The music genome project still seems like magic to me.
I love how it can strip away pretensions of taste. You might think of yourself as a fan of obscure or high brow music, but then Pandora will keep delivering songs with the elements you actually like – regardless of popularity, critical distinctions, or cultural associations.
Could there be a Pandora for movies?
Jinni is a website purporting to deliver the movie genome project. And Netflix of course has its recommendation system. They even had a $1 million prize to try and make their system better, and their current algorythm is incredibly complicated, with a winning formula that looks like this:
There are parts of the winning team’s explanations that make for interesting reading. They consider all kinds of factors about how we rate movies – including how long it’s been since we’ve seen a film, and how many other movies we’ve rated in a day.
And I think they come close. I haven’t really explored Jinni, but it looks like a slightly more explicated version of the Netflix system (the two companies are linked).
But anecdotally, mostly what Netflix recommends is based on really obvious associations (“If you liked Gone Baby Gone then you’ll like…The Town!”) or – more often – it recommends films I know I SHOULD watch, but that I never feel like watching.
Case in point: I had the DVD subscription for the longest time until I realized that I had to be honest with myself — I was never going to watch The Battle of Algiers or those two Tarkovsky films. They were going to sit in front of my player while I instant-watched South Park episodes.
I know the problem: it’s me. I’ve rated 1,259 films. I’ve undoubtedly highly rated a lot of films that I know I’m “supposed” to like, and rated lower films I’m “supposed” to dismiss. Or I’ve rated a film purely on the level of my emotional connection to it.
Like, I gave Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 5 stars. Now, you understand why I did that, right? Because I watched that movie every day for two years. Because Shiloh and I used to reenact scenes from it in our backyard for hours. Because I still say “Kali-ma! Kali-ma!” whenever I can (it fits a surprising number of situations).
But let’s be real. 5 stars?
Raiders? Yes. Last Crusade? Definitely.
But Temple of Doom? Sorry. That movie just sucks. It’s downright xenophobic. The acting is terrible. The action sequences are absurd, or they simply look like crap. It’s an explosion of awfulness, the kind of frenetic something-is-happening-and-it’s-loud-but-it-actually-doesn’t-make-any-sense. (In other words, the first glimpse of the horribleness George Lucas will unleash on us in the years to come.)
I’ve totally screwed my own ratings by giving a movie like that 5 stars.
Which is what’s so awesome about Pandora (or LastFM or any of those music genome-based stations). You tell it something you like – not rating it – just saying you like this for whatever reason. It figures out the rest. And the more tracks/artists you throw at it, the more it manages to nail down the elements of your taste. It sidesteps all your own pretensions of taste or personal misrepresentations.
How could a movie version of this work?
Looking at the song playing right now on my Pandora, it breaks the song down like this:
mellow rock instrumentation
mild rhythmic syncopation
intricate melodic phrasing
a vocal-centric aesthetic
major key tonality
acoustic rhythm guitars
Hmm. The equivalent for a movie would involve craft and technique decisions that usually have nothing to do with whether we like a film or not.
over-saturated film stock
harsh source lights
a quick editing style
upbeat orchestral score
high speed lenses
lack of zooms
predominance of close-ups
static master shots
naturalistic performance style
That could be a description of almost any movie. A more appropriate breakdown would be story components:
a long journey
a love interest
flashy action sequences
a quirky sidekick character
moments of gross-out humor
tragic loss of a father-figure
Totally generic, right? You’d have to get more specific. Which I suppose is what Netflix and Jinni try to do by inventing weird sub-genres of recommendations and phrase clusters. Like, right now Netflix suggesting a bunch of “Visually-striking cerebral dramas” and “Witty biographical documentaries” just for me.
But the catch-22 of breaking down actual story components is that the more specific you get, aren’t you increasing the chances of simply finding a bad, ripoff version of the movie you like?
For instance, a more specific breakdown of Seven:
gritty city setting
neo-noir, suffocating filmic style
dark, puzzling crime plot
flawed central characters
cops on a serial killer case
intelligent mastermind criminal
Leads you to Saw. The Bone Collector.
Or ANY EPISODE of any CSI.
Basically, a bunch of not-so-great movies and TV shows that may have the same elements, but totally don’t interest me.
The greatness of Seven is such that I would recommend that film to anyone, even people who don’t usually like films with these attributes. Why? Because it transcends the trappings of a typical serial killer movie. It’s smarter, better paced, scarier (without being a horror), better acted, and overall just one of my favorite movies.
Which leads to a paradox: if a film is one of the defining films of a genre, it usually means it transcends that genre. It doesn’t just appeal to the people who frequent that type of film – it changes the very rules of the game, breaks the cliches, raises the bar, and does something unique. The more predictably a film fits into a given genre, the more it’s simply an exercise in paint-by-the-numbers.
A lot of genre fans know this. I’ve met many a horror geek who willingly admits that 90% of the pure genre stuff that’s made for them is crap. Shiloh watches every sci-fi movie ever made, and he knows most of them are terrible.
So unless, like them, we’re willing to categorically love something because it involves a dismemberment, or a cyborg, or a puppy-saved-from-a-well-scene – or some such specific story element that we think is the definition a good movie – then we’re out of luck.
That doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying, anyway. Film marketing has always preyed on our backwards belief that if we liked a movie, we’ll like the crappier version of it they recast, repackage, and resell to us. Even down to the poster design, most movie campaigns position a new film as “exactly like that other strikingly original film you loved last year” – failing to recognize that the reason you liked that film from last year was precisely because it was strikingly original.
At the extreme end of this marketing spectrum is the “mockbuster” phenomenon, where they want you to rent a movie because you actually think it IS the film it’s ripping off. Transmorphers. Paranormal Entity. Battle of Los Angeles. This has got to be the most basic strategy ever: counterfeit movies. Ironically, it strikes me as more honest. It must be working, too, because we’re seeing more and more of these blatant fakes. The pace of VOD and our ever increasing appetite for “new-yet-exactly-the-same” content will continue to produce repetitive work.
Like my Netflix ratings, it’s our own fault. I hate hearing people complain about lack of indie cinema. How many of us really go out of our way to find obscure, smaller, or foreign films in the theater? The empirical fact is, we don’t. Otherwise those films would make money.
I know I don’t. I line up for the big, familiar releases and if I’m feeling “indie,” I see something like a Woody Allen film. Who, after four decades of established filmmaking, is far from indie. (When Tree of Life — a film starring two of the highest paid A-list actors in the world and directed by one of the most celebrated artists in his field — is considered an art/alternative/indie film, we can’t pretend there’s any vestige of small film culture left.)
We’re scared of something completely new. We don’t want to waste our movie-theater going experience on something bad, or something we can “just rent” next year.
Consequently, we hunger for familiarity. I haven’t seen it, but Super 8 seems like a pastiche of Speilberg tropes, and it’s marketed that way. In music terms, it’s like JJ Abrams is doing a medley remix of another dude’s songs from the 80s. And we dutifully run to the theater to see this amalgam of other things we’ve already seen…and then we get upset if it’s not original enough!
With music, I feel like not only are tastes more varied, but more flexible. When I learn that someone loves hip-hop or experimental jazz or music that I just don’t “get” – I usually shrug and say, “Not my thing.” But if someone hates a movie I love, I tend to get passionately argumentative. Maybe this is just because I’m a filmmaker, but I don’t know…I think we’re much more willing to accept varieties of taste in music, but when it comes to film – we seek consensus. We universalize our own taste.
Is it because it’s still such a young art form that it hasn’t split into established sects quite yet? Is this precisely what the notion of “film genre” is pushing us towards?
I don’t know. I call Human Centipede a piece of crap because of the way it’s made, not because it’s a genre film. After all, The Shining is a conventional horror film, too.
Maybe it comes down to the simple fact that film isn’t like music.
I mean, you can’t watch a movie while you drive a car. It’s a much more engrossing experience – you dedicate a full two hours of your senses, your attention. We want to be taken on a ride, a dream. And if we really care about the film, we want it to be public – a collective experience in a theater with a bunch of other (non-talking) people experiencing the dream.
And unlike music, we’re willing to give over money for a fleeting experience. We don’t need to “own” a movie and watch it over and over again to know it and love it.
And most importantly, films carry more cultural baggage than music. It’s always a tapdance for contemporary film historians to celebrate the brilliance of Birth of a Nation and simultaneously disavow its racism. Film is never simply an achievement of technique (if it were, than Michael Bay would be our Michelangelo). A movie says something, engages with its culture in a much more explicit way – obviously music can, too – but I think film does so necessarily.
Music can speak to you for vague, unnamable reasons. I don’t know if film can – images can, sounds can, actors can, maybe even “filmic moments” can… but a whole movie? With obvious exceptions, films are not abstract 3 to 5 minute experiences. Films are narrative. (Yeah, I know there are avant garde filmmakers out there doing non-narrative stuff, but guess what? No one’s watching that. Yes, I’m aware of the debate raging across the internet now, and I think it’s fascinating and wonderful and important. But for the 95% of us who do not watch experimental or intentionally boring films with any regularity, we watch films to experience a story. Preferably a specific and interesting one with characters we identify with and recognize.)
Movies are necessarily tied up with cultural associations in a way that music isn’t. After all, we can listen to a dead German’s songs written in Italian and never know the words, but can you watch a foreign film without subtitles?
All of which is to say, I think the music genome project works because of the ineffable nature of music and the range of its form.
While a movie genome project would only serve to exacerbate our incredibly shrinking range of films.
So…I guess I don’t want a movie genome project.
I want to be more open to liking films that are nothing like the ones I’ve liked before. Is that even possible? Can we overcome our fear of something new?
I certainly don’t need every film to reinvent the wheel. I’m not about to promote completely out-of-the-box films for their own sake. To pull a predictable example from history: Shakespeare didn’t split theater wide open, he wrote well-structured work based on existing stories. Of course, there’s plenty of examples when a form WAS burned to the ground by some brilliant artist who rose like a phoenix from the ashes. But I feel like those are the exceptions that prove the rule (and most of the times the actual lives of those artists were pretty miserable…they went unrecognized in their own time).
A fantastic, original film can remain within the tradition of mainstream, narrative films.
As a filmmaker, that tradition is the creative challenge that I am most excited to face: how do you find beauty and originality within the given structure? How do you nudge it forward, towards something new?
But then, unfortunately, you face the real question:
How do you get people to come see it?