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Significant Miscellany

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES July/ August 2010

Henry P. Raleigh drawing

In a casual review of recent events a few things, seemingly unrelated, do pop out that I, for one, find disturbing. The first, I’m sorry to say, has pretty much destroyed my shot at Netflix’s million dollar prize which I had revealed here a few months ago (“My Million dollar Plan”).  I was confident I had it sewed up so you can imagine my distress to find out that on June 26 a team of computer engineers from the United States, Austria, Canada, and Israel had figured out how to improve and increase the movie choices of Netflix’s mail subscribers by 10 percent.  Would you believe not one of the team members is a bona fide movie critic and, most likely, could not tell the difference between a work by Judd Apatow and Ingmar Bergman.  All they really know are algorithms, and I strongly suspect the team had exploited the genius of my plan to unfairly win — and they did this by turning it into algorithms. You see, that’s what happens nowadays, everything gets turned into algorithms and what can you do about it?

Next, and this is eerie I can tell you, you may recall my reporting (“Swan Song”) that 55 movie critics around the country had been dropped from print publications. Well sir, the ink had barely cried or the digitals had settled down or whatever happens to written essays once completed, when I learned the Andrew Sarris, one of our most respected critics, the critic who had taught us everything you’d ever want to know about auteur theory, had been bumped from The New York Observer.  No longer would his insightful and stylish weekly reviews appear to guide us in these troublesome times. There it is, number 56—where does it end?

Now I figure it’s just possible, in thinking about it, that the two events mentioned above might very well bear a relationship that is frightening to contemplate. In short, algorithms are replacing movie critics. Look at this infestation of puerile movie bloggers who are pushing aside legitimate critics. Are they not the spawn of algorithms, as is this entire age of electronic communication? Can you see yourself, discerning movie-goer, a lover of fine films, replaced by algorithms? Of course, not in the literal sense, but suppose those insidious, busy body algorithms decide that the greatest majority of viewers overwhelmingly prefer but two kinds of films — say, for example, any vehicle starring Adam Sandler and films of teenagers who are vampires, zombies, psychotic killers, and sexually precocious. Studios, always concerned about cost effectiveness would therefore produce these exclusively, each year’s new offerings providing you with these choices and little else. That’s something to think about, all right.

This last piece of miscellany may seem surprising — it certainly surprised me — and may have no connection to galloping algorithms or vanishing movie critics although I’m working hard to find one. It turns out that researchers have found that women are more attracted than men to a genre of film and its sub-genres known variously as scare, horror, slice and dice, and lately, torture porn. No one yet has advanced any solid reason for this other than some vague claims about empowerment or general disappointment with men. So far we have mostly statistical evidence. E.W for example, found that ticket buyers for “The Grudge” were 65 percent women, 60 percent for “The Ring”, and 51 percent for “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”. And it’s not teenage girls that make up these numbers, women over the age of 35 are a sizable group in this trend—lending some credence, I suppose, to the supposition that today’s men aren’t all they should be. More telling yet, in horror films such as “The Orphan” and “Zombieland” women are not shown as the whimpering, virginal victims as they once were, but as aggressors mopping up the un-dead, insane killers, and assortments of demons. Note that the bloodiest of these is “Jennifer’s Body”, written and directed by women. More of the same are in the planning states.

I don’t know what the algorithms will make of all this but you can bet they will give it a good going over and we remaining movie critics will be shunted aside once again.