Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Whiplash (2014): A Review

Believe it or not but I have a schedule or agenda of sorts for this blog. However, I rarely actually stick to it because, you know, writing stuff is this blog's philosophy and, as a lecturer once told us, inspiration is stochastic. Or, at least, something like that (he was talking about how essays are invariably written in exams). But the thing is that I believe there's also some kind of "it comes to me" moment of greatness... that you could practise whatever all the time in the world but that truly inspired moment of Great Art was in there to start with and you just got to the technical level that would let it out. Which is the context and the philosophical frame of mind to this review of Whiplash.

Now, it must be said that I don't listen to jazz all that often any more. Indeed, "Everybody Wants to be a Cat" is probably my most listened to jazz song. Yet, it remains that I don't think that great jazz is made with drumming like you might get in "Wipeout" or "Trampled Under Foot". So was I really ever going to enjoy Whiplash, a film about jazz drumming? Probably not. As it turns out, though, making the main character a total dickhead was the main problem. But, you know, it is obvious why film critics liked it. Spoilers to follow, but we'll start with this quote from, The Uncomfortable Message in Whiplash's Dazzling Finale, a review:
In Whiplash, jazz drummer Andrew endures a brutal, sustained campaign of bullying and abuse, both psychological and physical, at the hands of Fletcher, the conductor of his conservatory's prestigious studio band. He eventually washes out under the extreme pressure and, at the urging of his concerned father, anonymously gets Fletcher fired for abuse. In the final scene, Andrew ends up at Carnegie Hall subbing in for Fletcher's concert band. It's a final cruel ruse orchestrated by Fletcher, who wants to humiliate Andrew publicly by cueing him up to play the wrong music.
Well, I think basically all of this is wrong.

The way things start out is pretty simple: Andrew stays up late practising and a dude of importance happens to hear it. Indeed, from what I can tell, Andrew's playing so that Fletcher might hear. It then cuts to his normal band (class?) session where, you know, turns out Andrew doesn't seem to get on with people. Or, at least, he has trouble associating with the dude he's the "understudy" for. But Fletcher turns up and rescues Andrew from being ordinary. It doesn't say that then, but that's what Andrew thinks. But he is immediately told to turn up to Fletcher's band session three hours before it is due to start. Why? Well, I would guess that Fletcher intended the extra time to be used to practise (assuming Andrew has drive), but Andrew just sits there instead.

Now, let's be clear, just wanting to be somewhere doesn't mean that you sign up to be abused. But how abusive is Fletcher? Throwing chairs at people is extreme but that's it. The other instances the author is presumably thinking of basically consist of Fletcher forcing the three drummers to repeat the same part of a particular song they're apparently out of tempo for (it all sounds the same to me). For hours, admittedly. None of them are, at this point, unbelievers... but maybe that's the point. Maybe Fletcher is abusing his status as a god among mortals. But really the dude's style consists of telling everyone their gay in aggressive phrases. It's mean but not sociopathic. Which is where we get back to Andrew.

Does Andrew wash out? No, not at all. What he does is snap. You see, during his first concert as an understudy to Fletcher's original drummer, Andrew puts a folder down on a chair and it... vanishes. I thought it was stolen but the rest of the film makes me think Andrew disappeared it, knowing that it would give him the opportunity to play. It does and he does. Indeed, Andrew's playing is interpreted by Andrew as his assumption of being the core drummer in the band. He simply has to tell everyone about this. But it turns out Andrew, just a month in, is totally unable to be overshadowed. He can't let his cousins/his dad's friend's children overshadow him: the dinner has to be about Andrew and they must be denigrated... or, rather, put in their place (third division sports, a model UN). This is the first sign that the reason Andrew doesn't have friends isn't because he's shy or because he is lonely... but because the dude is a prick. More specifically, Andrew is an entitled prick and it is his seat. He is the Man. How dare the conductor/putter together of the band even suggest that Andrew's seat is not his? And when things work out badly for Andrew... his bus breaks down, he leaves his drum-sticks at the rental car agency, he gets hit by a truck, he screws over the entire band by insisting on playing, screws up (predictably)... he attacks Fletcher and gets expelled.

Which is, you know, when Andrew briefly tells the truth... it was his fault. But then he listens a bit longer and decides to say what they want him to say. That's not a good sign. He's not telling his story when he tells the hearing, but rather a story that will get Fletcher dismissed. And Fletcher knows this.

You see two characters are humanised in this film. The first is Fletcher. He gets a moment with a friend of his and the friend's daughter. It's strange, but we see it because Andrew sees it. Fletcher also gets a moment when, prior to the crash when Andrew's temporarily lost his temporary place (the one he insists is his God-given right), Andrew bursts into Fletcher's office where Fletcher is visibly upset. Why? Turns out an ex-student of his has just committed suicide, but while we don't know that then, Andrew totally fails to notice anything remiss (except Andrew's own situation). The other character is Andrew's dad... who both recognises his son's dickness at the dinner party and is there for his son when he needs him to be there (and also the review's mentioning of his fatherly concern). The point is... we are never given an opportunity to sympathise with Andrew because he's unsympathetic. He is Francis Urquhart.
Great art, or at least a great rendition, has been achieved, but at the total cost of the teen’s humanity. At the beginning of the film, he's obsessively driven and introverted, but relatably so; he works up the courage to talk to a girl he has a crush on, and kindles a brief if awkward relationship with her. He struggles with dinner party conversation. But as Fletcher begins to grind away at his confidence and sanity, Andrew withdraws further, breaking up with his girlfriend in robotic fashion and behaving more erratically until suffering a mini-nervous breakdown.
The review's take on Andrew's sympathetic nature. Having checked with Wikipedia... the breakup is after the entitled display in the office. It must be said, at this point, that Tanner and Connolly both take being unseated much better than Andrew. They're upset but are professional about it. Every single time. And critically, they're not explaining the Achilles Question at dinner tables and arguing that Achilles was right (although, to be frank, I think he liked the concept of friends) on screen. (Achilles is also a dickhead.)
But that bravura ending—a hyper-masculine celebration of punishing dedication and success in a great battle of wills—is impossible to shake. As much as we've regarded Fletcher with horror throughout the movie, Andrew's ultimate achievement is that he finally impresses him, without caveat. Andrew is tragically wasting his effort on this sociopathic void of a man, but you can't help but be stirred by his superhuman effort all the same. Whiplash treads that uncomfortable line as tightly as possible and leaves the audience feeling a little queasy for admiring Andrew's victory, no matter how Pyrrhic it might be.
I think my dislike of Andrew clouds the true horror of Fletcher from me but Fletcher's the dude with friends and even if he hides suicides from people he is still visibly upset. Neither are traits of sociopaths. What is sociopathic is a total absence of empathy (see: Andrew) and an active disparagement of the idea of having friends (see: Andrew). Which means even if Fletcher is as truly monstrous as the review argues, Andrew's completely complicit and all too-ready to believe Fletcher's stories about Tanner and Connolly's current activities. What enormous cost of Andrew's being was borne in order to end up where he should have been at the start: playing as part of something bigger? I don't know. Nicole, maybe? But he did lie to her in that last phone-call... there was no "school" to complain about.

I can't drum. I can't play any instrument, actually. I can't read music, either. In short, I have literally none of the talent that Andrew displays. But while I may have ego-maniacal tendencies, at least I like having friends and can see how they're an answer to the Achilles Question. Neither is true of Andrew. Nor, indeed, is it true that Andrew is some Great Talent anyway. All those sessions. All that training. And what? A bunch of bloodied hands. Sure, he sometimes manages to get to speed, but I feel that if he was really that good, he wouldn't have to bleed to get there. Just sayin'. Perhaps the honest assessment of the film is that both Andrew and Fletcher think themselves gods among men. Trouble is, Fletcher's the one who is close to being right. Andrew's all about dat hubris.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Video Is Bad For You

As a statistics student one of the things you'll do is examine residual plots for signal -- patterns that indicate the model needs further work. However, as people we identify more patterns than what actually exists. This is why Spotify redid its "random" algorithm, Dilbert has a comic with a "dude" saying 9 repeatedly in his capacity as a random number generator and why I look at the pattern of my multi-choice answers when guessing (to see if it's something someone thinks is random; yes this is problematic... am I assuming I am better at perceiving randomness? do I ignore that a computer has probably sorted it in this day and age? Point is, I still do it).

Obviously this is a big problem if we're modelling something. If we're interested in causality "fake patterns" will compromise our inferences. If we're interested in prediction, we could build a model of the data rather than the process -- data are assumed to come from a process -- and, hence, we're predicting a para-reality. But, it seems to me, from an evolutionary point of view, this is very interesting because it seems very useful.

Imagine, if you will, that you're out and about in the jungle. Now, this is a scary place to be for anyone who isn't equipped with fairly modern weapons (and, even then, in many respects it still is anyway) but it's also a very busy situation. As a species we're a great prey animal. Bad hearing. Crap sense of smell. Lots of mass, i.e. food. Limited capacity to run, climb or swim to safety. Oh, and we have no defensive weapons -- no canines, no claws and no power (a chimpanzee is a lot stronger than a human). Basically all we can do is notice a lot of stuff (mostly visually) and link it together, and give it a meaning. We can also easily pass on this meaning to other people.

One of the big ideas in statistics is the null. Basically, a statistician assumes innocence or boringness -- this thing did not do/is not associated with this cool/interesting thing. In other words, statistics is very cautious and (intellectually, not politically) conservative.  But this is a taught characteristic and equivalence. What is conservative ultimately depends on a lot less than what is cautious. The conservative reading is that of meaningless. Or, put another way, science generally assumes squares living in square worlds. But for our jungle walker, cats are real and it's a dog eat man world. Caution, there, means assuming meaning -- but in both situations it's about harm minimisation. Specifically it's about the relative harm. If you're not cautious in the jungle, you'll ignore the noisy rabbits (saving energy) but you're probably going to be eaten by a tiger. If you're not cautious in academia, you could be "ahead of the curve" but realistically you're going to be caught out on closer examination. But thinking that "twig snap" = tiger isn't conservative, even if it is cautious. That's the point.

Now, this is an interesting point and it's probably worth dwelling on. But it also gives me a sense of deja vu -- that, perhaps, I've seen a video about, if not the stats points, the evolutionary example. The thing is, you read the above a lot faster than you would've watched a video saying the same thing. If you don't believe me, time yourself reading a paragraph aloud and silently. In fact, think about how much you learn when you're doing that. It is the same right? A video of the above discussion "teaches" exactly the same content as the above discussion as is, right? Which is to say, the lesson I've been building to is that the information load of videos is pretty God damn awful. Huh. But, does this matter? Is it practically significant or just some "true but trivial" lesson paraded by pedants? Well, I rather think it is something we should be concerned about. Quite concerned, even. I think an example will help explain this.

I used to have a clear morning routine that invilved reading the news on TVNZ's website, the NZ Herald's and the BBC's. These days, though, it's months between visits to TVNZ. Why? Hopefully you're thinking videos -- although I don't like the horizontal layout, indeed, I feel it actively harms my perusal of the site. But we need more details, yeah?

There is no way that I could ever have read all the articles on all three sites or, even, all the latest ones in each main category. But what I could do was exercise much more control over how I consumed information. A video can look pretty and professional (thus hiding the uncertainties so much more easily) but if a fast-forward it's like reading every other paragraph. If I need to speed up a search for "meaning" (the pattern of things I care about) with "written" articles (although, in truth, while I may be happy to call practically anything an article.., videos aren't articles) I can scan the text. I don't understand or read all of it -- but I am able to spot patterns for meaning (signal indicating newsworthiness) and maybe slow down where appropriate (rather than just skipping material). I can also read the whole thing faster than the video plays, which also matters. (And if you're thinking about, say, playing at 1.2 times the speed, as opposed to fast forwarding, read on.)

We live, today, in a world concerned less about infotainment than it is about "fake news" and "alternative facts" (remember when infotainment was the Devil?). Indeed, we live in a meme-news era: I accidentally discovered the origin of the phrase "alternative facts" as the in-vogue expression via clickbait. But this misses the point -- the real news has to be entertainment too. In the past, this probably begab with "if it bleeds, it leads" and then that evolved into "human interest" delivery -- you know, things where, say, the bombing of Hiroshima would be reported on by cutting to [grandchild] of [granny visiting Hiroshima], when not glorified versions of "cat in tree" stories.* These days, while these things are still true, real news must now be about video. Video, it seems, is the final frontier.

I'm not saying that if people watched fewer videos, (other) people would be less concerned about fake news due to being less conned. However, I really am saying that in a world confronted by "fake new" a news-audience needs to process information individually. The truth is that it's not good enough to read half an article whilst listening to the "news" video plating in the other tab and thus get nothing from either (we suck at multi-tasking, live with it) or subconsciously melding them instead. It's not enough to be reliant on a medium unsuited to scepticism... a typo, I think, could really make you doubt a fake news piece but how do you notice that in a constantly perpetuated video? (Typos are indicative of shoddy editing, which suggests shoddiness, which suggests the reporting may be shoddy.) And, it must be said, practice makes perfect... the more you read of "real news" the better your sense of the variation in "normal" reporting ("fake news" being "pathological" reporting). But maybe it's hopelessly naive of me to think this. A lot of "fake news" is written, so maybe people who don't notice now aren't going to realise that it's outside the aforementioned variation. And maybe "fake news" has nothing to do with modes of consumption and people are right to analyse it from the echo chamber... i.e. modes of thought (e,g. believing what you already believed). But I obviously think that our current modes of consumption are conducive to the proliferation of spurious truths.

What to make of this? Am I some would-be enfant terrible yearning for a return to a lost-era I never experienced where the internet was dominated by the written word? Or have I stumbled across something of genuine interest? Could it even be that we need to consider what people are likely to read? That is, does it matter that comments sections in news articles generally follow smoothly from the article and with videos the comments are generally clearly separated? Does this change how often comments are used? Is the reason why no-one refers people to comments sections because no-one actually reads them? Could it therefore be that videos exacerbate and foster echo-chambers? Certainly, it's harder to reply to a video than it is to a written document: at least, without a transcript. Does this make videos the ideal vehicle to parade ideas that one doesn't want critiqued? These are important questions. and this is an important topic. Videos are bad for us. But sometimes they're fun to watch.

*An inconvenient truth about Campbell Live lost in the hooha surrounding its cancellation was that it's so-called "hard reporting" was mostly this kind of story, plus infrequent actual hard reporting.