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Thursday, Jan 10, 2008

Science News reports about a study testing the influence of opinion leaders, busybody extroverts eager to share recommendations with a wide network of people. Somewhat surprisingly, the researchers Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds found with computer simulations that a critical mass of easily influenced people is more important for the spread of an idea rather than super proselytizers.


More important than the influencers, the researchers found, were the influenced. Once an idea spread to a critical mass of easily influenced individuals, it took hold and continued to spread to other easily influenced individuals. In some networks, it was far easier to get an idea established this way than in others. The entire structure of the network mattered, not just the few influential people.
Dodds compares the spread of ideas to the spread of a forest fire. When a fire turns into a conflagration, no one says that it was because the spark that began it was so potent. “If it had been raining,” Dodds says, “that same match wouldn’t have had an effect.” Instead, a fire takes off because of the properties of the larger forest environment: the dryness, the density, the wind, the temperature.
The upshot of the study, Dodds says, is that “in the end, you don’t have control over how people spread your message.” The best way to increase the odds of person-to-person transmission of an idea is to make it a good idea and to give it “social worth,” he says. “Some things are just fun to talk about.”


Ideas, then, are subject to network effects—the notion that the size of a phenomenon creates its own exponential positive feedback—and their spread has even less to do with their intrinsic quality. What helps spread an idea is not some Tipping Point style special influencer but the ability to bring a large group of naive and easily persuaded people with a propensity for novelty for its own sake into contact with one other—say, some site that would get a bunch of teenagers together to do little other than share and reaffirm one another’s preferences. I wonder if some clever college dropout will come up with such a thing.


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Thursday, Jan 10, 2008

Boy am I glad that I didn’t go for the yearly payment option with Napster, even if meant a discount…  It seems that Sony’s publishing branch doesn’t want their tunes streamed now or ever again, thanks to a fight about royalties, according to Billboard.  What’s scary isn’t just that this effects other services like Rhapsody and MediaNet but also, as the article notes, “other major publishers are also expected to stop future licensing of the services.”  That means that streaming services are effectively gonna get killed off unless some new agreement is reached.


You gotta hand it to the music industry—even after killing off DRM, they still find ways to screw up their business by placing new walls and barriers up and making music less accessible to people once again.  The end result is that music lovers are driven to other ways to get the music which ultimately ain’t gonna get any money back to the publishing companies who license the songs.  But hey, what’s a little more wrong-headed thinking about an industry that’s in decline?  If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that’s why Napster was trying to push consumers to buy their yearly model, knowing that they’d be locked in for 12 months, even after they’d lose some/most of their streaming privileges.  But they wouldn’t cook up a scheme like that, would they…?


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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008


They’ve been known to predict the eventual Oscar winner close to 95% of the time. They also seem to have a handle on which films will get nominated, and which movies will be overlooked come the actual Academy Awards. The Director’s Guild of America announced its choices for 2007’s best filmmaking, and it’s an eclectic group at best. Aside from a pair of previous nominees (the Coens caught one for Fargo in 1997), everyone else on this list are first timers. Even more interesting, three aren’t necessarily known for their work behind the camera. We have an artist, an actor, and a writer who made his first foray into the world of direction. Of course, this means that none of the nominees have ever won before, which makes the accomplishment twice as rewarding.


Without actually handicapping the outcome, SE&L will step in and offer its thoughts on the choices, as well as highlighting a few names that could have been substituted for at least one individual on the list. While many feared 2007 would be a slack year, cinematically speaking, the last four months have offered up such astonishing fare that, in the end, it turned out to be one of the best ever for the artform…and the names found below are a big part of the reason why. Without their good, good work, we’d be stuck with an endless outpouring of Michael Bay megabusters. One shudders to think.


The Nominees:





Joel and Ethan Coen




No Country for Old Men





It’s hard to say if the brothers really deserve an Oscar for what they do as directors. Certainly, their films are stunning realizations of pragmatic and artistic ambitions, and there are times when their technique seems in sync with the very gods themselves. But how much of this is direction, and how much is pure production acumen. They know how to write (and how!). They cast flawlessly. Their editing is always superb, and they combine music, theme, and subtext in a way few craftsman can. But it seems so, well, SMALL to call them mere ‘directors’. That’s why they probably won’t win. What they did with Cormac McCarthy’s novel was much more than mere behind the lens guidance.





Paul Thomas Anderson




There Will Be Blood





Like Barack Obama in the last few weeks, praise and plaudits for this mostly unseen masterwork by the Boogie Nights auteur has been growing by leaps and bounds. Critics groups have been frothing to foist as many accolades on the film as possible, and Anderson has gone from retro-revisionist to a full blown motion picture master. Everything about Blood is a direct reflection of his vision and attention to detail. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis’ striking turn as Daniel Plainview seals the deal, but without the barren old West backdrop to play against, the performance would be nothing but Method mannerism. Thanks to Anderson, it becomes the fodder for a true epic.





Sean Penn




Into the Wild





Breaking away from the no nonsense neo-realism pose his last few films have taken, Penn has lightened up as a director, and as a result, discovered a lyrical soul beneath his hardened show biz shell. Instantly recalling the more experimental end of the post-modern movement circa the ‘70s, there are moments of great joy mixed in with the inevitable sadness of Christopher McCandless’ self-imposed exile from society. With solid support from his cast, and an evocative score courtesy of pal Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam), this may be the first time Penn’s skill in front of the lens translates successfully behind it.





Tony Gilroy




Michael Clayton





This remains the one odd choice out of the five. SE&L is still trying to figure out what everyone sees in this otherwise routine corrupt corporation thriller. Could be that lingering (man) crush everyone has on Clooney, who is very good in the film. Perhaps it’s Gilroy’s compensation for making Matt Damon into a believable action hero (he’s responsible for the Bourne trilogy scripts). It could be that scene where co-star Tilda Swinton is locked in a bathroom stall, fear and flop sweat staining her power suit. In a year where there were other deserving nominees (see below), this appears like a very odd, very insider choice.





Julian Schnabel




The Diving Bell and the Butterfly





Here’s the reason why this former painter turned filmmaker is here - he used a gimmicky, borderline obnoxious approach to the first half of his movie (we see everything from the point of view of a paralyzed magazine editor) and it didn’t drive critics crazy. Instead of being overly ambitious and smugly self conscious, it allowed audiences into the mind of a man “locked in” place. Just like an artist, Schnabel understands the value in sketching out his designs before attempting the big picture canvas. In this case, the small moments that open the film lead to some major revelations later on.


Missing, Deserving a Mention


Again, there were several sensational masterworks this year that deserve some manner of recognition. Yet, regrettably, it looks like both the Guilds and the AMPAS will be ignoring in the next two months. As a service to all cinephiles, SE&L then offers the following selection of alternate choices. Any or all deserve a place with the personalities noted before, beginning with:





Tim Burton




Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street





One guesses that everyone’s favorite Goth guy was left off the list because, when it comes right down to it, this artistic anarchist could direct this film in his sleep. He’s had casual daydreams scarier than the bloody and brooding masterpiece he forged out of Sondheim’s equally magnificent musical. Still, for its Victorian vomitorium vogue, Burton deserved a nod.





Danny Boyle




Sunshine





If he had spent the last few years remaking Trainspotting over and over again, delivering film after film of British quirk, Boyle would probably be on the list this year. His amazing bookend to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is the first serious science fiction film not clouded by the shroud of Star Wars. That, in and of itself, deserves recognition.





David Fincher




Zodiac





You gotta love the revisionist history on this title. Back in January 2006, critics were more or less lukewarm on this fabulous police procedural throwback. Eleven months later, it’s cropping up on ‘Best of’ lists everywhere, with Fincher equally feeling the love. Perhaps if journalists had owned up to how amazing this movie was beforehand, the mind behind Se7en would be part of the process, not a noted also-ran. 





Ben Affleck




Gone Baby Gone





If Tony Gilroy can get a nod for his Verdict homage, why can’t the actor formerly known as ‘Bennifer’ get one for his far superior Mystic River riff. Without a doubt, this was one of the strongest, most centered thrillers of the entire year, and made the hindering histrionics of Clayton seem downright showboaty by comparison. Affleck and his artistry, deserved better.


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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008

Not that you need us to. Funny how everything falls by the wayside when you find yourself trapped in a good book? I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s book last night in preparation for an upcoming viewing of the movie, and so far I’ve bypassed breakfast, lunch, a shower, a dog-walk, and very nearly today’s blog update, just to get the thing finished.


It’s enthralling. I’m jumping, sweating, freaking out ... the tension built is out of this world, and the characters are something else again. These are the kinds of people you long to get to know, to understand, to watch how their choices direct them. Every character in this thing carries a distinct fascination, from the weary Sheriff to the sadistic killer right on down to the recovering night clerks at the local motel.


I’m about a hundred pages from the end, and my current thought is—if this is what I’ve dealt with two-thirds of the way in, I don’t know if I can handle the final third. I realise, too, I’m a little behind on this one. The book was praised up and down upon release two years ago, and the film is all over the place,t opping best-of lists the world over. Still, better late than never, I guess.   


The word on Cormac McCarthy and No Country for Old Men:


From Business Wire: “No Country for Old Men” Writers Take USC Libraries Scripter, New Prize Honors Steven Zaillian


From Time Out London, an interview with the Cohens about the film: The Cohen Brothers Interview


Read a bio of the author that looks at McCarthy’s Roman Catholic upbringing through to his reclusive life today.


New York mag tells here of McCarthy’s ill-fated Oprah appearance discussing his book, The Road.


This Entertainment Weekly interview with Tommy Lee Jones (the star of the film) makes many comparisons between the book and the film. Says Tommy Lee Jones: “I think it comes from the book. I think the book is very funny. You either think it’s funny or you don’t. Ed Tom’s got a pretty good sense of humor. It may be what some people call gallows humor, but it is funny. And he does nothing in the movie that’s not derived directly and faithfully from the book.”


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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008

Again, I scratch my head at a pair of stories… What’s stranger?  Contestant number one is a combination taser gun and MP3 music player (dig the leopard design one) so you can look stylish and listen to your favorite tunes as you subdue your least favorite attacker.  Contestant number two is former American idol winner Taylor Hicks who got the boot from Sony/BMG because he only reached number 2 on the charts and ONLY sold 699,000 copies of his last album, which should help to explain why the music biz is in such trouble.  Maybe they should invest in the tasers…


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