Mos Def’s excellent new album dropped today and he ran through a smoking version of “Quiet Dog” last night on the Letterman show, rapping and drumming simultaneously.
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Robin Hanson, an economist who frequently writes about signaling—how cultural capital is deployed—notices this WaPo account of the flaws in customer-satisfaction surveys. It turns out that people are systematically biased toward giving people who are (in Hanson’s interpretation) perceived to have higher status a better evaluation.
Hekman [the study’s lead author] found that these objective measures of performance correlated with patient satisfaction reports only when the doctors were white men. For women and minorities, extra quality, accessibility and diligence not only did not result in better evaluations by patients—they produced worse evaluations.
As someone who, as a college instructor, was frequently rated by my “customers,” the study’s findings ring true to me. I could coast on my white maleness where my female colleagues couldn’t; they, meanwhile, were being told how unfashionable their clothes were and how they should smile more. I always resented the way universities would rely on evaluations in their decision-making, and the idea that teachers’ pay could be affected by it seemed like a great reason to get out of the profession altogether. Some evaluators will do their best to be objective but have their opinions colored perhaps unknowingly by their desire for what Hanson calls status affiliation; others will gleefully regard the survey as an opportunity to vote in a popularity contest.
Hanson seems eager to differentiate status affiliation from outright racism:
People usually invoke two explanations for such behavior:
1) Irrational or ideological racism or sexism.
2) Rational stereotyping that just happens to go wrong in these cases.
But a third explanation seems to me more plausible:
3) We prefer to affiliate with higher status folks. If female doctors, black or female sales clerks, or latino golf club employees are considered lower status, then customers will be less satisfied with them even if they do exactly the same things.
That seems like splitting hairs to me—racism, sexism, income inequality, class bigotry, and so on are better justified if they can be displaced and relabeled as status concerns. Ideological racism is precisely what this study describes, the systematic association of status and better performance with otherwise irrelevant characteristics. The close association of status with race and gender and so on is what makes racist ideology seem perfectly rational, excusing us for our prejudice. And that association is justified, in a tautological sort of way, through surveys and such that seem to instantiate democratic participation. Hey, we’re voting! We matter! But in that spirit—that voting is about boosting our own self-esteem—we vote as a way to express what we would like to be affiliated with, not what we have decided about the matter at hand. If we have no comprehension of the matter at hand, so much the better; our ability to vote our ego becomes that much easier to countenance.
Democracy is all well and good, but it seems to be evoked at times to justify and glorify something altogether different, when uninformed people are invited to rate the performance of those whose work they aren’t that qualified to evaluate. Such surveys, popularized by shows like American Idol, end up having the function of negating the idea that objective standards are relevant, and promote the idea that status and popularity are always trustworthy proxies for quality. This durable species of capitalist ideology is a close cousin of the kind of market-think that views price or brands as always-reliable signals of quality. This shifts the responsibility for perpetuating status-quo inequities onto ordinary people, making it seem the natural order of things and an expression of the people’s choice. So, any time we cast an ignorant vote, fill out some comment card or cast a vote on So You Think You Can Dance out of some vague and unquestioned impulse about their “talent”, we strengthen the grip of this ideology.
I wish I could take credit for the label. Instead, I first heard it from fellow critic Dawn Taylor. A Portland, OR staple low these many years, her press previews are frequently interrupted by what the journalistic gang there have dubbed “Screening Rats”. An easy definition of said staple is those consistent members of the free movie crowd who manage to make their presence known in ways both fascinating and unfortunate. They are the proposed backbone of the process, the wonky “word of mouth” Hollywood wants and caters to in order to supplement their marketing. But in reality, they are nothing more than the pests the nickname suggests - scavengers taking up space at a scenario supposedly reserved for journalists and other “invited guests”. They don’t earn disfavor by figuring out the shell game. They get cursed for how they abuse it.
It what will clearly be an ongoing series addressing these iconic individuals, SE&L has decided to start a dictionary of sorts, a glossary given over to identifying and calling out these particular people. While we’ll try not to be mean, rest assured that almost every description here comes from factual personal experience and anecdotal truth. There is no embellishing, or exaggerating. Instead, a limited blog feature can’t fully contain all the various subsections of each category discussed. Hopefully, we will cover the basics before moving along. Perhaps you will recognize a few of the types talked about as well, including the first felon on our movie ‘Most Wanted’ list:
You can spot “The Regular” right off the bat. They have the standard Regular regalia - portable chair, knapsack filled with paraphernalia and foodstuffs, movie-sponsored t-shirt, umbrella (in case they can’t get into the theater and it rains), and of course, an attitude of entitlement. These are the people that make the screening process a chore - the one’s who believe their constant obsession with free movies has somehow “earned” them the right to dictate - and participate - in the entire press process. They’re the people who stop you in the mall and dumbfound you with intricate questions about plotting and characterization. They’re the group that crowd around the critic’s row to “say Hello” and chitchat before the lights go down. They’re the voice that screams from the back of the theater whenever the studio representative asks for quiet, addressing said staffer by name. And they are the ones who make up at least 60% of the audience at every screening.
They have the scam down pat. They know which trade publications to read, which ad rags to follow for free ticket info. They pass along extra invitations and brazenly ask the press what’s coming next. They will use you to get in, sneak into morning press-only previews under the guise of some silly excuse, and wonder aloud why you don’t vouch for them when an issue comes up. They may even wonder how they too can get a “cushy” job like reviewing films for a living. They rarely cause trouble once the movie starts, and have been known to stop the talkative and cellphoner in their inappropriate tracks. But that just fuels their desire to “fit in”. Some have been doing it for decades. Others are just now learning the ropes. In reality, they are the sticky floors of the entire movie critic process. They will always be there - and they are almost always fairly annoying.
Unlike The Talker, who simply wants to share their view on everything (no matter how pointed or off the wall), The Narrator is its own unique - and obnoxious breed. They are the aural subtitles for the visually impaired, a person - typically in their early 20s or over 60 - for whom every onscreen element has to be expressed in bland, matter of fact terms. Talk about having no internal monologue. They will watch the logo and state “Oh, this is a Paramount movie”. The above the title credits will roll and they will flatly mention, “Eddie Murphy and Thomas Haden Church are the stars.” When the director’s name arrives, they will offer up an oeuvre or state with limited enthusiasm “Who’s he?”
As the movie progresses, they will point out the plot turns (“He needs her help.” “She feels left out.”) and if anything thrilling or frightening happens, they will anticipate the terror (“The killer’s hiding in the closet”) or break out the straightforward scripting denouement (“She’s the murderer.”). By the end, they are commenting on the sets (“That’s a big apartment”) or other production subtext (“Couldn’t they get a real horse?”). Remember, the Talker just wants to get some things off their entertained chest. It’s like a group hug with commentary. The Narrator needs to verbally recall the film fact for fact less they forget something and marginalize their overall moviegoing experience. The fact that we get to hear it to is icing on an already rotting cake.
In the world of obsessives, the Cackler comes right after the apologist, two away from the fanatic and three away from the basic fan. For this lover of the onscreen talent - typically a comedian or comic actor, though it doesn’t always have to be - everything is funny. Not just the jokes (or what sadly passes for same). No - EVERYTHING, literally. If the star says “good morning” to their co-workers, they snicker. A raised eyebrow earns a guffaw. A standard one-liner is greeted with the kind of laughter one expects from an audience with late great Richard Pryor, and the sloppy silent comedy or slapstick puts the Cackler into absolute stitches. They are often masked by other Cacklers in the crowd, or a film that is actually witty and hilarious. But more times than not, they are braying away, donkey style, amid the stunned silence of an otherwise bored audience. To call them a plant would be defamatory to botany.
Ah - the Gourmand. They are truly a rare and repugnant breed. Convinced that a free ticket to the movies means they can load up on indecently priced concessions, these prized pigs will load up on every available item at the snack bar, find a way of working themselves into their predetermined seat (usually right behind you) and then proceed to tie on the feedbag like starved thoroughbreds on the way to the glue factory. The typical ten course meal consists of popcorn, butter, salt (yes, those are three different menu items in the Gourmand’s purview), diet soda, candy, nachos, jalapenos, pretzels, bottled water, and whatever new novelty item (pizza, ice cream bites) the theater has decided to stock. All throughout the movie, they are munching away like a woodchipper chomping through a recently found member of the Witness Protection Program, grunting and groaning in unison with their jaw movements.
And it can be worse - lots worse. Some theaters are foolishly located in malls where the food court offers even more stomach churning delights, and per agreement between the two, ticketholders can actually go to a McDonalds, or a Sbarro’s, buy a gross of quick fried fattiness, and bring it into the screening to sup upon. As the various smells - body odor, feet, fresh cut farts, and honey roasted chicken - mingle, your gag reflex starts working overtime. But the absolute worst has to be the Gourmand subset known as The Experimenter. This is someone who will take popcorn, cheese topping brought from home, and a handful of pickled peppers, and literally let the mélange steep about six feet away from your nose. As the vinegary vileness fills the air, you pray that a sudden angina attack will force the almost always Lark-bound behemoth to leave the handicapped aisle, corned crap conveniently taken along for the grueling ambulance ride to follow.
The Family Man/Woman
This is an easy Screening Rat to spot - just look at the soiled biological offspring they’ve decided to bring along for the ride - be it R-rated or not. Yep - these are Child Protective Services social nightmares, guardians who give up common sense over the saving of the price of a night at the movies. These are people who believe kids need to see bloody slaughter, sexual deviance, gross out comedy crudeness, and any number of naked body parts, just so they don’t have to part with $10, plus parking. They scoff at suggestions that their crying child be taken out of the theater in order to avoid disturbing the “adults”, and wonder aloud why anyone would question their baby’s need to nurse - right there, during the final frightshow plot twist. These are the morons who change diapers on the stadium seats, feed their wee ones gobs of sugar, and then wonder why they go apeshit for the entire running time. They will gladly get their Hellspawn to shut up, but may give you a damn dirty look in the process.
Unless of course, we are talking about a family film or animation screening. At that point, you might as well buy the semi-automatic and have it surgically attached to your temple. You see, parents, weaned on decades of using movies as a means of babysitting their brats, believe that the cinematic scenario is sacred. Kids are entitled to do just about any dag burn thing they want, since the experience was - supposedly - tailor-made for such unnecessary outbursts. These are the DNA donors who think nothing of having their kid sing along to the songs in the film, even when they can’t possibly know the lyrics or the melody. They encourage shouting and silly comments, claiming that it’s just the juvenile being same. And since Johnny or little Mary can act like a ‘tard in public with little regard for etiquette or manners, Mom and Dad can do the same. Nothing says “shame” quicker than a family unit fake frugging to the knock-off nostalgia hit from the ‘60s stuck on the end of another CG-nightmare.
It Might Get Loud
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Jimmy Page, The Edge, Jack White
Opening: 14 August 2009
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Plot summary: Rarely can a film penetrate the glamorous surface of rock legends. It Might Get Loud tells the personal stories, in their own words, of three generations of electric guitar virtuosos -– The Edge (U2), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), and Jack White (The White Stripes). It reveals how each developed his unique sound and style of playing favorite instruments, guitars both found and invented. Concentrating on the artist’s musical rebellion, traveling with him to influential locations, provoking rare discussion as to how and why he writes and plays, this film lets you witness intimate moments and hear new music from each artist. The movie revolves around a day when Jimmy Page, Jack White, and the Edge first met and sat down together to share their stories, teach and play.
[Sony Pictures Classics]
The release and poor sales of SEGA’s Madworld is just another notch in what is becoming a very real gap between the different groups of people who play video games. Often blamed directly on Nintendo’s Wii, the poor sales of a highly rated game by mainstream gaming websites is just another indication that the people buying Wii Fit are not going to be following up that purchase with Call of Duty 5. Even articles making the claim that video games are responsible for torture, violence, the housing bust, traffic, bad breath, etc. are now qualifying their criticisms with statements like, “While I happen to enjoy the ‘G’ rated Wii…” Despite the fact that there are games for stalking and murdering people on the Wii, it is consistently seen as something safe for children or as something okay for the everyday person to claim they enjoy but not for that “other” stuff. The question is…what does that make all of these hardcore gamers?
Part of the problem with the hardcore gamer is that the meaning of “hardcore” is such a nebulous concept to begin with. You can’t exactly claim that it revolves around playing games excessively because people regardless of gender or social background do this. The person who plays Bejeweled 2 for hours is, despite the fact that they’re both playing video games, not considered the same animal as someone who plays Halo 3 for hours. The definition doesn’t exactly revolve around violence or subject matter either because the hardcore demographic will readily enjoy The Sims or Super Mario Brothers despite the cute graphics and low amounts of violence. It doesn’t revolve around game design depth or quality because there are numerous challenging games with complex systems labeled as casual. At the core of either group is that same problem with people thinking the Wii only has casual games on it: perception. The company creating the game has to start marketing it towards one group or the other from the very beginning. Tom Endo over at The Escapist wrote that the division is so intense that games that appeal to either groups are no longer possible, “The business models and the audiences for the two gaming segments are so fundamentally different that attempting to force the two under one roof just doesn’t make sense. While it’s already started, the bifurcation in the largest publishers between business units devoted solely to core and casual game interests will only grow more distinct in the future.” In this way, the division of the hardcore gamer from the casual player mostly becomes an exercise in what they are not: they are not whatever casual gamers are.
The practice of being counter-culture, to actively define yourself by what you are not, is only fairly new to video games. Absent a political agenda or purpose like other counter-culture movements, there is a comparison to the division that exists between casual gamers and hardcore gamers that seems a bit more apt. They are the cultural equivalent of hipsters.
Like the hardcore gamer, the hipster is a nebulous concept to define. These are the people wearing random thriftstore shirts, engaging with the latest indie band, or perhaps just carrying with them a pervasive sense of the ironic. One of the strongest articles on the subject is by Adbusters, which defines hipsters as indicative of the death of culture. The article opines, “Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group—using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. But the moment a trend, band, sound, style or feeling gains too much exposure, it is suddenly looked upon with disdain. Hipsters cannot afford to maintain any cultural loyalties or affiliations for fear they will lose relevance.” The article goes on to explain that they are a mirror of the shallowness of mainstream society, a failed youth movement that doesn’t even challenge the decadence of their elders. Instead, the hipster is just a counter-point to Gen-X, an identity based on meaninglessness instead of brand names. Rob Horning here at the Popmatters blog Marginal Utility has done excellent coverage of the topic drawing in a wide variety of opinions. In one piece he provides an excellent quote from Dara Lind who wonders why a generation of typically privileged people with opportunity are ending up in such a cultural state of zombification. In the post “The Death of the Hipster”, he points out, “The problem with hipsters seems to me the way in which they reduce the particularity of anything you might be curious about or invested in into the same dreary common denominator of how “cool” it is perceived to be. Everything becomes just another signifier of personal identity.”
On the surface, these two groups could not be more alien. A post by PixelVixen707 discussing the comparison points out many of the flaws in the analogy. She writes, “Gamers accumulate knowledge; hipsters move through it, consuming and relinquishing it daily. Gamers accumulate years’ worth of garbage and trivia, and never let it go. They are still making Portal jokes. A hipster is judged by what’s now; gamers, by what they were playing in 1993.” Easily the most popular critics of video games is Penny Arcade, and as she points out, they accomplish this through a sense of inclusiveness. But past these social difference, they are technically performing the same cultural activity. Both identities are self-created and enforced by the community’s own tastes.
Consider how a game becomes “high art” in gamer culture. The means by which we judge which ten year old game is significant is mostly artificial. Critics just choose games that they will then discuss in a more complex fashion. Using Shadow of the Colossus as an example, a blogger named Vanderblade explains how gaming websites elevated the game’s status. He comments, “Whether or not a videogame is highbrow depends largely on if the gaming community positions it and defines it as such. In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, the discourse surrounding the game clearly identifies it as culturally superior to most other games.” Although that specific example deals with the vagaries of highbrow video games, it also explores the same mechanism by which gamers select whether something is casual or hardcore. We just make it up.
Video games have very recently attained their moment in the mainstream spotlight and the reaction is just starting to turn hostile. An example of a typical hardcore rant against casual games at Good Gear Guide places the blame squarely on Nintendo and the Wii for the downfall of video games. The author rants, “Call it a fad or a gimmick if you will, but this is exactly what the masses want — and they’re gatecrashing the party in their millions. Nintendo’s “come one, come all” approach to gaming has revolutionized our once-insular industry, with grannies, girlfriends and non-gamers all getting in on the action.” The hipster tone begins to set in once the article defines anything as hardcore that is not a “casual/party” game or put more colloquially, whatever is not mainstream. The symptoms of this do not just relate to Nintendo games either. The Halo 3 backlash is taking on somewhat mythic proportions as posters and message boards continue to complain that the game is not worthy of its popularity. Whatever your opinion on the game, a title doesn’t host over one billion multiplayer matches because it’s doing something wrong. Ultimately, the hardcore gamer will probably fall into the same cultural cycle as the hipster as it repudiates what is mainstream for the sake of remaining against such a culture. As Horning at PopMatters dryly jokes, “One can’t be against hipsters. Hipsterism consists of its own repudiation. Recognizing the existence of hipsters to a certain degree makes one a hipster.” One could easily say the same about hardcore gamers.