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Posts Tagged ‘economics’

Is it just me, or was the back end of last year particularly busy when it came to the kind of big commercial studio releases that tend to guzzle up multiple screens at the typical multiplex? The reason I ask is that a couple of films which I would have expected to make at least some kind of appearance on the big screen in central Oxford seem to have been squeezed out entirely. It’s not unheard of for this to happen when it comes to a certain kind of low-brow action-thriller, but here we’re talking about much more distinctive pieces of work – as I mentioned, I missed Bad Times at the El Royale UK release entirely and had to go to Berlin to see it, while Boots Riley’s extravagantly well-reviewed Sorry to Bother You likewise barely seemed to trouble either the big chains or my art-house cinema of choice, and I only just managed to catch it at the Ultimate Picture Palace (doing sterling work in its function of providing exactly this sort of last chance saloon).

Set in a sort of version of present-day San Francisco, this film retells the curious odyssey of Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young African-American man struggling to establish himself financially: he and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist and sign-twirler, are having to live in his uncle’s garage, for example. He seems to be making some kind of progress when he gets a job as a telemarketer with a company named RegalView, although the work is initially challenging. Success comes when an older colleague (Danny Glover) suggests that he use his ‘white voice’ when making calls as this will be more reassuring for his clients (in the first of many quirky choices, when using the white voice Stanfield is dubbed by David Cross).

This leads to great success for Cash, even as his fellow employees are agitating and trying to organise for better working conditions. Eventually he is promoted to ‘Power Caller’, handling extremely lucrative and important business transactions, especially for a company named WorryFree. Owned by the visionary tycoon Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), WorryFree has become greatly successful by playing on people’s stress and uncertainty about modern life – by signing away all rights to self-determination, they are provided with work and the essentials for living. Is this exploiting a gap in the market or simply a clever re-branding of slavery? Cash does his best not to worry about it and concentrates on the material rewards his new success is bringing him, until Steve Lift himself approaches him with a proposition that could change both his life and the world to an almost inconceivable degree…

I suspect that Boots Riley won’t thank me for saying so, but the shadow of Charlie Kaufman does seem to me to hang rather heavily over Sorry to Bother You – this is the same kind of wildly absurdist comedy that Kaufman made his name by writing: the structures of modern urban life are present, but have had their normal contents emptied out and been refilled with things which are almost palpably ridiculous. The sheer inventiveness of the film is impressive, not to mention the strike rate of its jokes – there are some unforgettably funny moments in the course of the story.

However, this is the kind of satirical comedy which is setting out to draw blood, and while Charlie Kaufman often seems to me to be playing with ideas for the fun of it, Riley clearly has serious social and political points to make throughout this film. The element of this film which most of the early coverage settled on was the gimmick of the ‘white voice’, which as well as being a striking cinematic gag is a convenient metaphor for the different modes of behaviour many people, perhaps especially those from ethnic minorities, are obliged to adopt. That said, it’s still a relatively minor element of the film, which is about… well, lots of different things, to be honest, perhaps even a few too many for it to be entirely coherent as a narrative. Many of these are, admittedly, about the somewhat-vexed question of race in America – I thought that one sequence, in which Cash, as one of only two black men at a party for the super-rich, is commanded to rap for his hosts, manages to be funnier, more provocative, and say more about cultural appropriation than all of Get Out.

That said, I think this is much more a film about economics than race, although Sorry to Bother You is naturally smart enough to acknowledge that the two things are inseparably linked in modern America. Riley has said that the title itself doesn’t just refer to a telemarketer’s usual opening line, but also the film’s intention to confront the audience with some uncomfortable truths which they may habitually try quite hard to ignore. Well, maybe so, but I wonder who he imagines the audience of this film will be – I imagine that most people seeing it will already be aware of the immense social and financial inequities in western civilisation, the immense power wielded by the wealthy, the dehumanising effects of many modern jobs, and so on – these things are not secrets, they’re just treated as facts of life. Once you look past the larger-than-life characterisations and ridiculous gags, the parable of Cash’s socio-economic awakening is actually fairly straightforward, as the young man has to make a choice between getting very rich very quickly or doing the right thing. It’s only the relentless onslaught of outlandish jokes and ideas that makes the film so memorable and entertaining. Similarly, the only real solution the film has to offer basically seems to be for workers to unionise, which some might consider a little anticlimactic (well, there’s a suggestion that a violent uprising might also solve some problems, but given its context in the film it’s hard to see this is a serious proposal).

I would say that the film possibly outstays its welcome by just a few minutes, and the third act in particular shows signs of becoming completely unravelled, but the film is a satire and heavily allegorical, so this is less of a problem than it could have been. It is, in any case, quite bracing to discover a film which is so smart, so energetic, and so willing to be openly political in its comedy. I’ve heard Sorry to Bother You described as the best SF film of 2018 – I can see how someone might think it qualifies, but the science fiction elements are just part of a brew which defies conventional genre descriptions. A very funny, very sharp film, driven along by great performances from Stanfield and Hammer; one could perhaps reasonably take exception to its politics, but not to the skill with which it has been made.

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It is one of those curious and perhaps somewhat cherishable paradoxes that probably the most alien society depicted in any depth on Star Trek is that of the Federation itself, the one to which the vast majority of the various series’ human characters belong. When you think about it, this isn’t so surprising, given that the various other cultures are intended to illuminate less enlightened aspects of human nature as it exists today, while the Federation represents the Roddenberry ideal of an evolved humanity.

The Federation is a difficult concept to get your head around, in some ways. One thing that both admirers and critics of Star Trek have seized upon is the fact that the Federation, according to several of its more prominent citizens, does not use money. Critics conclude that the franchise is therefore a puff-piece for a spurious and imaginary socialist utopia. Supporters sometimes take a different view: and the most cogent explication of these that I’ve read is Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia.

Saadia does not attempt to explain how the economies of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant function in the year 2370. This is probably quite wise, as – just between you and me – I don’t think there is much sense to be made of this. Saadia takes the ‘we don’t use money’ position, as stated by Captain Kirk (amongst others), at face value, and ignores the multitude of occasions where people casually talk about buying a boat, or selling a house, or paying for someone else’s dinner, or have a purchase charged to their account, or whatever. He assumes that the Federation, if not some of the other quadrant powers, is effectively infinitely wealthy, with its inhabitants living in a post-scarcity utopia, operating a reputation-based prestige economy. This arguably doesn’t match up with what is shown or implied on screen, and begs numerous questions about how and why the Federation engages in trading relationships with the other polities of the 24th century, but it’s one of the central planks of Saadia’s thesis: which is that Star Trek depicts a situation which could be achieved here on real-world Earth in the foreseeable future.

As always with this kind of The (Academic Discipline) of (Popular Franchise) title, the question is one how much it’s actually about the Academic Discipline and how much it’s just a grab for the cash of fans of the Popular Franchise. Pleasingly, Trekonomics combines impressive intellectual heft with a deep and loving knowledge of Star Trek – Saadia obviously knows his stuff in both departments, and Trekkies who check this book out will come away with a greatly expanded knowledge of theoretical concepts such as doux-commerce and the tragedy of the commons, while economists will gain an equally practical grounding in topics as diverse as the galactic warp-speed limitation crisis of 2371 and the legal status of authors who are holographic AIs in the closing years of the same decade.

This is more of a collection of essays than a book with a single coherent argument – there are opening chapters discussing topics such as the (apparent) absence of money from the Federation, the fact that everyone nevertheless seems to be working very hard for no apparent material reward, and the manner in which the Federation’s economy seems to be built around the principle that access to the replicator (a make-virtually-anything-out-of-virtually-thin-air machine) is available to all citizens at all times (money, the great metaphorical all-purpose conversion technology, has been superseded by the replicator, an actual all-purpose matter conversion technology).

From here the book moves on to touch on such topics as the limitations of natural resources, the management of common goods, and the place of Star Trek in the lineage of utopian science fiction (the Strugatsky brothers get a name check, as does Iain Banks for his wonderful Culture stories, but Saadia argues that Trek’s main inspiration was the SF of Isaac Asimov – a curious idea, given Trek features robots and the like less than arguably any other well-known SF franchise, but one which actually seems to be sound. Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to a look at Star Trek’s great economic adventurers, the Ferengi, and finally a discussion of what the genuine chances are of a Trek-like economic settlement being reached in the real world.

And it is, for the most part, a fascinating read. Apart from the fact that Saadia interprets the various ‘we don’t use money’ quotes to suit his argument, there are a few places where his suggestions seem a little bit overcooked – he suggests that the faction most similar to the Federation in Star Trek are the Borg, which seems a bit counter-intuitive. Admittedly the Borg definitely don’t use cash, but on the other cyber-prosthesis they are certainly consumers (even if it’s not in a strictly economic sense). His assertion that Deep Space Nine is on some level the story of the development and enlightenment of Ferengi society is also a bit much to swallow – although I have to say I am one of those people who finds many of the Ferengi-centric episodes of the series a bit wearisome. (For what it’s worth, I think the thematic core of Deep Space Nine is the issue of how to retain your enlightened principles when surrounded by people who don’t share them and are willing to exploit you for having them – which does have an economic angle to it, just not one which the show ever really dwelt on. How would a predatory merchant like a Ferengi really deal with a potential customer who was (effectively) infinitely wealthy?)

Set against this, however, are a range of fascinating insights into Trek, both in terms of canon and theory, which make the book well worth reading even if you’re just not that into economic philosophy. Saadia draws the reasonable and pertinent conclusion that the miraculous replicator, source of the Federation’s immense material abundance, was not invented until some point in the (largely uncharted) decades between the end of the original cast movies and the beginning of TNG, which therefore means that the cashless economy (if you believe in it) came first (the most famous instance of a ‘we don’t have money’ line comes from a Kirk who hails from about the year 2285). He also suggests that it’s the material abundance enabled by the replicator which is responsible for the transformation in human behaviour by the time of the series set in the 2360s and 2370s – the reason why most of the characters from these shows are somehow not quite as vital and engaging as the original crew (according to Manu Saadia, anyway) is that by the 2360s everyone has gone a bit Spock – freed from economic concerns and pressures, they have fewer recognisably human drives and motivations.

Whether or not you agree with the author’s take on Trek, this is stimulating stuff, if you have the right kind of brain; certainly it made me want to revisit several of the episodes he examines (and also regret the fact the various shows didn’t find a way of exploring these issues in a more coherent and systematic way). If the future of Star Trek is in doubt at the moment (and we must admit that this is perhaps the case), then it’s because many people seem to have lost the capacity to be optimistic: there is no place for utopianism in a world where Trump and Putin are in power, runs the argument. Well, I’d say exactly the opposite, and I suspect that Manu Saadia would, too: his conclusion is that the paradise-like Federation depicted in the TV shows is not a fantasy enabled by improbable machines like the replicator, but the result of concrete social, political, and economic choices on the part of its people. The same choices are available to us now. He doesn’t suggest this will be an easy path – quite the opposite – but that the option at least exists. Is the book’s argument convincing? Well, perhaps not completely, but I think it makes more than enough points to qualify as worthy of consideration. One of the best books of its kind that I have read, and certainly one of the most relevant to the real world.

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