Going Up: All these sequels might not be such bad news.

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It is not often that I can get through an article on the film industry and only disagree with the very last line. Laurence Caromba’s Studios with a licence to sequel (Published 7 March, I know I’m late to the party) gave me the opportunity to reflect on this fact, because it actually managed it. The article itself deals with Hollywood’s love affair with sequels and adaptations, eloquently laying bare the economic incentives and pressures that caused and propagate this state of affairs. It is a strong piece of writing that loses some momentum when it veers into value judgements. Not that value judgements are wrong. They’re things we’re all allowed to make.

It’s just that last line (and, to be completely honest, the preceding paragraph) that kept niggling at me. Is the new crop of films released by Marvel and Friends truly that “empty and soulless?” They are adaptation, sure. They are sequels, undoubtedly, but to compare them to Jaws and Indiana Jones is not only cherry picking, but missing another important consequence of the big Disney takeover.

When comparing today’s films against the charms of Indiana Jones, it seems that the writer is using quirk as the main criterion to bemoan the state of modern films. To be sure, Indy is chock-full of quirk and I love him for it, but a perceived shortage of the stuff is not exactly reason to bemoan the state of the industry.

It views the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Indiana Jones might be the archetypal adventurous romp, but that doesn’t mean that its peers are necessarily works of genius. There are more than enough examples of “original” drivel making tons of money in the past to seriously question the veracity of the claim that spec scripts are necessarily better.

Adapted material is also not necessarily worse. The Hunger Games franchise is coining it with films that are uncharacteristically nuanced for tentpole films. Would it have been better to rather make two original ideas? Maybe, but it’s doubtful that it would have necessarily resulted in better movies. It would almost definitely have resulted in less money.

Viewers are growing more nuanced. We are disillusioned with simple narratives about the world and expect films to mirror this. The upshot is that big dumb action movies are seemingly becoming less and less stupid. Take Iron Man, for instance. The third instalment in the series was as quirky and self-deprecating as Indiana Jones ever was, but with added nuance. Here we have a film built around giant action set pieces, while still managing to touch on issues like media manipulation, mass hysteria, PTSD, and obsession. Or the new Captain America: drone warfare, the patriot act, government espionage, moral culpability, and preventative violence are a few of the main themes explicitly tackled by the movie. Let’s not even get started on movies like The Dark Knight. 

I lament that wonderful original movies aren’t getting made as much. I wish the ones that are made didn’t often get overshadowed by the studio’s behemoths. Much of what the article says is very true and worrying, but not for the reasons posited. The big, brainless films will probably always be with us. It’s why most people watch movies. I don’t believe, however, that we are on a downward trend. I, like the article’s author, don’t expect these chart-toppers to be great works of cinema, but I do believe that we are getting closer and closer to the point where they actually are. 

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Occam’s Dirty Razor.

Long ago in a land far, far away (from mine, at least), there lived a man named William of Ockham. William was a pensive type who would often try to figure out the logic of everything (or so we’re told). He was so good at this that, hundreds of years after his death, another thinker named a well known philosophical tool after him: Ockham’s razor.

Ockham’s razor has, as these things do, slowly changed to Occam’s razor over the years. The point of the idea is simple: when any two explanations for something come into competition with each other, we should favour the one with the least assumptions. The simpler explanation should stay behind after the razor has been wielded.

This is something we do every day, actually. We immediately see that it is better to explain the turning of a water wheel by the obvious explanation rather than the activity of fairies. In a world where there may be an infinity of possible explanations, Occam’s razor frees us to only ponder those that matter.

Unfortunately, it is also one of the most widely misused tools in philosophy. Electricity is much more complex than simply saying lights work by magic. The razor only truly functions when all the available explanations are equally (im)plausible. The domain of Occam’s great blade is in the unknown.

Which is, once again, something that we are confronted with daily. Humans have evolved as categorisers and storytellers. When Terry Pratchett calls us Homo Narrativus, or the storytelling ape, he implies that this is what actually sets us apart from other species we know. People see things happening and immediately make up stories to connect them. It is why we have developed science. It is why we are able to plan for the future and learn from our past. I agree with Mr Pratchett (I usually do), our penchant for stories has been as important to our development as our opposable thumbs. 

So here we are, 21st century man, master of the universe. What does this have to do with me? Everything. Every day, when you click on a link or open a blog (or consume anything on the internet) you are being given a depiction of reality that says: This is how things really are.

This is where Occam comes in. The more plausible and simple these stories seem, the greater the chance that we’ll take them at face value. Writers are incentivised to work within the dominant frameworks we use to categorise the world. We all know that celebrities do silly things, so why question the newest gossip column? Big corporations are always evil, right? Environmentalists are always noble. Herbal means healthy and the news is always true.

Except it isn’t like that. Reality is almost never as simple as the heuristics we use to filter it, but our bias tends to favour the explanations that fall solidly within the narratives we are comfortable with. The problem is: The people generating the content know this.

They know that if they keep us comfortable, we will keep clicking. No worldview-threatening stories are allowed to shake the reader base, because pageviews equal money. This is why all you ever see on anti-GMO blogs are things that demonise GMO. The pattern holds true for everything from Jezebel to Christianity Today. To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. The only thing that changes is the different types of hammers.

When they heard about the filter bubble, people were aghast at the implications without realising that they’d been doing the same thing voluntarily for years. We crawl into little internet ghettos where likeminded people pat each other on the back for being likeminded. I get it. It’s comfortable. I do it too.

But the world is too complex for this kind of reduction. We owe it to ourselves to escape our ghetto and see how other people live and think. Your mind is only as broad as the horizon that you paint for it. Smallmindedness is self-perpetuating and comforting. Others will feed this drive towards insignificance. Nobody will help you fight it if you don’t do it yourself first.

If Occam’s razor is dirty, the only thing it’ll give you is tetanus.