'Freakonomics': Dismal Is as Dismal Does

In each of its major segments, the documentary is walked right up to the point of tackling thorny questions of equality, social justice, and freedom -- only to be pulled back.


Directors: Seth Gordon, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Cast: Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner
Length: 93 minutes
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2010
Distributor: Magnolia
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: 2011-18-01

When addressing a film adapted from material previously produced in another medium, a common critical stance is to proclaim the superiority of the original work. However, when put under interrogation, what this claim actually means in terms of what makes a movie good or bad, or worth watching, is difficult to tell. In many cases, alleged differences in quality are likely nothing more than reflections of differences in form and in the experience of reading or watching between different media: live versus recorded, written word versus moving image, drawn versus filmed.

All of which is a long way around to this point: while I hesitate to judge whether Freakonomics the book is better than Freakonomics the movie, the latter seems best viewed as a companion or supplement to the former, than taken as a standalone work.

On its own, the documentary adaptation of the 2005 bestseller works as an interesting and entertaining series of vignettes about odd social puzzles and off the wall questions, but what they are doing collected together, beyond being things that the book's authors and the film's interlocutors, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, find curious, is difficult to discern from a viewing of the movie.

The documentary introduces and frames its subject as being about “incentives” or trying to understand what people want in different situations. There is also the identification of Levitt as a “rogue economist”, but initially that label seems more flash than substantial. After the first extended segment, the Morgan Spurlock directed, “A Roshanda by any Other Name”, the pegging of Levitt as a “rogue” becomes more clear, as the central question, what does a person's given name suggest about their future success in life, appears to be only tangentially related to what is conventionally considered the field of economics. Eugene Jarecki's, “It's not Always a Wonderful Life”, which looks at Levitt's examination of American crime statistics since the late-'80s, seems even further afield from what one imagines an economist would undertake to study.

Of course, the term “freakonomics” was coined for a reason, but the film leaves up in the air what this neologism is supposed to reveal about its subject. An interest in “incentives”, even with an expansive understanding that goes beyond financial calculations, does not seem to capture the connecting threads between the questions posed in the film's four major pieces (which, in addition to the two listed above, includes the Alex Gibney directed, “Pure Corruption”, and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's, “Can a Ninth Grader be Bribed to Succeed?”).

Book: Freakonomics

Author: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Publisher: William Morrow

Publication Date: 2009-08

Format: Paperback

Length: 315 pages

Price: $15.99 (trade paperback)

Image: book provides a clearer articulation of the freakonomics armature. Most importantly, it tells the reader how Levitt does economics and how his way of practicing the field leads to an interest in the kinds of questions posed in the film.

In the prefatory note to the text, for example, Dubner explains that Levitt has reduced economics, “to its most primal aim: explaining how people get what they want” (xi). When understood in that way, it becomes possible to connect not only the subjects of the movie back to Levitt's field of study, but also offers a more refined understanding of the connecting threads between the segments than is made by the opening discussion of incentives. In particular, this framing prompts more thinking about the different actors in each story, highlighting, for example, that the central question in, “A Roshanda by any Other Name”, is not so much kids and their names, but parents and why they name their kids what they do.

The book also clarifies that Levitt sees his parent field as bring primarily about measurement and data, and bringing the statistical tools of economics to bear on a variety of questions beyond their usual scope. Indeed, the first three major pieces of the documentary can all be tied together if one understands that what the authors see in common is more methodological than topical in nature. Specifically, each of these vignettes is about looking for patterns in large data sets which have often been collected by different people for different reasons, but when looked at together, reveal unique sets of answers to common problems, such as why people cheat (“Pure Corruption”), or why crime in the United States began to drop in the '90s (“It isn't Always a Wonderful Life”).

Reference to the book also shows that the segment of the film most directly concerned with incentives as discussed in writer-director Seth Gordon's introduction, “Can a Ninth Grader be Bribed to Succeed?”, is the only one that is entirely original to the film. Even here, however, the broader understanding of freakonomics offered in the text helps to clarify the discussion of the title question. One reason for the different paths taken by the two featured students is clearly that one of them wants different things for himself than do the adults around him, while the other has accepted the goals of adults alongside his own. This is important because if one stays focused on “incentives”, it would be easy to see the conclusion of this segment as, simply, “No, a ninth grader cannot be bribed to succeed”. While a fair answer, it is also one that misses the complexities of the story told by Ewing and Grady.

Like the original text, the extras included on the Magnolia Home Entertainment DVD offer ways to better understand the main documentary. These extras include: commentaries from the film's producers and commentaries from the directors, additional interviews with Levitt and Dubner, and an HDNet promo for the movie. Each of these, to varying degrees, provides an expanded understanding of freakonomics and its objects of interest.

There is one sense in which it does not seem to matter much if one refers to the book or to the film. In both cases, freakonomics, however unconventional in other respects, shares at least one limitation with mainstream economics: a refusal to engage with the underlying values or politics of its claims about the world.

Still, once again, Freakonomics the book is more clear, explicitly counterposing economics as a science about how the world 'really is' to morality as a field concerned with how the world ought to be. The film, by contrast, comes at this same point from the side, and by implication, rather than by confronting it directly.

In each of its major segments, the documentary is walked right up to the point of tackling thorny questions of equality, social justice, and freedom -- only to be pulled back. In the vignette on names, the film exposes poverty and institutional racism only to end with a glib shrug about the names parents inflict on their children. In the story about crime, the film presents Levitt's conclusion regarding the role that legalized abortion has played in lowering the incidence of criminal activity, but refuses to embrace the implication that increased freedom for women improves the quality of life for society as a whole. Indeed, here the film fully recognizes that Levitt's finding inevitably intervenes in the abortion debate, but nonetheless begs off of entering the fray. The piece on ninth graders has an interesting subtext about the importance of support systems for kids, especially those at risk for failure in school, but does not take this as the primary lesson to be learned from the experiment in bribery.

Alex Gibney's “Pure Corruption” is the closest the film gets to making a political statement, emphasizing how the appearance of respectability is often used to mask less than respectable behavior, but even here the social critique is focused on how people use institutions for their own ends, and not on the institutions themselves, let alone the broader contexts for both.

When faced with evidence that the world as it 'actually works' might be irreparably broken, or in serious need of being remade, the “rogue economist”, in print or on film, will apparently choose self-styled 'objectivity' over justice no less frequently than will his or her less rogue-ish companions.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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