Friday, June 8, 2012

Character, Story & Economics in Comics

There's a "Phoenix rising" joke here somewhere...
It's no big secret that I've been a fan of (especially superhero) comics for a long time. While I've never been a serious "collector", or the kind of fan-boy who dresses up and flies around the world to every Comic-Con ever. I've never even been to the famed San Diego Comic-Con, and although I think I might have fun there, it's not exactly a high priority.

That said... I was the guy explaining who the giant alien with the big grin was to my buddies at The Avengers.

(It was Thanos, FYI... Who is a Death-obsessed jerk.)

It's also probably not news to all that many people that I'm a fan of Superman as a character and as a conceptual idea, even though I know most comic book fans don't treat him very seriously anymore.

As a filmmaker and story-teller myself, I think a lot about character. Even within the context of documentary film making, character matters a lot. One thing I've learned over the years is that good stories really aren't about sharp plots or witty dialogue, they're about believable action being derived from honest and clear character motivations. If a character is strong and well-developed, then it's incredibly easy to spot instances where they are acting "out-of-character", and when dialogue or plot points in a film hinge on a character doing something every audience member would understand he would never do, then the story suffers.

To use Superman as an example, everyone who is familiar with the character understands that he is a man of a virtually unbreakable morality and commitment to bringing villains to justice - he is not out for blood or vengeance. He stops crimes and aggression, he protects people from all types of disasters, defends the world against alien attacks - but he does not kill criminals. Superman is a character that is swiftly approaching 100 years old, and while different writers have done different things with him, that aspect of his character has remained fairly consistent.
Don't do drugs. Or Superman will KILL YOU!
He is a character that has the power to kill every human on the planet in a matter of hours if he really wanted to... But that action wouldn't be something befitting "Superman".

So imagine going to a Superman film and they introduce his back story: being raised by two loving parents in small-town Kansas. He's taught all the same core values we are aware of, he fights for "Truth, Justice and the American Way", and then the first random criminal we see him fight, he just slices in half with heat vision. No "justice" there.

Doesn't make any sense, does it? No.

More importantly... The drama of who Superman is, exists within that juxtaposition of his morality and his power. He could do just about anything he wants, and he could kill every villain he meets... But he won't. And he has to deal with that. Each time he hands a supervillain over to the police (or the Green Lantern Corps, or the New Gods or whoever else...), he knows that it's possible that that villain will harm someone else in the future. He's also got to deal with his immense power every time he's sitting at his desk at work, or kissing Lois Lane.

These are the struggles of Superman, and without them, there is just no story at all.

I've been thinking about all this quite a bit lately, because it effects my own efforts to become a better filmmaker. But thinking about personalities and motivations, and trying to get at who people are isn't enough to understand why people take action. You also have to consider what is possible for individuals to know, and how the limits of knowledge effect the choices people make.

Sometimes bad authors will cheat both their characters and, by extension, their readers by introducing some "deus ex machina" moment that completely disrupts the story with some new piece of information or new power that countermands all the other information they already gave throughout the story and voila, mystery solved or obstacle overcome!

That's just not fun, and frankly, it's also terrible writing.

The exciting thing about writing and reading fictional characters is when they're testing their limits, just like the best moments in real life are when we test our own. That - again - is where all the drama comes from. The thing that makes Superman people's least favorite superhero often times is simply that he's too damn powerful and writers don't explore the other side of that issue very well. The fact that he's too powerful makes him a hard character to write, because you can't really put him in jeopardy very easily.

He's bulletproof. He flies at supersonic, near light-speeds. He can run just as fast. He is strong enough - in some incarnations - to move the moon and other small planets. He has x-ray vision, heat vision, supercooling breath and immensely powerful lung capacity. He can fly through space no problem... And he's powered by the Sun, so even getting too close to a yellow star just makes him even stronger!

Now... Knowing all that. The writer's job is now to find this man some kind of challenger that can put him in danger. As you might imagine, that's damned hard!

Quick break-away from Superman for a quote about storytelling from a surprising source:
"The only thing that never runs out of being exciting to watch is human courage and overcoming odds, and knowing that character, 'You know what? Afterwards I'd have a beer with him', in other words you have to have some human touch and that's the hardest thing to do. Bullets are easy, you can buy them at 23c a piece. If you buy emotions... They're priceless, you can't buy 'em." - Sylvester Stallone

Sly's right.

Overcoming odds and relatability is the key... So to put it another way - you've got to find ways to make Superman bleed - and not necessarily literally.

With that in mind........ I would argue that there is one (often unexplored) major challenge Superman faces all the time that can and should create interesting character dilemmas, and as you might have guessed for this particular blog, it's an economics problem.

Superman faces a tremendously devastating economic calculation problem.

Seriously. He flies through space too!
Let's stipulate that Superman is an incredibly productive police force all by himself, and he can save far more people from far more horrific events than any human being can hope to accomplish... But... He still cannot be at all places simultaneously. He is, for all his powers, not omnipotent. There will never be enough "Superman" to go around and take care of all injustices all the time.

That scarcity results in the need for Superman (or really any superhero) to constantly deal with the question of prioritization and the ranking of his own actions against their possible alternatives. He must decide who gets his attention, and how urgently, and he must do this constantly while also balancing his own needs as well.

To give a specific example, In one issue of Superman I picked up recently, it opens with Kal-El having returned to Earth recently from an extended period off-world protecting the galaxy from some huge intergalactic threat, and I believe, visiting a newly re-created version of his home planet, Krypton. When he returns, he holds a brief press conference and in the middle of it, a tearful woman walks up to him and slaps him.

Slapped Superman. The Man from Krypton. In the face.

Anyway... She explains that her husband died of a brain tumor that Earthly doctors told her was inoperable, but that Superman, had he been on planet Earth at the time could have used his x-ray/heat vision to destroy the tumor and save her husband's life. It was sad for Superman, and it made him get all philosophical for part of the book wondering if he's forgetting about doing the "right thing" for the people.

But what the hell!?

Yes. He could have used his precious time to save that one woman's husband from an untimely death. Instead... He was busy SAVING SEVERAL WHOLE PLANETS of people/aliens. It seems to me that Superman used his time wisely.

But then, here's the rub...

Economics tells us that - in fact - neither me, nor the woman, nor Superman, can say for certain that he made the right choice. Why? In short, because Superman isn't a savior-for-hire within a free market.

Without a price system, and without Superman actually selling his services in some way, he's got no way to accurately judge other people's true need or what uses of his time maximize value for the individual people he presumably serves. Prices are the only decent way of acquiring that information, and it's a problem for Superman just as it's a problem for non-profit organizations... We spend so much time in the non-profit world just trying to figure out if we're wisely using our resources because we just don't get the necessary feedback information from a market. If we could get price-based feedback, it'd be a lot easier to know if we were doing the right things. Or rather, it'd be easier to know if we were using our resources in ways that maximize value to our intended "consumers".

All that aside........... Let's be honest... If Superman did have profits & losses to guide him and help him decide what to spend his time & energy on, then I think it's exceptionally likely that the entire populations of the planets he was off saving would undoubtedly pay far more for his valuable & rare protective services than any random woman with a cancerous husband could afford.

Thus in truth, I'm quite sure that the result would be the same either way: Superman would fly off to those other planets, save millions of humans and aliens in the process, and ultimately he would just have to learn to accept that even though it sucks he wouldn't be there to save a handful of individual people who he could have saved otherwise, what he actually did choose to do was a far better use of his available time and powers.

Now... To be clear... I'm not actually saying Superman should sell his services, or exist within a for-profit market. I don't really think he should be doing that any more than I think non-profit institutions like the one I actually work for shouldn't exist. Non-profit institutions and services are every bit a part of a free society as any for-profit business... But they have knowledge limitations. Serious ones...

In spite of the fact that profits & losses would tell Superman if he was doing things people valued - a for-profit Superman would have a lot of social credibility downsides, so I'm not sure that's the right answer.

But still... Anyone working without price signals has a calculation problem, and thinking as a story-teller who cares about character development, I believe that there's a lot of drama that can be found within that problem.

How does Superman know that he is making the right choices in deciding who to save and who to ignore? He doesn't. So he's going to have to wrestle with that. It's a good story line... He's also going to have to wrestle with the fact that he has wants, needs and desires for himself as well. So what happens when he takes a day off and X number of innocent people die who he could have saved?

What happens when it's not some random woman's husband, but Lois Lane who needs immediate saving, and Superman is millions of light years away on Apokalips or wherever fighting Darkseid?

How's he going to feel about his value judgement then? Maybe still ok, but... Ouch, right?

Faces of death. Superman edition.
Is the alternative for Superman to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, fighting every level of injustice from playground squabbles, to business fraud, to Facebook bullying, to Ponzi-schemers and government bailouts and congressional insider trading... and, you know... also the really scary stuff like Doomsday?

No Lois. No Daily Planet. No TV anchor gig. No Martha Kent (or Jonathan, depending on whether or not he's alive)... No Lana Lang. No fireside chats with Bruce Wayne... No scientific exploration, taxonomy projects, and it goes without saying... No playing "farmer" up in the Fortress of Solitude. Nope.

All day, every day, Superman is fighting injustice... and even still, some injustices persist. So in the split seconds this utterly miserable version of Superman has between various rescues, while he's blazing around the world, he should probably just cry because he's a failure.

It's extreme, but I think it makes the point.

Superman as a character is not just a product of his powers, or his morals. He's also a product of the choices he makes in deciding how to act versus the literally innumerable alternatives from which he could select.

And that problem - the problem of tradeoffs - is an economic problem.

How cool would it be for some writer of Superman to really delve into this question? How does Superman decide who and what gets his attention? How does he know he's making the right decisions? He has no system of measurement, no competing bids for his time. At the end of the day, it's only a question of his subjective values and a first-come-first-served selection process... I wonder if that would make him feel guilty, or if it would frustrate him to not know whether or not he's using his time effectively.

Maybe I'll try to write that story someday.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

I'm a little behind on this, but I recently watched Morgan Spurlock's "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold".

There's certainly an element of this film that is kind of pointless. Spurlock himself seems to want to make a compelling intellectual point about advertising, but for the most part, the film is really just about himself. Of course, this is no different from Super Size Me or Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladin, and many of the other projects he's created. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but in a way, it will always keep his work from being particularly moving. I'd bet that anyone who goes into this film hating the very idea of advertising will walk out thinking that it's as awful as they always believed, and people who go in thinking advertising is perfectly ok aren't going to find anything here to dislike.

There's no really impressive or profound message here. We all already know that product placement exists, and I think the vast majority of us are pretty ambivalent about it unless it actively takes you out of enjoying the show.

I can remember several instances of obnoxious product placement in recent TV shows like Heroes, Smallville and other action-heavy productions. Not that it's surprising that a show that's going to need to blow up a few cars each season or have people flying around the world and shooting laser beams from their eyes needs the extra cash... But when you have one character basically stop a scene to tell the other character how great their new Nissan "Yaris" is, well........ That's pretty crass.

But the thing is, we all know it's crass, and we spot it a mile away - and it's not very effective.

The really interesting and compelling aspect of "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" for me is simply the behind-the-scenes view of marketing executives and the advertisers Spurlock is working with to finance the film. Oddly enough, I actually enjoyed the parts left on the cutting room floor better than the final cut of the film in some ways.

For example, we get to watch Morgan Spurlock ask nearly everyone he interviewed the question, "What's your favorite ad of all time?"

What's interesting about that is apart from a few really iconic ones, like the classic 1984 Apple ad, is that quite a few people couldn't really remember what brands their favorite advertisements were actually for. I've seen this kind of thing many times over the years, and it's one of those reasons that I don't really think that any of this is all that big of a deal.

More on that in a second.

Also in the deleted scenes, we get to see far more of Ralph Nader and watch him demonstrate as clearly as it's possible to show that he fundamentally believes that he should be the sole arbiter of what people should be allowed to see or think, and what they should be allowed to sell - and as such, he also gets to decide what people should be allowed to buy and have.

Nader frequently gets called a "consumer advocate"... But... Exactly whom is he an advocate for, I wonder?

The kind of insulting, infantilizing and paternalist nonsense he advocates doesn't treat consumers with respect, it treats them with contempt. Dictating to other people what they can see or hear on TV, what kinds of ads people can create, and what kinds of products should and should not be available to consumers is honestly the most condescending thing I can think of. It is literally telling everyone else that they have no willpower, that they are easily manipulated, stupid sheep, and that they don't know what's best for their own lives....... and that, more importantly, Ralph Nader does know better.

Nader has never figured out that people actually do vary in terms of needs, wants and judgments of value.

So he's appointed himself the "protector" of people who don't need his protection. And though he makes it into the final cut of the movie, the additional footage found in the deleted scenes just drives this point home.

And really... This is my bigger complaint with the film actually.

Spurlock seeks out branding "experts" of all kinds - people in market and advertising departments, people who create TV and print ads, brand managers of the various companies that paid for the movie's production. He even talks to Frank Luntz ("fuck you, Frank!"). These were the people who are supposed to represent the "pro-advertising", and "pro-product placement" side of things. He then talks to such fabulous luminaries as Noam Chomsky, and a bunch of professors (of what I'm not certain, actually) and politicians who - like Nader - believe that advertising is "pernicious", and is ruining society.

But... You know who he doesn't talk to?

Spurlock doesn't visit with a single economist. Not one. Not in the entire film does anyone who might actually have some insight on to the overall picture of advertising and markets. This is a pretty big gap in the discussion though, because without these voices, the film leaves the audience with only the idea that advertising is either ugly, but necessary... or... it's just flat out evil.

The thing is though, Nader and Chomsky and those guys think that advertising is awful because ultimately, they despise the results of advertising - that is, they despise the very idea of people exchanging goods & services for money. It's especially awful (to them), because businesses use advertising as a means of getting a bigger market-share, in order to.... *GASP!*... profit.

Profit is, of course, the problem.

In my own experience, I find that people believe it's a problem because they don't understand that businesses profit in the non-political realm by providing value to other people. Chomsky and the like might say that advertising deceives people into believing that they value or need something they wouldn't otherwise want, but let's think about that for a minute.

What those guys are saying, in reality, is that they're much smarter than you or I, and they know what we need, want and should be able to get - and more importantly, what we don't need and shouldn't be able to get.

That reality is never spoken about, and Morgan Spurlock certainly doesn't cover it. I suspect he largely sympathizes with it, although given that he is the real subject of the film, I imagine that Spurlock is someone who isn't all that committal about any kind of moral philosophy. Or perhaps he is, but won't let that get in the way of an opportunity for self-promotion.

In any case, the fact that this doesn't get spoken about is somewhat telling to me.

Nobody wants to admit or own up to the fact that by trying to control people's economic decisions, they are literally expressing contempt for people they believe to be dumber and less capable of thinking critically about advertising than they are. Now... Maybe some people aren't very smart and are very easily swayed by TV commercials. Ok. Fair enough, QVC is pretty popular, after all.

But let's pose a rather important question, just because nobody else did.

Nader claimed that you'll see millions of ads in your lifetime. I'm sure he's right about that. But what he neglected to say was that you'll see millions of different ads... Quite a large number of them produced by companies competing for your attention within the very same market, in fact!

So... The question is this: If you see ads for Coke, Pepsi, RC Cola, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, Dasani Water, Red Bull, and for good measure, POM Wonderful, in the same day, what do you do?

Are you so easily "manipulated" that you instantly run out and buy every one of them having been successfully brainwashed by all the ads? Do you decide you're thirsty and pick one of those beverages? And if so... Is it just the best ad that wins you over? If so, what precisely constitutes, "the best" ad? Since preferences are subjective and vary from person to person, a single person's tastes, values, sense of self-image profoundly influence the ad that person is going to think is best.

What's more, what if you decide that you're thirsty because of one of these ads and you simply go to the fridge and get some milk and it doesn't compel you to buy anything at all?

When you really start thinking about what compels people to engage in trading behavior, human motivations are a hell of a lot more complex than people like Ralph Nader would want you to believe. The over-simplifications people like that engage in tend to stem from a failure to understand a lot of economics basics, but those over-simplifications make it so that there's always a villainous merchant and a poor, ignorant, consumer being taken advantage of.

And by the way... In this case, "being taken advantage of" actually just means consumers exchanging money for stuff the consumer wants made by somebody else voluntarily. It's ghastly, I tell you!

Ultimately, it's always going to be up to you what you do and what you buy, advertising or not - unless someone can actually force you to do buy what they're selling.

But who would be doing the forcing, I wonder? Could it be.......... Government?

I've often said that politicians really need to go through at least a crash course in Public Choice theory before they can be allowed to serve in government. This is precisely because of people like Ralph Nader. On the one hand, they want to save me from myself - so they argue that politics should be in charge of a lot of personal decisions made in the market. For my own good, of course. What they fail to grasp, however, is that once politicians have the power to make those kinds of decisions; big, well-connected individuals can swoop in and sway those politicians into using that power to the advantage of the companies that they run at the expense of competing companies who don't have those connections.

It's pretty straight forward really... If a politician asserts that he gets to decide which types of ads are acceptable, and which aren't, or which products are ok to be sold and which aren't, then what happens is anyone with access to that politician will put in some lobbying effort to make sure that what's "acceptable" is whatever they are doing, and what isn't acceptable is whatever their competitors are doing.

There's no principle to uphold really... Just the whim of the politician in charge.

But of course, we don't want to talk about that in the context of Spurlock's movie - I'm guessing simply because he doesn't understand how this works any better himself. Nader most certainly doesn't. Neither does Chomsky, or any of the other academics in the film.

It's too bad, really.

One other thing that's pretty unfortunate as well, is that the film completely omits the hundreds of millions a year the United States Armed Services spend on the movie & TV business in product placement. He also glossed over the fact that a good part of the tax-payer financed bailout of the General Motors corporation went directly into getting GM's mediocre automobiles into every movie made in the last several years - most notably, Transformers.

Not sure if this just didn't make it into Spurlock's footage, or it was a deliberate omission, but it strikes me as a little odd to talk about product placement without addressing the huge amount of money the government itself spends on placing government propaganda into entertainment.

It is literally that type of propaganda that compelled me to leave the entertainment industry a couple years into that career and do free-market media production instead.

So ultimately........ "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" is cute, light and fluffy - and above anything else, it's really just a vehicle for Morgan Spurlock to make some money doing what he enjoys doing. Nothing wrong with that, although it's a little at odds with Spurlock's own stated (and implied) philosophies. It's pretty entertaining, and Spurlock's antics are often worth watching, but it omits or avoids so much in the discussion that in a way, the whole film is totally pointless as a documentary. If anything, I may have learned a few insights into how best to go about trying to find corporate sponsors, but then, most of that material wasn't particularly counter-intuitive anyway.

It's really simple, actually.

You cold call hundreds of people, pitch your ideas, and hope that they say yes. Most won't call you back. Of those who do, most will say no. If you're lucky, a handful of people will say "yes", but when you get the contract, it's a few dozen pages long and the money they hand you (or promise to hand you later on, if you've met all their terms) comes with a lot of strings.

No big surprise there.

Does this make for mind-blowing, ground-breaking documentary cinema? Well... No. Not really. But it was pretty fun all the same, and I do think if you have a chance, watching all of the DVD "extras" is well worth your time... Especially if you're interested at all in seeing how the product placement process really works.

It's neither as dastardly, nor as scary as some would make it out to believe. Mostly, I find it predictable.