Flattery gets you everywhere

The Academy is nothing if not self-adoring... just look at the Oscar nominations

A sad week for cinema. Two influential figures are dead: Theo Angelopoulos, the 76-year-old director of The Travelling Players, Ulysses' Gaze and the Palme d'Or-winning Eternity and a Day, died yesterday after being hit by a motorcycle near Athens. (You can find a thorough and illuminating interview with him, conducted at the National Film Theatre in 2003, here. And Bingham Ray, a major player in the US production and distribution scene, died aged 57 after suffering a stroke at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on Monday. Ray founded October Films, whose first release was Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet, and later headed United Artists, a speciality division of MGM. An obituary in the LA Times notes that he "often clashed [with MGM executives] over the types of films that Ray chose to champion, with the studio regarding his taste as too esoteric and arty."

Which brings me to this week's other, less significant but nonetheless disheartening news. "Academy Awards Nominations Play It Safe" is a headline of the "Dog Bites Man" variety; no one expects the "esoteric and arty" to be anywhere near the door-list. With each year, I feel more inured to the minor snubs and injustices, and more resigned to the parade of phoney prestige that constitutes the whole awards calendar, not just the Oscars. I'm not immune to its silly allure -- I vote in the London Film Critics' Circle Awards, and was happy to see The Artist and A Separation amply rewarded last week. While I haven't yet seen Kenneth Lonergan's acclaimed Margaret, its inclusion on our nominations list, and the tie-break win in the Best Actress category between that film's Anna Paquin and awards-magnet Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, did make a case for the importance of such rituals in bringing largely unsung work to wider attention.

We all know by now that this isn't the remit of the Academy Awards. The expansion of the Best Picture category in recent years to ten nominations was intended to accommodate popular favourites that might otherwise not have nabbed a place; at no point was it meant to shine a light on the overlooked or under-praised. But it's ridiculous to cast the net so wide when the quality of the films nominated does nothing to warrant it. Any awards body that is seen to be making up the numbers will lose what little authority it has. I'm sure this isn't going to trouble the Academy -- viewing figures count here, aided by the smoothness of the ceremony (hence the return to Billy "Safe pair of hands" Crystal after the botched experiment of Anne Hathaway and James Franco).

Reluctant as I am to share the opinions of someone who boasted of having walked out of The Artist, Bret Easton Ellis was correct when he tweeted that "The Oscars are a marketing tool but they give an indication of what Hollywood is thinking about itself. 2011 was an awful year for movies... In order for The Oscars to mean anything, if they mean anything at all, they have got to limit the number of best picture nominations to five."

I'm sure The Artist will win big; I hope it does -- it's not the best film made in the past year, but it is a smart and witty confection, and it's certainly the finest work within the boundaries of what the Academy is prepared to acknowledge. As the Huffington Post remarked, "films about films" like The Artist and Hugo (which leads the way with 11 nominations) predominate this year; the Academy is nothing if not self-adoring, and such movies are inherently flattering to the industry's sense of itself as magical.

Keeping the glass half full, it's encouraging that A Separation has been recognised in the Best Original Screenplay category, as well as the expected Best Foreign Language Film. Another plus: Bridesmaids got a Screenplay nomination, and a Best Supporting Actress nod for Melissa McCarthy -- she could very well win, as it's one of the few categories where unbridled comic turns are tolerated. (See Mercedes Ruehl in The Fisher King, Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway.) And a Best Picture nomination for The Tree of Life -- flawed though that movie is -- alongside Best Director for Terrence Malick is not to be sniffed at.

Expect to see Malick sitting in the front row on Oscars night, jeering and braying loudly. Next to him is that born hellraiser, Joey the horse from War Horse, who leads the charge as the pair of them "do a Kanye" when The Artist scoops the gold. Well, if we can't have esoteric and arty, let us dream of scandal and horseplay...

 

 

 

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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