New Movie Review: “Freakonomics”

October 20th, 2010 § 338

In the new Freakonomics documentary, professor Stephen Levitt faces the task of potty training his daughter and tells his wife, “I’m an economist. Let me take over.” Using the economics proverb that human behavior can be predicted by incentives, Levitt promises his daughter M&Ms every time she uses the bathroom by herself.
The scheme is effective until his 3-year-old daughter outsmarts it, dragging out one trip to the bathroom into six for increased candy profits. This story sets up viewers for the conclusion, “Governments think they know how incentives work, but they backfire in unpredictable ways.”
This snapshot scene is formula for how most of the film works. It’s This American Life meets economic theory, a re-cap of the internationally best selling book Freakonomics that everyone got for Christmas in 2005. Following the trend of pop academia, think Malcolm Gladwell and NPR’s Radio Lab, the film builds engaging characters, unfolds charming stories to humanize research, and uses these stories to arrive at larger social conclusions. It’s research that doesn’t leave out the researcher. These studies are explained with quirky, first person voice that’s often lacking in say, The Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics.
The film deals with the same academic studies from the original book, such as the explanation of dropping crime rates in the ‘90s with the passing of Roe v. Wade. Unconventional economics is brought to life with creative animation and brightly colored bar graphs. If this movie were a power point presentation, it would be knock-your-glasses-off good. But it’s not. Its project is more ambitious—to present a visual journey of the 2005 book, which raises the question: What does the film version add that the original couldn’t express?
It seemed the filmmakers were asking themselves the same questions of how to make fresh conclusion with old research data. This is could be why the documentary version seems—unlike the book—strangely political.  The film tacks on new political connections to the end of hard science research, like a study about predicting cheating sumo wrestlers in Japan as analogous to Bernie Madoff and the financial crisis. This displays a problem with pop academia in general—the entertaining social conclusions often overstep the scope and intent of the original research, sometimes for the sake of entertainment or maybe because the depth, controversy, and nuance of academic study can’t always fit into a pretty cartoon.
The Freakonomics documentary was at its strongest when it used character development to resurrect academic data. One of the studies was about whether inner city students would improve their grades when offered a $50 dollar reward.  There’s a scene with the school principal explaining he’d love to do the study on his students because the University of Illinois will be paying for it and he points to a kitschy “OPPORTUNITY” poster on his office wall. The deadpan filming and melodramatic color palate of the scene is reminiscent of Wes Anderson. The camera also goes home with the witty Chicago ninth grader, Urail King, whose enthusiasm illustrates the motivating power of incentives and serves as the entertaining bright spot of the film.

If the Freakonomics book is still sitting on your shelf unread, then it could be worth going to check out the film version. You’ll spend an hour and a half getting the same info that would take hours to read, and instead that info will prance around the screen as cute animation. Yet, if you’ve already read the book, then the film will feel like a needless repeat and the tacked-on political analogies are too much of a stretch to be illuminating. Overall, it leaves viewers wondering if the incentives for producers to whip up this re-tell were mostly financial rather than educational.

The Apocalypse Now

July 8th, 2010 § 112

By Laura Grafham

Summer is when minds float away. All it takes is a tiny breeze. When the Falcon opinions articles talk about the need for an increase in modesty. For roses to unfurl their ruddy feminine petals. For seed pods to float across Tiffany Loop like snow, landing as papery puddles in the grass.

The time when I unintentionally wore a see-through skirt, pointed out to me by my roommate at the end of the day, sending my boyfriend into hysterics. We all imagined the people walking behind me throughout the day, pointing at the patterned underwear shining through.

It is now that my friends and I drink iced tea and put on Zeppelin’s “Going to California” on the turntable my parents found somewhere. We eat green and yellow avocados. We clink jam jars filled with ice cubes.

I notice that as the days get longer, the classes digress and shorten with the season. Teacher and students look at one another with expectant eyes, both parties coming to mutual agreement to end class two minutes early. Warm spring rain persuading us to come inside just a little bit longer, to read the book a little bit longer.

Today in Texts and Contexts II, I was taught that Henry the Fifth’s soldiers use longbows made out of yew wood. The strong heartwood is at the center of the six-foot-tall strip, the pliable young wood at each end. Yew wood leads to a discussion about the landscaping job Dr. Amorose held during college, back hoeing trees with his brother and ex-Vietnam vets.

They were slightly off, he said. Off their rockers, still needing to fight something. So they fought plants, hedges, and root balls with shovels and pick axes instead of guerillas hiding in the forest with guns. Crazy they were, staying up late, drinking coffee, going out to bars. Crazy like us college students, working late, getting up early, sleeping in, bags under the eyes, reloading our guns.

And sitting in the stifling, muggy room of Demeray, I picture Amorose and his brother as Martin Sheen or Robert Duvall, traversing swampy jungles in Apocalypse Now. Slogging through Shakespearean text, through dirt, through wet reeds. Right now, we all are at war with ourselves—fighting to stay afloat, to graduate, to find jobs, to hammock in a grassy yard somewhere. Fire, reload.

Calling All Seekers

May 11th, 2010 § 72

By Bekah Grim ’09

I didn’t want my university education to be the equivalent of doing a crossword puzzle — memorizing just enough facts to fill in the correct answer. The English major is for seekers. It’s for those who want to read and write not because it leads to an exact career, but because literature is an avenue to explore deeper questions about the world.

This is how I went into the English major. I wanted to be a writer first and a journalist second. I knew if I didn’t read and discuss literature, I would be missing out on a safari through the greatest thinkers and word acrobats in history.

You’ve got to be down for some fear and trembling when you graduate. It’s scary and unknown. But you will leave the major with the ability to write, which is a practical skill applicable to many careers and business situations.

Be willing to write for anything and everything. Think of it as the musician’s equivalent of playing in a dive bar for a few years.

The career mentor program at SPU was one of the most helpful experiences in defining a professional direction as an English major. Thanks to a job shadow set up by the program, I landed an internship with the Marty Riemer radio show on 103.7. This was the first step of my career path into journalism.

My writing has taken me on incredible adventures so far, including interviewing Kevin Bacon after his manager attempted to cancel the interview and being the first journalist to break the news of a rabid bat outbreak in Washington, D.C.

Quite simply, become an English major if you love to read and write. You’ll read Bleak House and shuffle around campus looking existentially troubled, write home to your parents in iambic pentameter, and deconstruct “Twin Peaks” episodes. You’ll love it.

The English major is for the artists who can’t paint, but, as Billy Collins said, occasionally have a little something going in the typewriter. Pursue your passion. The world will make room for you.

Where Is Home

May 11th, 2010 § 368

By Laura Grafham

Where is my home, people ask of me. I’d like to know, too; if you tell me I shall blow kisses to you through the air, floating out from letters on the page.

To avoid asking the question of myself, I’ve found it easier asking other people about their home. When I look inside, shaky and nervous, the signal comes in like fuzzy radio waves, announcers burping out past memories and words like gunshots:

The dogwood trees I climbed as a kid. Now my brother climbs them. My mother shouts through the windows. The teakettle screams. My brother is more at home in trees than I am now. And I mourn my loss. He is 13 and runs track. He is the wind.

His hair is my home and I smell it and know. He still uses Johnson’s Baby Magic shampoo of his own free will; it squeaks him clean and naïve in the shower, no exponential young man odor. His short stubbly head is a blond hedgehog that weaves and dodges away from hugs and arms. This doesn’t mean it isn’t mutual, and we both know this. It is mutually understood that he is a teenager, that he does not touch family or female sisters with affection.

We are mischievous at each other with each weave of our limbs, our eyes making electric charged electrodes out across the airwaves — we are on the same frequency.

He isn’t old enough to know what I know, but he is wiser than I am in his own secret way. We both know it. He has patience and I don’t. He has 13-year-old style and grace, married with an awkward body and mind. It is beautiful, and this is why I try to hug him.

Examining living human beings with my eyes, I tie strings from my heart to theirs. When they tug on my foundation it hurts. But isn’t this the only way to be home?

The gap between home as a location and a feeling grows more and more numerous with the passing of time and age. My foundation is mobile, has wheels, needs gasoline and oil changes from time to time. I don’t build my home to stay put, and neither do the people I care about. We build it around each other.

400 Words

May 11th, 2010 § 90

By Anna Taylor

A friend comes to me. “Write me four hundred words,” she says. “On anything.”

Characteristically, my mind does what it does best when faced with such challenges: It goes completely blank.

You would think such a broad spectrum would allow a limitless potential. Instead, it causes my intellect to contort into an impressive fetal position.

So many times I approach an open Word document on my computer, intimidated by the sheer whiteness and emptiness that I see before me. Some people see the possibilities, embracing the opportunity to fill an empty void.

My best friend Jess, a talented artist, is one of these people. I have seen her transform a fresh canvas into a masterpiece in a matter of seconds. I, on the other hand, allow intimidation to seep into the process. What happens if what I see in my mind isn’t what flows out of my fingers? What if I can’t find the best words? What if I can’t convey the thoughts and impressions swirling in my head? To borrow a phrase, what if it doesn’t come out right?

I once confided to a mentor that I was having trouble writing because of this fear of not getting it “right.” He looked at me for a long minute and then said simply, “Don’t be afraid of a blank canvas.”

His words struck me deeply. The secret is simple, isn’t it? It never comes out “right.”

Those impressive masterpieces Jess produces are often canvasses she turns to face the wall. Words, while powerful, vital, relevant, and versatile, simply are not enough sometimes. The human mind cannot be transferred and translated to paper accurately by means of a few symbols; the fact that we can attempt to do so is amazing.

Reading and writing are incredible gifts, allowing us to try to capture something breathtaking. Ultimately, however, what they best capture is the intangibility and inscrutability that is the essence of thought and feeling.

Sometimes people speak truth into your life in a way that makes you realize something that should have been obvious all along. My mentor’s words were some of the most profound I have ever been given. Nothing will ever come out the way we want it to. So why worry? Just write. Don’t fear the blank canvas.

And now I have 400 words.