowledged as something likely to end badly. The successful cinematic exceptions are telling. Something outlandish is introduced to the plot to explain the romance, which apparently is otherwise inexplicable: a character is a time traveler (Kate and Leopold), the lovers have a psychic connection (In Your Eyes), they’re too young to know any better (Moonrise Kingdom), or they’re actually mentally ill (Silver Linings Playbook). With their screenplay for Playing It Cool, Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair approached the problem (not very successfully) by writing a meta-romcom about a screenwriter who is stuck midway through a romcom script because he thinks all the romcom clich├ęs are no longer credible. Even Disney has gotten on board. Frozen, Brave, and Maleficent are at best dismissive of romance; the males in these flicks are feckless (Phillip and Kristoff), oafs (Merida’s suitors), or downright evil (Stefan and Hans).

The cynicism reflects the changing way in which people live – especially in the prime youthful movie-going demographic. This clearly shows up in the waning of marriage. The marriage rate is lower than it ever has been. The median age of first marriage for those who bother at all is higher than it ever has been. Not just formal marriage but all types of committed relationships are less common. According to Gallup, “Young adults are not simply swapping marriage for living together, but rather [are] less likely to be making the more serious commitment associated with moving in together – whether in marriage or not.” A lot of this may have to do with the declining fortunes of men. According to Time, median male wages in real terms are down 20% since 1980; young men make up only a third of current college undergrads. Most young guys are, in short, lousy prospects, and according to a 2012 Pew study “a secure job” still topped the female list of requirements for a partner. Only the upper-middle-class and wealthy minority of men and women still get married in large numbers, and they tend to do so with each other. (This exacerbates class differences, but that is a matter for another blog.) Never mind committed relationships, Millennials don’t even date as much as Xers and Boomers did at their ages. None of this is fertile soil for the presuppositions of romcoms. Audiences still might have the same romantic fantasies as they always did, but they find it harder to “suspend disbelief” for two hours while indulging them; what they see on the screen just isn’t consistent with their own experience or expectations.

Nonetheless, I’m up for seeing how filmmakers try to deal with modern cynical audiences, so on Monday I went to see How to Be Single, currently in theaters. A major *Spoiler* is included below, so those for whom that matters may wish to stop reading. There are several overlapping plots – all distinctly from a female point of view – but the central story is that of Alice (Dakota Johnson), who feels she never has experienced being truly single. She always has been in some relationship. So, she tells her boyfriend Josh they should take a break from each other. That way, if they do end up back together, they won’t blame each other for having missed out on life. Alice moves to Manhattan where her sister Meg is a single-by-choice OB/GYN. Alice meets Robin (Rebel Wilson) at the law firm where she gets a job as a paralegal. It doesn’t take much freewheeling casual sex for Alice to decide the experiment is over; she contacts Josh to resume their relationship but discovers he meanwhile has met someone else whom he plans to marry. Robin, who embraces carefree excess as a lifestyle, tries to push Alice to do the same. Alice’s NYC romances, including with a single dad, don’t work out. There are subplots with Robin, with Meg who decides to have a child by artificial insemination and then meets a younger man, and with Lucy (Alison Brie) who methodically seeks out the perfect partner with social media. Tying the plots together is Tom the bartender who offers string-free sex and a little male perspective.

Alice’s epiphany (the reason for the spoiler alert above) comes when she realizes that she has not been learning how to be single; instead, she has kept trying to become part of a couple. Being single is something you do alone: it doesn’t mean you don’t have friends; it doesn’t mean you don’t have dates; it means you have no responsibilities to anyone but yourself. That’s a pretty cool thing at any time, but especially in one’s 20s. The final scene has Alice watching and savoring the sunrise alone in the Grand Canyon, something one can do at a whim when single, but which is a hassle when not. Adult singledom is a great and free period of life; for some of us it is the only one we ever want.

How to Be Single is by no means a great movie or even a particularly good one, but I’ll still give it a thumbs up for trying out a romcom ending that suits the times.


Not as relentlessly raucous as Rebel Wilson's lines might indicate: