Here’s the first page of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The brilliant Charlie Kaufman breaks at least two rules here: (1) starts with a block of action description that is 16 lines long (any more than four and everyone will know you’re an amateur!), (2) tells us what is printed on his tie (not the writer’s business!), and (3) introduces a voiceover to tell us what is happening (verboten!).
What I love most about this is the quick start. We meet Joel right away. We know that something is amiss. We know it’s Valentine’s Day. But we want to know even more. He’s lying to his co-worker, right? Why is this seemingly reclusive man going to the beach? You could argue that the rest of the movie sets out to answer that question for the audience.
This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll post the first page from the screenplay of a movie I love. And we’ll see what we can learn.
The famous quote is “We’re all Keynesians now” credited to Milton Friedman and/or Richard Nixon. Or as Paul Krugman wrote in 2011, “Keynes was right“.
What they mean is that — in an economic downturn — there’s a general consensus among economists, policy makers, and monetary leaders that the government should engage in expansionary policies, increasing the federal deficit and enlarging the money supply. As Keynes said: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.”
As someone who was once an unrepentant deficit hawk in the style of the Concord Coalition, I have to admit that these types of policies have established a track record of easing economic pain in the short run. It’ s made me reconsider some of my most dearly-held beliefs.*
But it also begs the question: Where are the calls for austerity now? This is the boom that Keynes was talking about. To be consistent, Krugman and all of the Keynesians (i.e., everyone!) should be arguing loudly for decreasing the deficit and tightening the money supply. But that’s not happening.
It’s easy to be a Keynesian during a downturn. Just open up the spicket to placate a panicked populace. It’s a lot harder to do as Keynes recommended and actually tighten things up when the party is underway.
*As an aside, there is no doubt in my mind that the expansionary policies of Bernanke and Obama helped ease the pain, and perhaps prevented a much more significant downturn, during the Economic Crisis. That said, I still feel very ambivalently about those policies. The crisis was caused — at least in part — by incredibly loose monetary policy and incredibly large budget deficits under George W. Bush. Seemingly, we were able to avoid a Depression by (1) making monetary policy even looser, (2) increasing federal spending at a time when the deficit was already historically high, and (3) transferring billions of dollars of debt from private entities to public ones. That’s a troubling pattern… We may have only been successful in kicking the can down the road.
One of my screenwriting teachers turned me onto this idea of impressive failure as an important tool in getting your audience to bond with the protagonist of your film. Think of Luke Skywalker and all the ways he fails in the first hour of Star Wars…
Tries and fails to convince his uncle to let him join the Rebellion
Tries and fails to rescue the droids from the Sand People
Tries and fails to learn how to use the Force with his lightsaber
Tries and fails to rescue Princess Leia (leads her into trash compactor)
Tries and fails to save Obi Wan
When we watch a character try so hard and fail, over and over, we are increasingly bonded to that character. We desperately want them to succeed. This often works even when the character is trying to achieve some goal that we would normally find reprehensible. And thus we often find ourselves rooting for gangsters and bank robbers.
It recently occurred to me that the same kind of thing goes on in parenting. You spend so much time watching your child try and fail to do the most basic tasks. Rolling over, grabbing a pacifier, sitting up, crawling, walking. There are hours and hours of attempts before it actually works. And with every failed attempt, you feel more and more bonded to this little human.
Two influential ideas from the social sciences. A theory and a fallacy. With the same name.
The broken windows theory was first introduced by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982. The idea is that small signs of disorder in a community — like broken windows — can increase the sense of lawlessness and lead to more serious crimes. Police leaders in the 1990’s and 2000’s used this theory to justify a crackdown on lots of small offenses (drunkenness, fair evasion, vandalism), believing that it would lead to a reduction in violent crime. (Violent crime has indeed decreased dramatically since the rise of these policing techniques, though no one is quite sure if the relationship is causal or not.)
The broken windows fallacy is 130 years older. Frédéric Bastiat introduced this thought experiment in 1850 in order to show that GDP is not a full measure of an economy’s health. In fact, certain things that might increase GDP — like the repair of a broken window by a glazier — might reflect an underlying loss of economic wealth. This is why we don’t root for natural disasters…. They might lead to an increase in GDP as we aim to replace destroyed capital. But that increase in GDP doesn’t reflect wealth creation.
Back in 2012, Matthew Yglesias fell into a 21st-century version of the broken windows fallacy, when he wrote this article for Slate:
Yes, perhaps divorce does lead to an upward blip in GDP. But it’s almost certainly also destroying economic wealth, and there’s no doubt that it reflects a reduction in the well-being (the utility, if you will) of the folks involved.
Some enterprising young professor needs to craft a whole course on behavior and economics, using broken windows as a case study.
We visited a new church in Highland Park yesterday, and the band played “Ain’t No Grave” by Claude Ely, which is just amazing. It’s basically proto-rock-and-roll …written in 1934.
Claude Ely was a preacher, songwriter, singer. Legend has it that Elvis’s mom took him to Ely’s tent revivals, and it’s not hard to hear Elvis in this recording. The Washington Post said that Ely had an “unhinged delirium.”
I *love* this kind of movie open where we start with men at work, and then something out-of-the-ordinary pops up. (See James Cameron’s The Abyss or even United 93 for other examples of men-at-work opens.)
Note that this was originally Scene 40 and they moved it up to the very beginning. It’s the first thing we see.
Spielberg — he not only directed but also wrote the screenplay — captures the banality of the workplace. The air traffic controller is “a bit bored,” and his colleague yells at him “mildly.”
Spielberg isn’t afraid to get a little bit technical. He uses words that the typical reader won’t understand… midwatch, data block, non-beacon target.
And that mention of the non-beacon target. It’s underlined. If you want to get technical, this is the inciting incident. Or — at least — it’s the very start of the inciting incident. The moment when the status quo — the boredom of a nighttime air traffic control shift — is interrupted by the unexpected.
And no one says a thing.
Spielberg shows us the importance of this blip with the physical movement of three characters: “Harry peers more intently. Interphone controller leans over and looks, as does coordinator.”
And the audience wonders, “What the heck are they so curious about?”
If you can get past the annoying re-enactments, Three IdenticalStrangers is a fascinating and emotionally devastating documentary. On the surface, it’s the story of three triplets separated at birth and reunited in their early 20’s. But it resonates far and wide.
When I was younger, I very much leaned toward the Nurture side in the Nature vs. Nurture debate. In college, I remember telling my roommate Marc that I had an aversion to bugs because — when I was a kid — I was trying to catch a grasshopper, and he ended up getting squished between my hands.
Marc’s response was, “Yes, but what were the chances that you were going to encounter a squished bug at some point in your childhood? Probably close to 100%. So you were going to end up hating bugs no matter what. What about somebody who has no aversion to bugs as an adult? Don’t you think he squished a bug at some point? His reaction to that same experience was different than yours, probably because he has different genes.”
Hmmmm….. That made me think. It’s not quite so easy to separate out the effects of genes and environment.
Later on, I was taking a psychobiology class, and the professor said something that I’ll never forget. “Your genes create your environment.” He was trying to say that every organism is instructed — by its genes — to pay attention to certain things that are very important to its survival and reproduction and to pay little attention to everything else. The simplest example of this is that human beings have evolved to only see certain wavelengths of light. Other animals have evolved to see a different set of wavelengths. In a way, our genes have taken a guess at which wavelengths contain the visual information that we will need to survive and reproduce. Those are the ones we’re capable of seeing as a part of our environment. In some real way, UV light is not even a part of my environment, because I’m incapable of detecting it.
But the interaction between genes and environment also goes in the opposite direction. That same professor talked about certain reptiles whose eggs were sensitive to the temperature. At certain temperatures, the eggs would produce males, and other temperatures the eggs would produce females. Certain genes were being turned on or off by the temperature. The environment was determining gene expression! (Of course, you could argue that this, too, is under genetic control, and so the genes are determining how much say should be given to the environment.)
This whole line of thinking was sparked by this week’s episode of Econtalk, in which Russ Roberts interviews the Oxford psychologist Teppo Felin about the vagaries of human attention and its dependence on our goals in any situation.
Anyway, no spoilers here, but Three Identical Strangers does have something very specific to say about Nature vs. Nurture and the domains of human experience where each one might have the upper hand.
The great Los Angeles food writer Jonathan Gold has died. For several years, I used his book Counter Intelligence to plan out my weekends, which challenged you not only to try new types of food but to discover new corners of the city. Through him, I found restaurants that are still my favorites today, from El Sazon Oaxaqueño to the Apple Pan, from Casa Bianca Pizza Pie to Pollo a la Brasa.
He was also a music writer and an aficionado of punk and hard rock, having contributed to the SPIN Alternative Record Guide, which served the same role in my musical life as Counter Intelligence did in my culinary life.
Here’s Gold in that book: “Motörhead was the loud, wet fart punctuating the Mentos commercial of late-’70’s British rock.”