Chaos Theory, Movie Rhythms . . . and the Fractal Geometry of Stories?

A couple of months ago, while cruising the Web, I came across a piece written by Canadian blogger Jay Stone called “Chaos Theory and the Rhythm of Movies” (http://communities.canada.com/shareit/blogs/stonereport/archive/2010/02.aspx). He referenced an article in the journal Psychological Science in which authors James Cutting, Jordan DeLong, and Christine Nothelfer of Cornell “used the sophisticated tools of modern perception research to deconstruct 70 years of film, shot by shot,” looking for a pattern called the 1/f fluctuation. “The 1/f fluctuation is a concept from chaos theory, and it means a pattern of attention that occurs naturally in the human mind,” Stone writes. “Indeed, it’s a rhythm that appears throughout nature, in music, in engineering, economics, and elsewhere.” The Cornell authors, by measuring “the duration of every shot in every scene of 150 of the most popular films released from 1935 to 2005,” established that modern movies, particularly those made since 1980, “were more likely to approach this natural pattern of human attention.” Action movies, in particular, “most closely approximate the 1/f pattern, followed by adventure, animation, comedy and drama.” Among the movies they studied that have nearly perfect 1/f rhythms are Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm (1955).

I found this to be fascinating, but I was mystified by exactly what the “1/f fluctuation” is. I’m not a physicist; I’ve read one book on chaos theory and a few other titles that tried their best to explain Einstein’s universe to me, but I’m not about to be able to explain what the 1/f fluctuation has to do with the attention spans of movie audiences or engineers or economists. The paper itself, “Attention and the Evolution of Hollywood Films” (http://people.psych.cornell.edu/~jec7/pubs/cuttingetalpsychsci10.pdf) is sufficiently technical to have me feeling out of my depth as I read it trying to find a clear answer to my simple question.

A wonderful article on the PhysOrg website, however, clarified it for me (http://www.physorg.com/news185781475.html): Cutting and coauthors “found that the magnitude of the waves increased as their frequency decreased, a pattern known as pink noise, or 1/f fluctuation, which means that attention spans of the same lengths recurred at regular intervals. The same pattern has been found by Benoit Mandelbrot (the chaos theorist) in the annual flood levels of the Nile, and has been seen by others in air turbulence, and also in music.” Furthermore, “Cutting said the significant thing is that shots of similar lengths recur in a regular pattern through the film.” Continue reading

The Only Question Worth Answering

The only question worth answering is this one: How soon are we going to turn things over to women to run?

In fact, given the state of affairs of the past seven thousand years or so, the question actually is this: Shall we turn the world over to women this afternoon, or shall we give ourselves until sometime next week?

I have a couple of good reasons for bringing up this topic, and, frankly, I think that getting on with it is absolutely necessary. That is, if women actually would take us up on the deal. Women are pretty smart, and they may not accept any such offer. They have a pretty clear understanding of human behavior, mainly because they give birth to humans and raise these human children more or less by themselves. So they immediately gain that firsthand experience into human behavior, which by and large is not a pretty picture. You know, the whiny baby stuff, the me-first stuff. It can’t be easy turning such raw material into a halfway sensible, reasonably competent, socialized member of our species. I have known men in their sixties who are still pretty much in the diaper stage of human social interaction. Maybe you know them, too.

The other reason is that, no matter how you look at it, women are still pretty much regarded as second-class citizens in this world (where they even are citizens), and so they gain insight from that, as well. It’s my old rule: if you really want to know how things are going, don’t ask the manager or the boss: he or she will simply cover his or her ass and say everything is going fine. This is how it’s done in a kick-down, kiss-up hierarchy or bureaucracy. If you really want to know how things are going, ask the workers on the assembly line or the ones digging the ditch. And get ready for an earful. However, given the fact that most women are the ones basically working on the assembly line every day and therefore know the facts about how things have been run so far, maybe the world is more trouble than it is worth as far as many women are concerned.

Still, this line of thinking brings me to my first reason why women should be running things: they give birth to us. Therefore, they have dibs. The hand that rocks the cradle and so forth. If only we could have this situation take place in an environment that really nurtured and supported moms (rather than nurturing and supporting, say, pathologic Wall Street dickheads), we would be better in the long run. Continue reading

“Out West”

In an article in the December 15, 2009, Los Angeles Times, David Ng writes about a museum exhibition that is likely the first of its kind. “Out West” looks at the history of gays and transgender persons in, well, the Old West. The play on words in the title is a hoot and surely hits the right note, although officials at the Autry National Center, where the exhibit is being held, went to some pains, according to Ng, to come up with the right title. Tedious, academic-sounding proposals such as “Gay and the West” and “Equality and the West” were vetoed, thank goodness.

As an example of what is offered in “Out West,” Ng recounts the story of One-Eyed Charlie, “a stagecoach driver known for his hard drinking and itchy trigger finger,” with a reputation as “one of the best drivers in the wild West.” Following his death in 1879, however, it turned out that Charlie was actually Charlotte—Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. “The discovery of her true gender became a local sensation,” says Ng. “And her story still fascinates U.S. historians, some of whom believe that she was the first woman to have voted in a presidential election, long before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.” Continue reading

The Joshua Bell Effect

On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell, the virtuoso violinist, played six classical pieces over the course of forty-five minutes for commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the Washington, DC, subway line. Bell did not advertise who he was, and no publicity attended this event. Because he appeared to be just another street musician, nearly all of the commuters moving through the station ignored him. Seven people stopped to listen to him; one recognized him. Bell collected a total of $32.17 for his forty-five minutes’ playing on a 1713 handmade Stradivarius, worth $3.5 million.

The experiment was undertaken by Bell and a reporter for the Washington Post named Gene Weingarten, who won a Pulitzer prize for his story about it. Bell’s playing at the subway station was done as an experiment “in context, perception, and priorities—as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” As an article on scopes.com puts it, “Many a marketing survey has been conducted to gauge how presentation affects consumer perceptions of quality, and quite a few such surveys have found that people will frequently designate one of two identical items as being distinctly better than the other simply because it is packaged or presented more attractively. Might this same concept apply to fields outside of [sic] consumer products, such as the arts? Would, for example, people distinguish between a world-class instrumental virtuoso and an ordinary street musician if the only difference between them were the setting?”

I thought of this “Joshua Bell effect” recently because of a friend and coworker of mine. Keith Huff has been known for years in Chicago as an exceptionally sharp playwright. His success, although quite real, has been as modest as it typically is for any of us in the arts who have gained audiences yet harbor hopes of greater financial and artistic success. Keith was heralded in 2008 as the breakout playwright of the year in Chicago magazine; and now, here in fall 2009, he has the biggest hit running on Broadway. Continue reading