Gilbey on Film: Coming your way in 2012

This year's cinematic highlights.

The next two months will bring the customary glut of awards contenders. It's a brave distributor that releases its films into this throng, but the UK outfit The Works will do just that with House of Tolerance, an acclaimed drama set in a brothel in fin de siècle Paris. Bertrand Bonello's picture was named by the New York Times as one of last year's "Don't Miss Movies You Probably Missed" (under its US title, House of Pleasures); the UK finally gets to see it on 27 January.

Elsewhere the schedules are dominated by awards magnets including Steven Spielberg's War Horse (13 Jan), Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus, which was recently celebrated in the NS by Slavoj Zizek, and Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's 9/11 tale Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (10 Feb). Also falling under the hoping-for-silverware umbrella are two films which between them comprise the UK's own mini Michael Fassbender-fest -- Steve McQueen's Shame (13 Jan) and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (10 Feb).

Once the tearful winners have been mocked and the voting injustices mourned, it's anyone's guess which films will prevail. Personally I'm hoping for a release for The Eye of the Storm, directed by the excellent Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Six Degrees of Separation) and starring Geoffrey Rush alongside the reigning mistresses of hauteur, Charlotte Rampling and Judy Davis.

Regrettably, 3D makeovers are already clogging up the schedule, with an extra dimension added visually (though not creatively) to defunct, corroded epics including Titanic (6 April) and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (9 Feb). Re-releases of Casablanca (10 Feb) and La Grande Illusion (6 April) appear to have been spared this technological molestation, for which we should be grateful.

Some of us are still recovering from the shock of 2011, one of the few years since 1995 in which Michael Winterbottom did not release a new film (unless you count the non-UK cinema edit of his six-part BBC series The Trip). The drought ends with Trishna (9 March), an adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles transposed to modern-day India. Connected in name only is the Austrian chiller Michael (2 March). This controlled study of a man who keeps prisoner a 10-year-old boy will be the very definition of a tough sell; to others, Cameron Crowe's whimsical comedy-drama We Bought a Zoo (16 March) will be more deserving of that label. At least Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, from the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is released on the same day.

As Asghar Farhadi's A Separation proved last year, the best films often arrive unheralded by net-casting previews such as these. But we do know that there will be new work from Wong Kar-Wai (The Grandmasters), Michael Haneke (Amour), Bernardo Bertolucci (Me and You), Laurent Cantet (Foxfire, adapted from Joyce Carol Oates's novel about 1950s girl gangs) and Takashi Miike (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney). Meanwhile, François Ozon will adhere to a new government directive aiming to see Kristin Scott Thomas cast in at least 87 per cent of all French films (his contribution is Dans la maison). Currently awaiting UK release dates are Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, Andrew Dominik's Cogan's Trade, Park Chan Wook's Stoker and Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby.

Tim Burton fans get a double-dose this year. First up is the gothic extravaganza Dark Shadows (11 May), with Johnny Depp as a vampiric patroarch. Then it's animation -- and, to be more precise, reanimation -- in Frankenweenie (5 October), a feature-length version of Burton's 1984 short about a boy who refuses to let sleeping dogs lie. Pixar releases Brave (17 August), widely trumpeted as the studio's first movie with a female lead; I know, I know, Studio Ghibli never made such a fuss about putting a girl in the driving seat.

A triple-shot of big-budget superheroism hoopla this year, starting on 27 April with the Marvel extravaganza The Avengers -- sadly nothing to do with Steed, Mrs Peel or kinky boots, but rather a superheroes' get-together which includes Mark Ruffalo's first outing as the Hulk. He's the third actor in ten years (after Eric Bana and Edward Norton) to try to get a handle on the big green lug. Then Andrew Garfield will make his wall-climbing debut in The Amazing Spider-Man (6 July) before Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman gloom-o-rama, The Dark Knight Rises (20 July). Does James Bond count as a superhero? Or is that just a spurious attempt to shoehorn Daniel Craig's third Bond movie, Skyfall (26 Oct), into this paragraph? Next thing you know, I'll be wangling the same privileges for the hairy-footed ramblers of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (14 Dec), the first instalment of Peter Jackson's two-part return to Tolkien.

Of course, by then we'll all be terribly excited about Judd Apatow's This Is 40 (21 Dec), Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (26 Dec) and other lesser-known films on which "Action!" is only now being called.

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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