Saturday, May 14, 2016

Four Diversions of Page and Screen: Pocket Reviews


Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus at Princeton, won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, which is an unexpected award for a psychologist. He won it for his studies on human irrationality and how this affects economic behavior. He says he acquired his interest in psychology as a boy during the Nazi occupation of Paris. In 1942 he was on the street after curfew and encountered a soldier in an SS uniform. He expected arrest – the usual fate in this situation – but instead the man emotionally hugged him, gave him money, and sent him on his way: “I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting.”

Kahneman made his name with his studies of cognitive biases such as the anchoring effect. Gamblers will place larger bets and judges will give lengthier sentences, for example, if they are exposed to completely irrelevant large numbers first. People remember things oddly: they give greater weight to the last few minutes of an hour-long experience when remembering it as either good or bad. They ignore game theory by weighting a risk of loss more than the equivalent chance of an equal gain. The varieties and extent of human irrationality are vast and normal. In the ‘90s Kahneman applied his findings to economic models. In the 21st century, while continuing to explore the way people think in general terms, he has focused on the pleasantly named “hedonics,” the study of happiness. All of this is summarized in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

One theme that resurfaces time and again is the dual human thought process. System 1 includes easy matters that require little concentration, such as walking at a normal pace, driving a car under normal circumstances, recognizing an angry face, understanding simple sentences, and so on. System 2 includes whatever requires focused concentration, such as filling out a tax form, understanding sentences with complex grammar full of double negatives, counting redheads in a large crowd, following a complex logical argument, and walking at a faster pace than is comfortable for you. One system can interfere with the other: for example, it is not a good idea to make a left turn across heavy traffic while trying to solve even such a simple (System 2) multiplication problem as 17 x 34. We have only a certain amount of concentration available to us at any given moment, and System 2 activities use a lot of it. Humans are lazy at heart: they tend use System 2 sparingly and, even then, rarely rigorously.

It took Kahneman 482 pages to summarize his work, so I’m not going to do it in a few paragraphs. But if you are looking for a readable guide to the way humans think and to how this can be exploited by retailers, politicians, and others, there are few better than Thinking Fast and Slow.

**** ****


Our Brand is Crisis (2015)
When this film was released in October 2015, foreplay already was underway in the US Presidential primaries as well as in several other major upcoming elections and referenda around the world. The movie's poor box office performance suggests the timing of the release was not such a commercially sound decision. In the heat of campaigns, it may be that a lot of viewers don’t want to hear a message that all sides are ruthlessly cynical. “Some folks on our side might have a few foibles but those other guys are really terrible,” is the more tempting mindset.

This movie was inspired by a 2005 documentary also titled Our Brand is Crisis about the successful efforts of the American political consulting group Greenberg Carville Shrum to elect Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada president of Bolivia in 2002 despite his initial unpopularity. The “Carville” of Greenberg Carville Shrum is frequent US TV guest James Carville, a Democratic political strategist married to Republican political strategist Mary Matalin.

In this 2015 fictionalized version of the Bolivian election, “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is an American consultant hired to go to La Paz by the candidate Castillo, an unpopular former president. Jane’s long-time competitor Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) works for an opposition populist candidate who initially leads by 28 points. Both consultants are simply hired guns; Jane makes a point of being willing to work for anyone. Both use ruthless smear tactics and dirty tricks, and Castillo’s numbers soon start to rise. Jane works to create a sense of crisis to scare voters away from his inexperienced opposition candidate, because it’s always easier to induce people to vote against someone than for someone. Jane has a personal problem in the form of a conscience, which is a liability in her profession. Yet, while she does feel bad about herself, when push comes to shove during a campaign her conscience never stops her from pulling the trigger. “There is only one wrong in this,” she says to Castillo’s staff, “only one, and that is losing!” Besides, as she also says, "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."

This film has so-so reviews, but despite its flaws (and there are many) I think it is worth a look. Thumbs slightly up.
A tale of two strategists

Room (2015)
Over the years we’ve witnessed chilling news stories of young women abducted by psychopaths, held captive for years, and finally rescued – sometimes by their own hand and sometimes with outside help. Such stories prompted Emma Donoghue to write Room, a story of a young boy Jack who has lived his entire life inside a 10 x 10 foot garden shed, which to him is the universe. He lives there with his mother who had been captured seven years earlier by the vile Old Nick. Wisely, the producers and director of the movie adaptation tapped Emma also to write the screenplay.

This is a movie that is not much helped by prior exposition beyond an explanation of the premise. It’s best for the viewer to let it unfold for itself. I’ll merely say that it is not just about engineering an escape but about what the aftermath might be, and about whether mother or son is more damaged. Brie Larson is superb as the young woman and Jacob Tremblay gives a solid performance as Jack.

Thumbs firmly up.

**** ****

After last week’s comments about Joss Whedon, I convinced myself to try his 2009-2010 Dollhouse, which first aired to barely lukewarm reviews that grew ever more enthusiastic as the series progressed. But while the show slowly won over critics, it did not ever build an audience and so was canceled after two seasons.

I think the problem for viewers (and perhaps at first for critics) is that the show isn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer despite starring Buffy veteran Eliza Dushku, whose recurring role was as the bad-girl rogue slayer Faith. Whereas Buffy contained a hefty dose of humor, Dollhouse is straight-up suspense/action/sci-fi/drama with only the annoying young genius Topher cracking jokes, which only make him more annoying. But taken on its own terms, Dollhouse is pretty good. (I’m still just partway through the first season.) The first episode, true enough, is a bit sluggish, but this might have been unavoidable since the show needed to set up the premise and introduce us to the various characters, which necessarily ate up time. Subsequent episodes are more exciting, but most viewers were not willing (sorry, but the pun cries out to be said) to take the prospect on faith.

Dollhouse is a secret business venture in which men and women employees, if that is the right word, called “dolls” are imprinted with personalities, memories, and skills to suit the wishes of super-rich clients. At the end of each assignment, the doll’s memories are wiped clean until the next assignment. Between assignments the dolls are vapid, child-like, and pliable. The dolls are supposedly volunteers who at the end of their contract will be released. The doll called Echo (Eliza), however, volunteers only in the sense that her alternative apparently is prison; Dollhouse offers her a clean slate after five years. If Dollhouse sounds like an overpriced escort service, sometimes that is exactly what it is; on other occasions, though, the dolls are imprinted with hostage negotiation skills, fighting skills, or even singing skills for special assignments.

Echo begins to retain bits of memory between mind wipes, which is not supposed to happen. Meanwhile, an FBI agent doggedly tries to uncover the truth about Dollhouse, of which he hears persistent rumors, because it sounds to him like human trafficking. Olivia Williams makes a smoothly amoral executive officer for Dollhouse, though even she answers to an unseen higher-up.

Verdict: Thumbs up, but you might need to stick with it through a few episodes to agree.

Dollhouse Trailer


  1. Thinking Fast & Slow is probably mandatory reading for political candidates and Madison Ave. advertising types, among others. I will say I can't think of anything much more complex that human behavior. Even though Kahneman wrote the book, I bet even he gets taken by surprise from time to time.

    I have to admit Our Brand is Crisis doesn't exactly appeal to me with having so much politics on the news lately though I like James Carville (and his wife too to a degree). While reading about it I thought about the older films, Bob Roberts and Wag the Dog. It might be worth watching though.

    Room might be more my cup of tea.

    Dollhouse, sounds like something I might like, though sometimes those series have to be executed pretty well to pull me in. A friend recommended a Brit series to me called Orphan Black, and I gave the first four episodes a try, but in the end didn't win me over enough to continue watching. If it's on streaming I might give it a try. Good reviews.

    1. Orphan Black didn't grab me either, but I have a quasi-niece who loves it.

      In some ways Dollhouse reminds me of a 90s show called The Pretender -- a multi-gifted protagonist in a new role each week with a shadowy organization in the background. One difference (among many) is that Jarod was inherently multi-talented while Echo is reprogrammed for each role. Four episodes is more than a fair trial for Dollhouse. (Like so many series these days, it must be viewed in proper sequence.) I suspect you'll like it by then, but de gustibus and all that.

  2. Seems to be a similarity with the Dollhouse and the Swedish show Akta Manniskor:

  3. That books sounds fascinating. Thanks for recommending it. I'll have to give it a read.

    I've had "Dollhouse" in my to watch cue for years and haven't pulled the trigger. But your mini review convinced me to give it a shot. Besides, I've always liked Eliza and thought she should have been given some more shots in film and television. She had a small part in "Big Bang Theory" and was really funny.

    Yeah I gave "orphan Black" four episodes too and it just didn't click. I was wondering if I was the only one, because so many people love that show. I just really didn't like any of the characters and spending a full season with them seemed less than ideal. :)

    1. It’s a good reason to quit watching a series. The cast of shows we watch are frequent one-way visitors to our homes after all. We don’t want any more (in effect) annoying in-laws taking up our time. (The deranged souls who imagine the visits are somehow two-way all too often become the responsibility of law enforcement.)

    2. Eliza got a chance to be pretty versatile in Dollhouse. Too bad so few people saw it. I know the Big Bang Bang episode you mean but it is only now that you mention it that I recognize it was Eliza in the role.