August 29, 2011

Truth or Dare and trust

If young people build trust, it is through shared rites of passage. Some of these activities have existed for ages, although new ones seem to get introduced during the apocalyptic second half of a violence wave, when you really need to count on others. The last such time was the mid-1970s through the early '90s. Of that period's cultural inventions, my bet for which will prove to be an enduring trust-building rite is the game Truth or Dare.

Games involving skill exaggerate some pecking order, which isn't bad because preserving social stability sometimes requires us to be reminded of our place. But occasionally, and especially during rites of passage, we must experience a leveling of ranks. Otherwise, group members won't develop strong bounds. Truth or Dare is ideal, involving no skill, no teams, and no score.

If you didn't trust the others enough to not take advantage of you, you'd never play in the first place. Joining in signals that you trust them enough not to ask a relationship-shattering question, or subject you to a degrading stunt.

Each time a person's question or dare to another is provocative enough to keep the game fun, but doesn't go so far as to humiliate, you grow more assured of their trustworthiness. They held the reputational fate of another in their hands and chose not to abuse it. This is an even stronger signal given that they're not fully socialized, and can find the temptation to royally embarrass someone overpowering.

Sometimes, however, you do meet a selfish or fair-weather friend who crosses the line. Even so, it's better to discover who to keep at arm's length from playing some silly kid's game, rather than from getting stabbed in the back for real.

Then there's the cross-sex appeal. Girls like the gossipy Truth side, while boys are drawn to the show-off-iness of Dare. Peer pressure prevents them from always choosing one or the other, though. This negative feedback loop is typical of healthy boy-girl interactions -- girls are kept from spiraling out of control in the gossiping direction, and boys in the Jackass direction.

And if while growing up boys and girls don't play these trust-building games, they'll get the shallow and retarded relationships of Millennials -- mostly avoidant or non-existent, though also transient hook-ups and relationships of convenience where they're only sexless acquaintances, rather than two people who complete each other.

August 25, 2011

The 1980s pinnacle of independent cinema

I remember being taken aback by this fact when reading Arthur De Vany's Hollywood Economics:

In 1986, the combined share of the six classic [major movie studios]—at that point Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia, Universal, Fox, and MGM/UA—fell to 64%, the lowest since the beginning of the Golden Age. Disney was in third place, behind only Paramount and Warners. Even including it as a seventh major and adding its 10% share, the majors' control of the North American market was at a historic ebb. Orion, now completely independent of Warner Bros., and Tri-Star were well positioned as mini-majors, each with North American market shares of around 6% and regarded by industry observers as "fully competitive with the majors". Smaller independents garnered 13%—more than any studio aside from Paramount. In 1964, by comparison, all of the companies beside the then seven majors and Disney had combined for a grand total of 1%. . . .

Box-office domination was fully restored: in 2006, the six major movie conglomerates combined for 89.8% of the North American market; Lionsgate and Weinstein were almost exactly half as successful as their 1986 mini-major counterparts, sharing 6.1%; MGM came in at 1.8%; and all of the remaining independent companies split a pool totalling 2.3%. [Wikipedia]

And here we had always associated the hey-day of "indie films" with the '90s. (The quote is from the article on major film studios -- it's skipped over in the one on independent studios.) But it shouldn't be too surprising if we think of music from independent record labels, which also were at their peak influence from the later 1970s through the very early '90s, with I.R.S. and Chrysalis Records being the counterparts to Orion Pictures.

It's really the last 20 years that have seen massive consolidation within the entertainment industry, although we've heard the "Greed is good" line so many times that we've forgotten that the go-go '80s saw The Little Guy at his most powerful in popular culture, even if he was losing ground in wealth equality.

There really are too many to list, but here are just a few iconic movies from the halcyon days of indie film (some are real surprises):

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Rambo trilogy
The Terminator, and T2
Hannah and Her Sisters
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Silence of the Lambs
Total Recall
L.A. Story
Blue Velvet
Die Hard
A Nightmare on Elm Street
This is Spinal Tap a lot of guilty pleasures like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Lethal Weapon, Commando, Kickboxer, Cobra, Bloodsport, etc.

Strange as it is to believe, not so long ago indie studios were pumping out instant classics instead of already-forgot-about-'ems.

August 20, 2011

Black-white music collaborations worth listening to

Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., and RUN-DMC and Aerosmith, being very far back on the stage -- not letting-themselves-go enough, and too goofy, respectively. Chaka Khan only does back-up vocals with Steve Winwood on "Higher Love". I'm thinking more of a Riggs and Murtaugh, Rocky and Apollo, Foley-Taggart-Rosewood kind of team result.

Heard the one below on the radio today, and it's got to be near the top of the list. (For those born within 5 years of 1980, you have also heard it in instrumental form in this video game music.) It's by Phil Collins (also with Genesis) and Philip Bailey (also with Earth, Wind, & Fire).

August 15, 2011

Marry your friends from adolescence when you grow up?

Adults chastise adolescents for being too focused on the short term when playing the dating and mating game, but I wonder whether we're really so neglectful of cultivating longer-term prospects for marriage. Perhaps that's what mixed-sex friendships are when you're young -- an investment that only pays off later in life, when you're looking for stability and a soulmate.

Now, it is true that when you look back on all the girlfriends, flings, and crushes you've ever had, the grown-ups were right: they were mostly based on fleeting excitement. Even so-called committed relationships don't last a lifetime, or even close. Here again it's exceptional if they last beyond the endorphin rush of the honeymoon phase. Just as we wouldn't call someone monogamous who was married to one woman at a time but went through 5 wives, a kid who graduates college with 5 "serious" relationships since puberty has not been truly committed.

Kept going by the thrill of novelty rather than cemented by an emotional bond, these relationships are unlikely to leave either person reflecting years later that "that was the one that got away." Instead, you either feel lukewarm or ask yourself "What was I thinking?" That is, unless you already started out as friends before moving up to boyfriend and girlfriend.

I can think of only three girls who I would marry for sure (and a few other maybes), and they were all friends at various points throughout adolescence -- my first good chick friend in fifth grade, my close friend from eighth through twelfth grade, and a floormate from my freshman dorm at college, our first year of living away from our parents.

What they share with each other, and what distinguishes them from other girls then or since, is that we socially transformed close to each other, helping the other through it. That creates a bond of trust and fellow-feeling that does not arise when people get to know each other in more mundane circumstances. I haven't seen or spoken to them for 8, 11, and 19 years, but it's still there.

I'll elaborate on that theory sometime later, and show some vignettes of those three friendships that will hopefully make it clear why they're so different.

To end on for now, I know you don't have to feel this emotionally bound to each other for a marriage to work out. You can always remind yourself consciously that breaking it up would violate this or that norm, would have this or that bad effect on the children, or what have you. Still, relying on conscious reflection upon abstract rules is asking too much of most people. It's just not how our mind works in general. It would be better if we felt so attached that the temptation to cheat, leave, etc., didn't tug at us very hard in the first place.

August 10, 2011

The rise and fall of the urban legend culture: Data from movies

Awhile ago I noticed that the telling of urban legends has been in decline since the early or mid-1990s, and that by now it is all but dead. Here I mean in the sense of a modern ghost story or bizarre cautionary tale of what happened to a friend of a friend, not in the vaguer sense of any old off-beat rumor.

Data on the prevalence of urban legends are hard to come by, as oral storytelling generally doesn't leave fossils. Fortunately they are sometimes depicted in movies, and Bennett and Smith's book Urban Legends has an appendix listing every known movie that mentions some specific legend.

I'm not so interested in how prevalent a particular legend was, but rather the telling of any legend at all. There are 142 movies in their list, which begins at 1913 and ends at 2006, the year before the book's release. Here is how they are distributed over time (smoothed using a 5-year moving average):

There's no discernible pattern until about 1960. I think before then, movies were focused more on established ghost stories like vampires, Frankenstein, werewolves, etc. After that, though, their prevalence reflects the crime rate -- up through the early '90s, then falling through today.

This is part of the broader pattern of people believing more in the supernatural, occult, or bizarre when the violence level is rising, and less when it's falling.

In my informal polling, the girl who had heard every single legend I inquired about was born in the mid-'70s (1975 I think). She wasn't biased either, as if I'd asked a class of folklore studies majors. If the peak of urban legend-telling was the early 1990s, she would have been in her later high school years.

Not having asked hundreds of random people, I don't want to stick to the mid-'70s as the prime cohort, though. I do know that the earlier Boomers had heard of very few or none, likewise with the Millennials, while Generation X and the mini-generation just after it (1979-1984) knew the most. I didn't get to ask many later Boomers (1958-1964). So perhaps we are most drawn to cautionary tales about threats to our physical security when we are in our post-pubescent young adult years, and to a lesser but still high degree when we're of elementary school age.

The loss (for now) of the urban legend culture is unfortunate not only because they're fun to tell and listen to. They provide valuable reminders of when you should be on alert. "Yeah, but I'll never get into one of those situations" -- you can run but you can't hide from life's dangers, so you'd better develop a basic sense of what to look out for in the meantime.

Plus this kind of storytelling strengthens trust between friends. By accepting their improbable tale without much resistance, you signal your trust in their regard for your welfare. If someone you don't trust tells you the tale, you may still believe it just in case, but you'll be more likely to dismiss it than if a friend told you. Your reluctance signals your lack of trust in them.

August 1, 2011

Mad Men now on Netflix streaming

Better catch up fast like me if you haven't seen it on TV yet, you never know when Netflix is going to yank it from their streaming service. I'll hold off on any big-picture comments since I've only gotten through the first season and a half.

It's true what everyone has said about the crisp writing, sympathetic characters, and lack of self-consciousness in the acting. Whatever the TV equivalent of a page-turner is called, this is it.

The emotional range isn't quite as broad as in Twin Peaks, although that's no fault here since part of what they're trying to recreate is a world where feelings were private. Nor does the plot have the same mythological quality, again fittingly given the exploration of the mundane. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes the TV classic with the next-most enduring reputation. Definitely the best in the past 15 years, when The Simpsons bit the dust.

Just some random thoughts from what little I've seen so far:

- There's an illuminating contrast between two helpers -- the Freudian psychoanalyst and the Catholic priest. The shrink tries to amplify certain of Betty's anxieties, and he blabs to her husband about what she has said, without her knowing. The priest tries to dampen the sinners' anxieties by reminding them that there's no offense so grave that God won't forgive them, so long as they change their ways, make an act of contrition, and so on. The priest allows himself to be influenced by a confession that he's heard, but he doesn't share it outright with interested parties (at least not so far).

- Twice so far overly ambitious characters have been told to knock off the Machiavellian bullshit, that they will be abandoned if they try to be feared instead of loved and admired. Since a lot of viewers, especially younger ones, won't appreciate the subtlety, it would be nice to hear an occasional reference to mafia-run ghettos as a reminder of where that dog-eat-dog mindset leads.

- Everyone has remarked on how different things are between 1960 and now. But what about how similar they are? There was lots of drinking and smoking, but just like today there was hardly any dancing. The dance culture gets started during the first half of rising-crime times and really kicks into high gear during the second half -- that was the mid-'70s through the early '90s the last time around, and the Jazz Age before that (when the Charleston blew up).

- None of the products push my nostalgia button, although I'm not their target audience in that respect. Still, it is a real treat to see bench seats in the front of the car. Bucket seats weren't so bad at first since they were still placed close together. Over time, though, the console between has bloated and pushed them farther apart. And forget about that Starship Enterprise-looking thing in a Prius. What's next -- a roof-to-floor partition between driver and passenger? The other person pushes a beeper button, and if you feel like talking to them, you can roll down the window between you.