‘Freakonomics’: Like a Virus

[1 October 2010]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Learning is like a virus.
—Urail King

“How can you tell if a sumo wrestler is cheating?” The question posed by “Pure Corruption,” Alex Gibney’s section of Freakonomics, isn’t an obvious one. Neither is the answer. “It’s hard to tell,” Gibney narrates, “unless you look at patterns over time. Corruption is by its nature hard to identify, hard to prove.” It’s the same answer, the piece suggests, that can be applied—or could have been applied—to the economic crisis, in particular in the U.S., as credit default swaps and other financial instruments multiplied.

“Pure Corruption” goes on to outline a far-reaching scandal in Japan’s sumo wrestling industry, cheating despite a 2000-year history premised on purification rituals and dedication to ideals and traditions. Its focus on wrestling departs from the source book, by “rogue economist” Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, in order to examine the concept at hand, namely, corruption. This approach makes it different from the other three sections in Freakonomics. And that goes to an important point of the documentary, which pulls together investigations by different artists. Each offers a particular take on a particular chapter or idea, and the variegated whole asks another, frankly intriguing question by its end: what might documentaries do that you haven’t seen before?

In asking such a question, the film is following the book’s premise, which was to seek out “answers” to social and moral dilemmas by looking at the world just a bit askew, “asking a different kind of question entirely.” These different questions are formulated in terms of economics, a pursuit of “numerical evidence of something very difficult to prove.” Each section offers a variation on this idea. Morgan Spurlock’s “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” pretty much repeats the book chapter’s concept, that baby names don’t affect children’s lives, but their environments do. It’s interesting to ponder, though not really explored here, how that distinction is measured, as the names might be understood as functions of their environments—classed, raced, aged—and vice versa. Causes and effects seem more circular and interconnected than they might ever be separated.

Still, “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” provides standard-seeming folks-on-the-street interviews, with speakers weighing in on how names signal identity and resonate emotionally (“Todd” sounds white and “Tyrone” sounds black), a baby naming expert, and a couple of economics professors who have researched the question from different angles (“People with very black names are treated differently,” says Dr. Sendhil Mullainathan). Their observations suggest that whether or not a formula is discovered, the effects are fairly firmly in place. And that might be the effect of a whole set of causes.

Gibney’s look at corruption is more impressionistic, yet also more vivid. As “economics tries to be a pure science in an impure world,” the section proposes, it creates a kind of surface for its object of study, an illusion that maintains itself, more or less by definition. “The realm of high finance and the world of sumo both demonstrate that the illusion of purity can not only hide corruption.,” the film submits, “It can help to make it possible.”

One plot here follows the investigation of sumo wrestling initiated in 1988 by journalist Yorimasa Takeda, and includes a brief, beautifully concise portrait of the former wrestler and whistleblower Keisuke Itai, whose evidence was rebuffed by police who were part of the corruption. More than once, Itai appears emerging from or descending into the subway, the camera perched above the entrance to emphasize the steep angle and deep shadows of the space, creating an escher-ish effect; alternately, the film shows sumo rituals, not only bodies in meditation or action, but also the labor of preparing for matches, the sweeping of floors, the washing of garments, with especially striking shots of sashes flapping on clotheslines. Cleaning up the corruption, the segment insists, is stymied by investments in the system as it has evolved rather than what it might have been. “Cultural slogans in America and in Japan,” “Pure Corruption” concludes, “reassure us that we are honest, straightforward, and fundamentally good. Those who expose corruption are challenging the very nature of who we imagine ourselves to be.”

This notion leads indirectly to Eugene Jarecki’s section, which takes on the book’s theory that there’s a correlation between legal abortion and reduced crime rates. “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life” uses incisive animation, carefully composed clips from Frank Capra’s movie, and a few photos of the executed Nicolae Ceausescu (who outlawed abortion in Romania) to make this controversial argument accessible (and no, Levitt insists, he is not advocating abortion as a way to curb crime). Narrator Melvin Van Peebles outlines the maybe-yes-maybe-no evidence, that Ceausescu’s ban led to a noticeable increase in poverty and crime. The section’s connections between Capra’s conceit, that as George Bailey sees what the world would have been had he never been born, he sees that his seemingly miserable life is wonderful after all, are less neat. “Life isn’t like the movies,” says Van Peebles, “Their lives might not have been the wonderful lives.” The questions raised here don’t produce any positive answers, save for the need to preserve Roe v Wade. What this has to do with the women involved—not even pictured on screen—is left uncertain.

The subjects of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s section are energetically visible. The section is not drawn directly from the book, but is instead a fascinating study of how monetary incentives affect two ninth graders in Chicago. “Can You Bribe a Ninth Grader to Succeed?” focuses on two boys, a resentful skater with a backwards baseball cap named Kevin Muncy, and Urail King, a bright underachiever whose mother wants nothing more than him to go on to college. They’re enrolled at a high school running a year-long experiment funded by economists at the University of Chicago. They’ll be paid for good grades each semester, and at the end of the year, students with a certain GPA will be entered into a lottery to win $500, the winner treated to a ride in a Hummer limousine (this last especially inspires Urail).

Here, the outcome of the experiment—the answer to the titular question—is less interesting than the kids’ performances for the camera. As each boy plainly performs for the camera crew, both remind you that “incentives” can come in many forms and have unanticipated effects. While it’s clear enough when they’re speaking to the filmmakers off screen, or responding to questions, one scene has Kevin sitting on a sofa playing a video game while on the phone with his program counselor, economist Sally Sadoff. While she suggests a series of ways he can “bring up his grades,” he keeps one eye on the TV where his game is visible, another on the camera pointed at him, and his thumbs fully engaged. A veteran multi-tasker and a bull-shitter, he has no interest in doing homework or raising his grades.

The film’s representation of Urail’s thinking is even more plainly fictionalized. As he imagines an event and the film shows him acting it out (without cuing you in at first, that the scene is staged), your relationship to the subject and the film shifts quickly and evocatively. It’s another sort of documentary strategy, not observational but maybe visionary, images that are not so much documenting what happens as they are approximating what Urail feels, a fantasy lived out, then not. “Can You Bribe a Ninth Grader to Succeed?” poses a question for the rest of the film, as well as for you, in such staging. What have you just seen?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/131651-freakonomics/