Sunday, November 22, 2015

Suggested reading: Stop the robot apocalypse

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

Metropolis (dir: Fritz Lang, 1927)
1. Stop the robot apocalypse

There's a branch of moral philosophy called "effective altruism." William MacAskill is one of its founders, and he's written a book called Doing Good Better (Gotham, 2015), recently reviewed by Amia Srinivasan in the London Review of Books (24 September 2015).

MacAskill's basic argument is that you can do more good in the world by becoming rich and philanthropic than by making (in his view) pointless self-sacrificing gestures like becoming a schoolteacher in the inner city, a doctor in rural Kenya, or a librarian anywhere.

His calculation depends on two main arguments. First, the idea of impact: the greatest good we can do for others is that which will make the biggest improvement in the lives of the largest number of people. Second, the replacement theory: if you don't become a teacher, someone else will, who will be almost as good at it as you are. But if you don't become an investment banker, someone else will, who may not use their wealth for as much good as you would. In other words, philanthropy—paying other people to do good on your behalf—is better than doing good yourself.

That's not the only strange conclusion these arguments lead to. Taking the replacement theory first, it would seem to justify doing harm in one's daily life, as long as you compensate with sufficient charitable giving. By this logic, in a disaster Bill Gates should trample the rest of us to death to escape (and we should let him) because his survival will have so much more of a charitable impact than ours. The comparison that occurs to me is carbon offsets: charitable giving is like a moral offset. And as with, say, donating to the Nature Conservancy because you drive a gas-guzzling carbon emitter, it can be difficult to determine whether the good done by the charitable gift actually outweighs the harm of the daily activity.

But the idea of impact gets really odd: if doing the greatest good means having the biggest impact on the lives of the largest number of people, then working on ameliorating or preventing future species-threatening catastrophes--a large asteroid impact, say--is more important than helping individuals who are alive right now. And the greatest existential threat to humanity, in the eyes of many people in the tech industry? Robot apocalypse.

A robot Björk in "All is full of love"
2. Superintelligence and human insignificance

In his recent book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (Oxford, 2014), NIck Bostrom speculates on a posthuman future in which superintelligent machines colonize the universe. Sure, superintelligent robots might enslave or destroy us, but in Bostrom's view they also might ensure the essential immortality of human consciousness.

But this scenario actually makes the effective altruism paradox worse. As Raffi Khatchadourian writes in the New Yorker,
Imagining one of his utopian scenarios—trillions of digital minds thriving across the cosmos—he reasons that, if there is even a one-per-cent chance of this happening, the expected value of reducing an existential threat by a billionth of a billionth of one per cent would be worth a hundred billion times the value of a billion present-day lives.
That's a lot of "billions," but the message is clear: the future, especially the remote future, is vastly more important than the present.

There are a few things to say about this idea. First, robots colonizing the universe is only a "utopian scenario" in the most hopeful view. Second, it looks to me like the probability of humans eliminating ourselves through environmental destruction, nuclear conflagration, or bioengineered plague is higher than the likelihood that we will create "trillions of digital minds thriving across the cosmos." Thirdly, before they become repositories for our consciousnesses, intelligent machines are likely to put us out of work, creating a mass unemployment crisis that may itself have catastrophic consequences. Finally, the "billionth of a billionth of one per cent" standard for action against an existential threat seems laughably low—I think you might reach it when you take out the recycling.

A local business and an adjacent apartment building catch fire Sunday morning
3. Kicked to the curb by altruism

So if present-day humans are insignificant, and if getting rich so that you can make larger effective charitable donations is an imperative, then it is only logical for those who own property to forcibly remove lower-income residents in order to raise real-estate values and increase their own wealth—a process I see happening all around me. (And in a nicely closed feedback loop, evictions create the need for more altruism, which creates the need for greater wealth, ad infinitum.)

As Neil Smith points out in The New Urban Frontier (Routledge, 1996), it is in the interest of those who own property to raise rents. In Alex Pareene's Bookforum review of DW Gibson's oral history of gentrification, The Edge Becomes the Center (Overlook Press, 2015)—a sequel of sorts to Smith's book—he writes that landlords and developers:
  • would rather leave a building empty than rent to the poor,
  • deliberately thin housing stock by converting multi-unit buildings into single-household dwellings,
  • destroy the earning power of middle-class renters by pushing city planning departments to rezone manufacturing areas as residential, because manufacturers put their capital into expanding their businesses rather than using it to raise the value of their real estate,
  • displace lower-income renters (you and me) in favor of the global rich who can pay what the market will bear—even as that increases radically from year to year.
More market-rate development doesn't redress these issues, it just creates more "ultraluxurious pieds-à-terre." Pareene writes,
The pro-development crowd also likes to remind us that “people don’t have the right to live wherever they want”—and that if certain of them can’t afford “hip” neighborhoods anymore, that hardly rises to the level of a tragedy worthy of government intervention. Of course, it’s always been the case in America that certain people have the right to live wherever they want—that’s the right that allowed the republic to stretch from sea to shining sea—but let’s concede the point. Once you’re there, though, and once you’ve established yourself in a community, it seems profoundly antithetical to any intelligible notion of liberty that you should be forced to leave merely because someone else shows up with a briefcase full of more cash than you can put together on short notice.


4. The inevitability of climate change

If combatting gentrification is almost impossible because it's in the interest of rich property owners and the city governments which regulate them, combatting increasing carbon emissions is almost impossible because it's in the interest of all of us—at least, in the short term. Increased carbon emissions directly correlate with economic growth, something that all nations seek to ensure. If the arguments of "effective altruism" lead to the radical discounting of the present in favor of the future, failure to act on carbon emissions radically discounts the future in favor of the present.

The United Nations climate change conference will take place in Paris in late November and early December, and many journalists are writing hopefully about its possible outcomes. Unlike most journalists, though, David Campbell has actually read the documents being submitted as a basis for a potential agreement at the conference. And as he writes in the LRB, the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change enshrined a distinction between developed and developing countries which will doom any attempt to reduce global carbon emissions for at least the next several decades.

Currently the major industrializing countries—including China and India—are classified as developing countries. And as a matter of "climate justice" (rather, economic justice), the burden of reducing emissions has been placed on developed countries. It is impossible to argue with the culpability of the developed world for getting us into this mess—and the US Congress has famously never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for developed nations to reduce their emissions. US emissions fell slightly between 2007 and 2012, but that was due to the Great Recession, and they have begun to climb again. And the per capita carbon emissions of the US are more than twice those of China, and about ten times those of India.

However, China is now the largest absolute carbon emitter by a factor of nearly two. (The US is in second place, followed by India, Russia, and Japan.) China has submitted to the conference its 'Intended Nationally Determined Contributions' (INDC) document, which declares that it will continue to increase its annual emissions until at least 2030. India's INDC does not even mention a future target year for peak emissions.

India's Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, said in a recent interview:
We are asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space to accommodate us. That carbon space demand is climate justice. It’s our right as a nation. It’s our right as people of India, and we want that carbon space.
Only, there is no "carbon space." In 2013, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time since about 15 million years ago, when seas were at least 80 feet higher than they are now. We are in uncharted territory.

I must not procrastinate

5. Procrastination

With individuals, as with nations, the ultimate consequences of procrastination tend to get worse with passing time. So why are most of us still prone to put off necessary action? Forget working to prevent climate change or robot apocalypse—I can't even clear off my desk.

The tendency to procrastinate is present in all of us to some degree. However, for some it is so powerful an impulse that it becomes impossible to hold a job or maintain a romantic relationship. Clearly procrastination has deep roots which can be difficult or impossible to overcome rationally. As Robert Hanks writes about his own almost crippling levels of procrastination in his heartrending essay "On putting things off" (LRB, 10 September 2015),
The broken promises, the unprofessionalism, the evasions and quasi-explanations you offer to others, the outright lies you tell yourself: better leave this till after the weekend; I’ll have it finished by the end of Tuesday; they won’t mind getting it on Wednesday...Reading as a way of putting off thinking; thinking as a way of putting off feeling.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Scottish Jane Austen: Susan Ferrier

Name a woman writer from the early 19th century:
  • whose novels were at first published anonymously;
  • who, though she herself never married, wrote novels about young women negotiating the pleasures and perils of courtship and matrimony;
  • whose first published novel was issued when she was 35;
  • whose second published novel begins, "It is a truth universally acknowledged…" 
Think you've got the answer? Here are some more clues:
  • her most famous work features an impetuous and frivolous young woman who unwisely elopes with a dashing but impecunious officer, and a more sensible heroine who sees the possibility of her own romantic happiness becoming ever more elusive;
  • another of her novels features a well-meaning but mistake-prone young woman who is given social, moral and romantic advice by a family friend—who, of course, is secretly in love with her himself;
  • one of her young heroines falls passionately in love with a man who seems to share her ardent sensibility, but who turns out to be a fortune-hunter who abandons her to marry an heiress. Deeply hurt, she falls into a crushing despondency. As she slowly recovers, she comes to appreciate and accept, if not, perhaps, entirely return, the calmer but more steadfast love of an older man.
The answer is given away in the title of this post: it's the Scottish writer Susan Edmonstone Ferrier. Ferrier obviously knew and admired the novels of Jane Austen, as the plot summaries above suggest; echoes of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Emma (1815) are especially apparent. But although she is indebted to Austen for elements of her plots, Ferrier is also a rewarding novelist in her own right.

Part of what is original in Ferrier is her setting: each of her three novels—Marriage (1818), Inheritance (1824), and Destiny (1831)—mainly takes place in the Scottish Highlands. Ferrier's young heroines don't exist in isolation, but are placed within interdependent communities, anticipating by several decades writers such as Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. She surrounds her lovers with interfering parents, crotchety old lairds, and gossipy maiden aunts; the aunts are Scottish (although less subtle) versions of the sorts of comic characters so memorably created decades later in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford. And the action takes place, not in tidy English villages, but in vividly described Highland landscapes of rugged beauty.

Ferrier is also notable for the degree of religiosity in her novels: the characters we are intended to think best, both men and women, have deep faith, while the shallow, selfish, and duplicitous ones are generally irreligious. The novels' moralism extends to their narrators, who sometimes pass explicit judgments on the characters. In her third and final novel, Destiny, for example, Reginald, up until now the hero of the book and betrothed to his gentle childhood sweetheart Edith, makes a secret declaration of love to the worldly, dazzling, but superficial Florinda:
And again he pressed her hand to his lips, and a long silence ensued ; each seemed as though they feared to break the spell which blinded their hearts and senses to the self-delusions, which all unregulated minds, and selfish spirits, so passionately love to indulge. [1]
A more subtle writer such as Austen might only imply, rather than state, her own attitude towards her creations in order to suggest, rather than dictate, the reader's. But occasional over-explicitness aside, Ferrier is full of insight into human nature, and excels at constructing both comic and dramatic situations for her characters.

From Marriage:
A dispute here ensued. Henry swore she should not steal into her father's house as long as she was his wife. The lady insisted that she should go to her brother's fête when she was invited; and the altercation ended as altercations commonly do, leaving both parties more wedded to their own opinion than at first. [2]
From Inheritance:
Mr Adam Ramsay was a man of a fair character and strong understanding, but particular temper and unpleasing manners—with a good deal of penetration, which (as is too often the case) served no other purpose than to disgust him with his own species. [3]
From Destiny:
Mr M'Dow's principal object in this world was self...He was no dissembler ; for a selfish dissembler is aware, that, in order to please, one must appear to think of others, and forget self. This fictitious politeness he had neither the tact to acquire, nor the cunning to feign. [4]
If Ferrier's keen observations are reminiscent of Austen, her contemporary, she also makes use of conventions from the 18th-century novel of sentiment as exemplified by writers such as Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson. Heroines faced with an emotional crisis are likely to fall into an insensible swoon; incognito heroes give voice to utterances such as "Think of me as one whom a single rash, imprudent, but I may add, guiltless act, has divested of home, friends, and country ; but believe me when I say, the time is not far distant when I may again claim them all." [5]

But it is Ferrier's dry wit and her vivid characters—some, at least according to her letters to her friend and collaborator Charlotte Clavering, based on real-life models—that will recommend her books to modern readers. Marriage is by common consensus Ferrier's best work, but the others are not greatly inferior to it. In my view, the books all have the same shortcomings and similar strengths, and the former are far outweighed by the latter.

Marriage: The beautiful but petulant Lady Juliana is intended by her father to marry the aged Duke of L—, and her father speaks with unusual frankness about the motives for the match:
'I'll suffer no daughter of mine to play the fool with her heart, indeed! She shall marry for the purpose for which matrimony was ordained amongst people of birth—that is, for the aggrandisement of her family, the extending of their political influence—for becoming, in short, the depository of their mutual interest. These are the only purposes for which persons of rank ever think of marriage.' [6]
Facing a forced marriage to a very wealthy but much older man, Lady Juliana elopes with her handsome but penniless lover Henry Douglas. They wind up at his family's rural Scottish estate, far from the refinements of London. Both regret the decision to marry almost immediately—but not before she conceives twin daughters, Adelaide and Mary. Lady Juliana separates from her husband and goes back to London with the infant Adelaide, who grows to young adulthood under her mother's influence. The neglected Mary is left behind with Henry's brother and his wife in Scotland, where she is taught by precept and example to be kind, thoughtful, selfless and devout. (This isn't just a simple contrast between the evil city and the virtuous countryside; we learn that Mary's foster mother, Alicia Douglas, spent many years in London, while a number of the Highland characters are shown to be frivolous, self-involved or otherwise difficult.)

Adelaide—beautiful, polite, but cold and vacant—faces the same fateful choice as her mother: marriage to a handsome but impoverished lover, or to an elderly but fabulously wealthy duke. Will she repeat her mother's mistake, or make her own?

Meanwhile, Mary loves, and is loved by, Colonel Lennox, a man of small fortune. But
both were aware, that wealth is a relative thing, and that the positively rich are not those who have the largest possessions, but those who have the fewest vain or selfish desires to gratify. From these they were happily exempt. Both possessed too many resources in their own minds to require the stimulus of spending money to rouse them into enjoyment, or give them additional importance in the eyes of the world... [7]
But her mother opposes her choice, and warns her against love-marriage. Will Mary be able to reconcile her mother to her choice and find happiness with the man she loves?

Inheritance: Gertrude St Clair is the presumptive heir to the fortune of Lord Rossville. She is loved by two men: openly by the elegant but mercenary Colonel Delmour, and secretly by the kind, sensible Mr Lyndsay, whom she views as an older brother and looks to for guidance and protection.
Colonel Delmour certainly was in love—as much so as it was in his nature to be—but, as has been truly said, how many noxious ingredients enter into the composition of what is sometimes called love! Pride—vanity—ambition—self-interest, all these had their share in the admiration which Colonel Delmour accorded to the beauties and the graces of Miss St Clair. In any situation of life, his taste would have led him to admire her—but it was only as the heiress of Rossville his pride would have permitted him to have loved her. [8]
Each of Ferrier's novels features an example of a bad mother, but Gertrude's, the self-involved, self-dramatizing and emotionally manipulative Mrs St Clair, is possibly the worst of the lot. Not only is she a very difficult personality, she is harboring a secret that could destroy Gertrude's prospects. And when the threatening, mysterious Lewiston, believed drowned in a shipwreck, returns as if from the dead, Gertrude's future—both financial and romantic—is thrown into crisis.

What is the nature of Lewiston's hold over Gertrude's mother and herself? And will Gertrude recognize the true natures of the debonair but duplicitous Colonel Delmour and the reticent but sincere Mr Lyndsay in time?

Destiny is Ferrier's most elaborately plotted novel. As children in rural Scotland, Edith Malcom, her brother Norman, her stepsister Florinda, and their cousins Ronald and Reginald are inseparable playmates. As they grow older, though, fate divides them: Norman dies of a sudden illness, Florinda is taken to London by her mother, Ronald is lost at sea, and Reginald prepares to head out on the Grand Tour; only Edith will be left behind.

Reginald and Edith have been sweethearts since childhood, and on the eve of his departure he gives her a ring as a symbol of their betrothal. But while he's abroad he encounters Florinda, whom he hasn't seen for nearly a decade. She has become a flirtatious and worldly beauty, and Reginald becomes infatuated with her. When he returns to Scotland to fulfill his promise to Edith, Florinda follows, and Reginald is faced with a painful choice: he must betray the sweet-natured Edith or renounce the dazzling Florinda. To complicate matters, a handsome naval hero (shades of Persuasion), one Mr Melcombe, begins to pay marked attention to Edith—but his past is shrouded in secrecy.

Destiny was Ferrier's last novel, in part due perhaps to her failing eyesight, and in part because she made "'two attempts to write something else, but could not please herself, and would not publish anything.'" [9] She died in 1854.
'How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of the world,' is a feeling that must be more or less experienced by every one who has feeling enough to distinguish one sensation from another, and leisure enough for ennui. There are people, it is well known, who have no feelings, and there are others who have not the time to feel ; but, alas! there are many whose misfortune it is to have feeling and leisure, and who have time to be nervous—have time to be discontented—have time to be unhappy—have time to feel ill used by the world—have time to weary of pleasure in every shape—to weary of men, women, and children—to weary of books, grave and witty—to weary of authors, and even of authoresses... [10]
If you enjoy writers such as Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, you are not likely to weary of Susan Ferrier.

A note on the illustrations: With the exception of the portrait of Ferrier, which is a rendering of a miniature by Robert Thorburn, the illustrations in this post are by Nelly Erichsen. All are taken from the 1894 edition of Ferrier's novels published by J. M. Dent & Co., London, and were downloaded from the Open Library.


1. Susan Ferrier, Destiny, Dent, 1894, vol. II, ch. xlvii
2. —, Marriage, Oxford World's Classics, 1986, vol. I, ch. XXI
2. —, Inheritance, Dent, 1894, vol. I, ch. xvii
4. —, Destiny, vol. I, ch. v
5. —, Destiny, vol. II, ch. xci 
6. —, Marriage, vol. I, ch. I
7. —, Marriage, vol. III, ch. XX
8. —, Inheritance, vol. I, ch. xxxii
9. Quoted from an unnamed source in R. Brimley Johnson's introduction to Susan Ferrier, Marriage, Dent, 1894, p. xiv
10. Ferrier, Inheritance, vol. I, ch x

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Dhoom 3 and its precursors

Sahir looms over Chicago
Fantômas looms over Paris

They have a complicated and highly choreographed plan to steal your money and three hours of your time. You know when and how they will strike, and yet you still can't escape. They are invulnerable (to criticism) and elude all pursuers (at the box office). And, they will inevitably return. Yes, I'm talking about the movie series Dhoom.

I hadn't thought that I would write anything about the Dhoom movies—even though, like much of the population of the planet, I've seen all three of them (so far)—both because it felt like too much had already been said, and that when it comes to movies like these words don't really matter. You know after seeing five seconds of trailer and hearing the first notes of the theme music whether you're going to see the next Dhoom or not. In that determination, any opinion I might express is meaningless.

But as I watched Dhoom 3 (2013) recently, I realized that there was an aspect of the Dhoom series that I don't think has been explored before. Of course, many people have traced the homages and borrowings of the series, but I think one key influence has been missed.

The Dhoom series has understandably been compared to the James Bond films. And like the Bond films, the Dhoom series has instantly recognizable theme music, lots of chase scenes, and ambiguous women who are (at least initially) allied with the villain.

But unlike the Bond films, whose villains with rare early exceptions (Dr. No, Rosa Klebb, Goldfinger) all seem to blur into one another, the Dhoom series is increasingly centered on the anti-hero. So far played by John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan, and Aamir Khan, the Dhoom villains are far more charismatic, and have far more screen time, than the pursuing good guys: police detective Jai (Abhishek Bachchan) and his buffoonish buddy Ali (Uday Chopra).

Jai and Ali, outwitted again
In their focus on the anti-hero, the Dhoom films are actually far more like another series: the Fantômas novels and films. Like the Dhoom villains, Fantômas is a criminal mastermind, the master of a thousand disguises, who returns in each installment to commit ever-more astonishing crimes. And like the Dhoom villains, Fantômas has two nemeses who pursue him relentlessly, but ineffectually: the police detective Juve and his younger journalist partner Fandor. Finally, as in the Dhoom series, there are ambiguous women with divided loyalties: Fantômas' daughter, Hélène, and his lover, Lady Beltham.

But the first Fantômas novels (written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain) and films (adapted from the novels and directed by Louis Feuillade) were produced nearly a century before Jai and Ali jumped on their racing bikes. Despite being created in the pre-WWI era, and despite having origins in sensationalistic 19th century fiction, the Fantômas novels and films are surprisingly modern. In his book Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris (University of California Press, 2000), historian Robin Walz has identified four distinguishing elements of the Fantômas series:

1. Indeterminate identities: Fantômas takes on multiple disguises or identities over the course of a given episode, and in fact has no fixed identity. I don't want to give away too much about Dhoom 3 (although I think I'm the last person in the world to see it), but a key plot point involves disguise and impersonation.

2. The swerve: The anti-hero can't be thwarted or captured, even when he announces where and when he will strike; he seems to appear and disappear at will. Fantômas escapes at the end of each novel and film; in the Dhoom series, the anti-hero is never brought to justice. Even when, in Dhoom 2, the villain apparently dies, we learn that his death has been faked to throw the police off his trail.

3. Truquage, or gadgetry: The Fantômas novels are filled with the latest technology, which Fantômas uses to his advantage in staging his elaborate crimes. The same is true of the Dhoom films; in Dhoom 3 the technology is either theatrical (the villain Sahir is a magician and circus performer in a Cirque du Soleil-type spectacle) or centered on the motorcycles that he uses to escape the scenes of his crimes. In one spectacular chase scene, an apparently cornered Sahir rides his motorcycle up and off the end of a raised drawbridge over the Chicago River; as he plummets towards the water, his bike transforms into a jet ski. And when Jai commandeers a boat and races after Sahir, it turns out that the jet ski can also function as a one-man submarine, and then again as a motorcycle. What chance do the hapless police have against such ingenuity?

4. Spectacular criminality: Fantômas's crimes are not motivated by ordinary criminal incentives, such as getting rich. Instead, Fantômas wants his deeds to be as spectacular and shocking as possible. He mocks the police as he plans, executes and gets away with his crimes despite all their precautions. In the Dhoom series, too, the crimes and escapes are elaborately planned, highly choreographed, and designed for maximum sensationalism. In Dhoom 3, after he robs a bank Sahir doesn't even keep the money—he announces his theft by sending millions of dollars fluttering down over the streets of Chicago.

Of course, there are also differences between the series. Fantômas is a shadowy figure, often acting through others; his lair is never seen, and his backstory is never revealed. It's telling that his signature costume, the cagoule (hood), completely masks his features. The Dhoom films spend far more time focussed on the villain than on the supposed heroes. In Dhoom 3, for example, we learn in detail why Sahir repeatedly targets the "Western Bank of Chicago." Clearly, there are super-criminals in Chicago; it's just that (to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht) most of them own banks rather than rob them.

Another difference between the series is that Fantômas' crimes have a gruesome human cost: he wrecks passenger trains, puts sulfuric acid in department-store perfume dispensers, and sinks the world's biggest ocean liner (the "Gigantic") with the loss of everyone on board. In the Dhoom films, the crimes don't involve mass murder, but clever heists. Despite the lengthy chase scenes, explosions, car crashes and so on, no one ever seems to get hurt.

And it's impossible to imagine Fantômas serenading his love interest on the streets of Chicago, as Aamir Khan does Katrina Kaif in Dhoom 3:

Dhoom 3 can be pretty entertaining for about three-quarters of its running time if you're in the right mood, as long as you don't think too hard about its premise, have a high tolerance for chase scenes, can ignore multiple geographical and cultural incoherencies, don't care that the two women characters have about four lines of dialogue between them, and aren't concerned about its multiple borrowings from other film franchises. But towards the end writer/director Vijay Krishna Acharya seems to exhaust his ideas, or perhaps just his budget, and wraps up the plot over-hastily.

Certainly, to audiences in India and worldwide none of that mattered: Dhoom 3 quickly became the highest-grossing film in Bollywood history (without adjusting for inflation), although by some reports it has since yielded the top spot to another Aamir Khan film, PK (2014).

And inevitably, Dhoom 4 has already been announced. Even Dhoom 5 has already been anticipated, in Om Shanti Om (2007); in the "Dhoom 5" trailer in that film the focus on the anti-hero has been taken to its logical extreme, with the vestigial Jai being entirely eliminated. Can Dhoom 19 be far behind?

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Lubitsch Touch

Ernst Lubitsch

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Ernst Lubitsch directed comedies that should be familiar to every lover of classic Hollywood. Among them are Ninotchka (1939), in which Soviet commissar Greta Garbo is seduced by decadent Paris and suave Melvyn Douglas; The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in which James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan fall in love with one another as anonymous pen pals, although neither realizes that their correspondent is actually an annoying co-worker; and To Be Or Not To Be (1942), Carole Lombard's final film, in which she plays an actress in Nazi-occupied Poland who uses her thespian skills to foil the Gestapo.

But a decade before he created "that late series of masterworks...which stands as one of the enduring glories of the American cinema," [1] Lubitsch had directed a series of films that brought to American movies the lighthearted but sophisticated sensibility of operetta—the famed "Lubitsch Touch." As LA Times critic Michael Wilmington once described Lubitsch's films, they are "at once elegant and ribald, sophisticated and earthy, urbane and bemused, frivolous yet profound." [2] What follows is a brief survey from our recent viewing of some of Lubitsch's early sound films.

The comedies

Trouble in Paradise
Trouble in Paradise (1932; written by Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson, based on a play by Aladár László): When people speak of the "Lubitsch Touch," this is the kind of film they have in mind. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins portray expert thieves masquerading as aristocrats, who find each other's duplicity romantically and professionally irresistible. Kay Francis plays a French parfumier who is their intended next victim, until Marshall discovers that she's already being her accountant. His chivalrous feelings soon begin to develop into something more; can he steal from a woman he loves? Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton provide their usually brilliant comic support. Lubitsch himself later wrote that "As for pure style, I think I have done nothing better or as good as Trouble in Paradise" [3]. It's tempting to agree with him; this is one of the greatest classic Hollywood comedies.

Design for Living

Design for Living (1933; written by Ben Hecht, based—very loosely—on the play by Noël Coward) revisits the love triangle at the heart of Trouble in Paradise, but reverses the genders. In bohemian Paris Miriam Hopkins plays the muse to painter Gary Cooper and playwright Frederic March. Edward Everett Horton is the hopelessly bourgeois husband Hopkins ultimately abandons for art and love; the film's ending, with its suggestion of an adulterous ménage à trois, was scandalous. I find that this film doesn't quite match the effervescence of Trouble in Paradise, mainly because of its earthbound male leads, but it's still very much worth seeing. Don't expect to hear much of Coward's dialogue, though.

The musicals

The Love Parade (1929; written by Guy Bolton and Ernest Vajda, based on the play Le Prince Consort by Jules Chancel and Leon Xanrof) is a film of many firsts: it was the first sound film directed by Lubitsch, and it was the first film musical to integrate the songs into the narrative rather than staging them as separate numbers. It was also the first movie role of a moderately successful Broadway actress named Jeanette MacDonald. Her co-star was a French music-hall performer who had appeared in one other Hollywood musical, Maurice Chevalier.

You may feel, as I did, that the names Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier in a movie's credits are not enticements to viewing. I thought of her as the increasingly implausible ingénue of a series of often-parodied musicals with the bland Nelson Eddy in the late 30s and early 40s. And I knew Chevalier mainly from his creepy performance as an aged roué in Gigi (1958), and from a sequence in Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) in which, accused of collaboration during WWII, he shifts uncomfortably in front of the camera as he makes an unconvincing denial.

But in the Lubitsch musicals, I encountered something quite different from my preconceptions of both of these performers. In contrast to her image in many of her later films, MacDonald is often photographed by Lubitsch wearing sheer negligées or clinging Travis Banton gowns. She sings in a high soprano with a tight vibrato—not a particularly sensuous sound, at least to my ears—but the lyrics and settings can be quite suggestive.

In MacDonald's first appearance in The Love Parade, she's reluctantly awakened from a "wonderful, gorgeous" dream, caresses herself, sighs, and hugs her pillow (not the only time pillows will be human surrogates in a Lubitsch film). Dressed only in a filmy negligée, she then sings of her "Dream Lover" (music by Victor Schertzinger, lyrics by Clifford Grey).

MacDonald is Queen Louise of Sylvania, whose courtiers are anxious to get her married. Chevalier is Count Renard, a womanizing attaché to Sylvania's Parisian embassy, who is recalled after a scandal involving the ambassador's wife. The Queen is intrigued rather than angered by the Count's reputation, though, and soon develops romantic feelings for him.

These films were made before Chevalier's Gallic charm curdled into Gallic smarm. He and MacDonald have excellent comic and romantic chemistry, as shown in "Anything to Please the Queen":

Louise and Renard marry, but he quickly discovers that as the Queen's consort he has no real power or function. Chafing at his subordinate role, he threatens to leave her unless he is treated like a king, and the couple and the kingdom are thrown into crisis.

The Count's demand to make the decisions for the powerful and independent Queen Louise is the most dated thing about The Love Parade, but in other ways it can seem remarkably modern. The conventional view of early sound films is that they were severely constrained by the limits of the new technology: cameras were placed in soundproof boxes, and due to the fixed microphones actors had to remain in place while speaking. Although The Love Parade doesn't always avoid a certain staginess, the camera zooms and pans a good deal, and there's a Busby Berkeley-like "March of the Grenadiers" number.

And it has to be said that the film's sexual mores aren't entirely prehistoric. When Louise first meets Renard, he offers to remain by her side "from morning to night"; after their reconciliation, he makes the offer again, but she suggests that instead he should stay with her "from night to morning." The frank acknowledgement of her desire and the lack of sexual hypocrisy are characteristic of Lubitsch's Pre-Code films.

With its intimacy, quick pace, racy dialogue and narratively-integrated songs, the film was unlike any other musical of the era. And audiences responded: it was a huge hit, rescued Paramount Studios' financial fortunes, and made both MacDonald and Chevalier into major stars.

Monte Carlo (1930; written by Ernest Vajda, based on plays by Hans Müller-Einigen and Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland and a story by Booth Tarkington) was Lubitsch's follow-up to The Love Parade. Countess Helene (MacDonald) is a runaway bride fleeing her wedding to the priggish Duke Otto (Claud Allister) for the third time. She takes an express train to Monte Carlo, where in a bid to become financially independent she gambles recklessly and loses everything. In the casino she's spotted by Count Rudolph (Jack Buchanan), who is intrigued by this mysterious and daring beauty.

Rudolph later encounters a man who tells him that he's seen the Countess in the morning, dressed only in her negligée, hair tousled…Rudolph is crestfallen and jealous until he finds out that the man he's speaking with is the Countess's hairdresser. Rudolph then bribes him to become his replacement, "Rudy," in order to insinuate himself into Helene's life and heart.

The plan works, and the Countess is falling in love with Rudy, until her maid (Zasu Pitts) reminds her of the incompatibility of their social stations. Helene rejects the man she thinks is a humble hairdresser just as Duke Otto shows up to retrieve her. Financially desperate, she's on the verge of once again agreeing to marry Otto when she attends an opera whose plot exactly parallels her situation. The opera ends unhappily, with the central couple separated forever, and the Countess begins to reconsider her rejection of Rudolph...

Alas, the seemingly effortless "Lubitsch Touch" required just the right combination of ingredients to succeed, and in Monte Carlo the recipe is off. Fatally for the movie's charm, it features Buchanan as the romantic hero rather than Chevalier. (If Buchanan looks and sounds vaguely familiar, he was later to play director Jeffrey Cordova in the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse musical The Band Wagon (1947)). Buchanan's leering smile lacks warmth, and he's not nearly as dashing a figure as Chevalier. And although Richard Whiting and W. Franke Harling's music was a hit at the time, I found it to be forgettable, with Leo Robin's lyrics often straining too hard to be clever. It doesn't help that the disjunction between the fantasy world of the super-rich in the film and the looming reality of the Great Depression is so glaring. Better things were to come.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931; written by Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, based on the operetta Ein Walzertraum by Oscar Straus, Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann): After his experience with the uncharismatic Buchanan, Lubitsch must have realized that Chevalier was a much better leading man. His next film features Chevalier as the dashing Lieutenant Niki von Preyn, whose smile and wink at his girlfriend Franzi (Claudette Colbert), the leader of an all-girl cabaret orchestra, is intercepted by the sheltered Anna, Princess of Flausenthurm (Miriam Hopkins). Anna soon convinces herself that she is in love, and decides that she wants to marry the unwitting Niki—and what Anna wants, her father the king arranges. Niki wakes up one morning to discover that he's now Anna's prince consort.

But he refuses to have anything to do with her, and continues to have assignations with Franzi. Anna, hurt and frustrated, has Franzi brought to the palace so that she can confront her. Really, though, she wants to see this alluring Other Woman and learn the secret of attracting Niki's attentions. In a burst of sisterly sympathy for the unhappy Anna, Franzi gives the frumpy princess the answer in "Jazz up your lingerie" (music by Oscar Straus with lyrics by Clifford Grey):

The Smiling Lieutenant is soufflé-light, and wouldn't succeed if it weren't for its delightful cast. Hopkins went on to star in Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living; Colbert would work with Lubitsch again, along with Design for Living's Gary Cooper, in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938); and Chevalier went on to reunite with Jeanette MacDonald in Lubitsch's next musical project, One Hour With You.

One Hour With You (written by Samson Raphaelson, based on the play Only a Dream by Lothar Schmidt) was a musical remake of Lubitsch's silent film The Marriage Circle (1924). Chevalier is a Parisian doctor, Andre, and MacDonald is his wife Colette. Their marriage is happy until Colette's married friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) makes a play for Andre, who, despite his passionate love for Colette, is sorely tempted:

The music is by Oscar Straus, with lyrics by Leo Robin; by the way, the spyglass effect isn't Lubitsch's, but was unfortunately superimposed on this clip by the folks who uploaded it.

When Andre seems to find Mitzi's charms irresistible, the couple's predatory friend Adolph (Charles Ruggles) decides that he will offer to console the unhappy Colette. In her hurt and anger she seems willing to entertain his suggestion...but has Andre actually been unfaithful after all?

One Hour With You plays up its own theatricality, as characters directly address the camera and sometimes speak, as well as sing, in rhyme. I think it's the best of Lubitsch's Pre-Code musicals, in part because there are real emotional dilemmas at its heart. Although it was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, it was not a huge financial success, and Lubitsch decided to return to the spectacle (and the unreality) of the world of operetta for his next film.

The Merry Widow (1934; written by Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson, based on the operetta by Franz Lehár, Victor Leon and Leo Stein): If The Love Parade was a film of firsts, The Merry Widow was a film of lasts: it was Lubitsch's final film with MacDonald and with Chevalier, and it was his final musical for almost a decade and a half (he died of a heart attack after 8 days of shooting on That Lady in Ermine (1948)).  It also represented the end of an era in which sexually suggestive dialogue and situations could easily make it past the censors: several minutes of cuts were demanded by Joseph Breen's new Production Code Administration before the film was approved for release.

The merry widow of the title is Sonia (MacDonald), who owns 52% of the kingdom of Marshovia (which bears a certain resemblance to Sylvania and Flausenthurm). When, after her year of mourning is over, Sonia leaves for Paris, King Achmed (George Barbier) becomes concerned that control of the Marshovian economy may fall into foreign hands. He decides to send a loyal subject to woo and marry her, and when the king finds the notorious ladies' man Count Danilo (Chevalier) in the boudoir of the Queen (Una Merkel), his choice is obvious. He dispatches Danilo to Paris to carry out his mission under the watchful eye of Ambassador Popoff (Edward Everett Horton).

After Danilo and Sonia meet and flirt at Maxim's, she discovers the marriage plot, and will have nothing more to do with Danilo; meanwhile, Danilo has truly fallen in love with Sonia, and is put on trial in Marshovia for refusing to go through with the scheme.

The music is by Lehár, adapted by Richard Rodgers with English lyrics by Lorenz Hart.

Of course, we know how everything will turn out in the end, but the plot is mainly an excuse for the lavish  (and Oscar-winning) sets by Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope, a spectacular Maxim's can-can number, gowns by Adrian, a seemingly infinite number of couples dancing to the famous Merry Widow waltz, and the still-effective MacDonald-Chevalier chemistry.

But it wasn't enough. With the advent of Busby Berkeley musicals like 42nd Street (1932) and Gold Diggers of 1933, and with the dawning of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers partnership, movie musicals had gotten jazzier. Perhaps the operetta-based musicals favored by Lubitsch had begun to seem old-fashioned. In any case, The Merry Widow was not a financial success. For the next several years Lubitsch would take a step back from directing to focus on producing. When he returned to directing, he created the great comedies mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, but he would never complete another musical.

Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living are available from the Criterion Collection, as are the four Pre-Code Lubitsch musicals (The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, and One Hour WIth You) in an Eclipse Series box set. The Merry Widow is available in a restored version from Warner Archives/TCM.


1. Dave Kehr, "The Lubitsch Touch, in Song: Warner Archive Restores ‘The Merry Widow’," New York Times, June 20, 2013:

2. Michael Wilmington, "LACMA Marks Lubitsch Centenary," Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1992:

3. As quoted in Herbert Weinberg, The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study. New York: Dutton, 1968, p. 286.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Misbehaving: Richard Thaler and behavioral economics

Richard Thaler was one of the inadvertent founders of the field of behavioral economics. I say "inadvertent" because it wasn't clear to Thaler or his colleagues exactly what he was doing when he started looking into what he called "The List": discrepancies he'd noted between the predictions of economic theory and the choices people actually make. Those discrepancies profoundly violated the principles of traditional economics—and, crucially, did so in ways that weren't attributable to random error.

Here's an example: Thaler gave half of the students in one of his Cornell classes a university coffee mug. The students with a mug were then asked to write down the minimum price at which they would sell it, and the students without a mug the maximum price at which they would buy one; sellers were then matched with buyers. According to classical economic theory, if the mugs were distributed randomly about half the students with a mug should value them less than students without one, and so roughly half the mugs should change hands.

That's not what happened—repeatedly. What Thaler found is that students with a mug—chosen randomly each time—generally valued it significantly more than students without one. On average only about 5% of the mugs changed hands, as opposed to the predicted 50%. That's a difference of an order of magnitude.

You may be thinking, "Who cares about a coffee mug?" But that's precisely the point: no one cares much, unless they already possess one. Simply owning a mug, even when they didn't pay for it, even when they had owned it for only a few minutes, made students value it more. This is a violation of a key tenet of rational choice economics, in which preferences (in this case, for owning or not owning a mug) are assumed to be stable.

The coffee mug experiment illustrated some key principles of the then-emerging field of behavioral economics—that is, economics that tries to take our observable behavior into account, instead of treating us like the super-rational, utility-maximizing, optimal-choice-making agents of traditional economic theory. (Thaler calls these theoretical beings "Econs.") The first principle is loss aversion: losses are more painful to us than gains are pleasurable—in fact, Thaler's colleagues Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that losses give us at least twice as much pain than gains of the same amount give us pleasure. (I've also written a post on Kahneman's fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011).)

The second principle is status quo bias: we are resistant to change. We tend to stick with what's familiar or what requires the least effort, even when we recognize that there may be benefits (in the mug experiment, cash) if we're willing to change. Together, these behaviors result in what Thaler calls "the endowment effect": our tendency to value things we own more highly than things we don't—and more highly than things, including cash, that we could exchange them for.

The endowment effect depends on our ignoring what economists call "opportunity costs." As an example, imagine that you're a sports fan who has just been given a free pair of tickets to a key playoff game. You might be able to sell the tickets for $1500, but many fans would choose to go to the game—after all, the tickets were free, weren't they? To an economist, though, there's no difference between using free tickets worth $1500 to go to the game and paying $1500 out of pocket to go to the game, since you could have had that money if you had sold the tickets.

This example also illustrates the effects of framing on our choices. If a friend were to give you as a gift a bottle of wine they'd bought at auction for $150, you'd probably elect to drink it (on a suitably special occasion, of course). However, if you were asked whether you'd be willing to spend $150 out of pocket on a bottle of wine and then drink it, you might very well say no. Again, to a traditional economist there's no difference between the outcomes of the two scenarios—in both, if you choose to drink the wine you'd be a bit tipsier and $150 poorer than you might otherwise have been—and so your choice should remain consistent. It shouldn't matter how the scenario is framed.

That almost no one but an economist thinks this way, though, did not seem to bother economists for about two centuries. Instead, economic models that assumed hyper-rational behavior came to determine much policy and law. But it turns out that many of our actual behaviors are, as an economist would say, sub-optimal. The status quo bias, for example, means that when we are required to opt in to beneficial programs, such as employer-matched 401(k) accounts, too often we don't.

Thaler co-wrote a book with legal scholar Cass Sunstein entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008), which used the insights of behavioral economics to argue that instead of requiring people to opt in to beneficial programs, we should use the status quo bias for good and instead require them to opt out. Changing the default option can radically change participation rates.

But, of course, there's no reason why the principles of behavioral economics can't be used for other purposes as well, and they are: by political groups, advertisers, and companies trying to shift your choices in ways beneficial to them. Misbehaving is an entertaining way to increase your awareness of how, and how easily, we can be manipulated. And with that knowledge, perhaps, we can try to make our choices—political, social, and economic—more conscious ones.

Update 5 Oct 2015: Thaler has created a Misbehaving website which includes outtakes (passages cut from the final manuscript), resources for learning more, "characters" (colleagues mentioned in the book), and a blog discussing real-world applications of behavioral economics.