A column article, Convenient Truths by: Daniel Elkin, Jason Sacks

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life.  That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining.  Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human.  Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.

Today he and his friend Jason found 2010's Freakonomics by a sort of who's who of documentary directors: Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me); Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight); Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side);  and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp).

Elkin: This is a documentary based on the book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. This best-selling book focuses on understanding behavior in terms of incentives. The authors, it seems, posit that if you figure out the incentive, you can predict behavior. It's about causality and examining both underlying assumptions and making new connections.  I haven't read the book, but it sounds interesting (if you are interested in these sorts of things).

The film is divided into four “chapters” and is linked together by interviews with Levitt and Dubner.  Each chapter deals with a different assumption about causality. Spurlock looks at the implications of ethnic sounding names on social advancement, Gibney looks at cheating in Japanese sumo and tries to tie it to the financial meltdown, Grady and Ewing look at an experiment where students are given a cash incentive to succeed in school, and Jarecki examines the connection between the decline in urban crime in the mid to late 1990's and abortion.

Sacks: I'm actually a pretty big fan of Dubner and Leavitt's book and their whole far-flung media empire. I read and really enjoyed the book, and have subsequently enjoyed their podcasts, online columns (including on The New York Times website and on of all things) and now this movie. It's an interesting little cottage industry devoted to the idea that there are hidden reasons why many things happen if you just look at them from the standpoint of economics and statistical analysis.

This movie treads familiar ground for those who have read the book on which this movie is based. For instance, Alex Gibney examines the most provocative assertion in the book, that the decline of the crime rate in America in the '90s was in part because of the legalization of abortion after the Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade. Gibney presents Leavitt and Dubner's assertions in a slick and user-friendly way, with clever visual tricks that make the movie feel like more than a dry recitation of facts. But does that bring viewers closer to the insights that the authors make in their book? Is this the metaphorical spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down? Or does the slickness get in the way of the message? What do you think, Daniel?

Elkin: I think the film does a fine job of explaining the basic concepts behind Freakonomics and does, at times, engage the audience in some interesting ideas. But as a film, I think Freakonomics is really kind of a failure. Not in terms of doing what it endeavors to do, i.e. taking Leavitt and Dubner's concepts and giving them a visual identity, but rather it fails at being a documentary. The film doesn’t hold together other than in the broadest sense. It is a series of vignettes and, in this, it would be better suited for an episodic television show like Spurlock's own 30 Days or Michael Moore's The Awful Truth or even Undercover Boss on CBS for that matter.

Trying to jam all the different ideas under one umbrella makes the audience look for more connections than are actually there. If the film was broken into real episodes, though, I think the power of the individual chapters would have been more effective. The film, by being a film, waters down the individual parts.

As far as the individual chapters go, though, I found Spurlock's section on names to be the most engaging. Its lighthearted approach to an interesting question whose answer reveals far more about the socioeconomic realities of our country than one might initially think, makes the implications of its answer that much more powerful. Had Spurlock chosen to be heavy-handed, which he certainly could have, I think this chapter would have come off as enormously didactic.

Because of my other life as a high school teacher, I was most intrigued by Grady and Ewing's chapter on using cash as an incentive to drive student achievement. As inconclusive as their findings were by the end of the piece, they did point to something I could have told you from my personal anecdotal evidence. In the wake of recent findings about the effectiveness of good teachers, though, I would be interested in some sort of investigation as to what incentives drive master teachers.

My least favorite of the chapters was Gibney's examination on cheating in Japanese sumo. I felt this section was ponderous, preachy, and obviously overreaching as it tried to make connections that frankly are spurious at best.

Like I've already said, though–  do think each of these chapters would have gained more importance had they been featured on their own rather than shoved together in the name of making a “film”.

Or maybe I'm missing the point?

Sacks: I don't think you're missing the point, because the real central point of this movie–and the whole Freakonomics phenomenon–is all about thinking about the world in a different way that we're often lead to think about it. The approach to these topics in the movie, of course, parallels the structure of the book. The book offers chapters that explore different topics and so does the movie. The only really strong thread that runs through the book is this feeling that we should "think different," to quote the Apple commercial.

I agree that what the movie does best is present a case for it being a TV series. The episodic nature of these stories definitely leads towards that idea. I think that would be a pretty interesting TV series, really, and you gotta wonder why a channel like TLC hasn't jumped on this idea yet.

In fact, my favorite segment is the same as yours. I really enjoyed Morgan Spurlock's segment, in part because he's had a pretty successful career as a documentarian on TV. I'm a big fan of his series 30 Days, which was a really smart variation on the "wife swap" mode of reality TV–check it out, dear reader, if you haven't already, and Spurlock uses some of the same techniques he learned on TV to present his segment. Spurlock is an affable narrator, asking interesting questions, and his style really works well on a TV screen.

I thought Jarecki's sequence was a nice flip side to Gibney's sequence. Both were a bit overly serious, but I felt that Jarecki's explored more interesting ground than Gibney. It seemed obvious to me that Sumo wrestlers would cheat to help their friends, but much less obvious that the legalization of abortion was a key cause in reducing crime.

But I'd like to hear more about your experiences in your school with incentives, Daniel. How did the segment about incentives ring true to you?

Elkin: This is just my perspective after a decade in the classroom, and it is pretty much based on anecdotal observations, but students will only succeed if they want to succeed. For some students, extrinsic motivations like cash or recognition or things of this ilk will provide a bounce in “achievement”. This bounce, though, doesn't really “take” for many of those kids, and they end up going back to their previous levels of “achievement”–sometimes even doing worse than before. Students will only decide to do what it takes to “achieve” on a consistent level once their motivation is intrinsic. They are doing it for themselves only.

One of the main problems I had with this part of the film, and this will open up an enormous can of worms (metaphorically speaking), is how the study went about defining “achievement.” The current American educational system is, for the most part, based on a mass production model. This being the case, “achievement” is perceived through relatively subjective quantifiable means–grades in this case, or test scores in others.  If the only outcome people are looking for are an improvement in these quantitative factors, then it seems to me that a system could be devised to alter the expectations closer to the reality of the performance of the largest number of students and thereby see an improvement in the numbers.

There are many successful teachers out there who have had enormous impact on the lives of kids. If Dubner and Leavitt were to find the incentive that helped cause that behavior, I think this would be more beneficial to the system as a whole. Then again, I guess we have to examine what are the priorities of the system, the realities of the possibilities, and our expectations of the society before we really try to figure out how to improve schools.

But enough about that. I forget how my ass chafes after riding my high horse for a while.

Back to the film, I agree with you that linking abortion with a lowering of the national crime rate is certainly an interesting and controversial thesis. I'm interested to hear what you thought about Jarecki's directorial choices in that segment–choice of narrator, graphics, pacing, etc . . .

Sacks: Well, the pacing of that sequence is pretty damn hyperkinetic. I suppose that's the smart way to approach such a dry and abstract topic, by filling this sequence with something that always keeps the eye interested. I enjoyed the style he uses, but in a way I wonder if Jarecki is almost working against the content he presents. I kind of felt he was trying a bit too hard to keep people interested by presenting endless stimulation.

This is kind of also a topic that you know more about than I do–the attention paid by younger people and the needs that they have for constant stimulation. When I was in high school in the early '80s there were a lot of Very Serious People who were concerned that those of us in the MTV generation had the shortest attention span of any generation ever. If that was true – and I really wonder how true it was – I do wonder how short attention spans are these days, when kids live at Internet speed, cell phones are a constant of everyday life, and the intense stimulation of video games is a nightly stress release?

Do you see a problem with attention spans, and do segments like this one actually help people learn more than something that might be a bit more static. As someone talking with kids each day, do you see this as an actual problem?

Aside from those points, I liked the segment quite a bit. I think Dubner makes his points very well, and the facts seem on the surface to back up his points. If memory serves, the book of Freakonomics goes into much more depth on the assumptions and conclusions that the economist draws, including actual numbers and graphs and stuff that would be way too boring for a breezy and high energy segment like that one. I couldn't find my copy of the original Freakonomics on my bookshelf, but the sequel SuperFreakonomics offers plenty of data to back up the economists' assertions.

I also liked how the narrator wasn't a typical voice that you might hear every day on TV. Wasn't that refreshing?

All that said, this really seemed like a presentation for the TV screen than the movie screen, didn't it?

Elkin: Yes, it did. It also seemed like an advertisement for the book more than a documentary, which was another problem I had with the film. Had the film spent more time on who Levitt and Dubner are, the process they went through creating the book (franchise?), and what the reactions to the book were, then we have ourselves a documentary.

I don't know what to call this film. This doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy watching parts of it; it's just that I think so much more could have been done with this topic.

As to the problems of a diminishing attention span in “kids today”–I am not sure if that is the way to define the issue.  I'm not sure if it is actually “attention” that has been diminished at all. Kids who have trouble focusing while reading The Canterbury Tales can hyper-focus on Skyrim for hours. What I think has happened has been a shift in priorities, ease of access, and society's definitions of entertainment.  

I could go on and on about some current theories about ADD being an evolutionary by-product of an ever increasing stimulus-laden environment and how the human brain is being rewired to process information at a much faster rate than ever before but . . . oh, look, a chicken . . .

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