Hype in the looking glass

I like reading reviews of bad movies. Or, more specifically, I like reading reviews in which the movie is clearly subpar, the reviewer is obviously incensed, and the reader can't help but learn from the entire experience (even if they aren't a filmmaker, at least if they're me, as I haven't tried to make a film since high school).

This is a prism rather than a looking glass. Someday, a generation of children will experience prisms for the first time without hearing a single reference to Pink Floyd.  From Wikimedia Commons.

This is a prism rather than a looking glass. Someday, a generation of children will experience prisms for the first time without hearing a single reference to Pink Floyd. From Wikimedia Commons.

Matt Zoller Seitz's review of the recent Alice in Wonderland film is an ideal, educational example. Don't worry, I'm going to connect this whole thing with science shortly. His ending rant stayed with me:

Every now and then, people ask if films ever offend me. Of course they do. They offend me because their world view is fashionably cynical. They offend me because their racial or sexual politics are glib and crude or because they flatter their target audience’s fantasies about themselves instead of challenging them. They offend me because they swagger about trafficking in “edgy” violence that’s not abstractly beautiful, mythologically rich, or psychologically complex, but merely opportunistic and cruel.

But the most offensive kind of film is one that spends an enormous amount of money yet seems to have nothing on its mind but money. You give it, they take it. And you get nothing in return but assurances that you’re seeing magic and wonder. The movie keeps repeating it in your ear, and flashing it onscreen in big block letters: MAGIC AND WONDER. MAGIC AND WONDER ...

How many small- or medium-sized films were never funded or released because the entire Hollywood studio apparatus has devoted itself to churning out listless fantasies that are machine-tooled for maximum repeatability and exploitability while claiming to be magical and wonderful?

This is not artistry. It’s con artistry.

I occasionally worry about science working this way. While the budget of even the smallest indie film could fund some labs for years* the same general idea applies: budget size does not correlate with quality, but with a large enough budget, the combination of loud marketing and sheer sensory overstimulation can look like something better than quality. It can appear new and exciting. It can transform half-baked ideas into seemingly revolutionary concepts.

It's how a new approach to drawing blood couldn't fail because billions of dollars can't be wrong. They were wrong. Very wrong.

It's how CRISPR is so transformative that there isn't a genetic issue it can't be used to address. 

I'm overjoyed that such technologies exist and they need funding to thrive. I'm not questioning that. It's simply worrisome when the marketing becomes the product.

Or maybe I just have a problem with TED talks. That's probably it.


*The canonical example of a success in this context might be The Blair Witch Project, with hundreds of millions of dollars in profits borne from its comparatively paltry $600,000 production cost. Primer is also a good example.