Metric Madness

Image (slightly modified) found on Viz

Our obsession with brackets and rankings -- in everything from NCAA March Madness to soup -- reflects a desire to give some order to the world, to quantify things that are not generally thought of as quantifiable.

Cinderellas. Buzzer-beaters. Gus Johnson's enthusiastic play-by-play calls.

There's a ton to love about NCAA March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament that appeals to even the most sports-averse, thanks to its mix of lovable underdogs and last-second finishes. The first weekend of the tournament is honestly one of my favorite weekends of the year.

But all this fun comes with a somewhat unfortunate side effect. I don’t just mean the likelihood of losing your tourney pool to those same apathetic fans who base their selections on the kind of mascot or the team color. I'm talking about the resulting bracket-ization of practically everything, which I suppose shouldn't be surprising in our increasingly data-driven world.

Every March, the promotions start popping up – a tournament of local restaurants, of craft beers, of TV shows, of bands (see The Village Voice’s "Sound of the City" feature). Last year, Mental Floss published a list of 12 non-basketball brackets, showing the lengths to which people go to extend the gimmick.

I get it. Brackets are awesome. As I was writing this column, emails popped into my inbox from multiple sports sites, inviting me to register for their tournament challenges as I did last year – and my heart skipped a beat due to irrational excitement. It makes sense that publishers and marketers would try to extend that excitement to other things. Brackets are no-brainers, just like top ten lists, and they’re the gift that keeps on giving, as players come back as the tournament continues, increasing the amount of clicks, interaction, and ad revenue.

Sports and pop culture site Grantland certainly recognizes the appeal. Its Smacketology tournament of characters from The Wire (which PopMatters’ Chris Barsanti accurately called a frustrating exercise in false choices) was a recent popular feature, but it wasn’t the first such stunt. In early February, there was the "Souper Bowl", an epic battle of soup choices ultimately won by clam chowder.

“When you’re in an argument, it’s immensely powerful to have the facts on your side,” said Bill James, in many ways the father of modern sports statistical analysis, during a recent installment of “The B.S. Report” podcast hosted by Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons. In addition to being the world’s foremost authority on Beverly Hills, 90210, Simmons is one of the main proponents in the sports media world of the use of advanced metrics – stats like BABIP and PER and all the others that fans now hear about with increasing frequency.

As moviegoers learned in Moneyball, such stats have changed the ecosystem of sports and upended the whole notion of who and what is valuable (as further proof of the trend, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, founded in 2006, has now ballooned to over 2,000 attendees, including a representative of nearly every major team). These metrics are appealing because they finally give people a way to defend quantitatively what before they could only guess at: that one player is better than another, or at least more efficient. They offer a way to settle arguments.

Beyond increased page views, that’s really what these bracket gimmicks are about: a desire to give some order to the world, to quantify things that are not generally thought of as quantifiable. They are created to help settle arguments. There’s no “right” answer for which soup is best – or is there? Honestly, I’d be surprised if there weren’t some underemployed statistician out there devising an algorithm that helps to define the relative merits of minestrone versus French onion.

The same logic is being applied throughout our increasingly data-driven society. It’s the reason I’ve been digging through Excel spreadsheets and Google Analytics reports in my day job, on the hunt for the best way to show social media ROI. It’s also the reason that any company that claims it can turn the unstructured mass of “big data” into useful information quickly becomes a darling of the technology industry. We want to be able to measure the world, and to have things make sense. It’s 2012, and we shouldn’t have to guess.

It’s not surprising that we should want to apply these methods to music, too. Back in 2006, I wrote the following in a column about the similarities between sports and music: “If someone doesn’t like a song you love, it’s pretty darn impossible to convince that person otherwise.” We’ve reached a point where you don’t have to even try to find such a song – if we’re meant to like it, the song will find us through one of the many recommendation engines now at our disposal, from Pandora and (which were just starting to become forces when I wrote that) to the Somerville, Massachusetts-based The Echo Nest, which powers music applications like iHeartRadio and the VEVO video platform.

I recently heard Echo Nest’s founder and CTO, Brian Whitman, speak during a locally organized TED event. Though he allowed that computers were not perfect listeners (they lack souls), he argued that applying technology to music is useful for increasing discoverability, creating opportunities for obscure acts that would previously never be found through traditional channels – the Scott Hattebergs of the music world. As one piece of evidence, he pointed to MTV’s Music Meter, which tracks artists based on social media buzz; in contrast to the relentless repetition of Total Request Live a decade ago, these charts are filled with many lesser-known acts who found willing listeners through the wonders of technology.

Some of those Cinderellas will find themselves seeded in the third edition of MTV’s Musical March Madness, a – you guessed it – bracket-style tournament in which fans vote on head-to-head artist matchups. As in the real tournament, only one artist will be crowned champion, which will mean…well, I’m not sure, as the idea of one “best” artist doesn’t really mean anything. But I am pretty sure that, just like in the real tournament, we’ll eventually realize we shouldn’t have been surprised at all by the results. Computers probably could’ve predicted the outcome before things even began.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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