LA Film Festival 2010: Freakonomics

freakonomicsFreakonomics is a great documentary adaptation of Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s bestselling book that applies statistical and economics theory to various phenomena, finding extraordinary explanations and insights. Master documentarians direct various segments linked to interviews with the co-authors, including:

Morgan Spurlock of 2004’s Super Size Me fame puts down the Big Macs to explore the Big Moniker question: Does a child’s name determines his/her destiny? The film delves into the cultural divide between white and so-called ethnic names, and if naming offspring say, Todd, instead of DeShawn, or Emily instead of Shaniqua, will affect his/her future career or even incarceration prospects. The doc shows that the trend of African Americans using “unique” names for their babies arose during the Black Power movement, with its “Black is beautiful” aesthetic.

However, Spurlock’s segment inexplicably omits the salient explanation for why this is, something that Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) indicated: African Americans’ last names are often derived from their slave owners’ family names, so in order to compensate U.S. Blacks place special emphasis on often Africanized sounding first names. Why the super sizer missed this essential fact I don’t know. It’s like neglecting the fact that Blacks consume more junk food per capita than whites because as an oppressed minority, they have less discretionary income and eating at MacDonald’s, et al, is cheaper than dining out at Spago. I would also have liked to see an examination regarding how naming an infant after someone — especially a prominent person — eventually affects him/her.

For instance, your humble and most obedient scribe was named after none other than CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow, and voila!, I became a journalist. Spurlock is a great filmmaker but his segment also incorporates obviously dramatized portions mixed in with nonfiction footage, and there should be disclaimers or labeling pointing this out in an otherwise so-called nonfiction production.

Alexander Gibney is also one of the documentary world’s top talents; he won an Oscar for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, about torture in Afghanistan. Gibney’s Freakonomics segment uses statistical data to explore alleged corruption and cheating in the world of sumo wrestling. Gibney notes that as sumo has divine origins related to the Shinto religion, its sacred aura conveniently masks, and deflects from probing, wrongdoing.

Among the interviewees are Konishiki and Akebono Taro, the now retired wrestling champions from Hawaii. (Gibney doesn’t look into whether recruiting Polynesians, who are traditionally far larger than men of Japanese origin, to the sumo ring is in itself a dubious practice, as some purists have maintained.) Gibney, who produced/co-wrote 2005’s superb Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and produced/directed 2010’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money, goes on to perceptively compare sumo’s purported monkey business to that of Big Business and Wall Street’s fiscal fiascoes, and how media worship of the supposed “masters of the universe” and the free market served to cover-up financial hanky panky.

Gibney also notes the doubletalking dark side of The New York Times, which uses terms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” when referring to harsh questioning methods by U.S. inquisitors, but uses the word “torture” when the purported perpetrators are, for example, Chinese. All the propaganda that’s fit to print and Orwellian “Newspeak,” indeed.

Another documentary powerhouse, Eugene Jarecki — who directed 2005’s Why We Fight and 2002’s The Trials of Henry Kissinger – helms what may be the segment with Freakonomics’ most controversial analysis: That legalization of abortion is directly responsible for the lowering of the U.S. crime rate in the 1990s. The statistician’s thesis is that unwanted babies are more likely to grow up to be not only cowboys (as the Willie Nelson song puts it) but criminals, too. The doc argues that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and providing women with the legal means to terminate pregnancies led to the elimination of much of the pool of potential wrongdoers. Jarecki imaginatively deploys clips from Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life to make the film’s point.

The prospect of how giving students materialistic incentives affects their test scores and school performance is certainly worthy of investigating. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (co-directors of 2006’s powerful Jesus Camp) document suburban Chicago ninth graders who are essentially bribed with offers of money, limousine drives and status to induce them to study and work harder at school. Interestingly, these capitalistic incentives have nominal affect on the teens’ learning process. One of them typifies the ignorant dolts who fill the U.S. armed forces, a by his own admission clueless person who ponders joining the Marines as an alternative to continuing his schooling. Of course, mindless ignoramuses are easier to manipulate to fight despicable wars, as they are less likely to have the critical capacity to discern the complexities of U.S. foreign policy and to question orders. (I know that not everybody serving in the U.S. military is an idiot, but let’s face it, many recruits are, and the lowering of scholastic and criminal standards for a “voluntary” military desperate for personnel as it continues to fight dubious wars has exacerbated this problem.)

The problem with Freakonomics’ final segment is that Grady and Ewing never explore other “incentives” for education: The sheer joy of learning, the attaining of wisdom, the eventual role a good education can play in the highly competitive 21st century job market and so on. The doc’s last song – the Moody Blues’ Question – during its credit sequence seems to come out of nowhere, but in reality it subtly rebukes the concept of applying the market ethos to the educational process. The Moody Blues stood for the counterculture’s quest for Enlightenment, and playing this song serves to remind us that the attainment of wisdom cannot be done with bribery and a dollar sign in the hearts of pupils.

If you want to get your nonfiction freak on, don’t miss Freakonomics.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”

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