fugue states

A Rewrite of Fargo’s Season 1 Finale (Spoilers galore; ye’ve been warned)

Season one of FX’s TV series Fargo is an incredible take on the movie by the Coen brothers, simultaneously paying tribute to the tone and general style while carving a creative groove all its own. Unfortunately, the finale falls short of the standard established by the movie and the previous nine episodes, actually contradicting a major character arc established in order to try and emulate the ending of the movie. This was a mistake.

The character in question is Lester Nygaard, who is supposed to be the TV version of Jerry Lundegaard. Lester’s arc is that he starts out as a meek, bumbling, emasculated insurance salesman, then circumstances evolve in which he encounters a hit man, Lorne Malvo. After, Lester kills his own wife and ends up having to con his way out of murder. Lester’s remaining arc is him transforming into Malvo by way of realizing that there are no rules as long as you can manipulate things to suit your needs.

Jerry, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of an emotional arc. He simply digs himself deeper and deeper into a horribly bungled con that he set up. His final scene in the movie is him, on the run, getting captured by two local cops who had nothing to do with the events in the movie. A traditional movie would have had the main cop character, Margie, capture him in some kind of climactic sequence. But the Coen brothers don’t really do traditional—thank god— so Margie was at home with her husband watching TV while someone else wrapped the story up for her.

The problem with the season finale of the TV series was that they tried to emulate this ending with Lester even though Lester’s arc differed greatly from Jerry’s. They are absolutely not the same character, so their demise should then be different. In the finale, Lester flees Bemidji, goes on a snow mobile trip, gets chased down by local authorities, runs across a lake frozen over with thin ice, and falls through the ice. Dead. This is all while Molly, the main cop character of the season, sits at home with her husband Gus and daughter Greta.

The ending works for Jerry, but not Lester. This is because of what Lester has become through his transition into Malvo. Now, he’s a conman, a liar, and, above all else, a killer. So he should die like it.

Here is my scene by scene rewrite of season one’s finale to reflect that fact (again, spoilers henceforth):

Necessary to Establish in a Previous Episode
– When we first see Gus on his mail route immediately after the “One Year Later” transition, we learn that Lester’s new house is on his mail route.
– Lester lives on lake Bmidji, not just in a forest.
– Lester ice fishes from time to time, so when he first goes into his basement to scrounge through Chaz’s old hunting gear to find the handgun, an ice rotor similar to Wrench and Numbers’s is in the background.
– Lester had a crazy expensive surround sound system installed in his house just like Chaz did in episode one. Have him say something along the lines of, “You can hear it crystal clear all the way upstairs.”

Season 1 Finale—REWRITE (New or Slightly Changed Scenes are capitalized and in Bold)
SCENE 1: Series of shots showing blood trails in snow leading up to a large hole cut into an iced over lake.

Scene 2: Lester is waiting in his car outside his insurance shop immediately after Malvo killed Linda. He watches Malvo leave.

Scene 3: Lester goes inside and tampers with the crime scene to make it look like Linda dropped him off and went to the shop by herself.

Scene 4: Cut to: Lester goes to Lou’s Diner in order to solidify his alibi.

Scene 5: Lester “uses the bathroom” but sneaks outside, calls the police from a pay phone, and reports having heard gunshots. He goes back in and ends his interaction with Lou as police cars speed down the street, sirens blaring.

Scene 6: Cut to: Gus, Molly, and Greta are at home, watching TV. The phone rings. Molly answers it and learns of the homicide. She suits up.

Scene 7: Cut to: Nygaard Insurance shop. Crime scene. Molly arrives and does cop stuff with Bill. Lester shows up, acting the part of the shocked, grieving husband. Molly and Bill take Lester to the police station.

Scene 8: Cut to: Malvo in his cabin listening to the police scanner while he makes a meal. He hears that FBI agents Key and Peele have been summoned to the police station. Malvo heads out.

Scene 9: Cut to: The police station, where Key and Peele discuss dreams in a pseudo-philosophical way that’s apropos of nothing. Lou is at the police station and tells Molly about the unsettling encounter he had with Malvo in the previous episode, only now realizing its significance. He decides to camp out on Molly and Gus’s porch, with a shotgun to protect Greta or something.

Scene 10: Cut to: Malvo breaks into Key and Peele’s car and steals a field manual from the glove compartment while they’re inside the police station.

Scene 11: Cut to: The police interrogation room, where Molly, Bill, and Key and Peele proceed to interview Lester and warn him of the danger he’s in w/r/t Malvo. Lester isn’t charged with anything, but they hold him a little longer.

SCENE 12: Cut to: Morning. Lou on Molly and Gus’s porch after a night of playing lookout. Gus comes out, dressed to go on his mail route, and has a brief dialogue with Lou regarding Malvo. Gus goes back inside real quick.

Scene 13: Cut to: Molly briefs the other police officers about Malvo.

SCENE 14: Gus is in his mail truck driving to the police station. He calls Molly at the station, interrupting her meeting. He convinces her to stay at the station and let everybody else go out instead, citing it’s too dangerous since she’s pregnant, and he couldn’t bear making Greta go to another funeral. Gus says he’s taking off work and going to the station to meet her. Molly convinces him otherwise. He hangs up and we see that he has his revolver with him for protection, which he got when he went back in the house after talking to Lou in scene 12. Gus proceeds to go about his mail route.

Scene 15: Cut to: At the police station, Bill tells Molly that he’s going to quit, and she’s to be the next police chief. Reveal that the FBI is calling in reinforcements from HQ.

Scene 16: Cut to: Using the field manual he stole, Malvo calls FBI HQ and cons them into canceling reinforcements.

Scene 17: Cut to: Malvo at the used car dealership. He kidnaps the car salesman and steals a fake FBI cruiser.

Scene 18: Cut to: Police station. Molly tells Lester he’s going home, but Key and Peele are going to drive him and hang out at his house for a while. Lester protests, but this is non-negotiable. Lester gives her attitude, and she responds with an off-the-cuff anecdote. Lester is baffled by this, and they part ways.

Scene 19: Cut to: Key and Peele driving Lester home. We see Malvo’s fake FBI car follow them. Lester and Key and Peele talk about the boat riddle.

Scene 20: Cut to: Key and Peele and Lester arrive at Lester’s house. Key and Peele emphasize once again that Lester is in danger. Lester blows them off. Key and Peele make camp in the driveway.

Scene 21: Lester is up in the bedroom emptying the clothes from his suitcase, throwing them around the room so they cover the floor. He goes into the basement to get Chaz’s bear trap. We see the ice rotor in the background.

Scene 22: Lou is still on guard at Molly and Gus’s. Greta joins him.

SCENE 23: With Key and Peele in their car in Lester’s driveway, the fake FBI car casually rolls up and parks halfway down the driveway. Key and Peele exit their vehicle to investigate. They wisely choose to stagger, with Peele going to investigate the fake FBI car while Key lingers back by Lester’s front door. Peele sees that the driver—the kidnapped car salesman—has his hands duct-taped to the steering wheel. A trap! Key runs inside to check on Lester.

SCENE 24: Cut to: Lester hears the commotion from inside and proceeds to watch from a second story window.

SCENE 25: Cut back to: Outside, where Malvo emerges from the woods and kills Peele and the car salesman.

SCENE 26: Cut back to: Lester reacts to the murders and retreats to his clothes-covered bedroom/bathroom. From inside the bathroom, he pretends to call the police.

SCENE 27: Cut to: Key downstairs, gun drawn, clearing each room and looking for Lester. He hears the bathroom door slam from upstairs and goes upstairs.

SCENE 28: Cut to: Malvo breaks into Lester’s house using a backdoor. He finds Lester’s stereo system and hooks up his tape recorder.

SCENE 29: Cut to: Key sneaking around upstairs. He hears Lester calling the police from the bathroom, whispers, “Lester!…Lester!” He goes into the bedroom and steps on the bear trap that was hidden under a pile of clothes. Key goes down in pain. Lester bursts through the bathroom door, gun drawn, but doesn’t shoot once he sees it’s Key and not Malvo. Just then, Malvo’s tape of Lester’s phone call from episode one blasts through the house, easily heard from upstairs. Lester and Key listen and it becomes very clear that Lester is guilty of killing his wife. They share a look, and Lester kills Key. Malvo hears the gunshot.

SCENE 30: Cut to: Malvo upstairs. He follows the trail of carnage, into the bedroom. There, he sees Key, dead. He follows a trail of bloody footprints from the body to the shut bathroom door. He goes up to the door, fires a handful of shots in a calculated pattern, then cautiously proceeds into the bathroom. The bathroom is empty, and a window is wide open, with evidence of someone escaping. Malvo investigates to confirm, turns and sees in the mirror Lester hiding behind the drawn shower curtain, gun up. No words, just fury in Malvo’s eyes. Lester kills Malvo and completes his transition into becoming him. Show Lester’s bloody sock or shoe as he exits the shower. The music here should be reminiscent of the sting used when Lester framed Chaz for Pearl’s murder in episode seven.

SCENE 31: Molly is at the police station, alone, listening to mundane check-ins on the police radio from officers out on the street. She’s restless, thinks about leaving, but doesn’t.

SCENE 32: Cut to: Later, Gus is on his route, approaching Lester’s house. A wolf is standing in the middle of the road, and Gus slams on the brakes just in time. They stare at each other, then the wolf trots over to Lester’s house. Gus sees the two idling FBI cars, doors flung open, with blood trails clearly visible in the snow. Knowing this is Lester’s house, he gets his gun, checks it, takes a deep breath, and then goes out to investigate. He passes the fake FBI car, notices the blood and the ripped duct tape on the steering wheel.

*The following sequence should be shot identical to the final scenes in the movie when Margie investigates the cabin and finds Grimsrud manning the wood-chipper.*

Gus ducks into the trees for cover and weaves through the forest, following the loud hum of a motor echoing from the back of the house. When he gets to the edge of the tree line, reveal what Gus sees: Lester is finishing up drilling a hole into the iced over lake with his rotor. Beside him lie the bodies of Malvo, Key, Peele, and the car salesman. Gus cautiously approaches under the cover of the noise. Lester finishes up. Gus, gun raised, yells, “Freeze!” Lester spins around, startled, slips, and falls into the hole, where he drowns/freezes to death. The camera should pan over the hole, similar to Scene 1, showing Lester’s hat floating.

SCENE 33: Later, Molly is driving the prowler back to the station, with Gus sitting in the front seat. Gus is looking sourly out the window, “I just don’t unnerstand it.” Molly waits a beat, then says, “Well…here we are. And it’s a beautiful day.”

FADE OUT.

Random Seasonal Notes
– When we first meet Wrench and Numbers—the fixers from Fargo—they do a very Coen brothers thing and make a big deal about a totally arbitrary thing—they express their perplexity that Bemidji doesn’t have a library. This is contradictory to the first episode in which Lester is attempting to sell insurance to a couple who are expecting a baby (the husband later becomes the car salesman that Malvo cons for the fake FBI car). In this interaction, the husband tells Lester that he works at the library.

– Episode 7:  The fish falling out of the sky that kill Stavros’s son, Dimitri, and his security guy is the stupidest thing I’ve seen on screen since Paul Thomas Anderson’s ill-advised decision to rain frogs from the sky in his movie Magnolia. This is explained away in the next episode as a weather phenomenon—a tornado sucks up a lake with its fish and flings them a distance to rain down on some innocent town. This has actually happened, so it’s not unrealistic; it’s just unnecessary in terms of the story. The mechanism to crash the car was already in place—the blizzard. So this ends up being a desperate attempt to put a climax on a B-story and cap off Stavros’s biblical journey. The problem with this is that all of Stavros’s biblical journey was contrived by Malvo, except the fish. By actually having an act of god, you cancel out all the work Malvo put in to show how ridiculous living in the name of god is. Further, the vast majority of tornadoes that occur in Minnesota take place in the spring to summer months. Warm and humid conditions are needed. So a tornado in the middle of a blizzard simply doesn’t make sense.

My edit: Have Dimitri and security guy be driving through the blizzard, and a deer darts across the road (à la the opening scene in episode one, in which Malvo hits a deer in the middle of the night). They swerve, hit a telephone pole, die. Stavros finds them driving home after having stashed the money.

OR have them be driving through the blizzard, white-out conditions, and while Stavros is stashing the suitcase of cash on the side of the road, security guy and Dmitri’s car drills Stavros’s SUV that’s parked on the shoulder. They die all the same.

On Pixar’s Inside Out

Like most people, I’m a big Pixar fan and constantly marvel at their mastery of storytelling. I had a good feeling about Inside Out when I first saw the trailer and boldly went as far as predicting that it had the potential to be one of Pixar’s best movies, if not the best. Tall order considering its predecessors: Toy Story, Up, Wall-E, etc. But the premise was too loaded with possibilities for me to feel otherwise, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Stellar animation and voice acting aside, the thing that always gets me about Pixar’s movies is their consistent ability to tell clean, complete stories that not only exist within the realities they fabricate, but with the realities. Meaning that the story isn’t just dropped inside a fantastical reality—it’s dependent upon it and wouldn’t be possible without the rules established to govern that reality.

This seems obvious, but you’d be amazed how often concepts and stories are created side by side rather than together. An example of this would be Avatar, where the story was essentially picked out of time (cf. Pocahontes, 1995) and placed within this alien reality on Pandora. Pixar continually avoids this faux pas, which is in large part due to their philosophy on storytelling. They prefer focusing first on the emotional arcs and the characters driving the story. Then they let the reality the characters exist in build itself organically so as to help develop the emotional arcs.

More on Pixar’s storytelling philosophy here:

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Even with these guidelines, Pixar always finds a way to keep their movies from feeling formulaic and manufactured to produce a certain result. You can always expect a little Pixar tear when you watch one of their movies, but the range of variation within this emotional resonance is nothing to scoff at. The only consistent crutch they rely on is empathy—drawing the audience into the story to make them feel for the characters on screen. Their ability to do this is astounding simply because the majority of the audience has nothing in common with the basics of the characters but will always find a way to relate to the conflict and hardships the characters are going through.

For example, I had pretty much nothing in common with Riley, the main character of Inside Out, but I nevertheless felt (strongly) everything she was going through. If empathy is the crutch you rely on to create a great story, then it’s a damn good one.

It’s worth noting that Inside Out may have been the most successful of Pixar’s films at using empathy. This is because the audience is literally inside Riley’s head and looking through her eyes. We’re intimate with her thoughts and emotions on a first level basis. It’s hard not to feel what she’s feeling.

The weird thing about this is how deep the empathy can go. Yes, we identify that we feel for Riley, but is that actually who we’re feeling for? Yes and no. Who we’re actually feeling for are the characters that are her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. We identify first with them. Then, because they’re literally Riley’s emotions, by default, we end up identifying with Riley. If you really want to turn this into a mind-crunch, think about if Joy, Sadness, et al. had their own emotions operating an HQ inside their heads. It’s a rabbit hole, no doubt, but a fun one to consider.

So, yes, Inside Out is an incredibly strong movie. It’s complex, emotional, intelligent, and funny. It works for a wide range of audience members—from kids to adults—and is probably one of Pixar’s best achievements.

Despite all that, it’s not bulletproof.

On a conceptual level, the biggest misstep I noticed was in Riley’s memory orbs. Memories are created based on what we experience. It’s inherent, then, that they’re perceived through the first person perspective (1P); however, Every one of Riley’s memory orbs was viewable through the third person perspective (3P), as if they were short clips of Riley’s life filmed by someone standing on the outskirts of the scene. We watched her ice skating, drawing Bing-Bong on the wall, and acting like a monkey. In each memory, she sees herself as she is, which means Joy sees her as she is as well.

In the DVD commentary, the creators mentioned how when they were workshopping the story, they mapped out many possibilities as to how the story will play. I wonder if one of those possibilities experimented with the memory orbs being seen through Riley’s eyes instead of an omniscient 3P. If that were the case, it could have opened the door for a multitude of possibilities regarding an individual’s interpretation of their memories.

Interestingly, this does actually occur but not in a warped interpretation way—it happens on an emotional level. Memories are recalled throughout the movie that were first the result of Joy, and then Sadness would jump in and mess with them so Riley would recall them with a different emotional take. So I think this slight hiccup was brought up by the creators during the story-making process (pure speculation on my part), but the true weight of it never drove the through-line and had to settle for a slightly lesser role in the final cut. And that’s fine, because if warping memories based on p.o.v. really was the main through-line of the film, then it may have spiraled toward being too philosophical and trippy, which usually doesn’t appeal to a wide audience like Pixar prefers.

So why then did the orbs perceive Riley through the omniscient 3P? Well, probably because it was the easiest to do so. Remember, this is a movie, and movies are meant to communicate a story to the audience using both audio and visual means. If the memory orbs were in the 1P, we would’ve experienced Riley’s memories through her eyes, which would have been confusing. Every scene where a memory was being played, the characters would have had to explain to the audience, “Oh, this is the time when Riley…” etc. They occasionally did do this, but it was thankfully limited.

The creators of the film did graze against this problem and offered a vague explanation. They were struggling with how to have Joy and Riley interact with each other—difficult since Riley is ignorant to Joy’s existence, and Joy can’t directly influence Riley’s world—so they decided to have the memory orbs be the solution. The orbs acted like little messages to Joy from Riley, which Joy could then recall and behave accordingly in response. This also solved the problem of them never being on the screen at the same time—an impossibility given the logic of the reality created since Joy is in Riley’s head. A fun tidbit they mentioned in the commentary was an earlier solution they devised for this problem. That was to always have there be a reflective surface in Riley’s line of sight so that Joy could see Riley’s face and how she was reacting. This, they admit, felt too contrived so they nixed it.

So then the only real beef I have with this misstep is that it was never explained why the memory orbs operated this way within the reality of the characters. It’s easy to glance over and think it’s not a big deal—and maybe it isn’t—but in a movie that does a great job justifying every little nook and cranny of the concept in a clear, logical way, it’s weird that they chose to simply ignore this. Perhaps they did have a version of an explanation in a previous cut, perhaps not. Who knows.

Story-wise, the only ostensible flaw is that when Joy and Sadness are wandering through long-term memory they run into the “Forgetters” who are cleaning up forgotten memories. In this sequence, the Forgetters recall an orb to HQ that plays the jingle from a gum commercial. It’s a funny concept, don’t get me wrong, but it seems unlikely that the significance of the Forgetters being able to send a memory up to HQ would bypass Joy. At this stage in the movie, Joy was holding the five core memories displaced from HQ and knew she needed to return them in order for Riley to have a personality. If the Forgetters could simply send an orb to HQ just for the hell of it, why didn’t Joy do the same with the core memories so Riley could function again?

Logically, that’s exactly what Joy should have done, and the astute viewer would be right to question her motivations because she chose not to do this. It makes Joy look narrow-minded and oblivious. It also makes her look hypocritical. That’s because if Joy really only cared about Riley’s well-being, she would have readily done this so Riley could retain her personality.

However, Joy’s character flaw is such that she’s an egomaniac. Throughout the whole movie, she believed she was solely responsible for Riley’s happiness. This fueled her misguided belief that Riley would only be OK if she, Joy in the flesh, returned the core memories to HQ herself. She had tunnel vision, and no other way would suffice. We saw this self-centeredness in action as Joy repeatedly puts Sadness down one way or another. Eventually she realizes that she alone isn’t responsible for Riley’s well-being and that she needs Sadness—as well as all the other emotions—in order for Riley to live a fulfilled life.

The nuances of Joy’s arc are what makes Inside Out so compelling. It’s a complete emotional journey about, well, an emotion. The resolution points out an important aspect of our lives that we often overlook: the duality of human nature. There have been countless cliches written to this effect, but essentially the point is that you need sadness in order to understand what it means to have joy, and vice versa. They’re comparative opposites, and one can’t exist or function properly without the other.

(As an aside, I highly recommend diving into the DVD’s commentary, where the creators let you in on some pretty cool stuff. Of note are how the cinematographer used the camera to help express emotions and emphasize certain thematic elements, and how the creators referenced Toy Story’s relationship between Woody and Andy when constructing the relationship between Joy and Riley. And Bill Hader makes a cameo, too. Everybody loves a little Bill Hader.)

LeBron James and the Monomyth

LeBron James is currently the best player in the NBA. His name is ubiquitous, though the most dynamic aspect of his story is cloaked by what he does on the court. We know the basics: Ohio boy who was a phenom at a young age, drafted right out of high school to Cleveland, lost at Cleveland and made the decision to go to Miami to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, won two championships, and finally returned to Cleveland where he’s playing now. What’s not immediately apparent is the arc of his story—that is, its shape. To bring it to light, consider Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, or, more colloquially, the Hero’s Journey.

Campbell is widely respected as a philosopher and theologian who developed the Monomyth after years and years of studying how various cultures and religions told stories—from ancient Greeks all the way to modern man. His conclusion, the final version of the Monomyth, simplifies the characteristics of an effective story and shows that those characteristics are consistent regardless of religion, race, time, or ancestry. The basics of the Monomyth are shown below in Campbell’s own diagram, which describes how a protagonist proceeds through a story:

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Fig 1: from The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Josephy Campbell, 1949

I won’t bother explaining the details of Campbell’s Monomyth because of the myriad possibilities that lie within each step. It’s only important to establish the beginnings of this model in order to understand how it relates to LeBron James’s own arc.

Campbell’s simplification of storytelling is nothing short of brilliant. But I’m going to use an even more simplified version that was perfected by TV writer and comedian Dan Harmon (The Sarah Silverman Show, Community, Rick & Morty, Harmontown). Harmon’s version of the Monomyth (note: this version follows a clockwise rotation, whereas Campbell’s goes counterclockwise—a moot difference) takes it one step further and makes it so numbingly simple you can apply it to nearly anything and develop a compelling story. His model looks like this:

DanHarmon's_BasicModelForStoryStructure

Fig. 2: Harmon’s Circle

The numbers correspond to guidelines for the protagonist:

1. You (A character is in a zone of comfort)
2. Need (But they want something)
3. Go (They enter an unfamiliar situation)
4. Search (Adapt to it)
5. Find (Get what they wanted)
6. Take (Pay a heavy price for it)
7. Return (Then return to their familiar situation)
8. Change (Having changed)

The protagonist goes on a journey around the model that ends up creating a story that is easily accessible and identifiable as the Hero’s Journey. It’s a proven model (watch any episode of Community and you’ll see multiple iterations) in both the world of fictional storytelling and now, with the help of LeBron James, the sporting world.

So let’s apply Harmon’s version of the Monomyth to what LeBron James has done with his NBA career:

1. You: LeBron James was born and raised in Akron, Ohio; won high school championships handedly; and was then drafted by his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, with the number one pick in 2003. He won the Rookie of the Year award with season averages of 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game. He was the alpha dog of the Cavs and in the coming years would win his share of MVP awards, Olympic gold medals, and other honors solidifying his superstar status.

2. Need: Cleveland’s upper management—owner, GM, President of Operations, etc.—did little to build a team around LeBron, leaving the bulk of the performance to him. The Cavaliers’s regular season play was often phenomenal, but the postseason turned out to be a challenge. During this period of LeBron’s career, he and the Cavs reached the NBA Finals only once and were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in four games. LeBron made his fortune through sponsorship and brand deals aside from his NBA contracts. He had the riches and individual accolades, but he didn’t have what he really wanted: a championship.

3. Go: LeBron had played with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade—two stars in their own right, with a smattering of All-Star selections between them—on various international and Olympic teams and became close friends with both of them. So much so that the trio structured all their contracts to expire just in time for the 2010 free agency period. The NBA was taken aback when the three decided to team up in Miami to create a super team. LeBron presented this choice to the nation in a move with shockingly little tact: he held a one-hour TV special on ESPN where he made the announcement that he’d be leaving his hometown of Cleveland. The special was a self-indulgent mess and the media and Ohio pounced on him—a memorable clip of a fan burning a #23 jersey circulated quickly. Fans across the nation joined in and felt that what LeBron was doing was cowardly. They made the argument that he was taking the easy route to winning instead of toughing it out on a team where he was the alpha dog. LeBron’s image took a huge hit everywhere except Miami. In Campbell’s model this is LeBron crossing the threshold of adventure.

4. Search: LeBron had always been the revered superstar no matter what he did, whether in high school or in the NBA. He was an incredibly charismatic and appealing presence and harbored no ill will toward anyone. He was generous with his fans, with charities, and with really anyone he met. This wave of hatred toward him was definitely a new experience. He was casted, for the first time in his life, as the villain of the NBA. Wherever Miami traveled, he was welcomed with a chorus of boos and vitriol. Sports pundits took shots whenever they could and seized the opportunity to question his capacity to be an effective leader. A favorite storyline was whether LeBron could handle not being the alpha dog with Wade and Bosh both skilled enough to hold equal claim to the role. All this attention surrounding Miami brought out the best in other teams, making any game against Miami worth watching.

LeBron’s response was to embrace his new role. He used everyone’s criticism as motivation to play harder, better, faster. He adjusted his game to Wade’s and Bosh’s and reestablished his role as the alpha dog, putting up phenomenal numbers across the board: 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7 assists per game with 51% shooting from the field. LeBron would later describe his approach to villainy as playing “angry.” He had a chip on his shoulder that neared resentment, and it showed on the court. The friendly LeBron who joked and laughed with his teammates was gone and replaced by a much more determined version.

Miami got out of the Eastern Conference as the two seed and made it to the NBA Finals, where they fell to the Dallas Mavericks, 6-2. Diehard NBA fans know that the trend to winning a championship is to first lose in the finals. Exceptions of course exist throughout history, but this being the second time LeBron has lost in the finals (with different teams, mind you) only helped shape him for where he was headed.

5. Find: In Campbell’s model this is the meeting of the goddess, where the hero meets the person who has the thing he desires. The hero experiences a type of weightlessness and soars through the cosmos, grasping an understanding of the universe and its laws. Apotheosis occurs, and the hero assumes supernatural abilities to aid him on his journey home. Harmon’s version is much more grounded, and the hero simply finds what he’s wanted—could be love, a new friend, maybe even a good grade on an exam. Or, if your LeBron James, an NBA championship. This is why he came to Miami—to win—and he finally does. Twice.

6. Take: With his newfound place in the stratosphere of NBA greats, LeBron begins his return journey up the Monomyth. (He has only traveled downwards thus far, which is considered the easier part of the journey.) The year after the second championship, the Miami Heat make it to the finals and lose, decisively, to the San Antonio Spurs—an old yet savvy team. LeBron’s time in Miami was fading, and the window for winning further championships there was being taken away from him—Dwyane Wade was only getting older and more injured; Bosh was clearly missing the limelight of being the go-to guy and wanted more money; the Heat’s salary cap situation was strained.

7. Return: LeBron decided to opt out of the remaining year of his contract with the Miami Heat. This was expected, as it made sense for him to restructure his deal to prepare for the soon-to-be increased salary cap (projected to be about $10 million more by the ’15-’16 season) and the impending lockout that’s going to occur when the Collective Bargaining Agreement is opted out of and renegotiated in 2016. But what he did after opting out was unexpected: he signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a two-year deal. LeBron was going home.

8. Change: LeBron has learned a thing or two about being a person, a player, and a winner. He’s bringing this new knowledge with him to Cleveland, to a team with zero experience in the playoffs without him and that hasn’t posted a winning record since he left. He has undoubtedly changed as a player, becoming far more efficient on the floor and learning what it takes to grind out a championship, not once but twice. That’s all well and good, but if he can apply this power to his new/old team has yet to be seen. As I write this, the Cavaliers are hovering around the .500 mark in a very weak Eastern Conference. He sat out two weeks with a back injury and is having troubles getting on the same page with a new, very green coach, David Blatt.

In Campbell’s Monomyth, this is the hero returning home to bestow the boon he received from his journey upon his people. LeBron’s people are both the fans and his teammates. Whether he can bring them a championship will be the defining chapter of his hero’s journey.

Fixing Movies: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

The Gist
Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) does P.R. for the world’s combined army, which is currently in the midst of fighting an alien invasion (the aliens are called “Mimics,” whose name is never actually explained and, unless I’m missing something, is completely random. One may think that they mimic humans in some way, but they’d be wrong because they look like more earth-ready versions of the sentinels from The Matrix trilogy) that has taken complete control of Europe and is seemingly unstoppable. The world’s army is about to launch a massive, all-or-nothing attack on the conquered Europe and Cage is summoned to the head general’s office for what he thinks is a meeting about how to spin the invasion in a positive light. Cage’s responsibility in the war thus far has been to sell it to the public and recruit civilians to become soldiers who can use a mech-suit of sorts that lets them stand a chance against the Mimics. The suits are pretty cool, albeit clunky, but only go so far against the Mimics, who are wicked fast and ruthless. It dawns on Cage that the general isn’t actually looking for help with P.R. Instead, the general informs Cage that he’s going to be on the front lines of the invasion, all suited up, fighting the Mimics at Normandy, where Mimic activity is thought to be at a low. The reason why Cage is being unwillingly thrust into battle—he’s not an actual soldier it turns out; he was the head of an advertising firm before the war and his Major credentials are more or less superficial for the sake of media appearances—is never actually explained.

Cage attempts to flee but is captured pretty quickly and forced to join a ragtag squad of misfits in the invasion. He wakes up at a staging ground, handcuffed, and at the mercy of a Master Sergeant who knows all about his attempt at desertion. At Normandy, things go south pretty quickly—the Mimics knew about the invasion and aim to obliterate the army, pretty much ruining humanity for good—and Cage is essentially useless. He somehow finds himself with a claymore mine in his hands and blows it up in the face of a mean-looking mother of a Mimic. This Mimic’s blood pours all over Cage, ostensibly burning right through him like acid, and Cage’s eyes turn black, and he dies…then he wakes up back at the staging ground and goes through it all again, introducing Cage’s ability to time travel, similar to Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day.

In one of his upcoming lives, Cage encounters a badass soldier during the invasion of Normandy. She (played by Emily Blunt) is basically the face of the army, having single-handedly won a previous battle at Verdun—humanity’s first ever victory against the Mimics—after killing hundreds of Mimics by herself, earning herself the sobriquet: the Angel of Verdun. Her real name is Rita Vrataski and despite her skills, she gets killed by a mimic right in front of Cage. Cage then dies and wakes up back at the staging ground. He keeps going through this until he adequately develops his own fighting skills to save Rita by way of telling her exactly what’s going to happen at every point on the battle field. She’s familiar with the time traveling thing and tells him just before she dies to find her in his next life. Cage dies again and reboots at the staging ground. He finds Rita in a training facility and convinces her of what’s happening to him. She brings him to a mechanic/particle physicist (Dr. Carter), who is in on the time traveling thing, too. Rita reveals that this happened to her at Verdun, allowing her to reboot until she won the battle. Apparently, that mean-looking mother of a Mimic that Cage killed in his first life is called an Alpha, which is plugged into the central nervous system of the Mimics, which is called an Omega. If you kill an Alpha, and its blood gets on you, you become plugged into the wavelength of the Omega, who can apparently control and manipulate time because its a super-alien species…or something like that. So now Cage can control time—when he dies, he reboots to when he was last sleeping and wakes up. Rita tells Cage she lost her ability to control time when she got knocked unconscious and woke up in a medical facility where they had to give her a blood transfusion to save her life. The blood change ruined the Alpha blood in her system, and she lost her ability and has been living a normal timeline since then.

Rita also says that she began to see visions that revealed the Omega’s location. She never got a chance to make it far enough to really find out where it was and kill it but cautions Cage to be on the look out for said visions. It takes many reboots for Cage to see the visions, but eventually he does, and he and Rita begin to make a concerted effort to kill it, constantly starting over when things don’t go right, learning new tactics along the way. Cage becomes a super-soldier like Rita and ends up being humanity’s only hope, but only he and Rita and Carter know it, and he has to convince them every time he reboots.

Cage and Rita progress further and further, and Cage begins to fall for Rita. She quickly stomps this possibility out, though, because she’s a badass soldier who sees the bigger picture. The two are at a farmhouse somewhere in Europe, and Cage is being kind of creepy knowing what she does all the time and her preferences—she got injured in the shoulder, she likes coffee with three sugars, bits about her personal life—which is when Rita shuts him down. This makes Cage tell her that this is as far as she ever gets. No matter what he does, she dies here at the farmhouse, and it’s beginning to wear on him. But Rita insists that they go on, knowing that her life is meaningless as long as they kill the Omega. After that life Cage just goes to a bar and has a drink while the invasion fails. The next life, he goes at it alone, never even trying to find Rita at all, letting her die on Normandy while he goes to where he knows the Omega is—a mountain dam in Germany somewhere. But it’s a trap—the Mimics knew about him and planted the vision with the Omega’s location. An Alpha and another Mimic ambush him, injuring him but not killing him because they want him alive so he can’t reboot again. Cage finds a way to kill himself, though, and in his next life he finds Rita and Carter and tells them about the fake vision and location.

In one of Cage’s first lives, Carter and Rita allude to a device Carter invented that’s supposed to tap into the Omega’s wavelength and amplify the visions. It dawns upon them that they should give this thing a shot despite Carter insisting it won’t work. They have to go steal some extra equipment from the general, though, and that takes a couple lives to get right. When they do, they’re in a car chase, fleeing the general’s soldiers, and end up crashing and getting hurt. Cage wakes up in a medical facility after receiving a blood transfusion. Rita busts them both out and they’re off. Luckily, during the car chase Cage uses the device to find out where the Omega really is: the Louvre in Paris. So they recruit some soldiers (J-squad: Cage’s misfit unit from his earlier lives, whom he has gotten to know quite well though they barely know him at all), drop in on the Louvre, and attack. Everyone dies—I mean everyone—but Cage gets some grenades off on the Omega thanks to Rita distracting an Alpha before dying. Her last words to Cage, after a nice hollywood kiss, were: “I wish I’d known you better,” or something to that effect. Remember, as far as she’s concerned, she’s only known him for a couple hours. So then Cage kills the Omega, dies in the blast, and wake up in the helicopter taking him to see the general for the meeting that would tell Cage he’s going to be on the front lines—the last moment he was sleeping before he woke up at the staging ground.

Only this time the meeting doesn’t happen, and we learn that the Mimic forces have suffered an inability to fight (because the Omega is dead) and are being roundly defeated across Europe. Cage goes and finds Rita, who is at her usual place (the training facility), walks up to her as she says her usual lines to him, but he just laughs. Roll credits.

The Fix
It’s a good Hollywood movie, meaning it has good acting, good special effects, and is entertaining as hell. But all those things that stand out so vividly allow it to mask and roundly ignore plot points that don’t make a lick of sense.

The first is that Carter’s little experimental device he’s reluctant to use doesn’t actually work the way he says it will. He says that it has to be implanted on an Alpha, and then they’ll be able to see the trace of the wavelength back to the Omega’s location. Implanting it on an Alpha is out of the question, so they just stick it on Cage, who is also in sync with the Omega. What happens is Cage has a vision of where the Omega is instead of finding out from the device where the wavelength leads to. Why he has that reaction is beyond me, and why they believe his vision—giving that his last one was a trick planted by the Mimics—is equally puzzling. Consider, under this precedent, that if they planted the device on an Alpha, the Alpha would have had a vision of the Omega like Cage did, but the device wouldn’t have revealed its location.

A further problem with Carter’s device is that it’s alluded to in one of Cage’s first lives when Rita takes him to meet Carter for the first time. Carter quickly brushes away the device’s potential, and it’s never mentioned again until the life where they actually use it. It doesn’t make much sense that Cage would rather go through battle time and time again, dying a gruesome death each time, without even bothering to give the device a shot. If the device doesn’t work, Rita can just shoot Cage in the head, and he can start over without any fuss, actually gaining the knowledge that the device doesn’t work. Where’s the harm? The thing is, though, the device does work, so why did I just sit through an hour and a half of pointless action when they could have just given it a shot on page twenty of the script? That’s like letting Dorothy go on a tedious journey through Oz even though she could have went back to Kansas at any time if she accidentally clicked her dumb shoes together.

The fix to this is simple: just have Cage and Rita attach the device to an Alpha during one of his lives and use the results in another reboot. Or eliminate the device altogether and let the visions actually be accurate. Delete the mislead. I understand the attraction to twists but if it’s not airtight, you’ll end up in M. Night Shymalandndnan territory.
The second glaring problem is Rita’s explanation of how she lost her power. As far as we know, she was the first and only person to have the ability to time travel; she didn’t have someone to guide her along like Cage had her. Actually, she did have Carter, but I’m not convinced he was all that helpful giving his ignorance of his own device mentioned previously. My point is that if she was learning about this time traveling thing on the fly, how did she become aware that she lost her ability when she received a blood transfusion? Nothing in any of her or Cage’s experiences would indicate that if they fell asleep they’d reboot; so how could she have known she lost her power unless she died for real post-blood transfusion? Cage vaguely alludes to the fact that he “feels” like he lost it when he got his own blood transfusion, but to give that any credence and apply it to Rita’s own loss is too much of a jump.

The funny thing is that the solution is planted in the story already. When Cage first gets bled on by the Alpha, his eyes go jet black. When he uses Carter’s device, they go black. What you do is you have Cage’s eyes be blue (or whatever color Tom Cruise’s eyes are) before he has the power, black when he has the power, then blue again when he loses it. This is a physical indicator to Rita, who would have seen him with black eyes when they stole the device and would have seen him with blue eyes when she breaks him out of the medical facility. She, having gone through this already, would have known that he lost the power. Someone would have likely commented on her own eyes having changed when she was going through this herself, giving her the knowledge that she lost her own power after her blood transfusion.
A bonus is that Cage can use his eye color to convince Rita each reboot that he can time travel.

The third problem is that the final sequence is nonsensical. There’s absolutely no reason Cage should be able to time travel back to when he was snoozing on the helicopter going to his meeting with general. When he dies with the Omega, he already lost his power. Also, the thing that gave him the power has now been destroyed so what exactly is allowing him to time travel now?

The obvious fix is to let Cage and Rita die with the Omega and thus save humanity. This is unfeasible, though, because what studio executive in his right mind would let you kill both lead actors, especially Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. So the best fix would be to have one die while sacrificing themselves so the other can kill the Omega and somehow live. The movie almost goes this route as Rita kisses Cage and tries to distract an Alpha away from Cage so he can detonate the Omega. But then it hedges, and the Alpha kills Rita, which frees it to go chase down Cage and kill him as he detonates the Omega.

I’m torn between who should live, though; you could make a case for either one. Me, I’m having Rita play the martyr. She should have taken the grenades, found a way to kill the Alpha (she is the Angel of Verdun, remember; she can do shit like that and it’s believable. Major side note: if she did kill this Alpha and got its blood on her, would she have regained the ability to reboot?), and then kill the Omega while Cage escapes. This is totally within the line of reason giving the characters that has been created up to this point. The aftermath is that time continues on—no more reboots—and Cage resumes his role on the P.R. front and sells the story of the Angel of Verdun winning the war to save humanity. He would downplay his role in this because of his fondness for Rita, which grew throughout the movie, almost blossoming into him falling in love with her. I would have the final decision that she makes—to be the martyr—a tough one for any ordinary person but an obvious decision for Rita.

Another problem—if you don’t implement my rewrites—is the very final scene in which Cage is a Major again, the war is over, and he goes and finds Rita in her usual spot at the training facility. She runs through her lines, and he only laughs at her. This is a very Tom Cruise thing to do, and I’m convinced that he cajoled the director into letting him do it. I hope no sane writer would have written such a corny reaction into a script.

My rewrite of this is twofold: (1) have Rita run through her lines, and then have Cage stand there, very obviously relieved she’s alive (remember he just watched her die), and saying nothing. The last shot is of his noticeably relieved face. Cut to credits. He needn’t say a thing. Or (2) have Rita run through her lines and have Cage say something like, “Hi, Rose,” or “Your middle name is Rose.” The last shot is on Rita’s face as she puts it together that this stranger (to this version of Rita) somehow knows her middle name. Her middle name was one of the things that Rita lied to Cage about re her personal life during the repeated reboots as a way to either test Cage or to mess with him. She said it was “Payton” at one point, but then revealed on one of her deathbeds that it was “Rose.” It’s never mentioned again and would have been a good call-back as a last, sentimental moment between the two. The purpose it served in the middle of the movie was that it really struck Cage to the core when he was getting frustrated with the whole process. Cut to credits on her reaction shot after he calls her Rose.

Like I said, it was an entertaining movie. These flaws are minor on the surface and easily ignorable; but if they’re easily ignorable, then they can be fixed just as easily. I think a big missed opportunity was passing over the existential possibilities of a guy purposely dying—whether by his hands, Rita’s, or a Mimic’s (er, tentacles?)—over and over in an increasingly fruitless attempt to save humanity. There’s a lot going on with that emotionally that I don’t think the writer nor Tom Cruise really depicted particularly well. The movie wasn’t too long, and I think an extra 15-20 minutes addressing this would have upped the emotional effect of his relationship to this power he’s obtained. Rita opens up the possibility of exploring this in one reboot in which Cage says the name “Hendricks”—something he learned from a previous reboot from Rita. Hendricks was a soldier/friend who Rita watched die every time she rebooted. This parallels Cage continually watching her die, but that’s about as far as it goes.

I would have rewritten this sequence thusly: (1) Rita tells Cage her real middle name just before she dies. Cage reboots to (2) where he’s visibly upset that he’s getting to know this woman and falling for her but has to constantly watch her die, which reboots to (3) where he explains this to her, that he’s starting to have feelings for her. She kind of rolls her eyes at this (she’s a badass super-soldier after all) and shoots him in the head. Reboot to (4) where we see Cage sitting at a bar after deserting, watching the invasion get whooped on TV. This illustrates his despair while being kind of funny at the same time. He becomes motivated again after one of the bar patrons calls him a coward for not fighting—a scene that does happen in the movie.

Why Did the Economist Cross the Road?

On the first day of my high school AP Economics class, my teacher went around the room and asked each student what they thought economics was. This was the fall of 2005, well before the financial and housing crisis of ’08, so, not surprisingly, the answers weren’t exactly reflective of the intelligence that was supposed to compose that particular class. Half the students replied that it was the stock market; the majority of the remainder shrugged their shoulders; two overachieving nobs reworded the definition found in chapter one, page one of the already passed out textbook; and one student read said definition verbatim. “The dismal science”—an ill-awarded sobriquet for economics—wasn’t falling short of what it promised. But this was senior year, mind you. We were a bunch of seventeen and eighteen year olds more concerned with things seventeen and eighteen year olds should be more concerned with: dating, college, senioritis, parties, etc. Time was a valuable commodity for us and surely wasn’t going to be wasted on preparing for an obscure business class. Not to mention that in ’05 anything dealing with economics was mysterious to the everyday American plebeian, barely breaking the news cycle so swamped by the likes of the latter part of the Iraq invasion and Dubya’s ever-entertaining gaffes. So who could blame our ignorance? Apparently our teacher could, a fact made clear by the tell-tale signs of disbelief scrawled across his face.

Fast forward two years to when I was a college sophomore taking an Introductory Microeconomics class—basically the same class I had taken in high school but with about 300 more students. This was at a competitive college, a Big Ten school, with admission standards and an assumed academic excellence that was expected to be fulfilled by both the students and faculty—so someone had to know the answer to the professor’s inevitable first day question, right? What, students, is economics? Even from my modest seat in the middle-back of the lecture hall (a strategic sitting position for an introvert like myself—well out of facial recognition range for an aging professor yet close enough where I could still obtain some semblance of an education), I could see the professor’s face droop in that all-too-recognizable disbelieving countenance, frighteningly similar to my high school teacher’s own incredulous mug, though this time in response to a cricket-worthy silence uncharacteristic of a standing-room-only auditorium.

The benefit of the doubt, however, will be awarded to the students. Maybe, since this was an introductory class, most students were just taking it as a required credit for their non-economics majors. If so, they probably just wanted to slug through a dull semester of graphs and definitions, get out of dodge with a passing grade, and drink away all they learned so they could make room for what really mattered in their major. Or maybe they already had preconceived notions going into the class, having heard their dad utter a few enthusiastic words about it and assumed it to be a boring, boring class since, you know, if the old man, an accountant and an utter bore in his own right, is excited about it, then by association the class too must be boring. Or maybe they truly and honestly didn’t know the answer to the questions and, like some of my high school classmates, just shrugged their shoulders. Whatever the reason, expecting students to know the academic definition of a class they haven’t taken yet defeats the purpose of taking the class in the first place, thus rendering my professor’s and high school teacher’s disbelief unreasonable. Nary a student in either one of those classes would disagree with me on this point nor would they on the point I alluded to earlier: economics is boring. It’s a mundane, sleep-inducing, ho-hum realm of academia with so few punch-you-in-the-gut-holy-shit moments that the odds are even any used textbook will have a drool stain somewhere in its pages from when it played pillow for some sad sack of a student who just couldn’t fight off the Zzz’s any longer.

The innate boringness of economics is, for the most part, rooted in its in-depth analytical nature. Introductory classes are steeped in abstractions, rules, and laws governed by graphs and various equations. Problems are satisfied by the relentless manipulation of these things that’s often learned through memorization rather than intuition. The behavioral aspects of economics, maybe the field’s most interesting sub-genre, fall just short of being eliminated on the introductory level in an attempt to convey and hammer in the purely analytical strengths that economics not only promotes and champions but requires for advancement on a quotidian basis. That, truly, makes it a hard sell to any incoming college freshman. It’s only after you’ve paid your dues, after living in the trenches of regression analyses and the endless shifting of perfectly straight supply and demand curves, that you begin to see the heart beating underneath it all. You see that which makes economics important and enticing. In a way, getting through all the math and the tedium is a right of passage. You have to put your time in with the miserable forehead-to-desk-repeat motions in order to get to the “fun” stuff or, at the least, the more interesting stuff. But no matter how well intentioned that road of trials is, as any economist knows as if it were a commandment handed to them by God almighty, there is always a trade off.

In an attempt to curb the dullness that now defines economics, there has been a surge in mainstream literature that seeks to bridge the gap between the experts and your everyday plebeian. The pleb in this case is an ordinary cookie-cutter citizens who probably nodded off in his/her own introductory economics class once upon a time. S/he sees the headlines in the Wall Street Journal but doesn’t dare read the columns of dense type waiting below. S/he knows the connotations of the words: depression, recession, boom, bubble, and inflation but not the denotations. The pleb prefers ignorance to the big picture. Economists, though, are not insensitive to any of this. They’ve put aside their models and their equations, their relentless jargon and brutally dry sense of humors, their tables and statistics so detailed they bring accountants to weep, and have begun to make an honest attempt to sell their profession by way of literature.

How I’ve just characterized economists and their perspective on everyday plebeians makes them seem incredibly elitist. I’m making sweeping generalizations, of course, but for the purposes of this essay the generalizations aren’t out of line and help illustrate the larger points at hand. What I’m doing is no different than what economics does on an introductory level. I’m aggregating a data set of individuals with unique sensibilities into an archetype that allows me to make assumptions on their behavior. This reductionism is a key component in economics that allows educators to teach concepts without getting bogged down in exceptions and mounds of details. For example, the supply and demand graph, two straight lines intersecting to form an X, is no different as it simplifies a complex set of data and human behavior by way of something a child could draw. (More on this later.) So thinking that economists have to dumb down their profession in order to properly communicate it is no different than how they learned it themselves. When they first took their introductory classes, they needed things simplified to the level of the supply and demand graph in order to understand it. That is, they needed things dumbed down for comprehension. Doing the same to teach and communicate with a pleb turns out not to be an elitist perspective but an exercise in humility. It’s a way of getting in touch with their origins, the economist’s. Economists have gotten so self-absorbed in the field they’ve created that they’ve lived in a bubble that continues to float higher and higher with them only looking toward the infinity above and losing sight of where that bubble came from below. Trying to make the sell that this field is accessible to a pleb is a way of saying that they’re willing to come back down and ground themselves with what they’ve lost touch with. In a way, they’re acknowledging that they’ve lost touch with reality, with the people that provide the behaviors that makes economics possible in the first place.

The good news is that economists know this and are expressing it in these books that bring economics to the doorstep of the plebeian. One such book is Charles Wheelan’s Naked Economics, published in 2003, the purpose of this essay. I’m writing this in 2014. The 11-year disparity between my words and Wheelan’s should speak to Naked Economics’s staying power. I’m sure there have been several other books, with far more recent data and anecdotes, written since then but that doesn’t make Wheelan’s book obsolete. The drive behind the book is to deliver economics to the layman so they know what economics is about in terms not unfamiliar to them. Wheelan mostly addresses introductory concepts and waves a flag whenever he’s about to go into the deep end of the pool, giving plebs ample warning beforehand. Because he does this, the concepts he mostly focuses on are timeless as they’ve been the building blocks of economics since its inception way back when. So the book’s relevance shouldn’t be in question. Besides all this, it’s a quick and entertaining read that doesn’t shy away from a certain amount of wit and candor—two things economics sorely lacks.

An obvious pitch point for the book was a limitation to the jargon economists sling every chance they get. Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is most notorious for this jargon, which has now come to enjoy the sobriquet of “Fed-speak” or “Green-speak.” Greenspan used Fed-speak to avoid questions but it has leaked into mainstream economics, with varying degrees of success, and has thus created a schism between the economist who claims to know what is being said by the Fed-speak and the pleb who could give two shits about it. Why the pleb is typically so in opposition of Fed-speak and econo-jargon is because this kind of language is purposely laced with obscurity and vagueness so as to lull the listener into a doldrum. The Fed-speaker’s objective is to make the listener feel as though their question was answered, even though it wasn’t, in hopes of getting the listener to move onto another topic. It’s a defense mechanism, an exercise in self-preservation. Greenspan was the master of Fed-speak as he was basically its inventor. Having served as the Fed Chairman for almost twenty years, he became an icon in the economics ring and was therefore the figurehead plebs associated with economics. Hearing him talk in incomprehensible jargon further alienated plebs from economics. The worst part about the syntax is that it was an intentional invention of Greenspan’s to manipulate the markets into not reacting to things he was saying in front of Congress. If no one could sift through his layers of obfuscation, how could they react? It’s an example of the overreaching power the Fed Chairman has on the economy, an influence some find disturbing.

Wheelan is well aware of Fed-speak’s effect on plebs and therefore clarifies the jargon the best he can so as to make his book as accessible as possible. His purposeful clarity, however, comes with an unexpected consequence. He is so successful at translating Fed-speak and the general language of economics into common terms that a lot of the concepts he’s speaking to in an instructional manner come off as his own take on the subject—opinionated rather than objective. This makes the book seem like it reeks of a personal agenda. However, having majored in economics myself, it’s easy to see that a lot of what Wheelan is doing is simply reporting the subject matter as it was reported to him. That’s not to say that the entire book is rigid in this regard and only acts as a smaller substitute to a textbook—he does slip in his own subjectivity from time to time, always making sure to point this out so it’s not mistaken as economics canon. The turn around on this approach is that he runs the risk of confusing the reader. Using idioms and colloquialisms to explain textbook concepts can potentially give the reader the mistaken impression that concepts are actually his subjective opinions instead of what they really are—staples of economics. This opens the door for skeptics of economics to unabashedly criticize him even though they mean to criticize the actual concepts that Wheelan is presenting. Their gruff is with the material but falls on Wheelan—the messenger. Perversely, though, making the mistake of criticizing Wheelan instead of the material can be a weird compliment. He sought out to create a book that used language in an accessible way so as to make very complex concepts understandable by the common person. If he is being wrongly criticized, then whoever is criticizing must have learned something about the concept from the way Wheelan wrote it. Wheelan would have accomplished his goal of pulling back the curtain on economics, just at the cost of undeserved negativity. So on the one hand: Way to go, Chuck. On the other hand: Major bummer, dude.

But let’s not turn Wheelan into a martyr quite yet—Naked Economics is hardly free of blunders, mostly dealing with how Wheelan presents the material rather than the material itself. Let’s continue down the road of clarity. The reason why it’s such a big issue for Wheelan is because of how complex economics can become. It’s a field of academia that basically sees charts, graphs, equations, calculus, regressions, models, etc. as fetish porn. Go to a college bar with some econ grad students and see how long into their darts game it takes for them to settle an argument with a graph drawn on the chalk scoreboard. It’s like a compulsion for them. If there isn’t a chalkboard around, you can bet they’ll be scribbling on condensation-soaked bar napkins, their pen’s lines ripping through the thin tissue and bleeding into their beer’s vestige of sweat. These types of things are the crux of the subject and quickly become ingrained in the mind of the budding economist. It’s not rare to hear an economics student describe the first time he started seeing real world problems in terms of a graph in his head or, for that matter, the first time a graph popped up in his dreams. Economics merges visual representation with complicated calculations and equations. If you go far enough into the field, it’s inevitable you’ll run into some higher form of applying calculus that you didn’t even know was possible (see Applied Game Theory, a wonderful subset of economics that brings philosophy’s prisoner’s dilemma into real world terms). The bottom line is that these complications and warped world views that skew several standard deviations from the norm can be scary and are probably the biggest deterrent for most people. I don’t know the statistics of how many people drop their economics major after dragging themselves through the introductory classes, but I would imagine it’s a fairly consistent percentage on a year to year basis. So it would follow that if you wanted to write a book that explained the highly conceptual nature of economics without scaring off your audience after they’ve read the introduction, then you have to level with them. In Wheelan’s case, make them a promise: “I offer only one promise in this book: There will be no graphs, no charts, and no equations.” Well, that’s encouraging. Unfortunately, there is a significant loophole—Wheelan doesn’t have to put the graphs, charts, and equations into the book, but that doesn’t mean he won’t use them.

Take for instance a portion of his GDP (Gross Domestic Product) explanation, “…we care about GDP per capita, which is a nation’s GDP divided by its population.” This hiccup is innocent enough—it’s near impossible to explain GDP without referencing its equation in the process. But for the pleb, I’m not sure how much knowing the equation really helps in comprehension. The gist of this example, however, is to show how Wheelan is able to use math and equations without it appearing like he is using either. This hits a zenith in the ultra-confusing, highly technical, borderline Fed-speak chapter regarding financial markets (a chapter Wheelan wisely placed near the end of the book after he already laid out the groundwork for most of what you need to know about economics. It’s kind of like a bonus for him to write about, a way to to get his econo-nerd rocks off, but isn’t necessary in the slightest for having a beginner’s grip on economics).

A more egregious example of this faux pas is found a few pages after the GDP definition in which Wheelan attempts to explain the Lorenz curve and the Gini coefficient without the aid of a graph. He states in a footnote,

To derive the Gini index, the personal incomes in a country are arranged in ascending order. A line, the Lorenz curve, plots the cumulative share of personal income against the cumulative share of population. Total equality would be a 45-degree line. The Gini coefficient is the ratio of the area between the diagonal and the Lorenz curve to the total area under the diagonal.

The problem doesn’t lie within the explanation but the fact that he’s holding himself to the promise of not showing any graphs or equations, which I find honorable but in this case, stupid. The Lorenz curve would be much easier to understand by referencing a drawn out graph, neatly labeled as “Fig. 1” right there on the page. For most people, the spelled out explanation describing the ratio of the area between a diagonal and a curve is much more frightening and deterring than a simple graph. The reason why graphs are used so often in economics, almost to the point of being abused, is because they’re, well, useful. They’re visual representations of complex ideas that are otherwise taxing to communicate in any other way.
And therein lies the beauty. Aside from everyday quantum physics, economics is the embodiment of taking a rigid academic concept with layers of complexity at its root and breaking through and down those complexities into a visual representation that allows for them to be effectively communicated, taught, and thus employed in any number of real world scenarios. It’s through interpreting definitions and data into graphs that scares some people from economics, but it’s also what’s responsible for the bulk of its appeal, especially to those who are inclined to learning through visual aesthetics, like, for instance, yours truly. I identified with this elegance very early on in my academic career. The notion that you can represent a person’s ideal situation or bliss through two intersecting curves on a simple cartesian plane was so abstract and enigmatic that it drew me in. If you’re lucky, while going through the rigors of an economics major, you’ll have a professor who too fell victim to this shared wonder of simplified complexities. There’s a mythical, fairy-tale aura that surrounds these people as they get caught up in their own lecture, start to eschew their detailed notes, and turn into a whirlwind of energy before your eyes, sketching and re-sketching graphs and curves from memory, rambling and going on tangents about the tricks and intricacies hidden in the curves and Euclidean shapes on the increasingly cramped chalkboard. They’ll get overly frustrated for a split second when their chalk breaks or they run out of room, but their mind is working so rapidly that they adapt just as quickly and don’t miss a beat. They get so involved in the material that before you or they even realize it, class is over and it’s time to return to reality. Mind you, this type of passion isn’t reserved for economics teachers alone but seeing a teacher yammer on and on to a chalkboard because he’s so caught up in what he’s doing that he can’t tear himself away from it, preventing him from actually facing his class, is a refreshing eccentricity you mostly see in Hollywood hagiographic flicks about the nuts-o genius either teaching at or attending M.I.T.

And then you look at the chalkboard where graphs are overlapping each other and fighting for space in a not so comprehensible jumble of lines, labels, and axis. To the untrained eye, all are individual and stand alone without any influence on the rest of the crowd. But as you parse through the mess and decipher the data, you begin to see the pattern and the innate interconnectedness of the whole thing. One graph plays off another. That feeds into another’s input, which gives you this particular curve that can be re-used on another set of axis. Everything relates; everything matters. The equations crammed in on the sides of the boards in the little space that remains—that’s the cool part. That these feet-long proofs can be boiled down to two opposite-sloping and intersecting lines is elegance. That’s the balance between the hard science of the thing and the abstract nature that allows it to be understood.

That’s the selling point of economics that no economist has figured out is necessary to use as a selling point to the pleb. The simplicity in the visualization is what makes economics possible on a mainstream level. And yet Wheelan insists on skipping over it completely, favoring line to line definitions and explanations instead. His intention is clarity, but it’s bizarrely contradictory to the subject he’s wishing to explain. How can a pleb truly get a feel for the essence of economics and what makes it unique without being familiar with, or even aware of for that matter, what makes it possible in the first place? Wheelan’s fallacy is that he is claiming to make economics more accessible by doing this when in actuality he’s just making it more convoluted and circuitous.

The irony is that Wheelan is actually doing what any economist and, really, the subject as a whole does routinely—thinking it’s for the better when it’s often not. Economics is laced with pretty little catch phrases and idioms that work great as chapter headers but only scratch the surface of the concept they’re addressing. This undermines the importance of economics and the layers of complexities that lie just below those idioms. An example of this tendency is addressed by Wheelan through one of the assumptions he explains as a necessity for understanding economics,

Economics starts with one very important assumption: Individuals act to make themselves as well off as possible. To use the jargon of the profession, individuals seek to maximize their own utility, which is a similar concept to happiness, only broader.

This is an unexpectedly loaded and dense statement. Beneath the concept Wheelan is trying to convey, that people will follow their bliss, he reveals some of the significant faults of economics as well as some of his missteps in trying to teach it. Recall that in most cases, Wheelan is merely communicating what was communicated to him during his academic career pertaining to the definitions and concepts in economics, and in those cases, he isn’t at fault for the fallacies that lie within. Here, though, Wheelan is responsible for at least part of this statement’s error. This is definitely a first-week introductory lesson, but in my experience—two different introductory classes at two different levels at two different institutions—it’s not the first nugget of wisdom that paved the way for the field of study to come. My first you-bet-your-ass-this-will-be-a-multiple-choice-question-come-midterms lesson was that individuals respond to incentives. This is implicitly true—a solid foundation to soundly base all information to come upon. Wheelan’s initial assumption, however, offers no such solid footing as it assumes that all economics starts with one very important assumption. An assumption within an assumption is shaky at best, not a place I’d want to start as a newly initiated student. The choice to do this is Wheelan’s, no doubt, but consider that if he has the confidence to state that you should be basing your education on an assumption, then that’s probably how he learned economics when he was but a young pleb. And if that’s how he learned it, why shouldn’t you? I mean he has a book deal—he must know what he’s doing. So let’s give him that credit for the moment and focus on the fallacy of basing an entire professional and academic field on assumptions. This is to say that economics isn’t always based on real world, empirical facts—things whose connotation instills unwavering confidence. An assumption does no such thing—we all know the popular saying derived from reducing the word “assume” to certain groups of letters. In economics an assumption makes things easy. It’s a way to interpret messy data representative of a sample size or population and break it down into neat generalizations. That data is itself a simplification, however, and is representative of something incredibly complex: human nature. A thing with infinities and multitudes that vary exponentially from person to person. Where it’s possible to be faced with a crossroads, come up with two opposing choices, and be right about both of them. The essence of storytelling, entrancing authors and poets for millennia, torturing them ceaselessly as they try to find the right words to describe it. It’s this that economics is often trying to simplify—shocking, no?

So let’s recap the several levels of comprehension in play here: (1) human nature, the basis and inception of all of this; (2) the aggregated data meant to represent human nature; (3) the assumption based off that data—in this case, “Individuals act to make themselves as well off as possible”; and (4) Wheelan assuming this assumption is the root of all economics that follows.

With each level, we experience a further simplification of human nature, something that should be impossible to simplify. In doing so, various nuances and details are abstracted and lost along the way. Their sharp, distinct edges are rounded off. Take the crossroads example I proposed above. You can break down the decision of choosing which way to go by assigning probabilities to both sides. The probabilities will allow you to assume what choice will be made. After the choice is made, you can amass many more assumptions based on whether the initial assumption was correct. But what’s lost is the unquantifiable human variable that one person may rationally choose one way while another may rationally choose another, and they’d both be right. That seems contradictory but when you take into account individual experience and perspective and desire and emotion, the ability to make assumptions about a person’s behavior becomes impossible and, frankly, somewhat petty. Assuming you know someone and what they will do because of your assumptions is assuming that you know what that person is thinking. What is free will if a choice is definable by data and assumptions? Where do you stand as an individual choice-maker in that light? Can there ever really be a choice, then? and can that choice ever be wrong or ever be right?

Complications are abound.

The second part of this statement is once again a broad assumption that claims to know more than it ever could. It states that individuals will act in accordance with whatever makes them as well off as possible. Kind of vague, to be sure. What does it mean to be well off? Who decides what is the best thing to make you well off? Is there a jury or a board of utility maximizers that have the final say on how well off your actions made you? At what point in time is it decided that you’re more well off now because of something than you will be down the line? This also brings into question selfish behavior v. generous behavior. The assumption is that people will always act in such a way that they will make themselves better off. Charity is the obvious example. Someone can give a sum of money to charity out of the goodness of their heart even though they can’t afford it. Does the happiness they get from giving outweigh the financial deficit they’re now incurring? Are they better off because they feel better about themselves? It’s an interesting scenario that questions the very notion of utility, a favorite term of behavioral economists, who, as Wheelan explains, like to link it to happiness. But this would require a unit of measurement to be assigned to happiness, another aspect of human nature that suffers the fate of undefinability forever thwarting economists and their desire to assign numbers to human essence.

The catch in Wheelan’s statement is the use of the word “individual.” By using it to appeal to the reader’s solipsistic sensibilities, he’s confusing the true intent of the word. An individual is one person. A single specimen of human nature with their own set of desires, preferences, and nuances. They are unique. They are that snowflake that is different from the blizzard. Wheelan’s use of the word sucks you into this meaning before he makes a broad-sweeping generalization designed to characterize the whole of human behavior, that “individuals will seek to maximize their own utility.” He’s implying this on a universal level, that every individual behaves in the exact same way with the goal of maximizing utility. A very simple counter-example: I like writing. You may not. Therefore we are different. We will behave differently to maximize our utility. It may be more beneficial for you to be a writer—financially, intellectually—and it may actually maximize your utility to be a writer. But since you don’t like it for whatever reason (maybe a writer who lost his mind and used his fountain pen to exact some horrific, centuries-old vengeance against your family thus avenging his ancestors for some long forgotten woe), you probably won’t do it no matter how happy it might make you. In a bizarre twist, Wheelan supports this in the very next paragraph:

Indeed, this seemingly simple observation that different individuals have different preferences is sometimes lost on otherwise sophisticated policymakers. For example, rich people have different preferences than poor people do. Similarly, our individual preferences may change over the course of our life cycle as we (we hope) get wealthier.

If one person has different preferences than another, how can we safely assume they’ll act in their own self-interest? Maybe someone is self-deprecating or self-destructive in nature and are their own worst enemy. They have a tendency to pull the pin on their own hand grenade without an inkling to throw it. All this seems to be absurd behavior, or, as economists would say, irrational.

Let’s take all this to the hyperbolical extreme: Say an economist asked me to touch a boiling pot of water. Of course, if I acted in a conventionally rational way, I would tell him to screw off. But with the help of information asymmetry, I go ahead and touch the pot anyway and suffer a significant unpleasantness. Why would I do this if I was a rational human being? Because I knew what the economist was trying to do: prove that given a consistent set of controlled circumstances all people would act the same way, a rational way, by not touching the scalding hot pot. But since I know this—and I as an individual have a personal bone to pick with economists—my preference to prove to them that not everyone acts in a conventionally rational way, by their definitions, outweighs the stinging pain I’m now feeling on my digits. To me, this is more rational and as a result, raises my utility. One person’s rationality may not hold the same meaning for another.

The assumption that people work in their own self-interest, to make themselves as well off as possible, is itself working on the assumption that all people act in a rational way and that making yourself better off is rational behavior. This allows economists to discount all those who they deem to be irrational, surely shunning a big chunk of the population, especially me with my burned hand (irrational people would be deemed outliers or anomalies and are the minority in data sets. They’re labeled this till the characteristic that makes them an outlier is seen in the majority, which would end up switching the roles of the rational and irrational). If you’ve ever driven in Chicago, then you’re probably well acquainted with the irrational behavior of the human race. So it would follow that if the population is often irrational for whatever personal reasons they may have, making assumptions based for only those who are acting rational is hardly a sound place to begin for an academic field of study claiming to deal with human behavior as a whole, let alone a book seeking to teach that field.

The final term of note in Wheelan’s initial assumption is the concept of utility, which Wheelan states “is a similar concept to happiness, only broader.” Wheelan is purposely obscure in defining utility probably because there are so many different definitions that pertain to economics. Academics who tend to study utility seldom find a concrete definition that encompasses the entirety of what the word truly connotes. Wheelan’s definition therefore isn’t wrong, but it’s not wholly right either. For our purposes, let’s use Wheelan’s general definition and add a bit more by saying that utility is a measurement of individual preferences, so the more preferences that are satisfied, the higher an individual’s utility. Comparing it strictly to happiness is a wonderful way to make it appeal to the pleb, but again, as with so many generalizations on human nature, it’s a gross oversimplification that leads to an even grosser assumption. A counter-example: Paying my electric bill will raise my utility since I would prefer to have it paid than not be able to see in my apartment at night. However, this doesn’t really make me happy because I’m not exactly thrilled with paying the thieves at ComEd the ridiculous amount of dough they’re charging.

But Wheelan does qualify his original assertion that utility is “similar to happiness” by adding that it’s “only broader.” So now the very general and non-specific idea of happiness becomes the specific point of distinction for a definition. The comparison to happiness is there to make economist’s lives easier—for study, for water-cooler conversations, for writing—it’s a vagueness they can all see some common ground in when going about their day-to-day work in academia. Simplifying a complex idea like happiness, only broader into utility also makes it far easier to teach to the pleb. But as addressed supra, the spectrum of possibilities and entropy that is the human experience is impossible to funnel into a neat and clean simplified notion. It’s immune to reductionism. Even if it were possible and you were able to simplify me into a singular term, that term would be worlds different from any other individual’s, which would make making a generalization on the aggregated sum of individuals—the populace—a fool’s task.

But this type of oversimplification runs rampant in economics, and by way of association, also in Naked Economics. Utility isn’t the only terminology that is either vague or misused in the field. One of the earliest phrases economics students are encouraged to carve into their foreheads backwards so they see it every morning when they look in the mirror to brush their teeth is “Ceteris Paribus,” which is latin for “all else equal.” This term sees the most use with the manipulation of graphs in order to demonstrate how changing one variable has an effect on the system as a whole. In order for this to be communicated in the easiest terms possible from teacher to student or pleb, certain things must remain constant or else the whole thing becomes very complicated, very fast, and the pleb is lost in a whirlwind of information and possibilities.

For instance, on a regular supply and demand schedule, with a market in equilibrium, if the market demand of a good increases, assuming all else equal, then the price of that good will increase, too. But, in reality, when, ever, is all else equal? The world is an intricate place, and making the assumption that everything in the world remains constant while only one other thing changes is naive. If this is the only way to communicate and teach certain models and ideas, then what does that say about those models and ideas? Deconstructing reality into simple abstractions for the point of communication betrays the point of communicating the intricacies of reality in the first place. Despite this unforgivable boner on the part of economics, Wheelan is totally cognizant of the implications of “all else equal.” Word for word the phrase isn’t brought up till the very end of the book in which he says, “All else equal, it is great to discover the world’s largest zinc deposit. But all else is not equal.” He is pointing out the flaw of the economics academic realm in that those who oversee that realm actually teach that all else is equal to students. As shown with the vast differences between individuals, it’s clear that all else will never be equal and will always be in flux and will always be uncertain.

Even though Wheelan is ever so careful not to use the words “all else equal” or its latin equivalent up till this point, he is still guilty of using the concept throughout the book, especially when discussing the assumptions that he outlined as being essential to understanding economics as a whole. But Wheelan’s cunning has limits, and he often finds himself at the mercy of economics jargon, using it as liberally as he has to in order to teach it, but ever aware that he’s doing so. It’s easy to feel his reluctance in using the jargon, but he does so with purpose, using it as a teaching tool to show the hidden meaning behind the words. I think that Wheelan is genuinely interested in economics, but more so interested in the behind-the-scenes implications that comes with certain points of teaching in the field. Take the term “transition costs” for example. This is used to describe the losses incurred when a firm or company is in the middle of a merger or any like overhaul. It implies that there will be losses during this transition, i.e. people will be fired. In this jargon-y sense it’s just a euphemism. This happens a lot in economics and Wheelan doesn’t hesitate to admit as much: “Still, ‘in the long run’ is one of those heartless phrases—along with ‘transition costs’ or ’short-term displacement’—that overly minimize the human pain and disruption.”

Basically, when economists use “in the long run,” they are saying that the short run is going to suck. Badly. But eventually things will turn up. When you ask an economist a question and they respond with, “Well, in the long run…” that means that whether they know the answer or not, they’re not too keen on telling it to you straight. This is a nice way of avoiding giving any real kind of answer with certainty (recall our good friend Mr. Greenspan). A fun thing to do when an economist responds this way is to immediately ask when exactly is the “long run” that they’re referring to. The contorted expression and continuing attempt at dodging that follows is oh so satisfying.

Despite Wheelan being mostly aware of the misleading jargon in economics, he seems genuinely confident in his use of the phrase “We’re better off…” This is a particular nuisance because of how vague and ungrounded this lead-in tends to be. There is absolutely no litmus test, no concrete reference point, for an economist to point to that says we are better off now than at any other point in time. An example of this vagueness is: “We are better off today than at any other point in the history of civilization because we are better at producing goods and services than we have ever been, including things like health care and entertainment.” Well, duh. This is like comparing an apple to the planet Jupiter. Are we better off than the neanderthals? I’ll let you ponder that one. Were they better off than the species that preceded them? I’m not an anthropologist so I don’t know what species that was, but probably. For fun let’s use the concrete reference point of a family living in the 1900’s. Was the family in the 1900’s better off than the neanderthals? Maybe. The first problem with this comparison is that we have no idea what life was like back in either of those eras because we weren’t there, so anything that follows is pure speculation on our part. Wheelan, though, would use the production of goods and services to derive an answer, relying on stats to lead him to a conclusion. The problem with this is that it’s unfair to compare a neanderthal’s production to the production of the 1900’s because of a thing called information asymmetry. Producers of the 1900’s have the unique advantage of knowing how neanderthals produced things, which gives the fellas in the 1900’s an unfair leg up in knowing how and how not to produce certain things based on what worked and what didn’t for the neanderthals. I’m exaggerating of course, but then compare our current knowledge and technology to that of the 1980’s. It’s obvious we’re better off now if you want to only base betterment on production, but neglecting everything else (war, poverty, education levels, murder rates, infant death rates, etc.) that was happening at that time renders the general phrase “We’re better off…” hopelessly illogical and irrelevant. A huge mislead for any pleb diving into economics.

Allowing the term to hold weight in comparing the well-being and economic prosperity of specific eras is similar to the aforementioned simplification of human nature that should be vehemently avoided. The production of goods and services alone should not be the only thing considered when determining if we’re “better off” now because of something than we were before that certain something. Only considering production in this way ignores a litany of other things about ourselves that holds just as much impact, if not more, in determining our better-ness. This would be an extension of the mistake made with the use of Ceteris Paribus—remember that not all things are equal.
Wheelan never admits to this fallacy, though, but he does point out, for whatever reason, that some economists err worse than him. He cites Robert Fogel: “In his 1999 presidential address to the American Economics Association, Robert Fogel, a Nobel Prize-winning economic historian, pointed out that our poorest citizens have amenities unknown even to royalty a hundred years ago. (Over 90 percent of public housing residents have a color television, for example.)” This is unequivocally true, of course, but ends up being irrelevant—ask any of those public housing residents (low-income citizens, mind you) whether they care that an obscure Prince or Lord didn’t have a TV. Expressions, both verbal and visual, of indifference and possibly disdain are sure to follow. The problem with Mr. Fogel’s comment is that saying these poor people are better off than royalty one hundred years ago simply because they own a TV is ludicrous. Possession of a TV doesn’t guarantee a meal on the table or healthcare or employment—all of which royalty would surely remark upon with their own looks of dull indifference having been entitled to them by birthright. Using historical comparison to demonstrate improvements in our own society and economy is ignoring the actual opinions of the people who are being referenced, those who can’t consistently put a meal on a table, who are suffering, who would tell you the economy is doing them no favors no matter how many TVs they have compared to people living a hundred years ago.

The frequency of linguistic flubs like this in those who we revere as leaders in the field of economics is alarming and, I posit, a relevant indicator that care that needs to be taken when addressing any problem with the tools economics provides. It’s also what makes economics, and thus, ostensibly, a lot of Wheelan’s book, mostly bad. But, paradoxically and weirdly, this is also what makes Wheelan’s book very good. Wheelan’s diligence and accuracy in breaking down the core essence of economics reveals the standard journey every budding economics student takes in academia, a valuable structure for the pleb as well. Introductory classes on any level center around teaching the basics of the analytical tools that are necessary to understand in order to progress in the field. This approach often and unfortunately creates a black hole of boredom and monotony thanks to powerpoint presentations by dull teachers and brutally dense textbooks that you can use as a legitimate substitute for a dumbbell. It’s only after getting past the introductory classes do students get to the good stuff, the things that garner real interest and investment of attention, things with implications on practical levels. When students get to these substantial classes, they begin to see why they needed to drag their hungover corpse to their early-morning introductory class in the first place and sit through hour upon hour of dry, repetitive material. The initial zombie-like mentality of just chugging through class after class in order to get a diploma only wears off toward the end of an economics major. This is because in order to see the interesting stuff that is woven into the more advanced class, the boring stuff has to become second nature. Economics has to be approached like a professional athlete approaches their sport. A baseball player will take hours upon hours of batting practice, tens of thousands of swings, all so the motion of swinging the bat becomes so natural to him that he no longer has to consciously think about it. This frees up his mind to work on the mental side of the game—emotions, approach, strategy, etc. The basics need to become ingrained in an economics student so they can begin to focus entirely on the complexities and intricacies that make economics possible in the first place—see: human nature, behavior, personality, etc. The human element isn’t necessarily lost along the way but temporarily ignored or put on hold until further notice. In its place fall equations and graphs and abstractions. Once these become natural to the budding economist, the big picture begins to arise once again, and the implications of those abstractions begin to manifest in unexpected ways. This path, taken and groomed for students, is the big one. It’s why most people abandon economics too soon after only barely scratching the surface of what it’s capable of accomplishing. People, plebs, students are alienated when we push aside the human aspect for the sake of models and equations. There’s no face to identify with, only guns and butter.

The dilution of humanity in economics is ever-present in Naked Economics, accidentally or not. The most salient example can be found in the idea of “creative destruction.” Wheelan states, “Creative destruction is not just something that might happen in a market economy. It is something that must happen.” Creative destruction is the phenomenon that in order for capitalism to work and for the economy to grow, certain things must be destroyed in order to make room for newer, better things. The classic example is Wal-Mart swooping into a town and stomping all over the individual and specialized mom and pop shops that preceded it. While this is often an example seen in introductory classes, the human impact is often stripped away from it completely. Students are taught that firms go out of business—it happens in capitalism, quite often, actually—but they’re never taught the downside of the whole enterprise, what happens to the moms and pops who are now left exposed to the harsh realities of the job market with still a mortgage to pay. Unemployment is a number to most economists, but it’s a reality for the people who make up that number. And it’s dire, bet that. These are things that aren’t taught to students, but they should be.

Even though, as a practicing economist, Wheelan’s supposed to champion the ideas of competition, capitalism, and creative destruction, he can’t help being aware of the costs that come with these things. Page 37: “Competition means losers, which goes a long way to explain why we embrace it heartily in theory and then often fight it bitterly in practice.” Page 144: “Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the term ‘creative destruction,’ described capitalism as a process of incessantly destroying the old structure and creating a new one. That may be good for the world; it is bad for the firms and industries that make up the ‘old structure.’” And finally, Wheelan drops the hammer, page 193: “Yes, the economic gains from trade outweigh the losses, but the winners rarely write checks to the losers. And the losers often lose badly.”

Wheelan’s statement on page 193 just so happens to come in a chapter about the much heated topic of globalization. This is a topic that has spawned violent protests wherever the World Trade Organization (WTO) meets; it is extremely polarizing. But in this chapter, Wheelan finally lets go of all the restraints that economics has chained him with. He eschews the cold-hearted nature of the subject and embraces what economics is supposed to do. He uses the tools he has learned throughout his career and deploys them to make a passionate plea that no matter how much you marginalize people by turning them into data, no matter what may be necessary for capitalism to grow, no matter what you as an individual may believe to be right, there are always costs. More accurately, there are always casualties. This chapter is the nexus of what this book is about. It appeals to the highly technical economist by using the tools they’re familiar with while also appealing to the pleb through compassion. It shows that now more than ever there shouldn’t be a schism between the two groups. Economics is an accessible subject, and it is also a beautifully technical one. But these two things needn’t be exclusive.

This awareness is key as to why Naked Economics, good or bad, is ultimately important. It shows that economics is the study of a cruel and bitter reality, namely a capitalistic economy, while simultaneously acknowledging, by way of Wheelan’s own personal interjections, the inherent compassion every person possesses regardless of how steeped in the cruelty they may be. Economists are still people and are just as icky inside as everyone else. The schism is traversable. Despite its blunders, Naked Economics was a great first step in doing this back when it was published, but by no means was it an end. What Wheelan started can only be picked up by academics, specifically those in a position to influence the freshest and newest minds entering into economics, those students in introductory classes. If the professors and teachers of these classes follow the pattern that has been used in the past—focusing on the analytics first and leaving the humanity until later—then we will see more of the same. But if we make a genuine effort to inject some sort of compassion into introductory classes through examples that show what’s really at stake, then the type of economists we will see in the future will be a special kind indeed. The key isn’t to neglect the analytics; it’s to make sure that through the analytics, students see the meaning and implications lurking behind the numbers and models. Economics needs to resonate with students through more than just calculations and graphs. It needs to show that there are emotions involved—there are real people under all this. Students need to be constantly reminded that this is true. Reminded that it’s not just about the definitions on the first day of class. That there are always trade offs.

Fixing Movies: 2:37 (2006)

The Gist
2:37 follows six high school students as they deal with their own dramas during one particular school day that ends with someone committing suicide. The movie opens with a periphery student noticing someone locking themselves in the handicapped bathroom, which is then brought to the attention of a teacher and janitor who get the door open to see the outcome. At this point we don’t know who committed suicide or how they did it; we’re only privy to the blood leaking under the door. Cut to earlier that day where we’re introduced to a rushing Marcus yelling at his sister, Melody, to hurry up so they’re not late for school. Melody is in her room in the midst of what seems like a significant emotional breakdown. On their way to school we see a running Luke (the school’s heartthrob), the stoner Sean, and eventually the elitist Sarah (who is also Luke’s girlfriend). At school we’re introduced to Steven, the sixth main character in the cast.

The style of the movie is that of a documentary, talking heads and all. Through the initial talking heads, we see how each student views themselves and as the movie progresses, this deteriorates into them discussing the underlying issues that complicate their social lives. Melody learns that she’s pregnant. Marcus deals with his relentless demand of perfectionism. Luke is a closeted homosexual. Sean is openly gay. Sarah suspects Luke of impregnating Melody and grapples with her undying love for him. And Steven reveals his health issues that result in him being an outcast: a noticeable limp and two urethras, one of which has a mind of its own causing him to wet his pants in public without any forewarning.

The drama escalates quickly for each character throughout the day. Melody reveals that she was raped by her brother, Marcus, which explains her pregnancy. Marcus falls short of his own perfectionistic expectations and when it’s brought to his attention that Melody is pregnant, he erupts at her and essentially blames her. Luke is confronted by Sean revealing how they’ve had previous relations. Sean calls him out for being in the closet and both are incapable of handling the emotions that come with the confrontation. Sarah finds out that Melody is pregnant and suspects Luke but doesn’t confront him about it. Instead, she remains loyal to him, which results in him yelling at her after his confrontation with Sean. Steven meanwhile is in the midst of being bullied relentlessly for wetting his pants twice in a day, forcing him to lock himself in the bathroom until he’s once again dry, making him a witness to the Luke/Sean debacle. Luke then punches Steven in the nose, presumably breaking it, and threatens him against telling anybody.

Throughout all of this, a periphery character, Kelly, bounces in and out of some of the story arcs, affecting them slightly before being dismissed by the main characters. Her intentions are pure but essentially ignored by the main characters. The significance of her is that she’s the one who commits suicide. She slits her wrist as each arc comes to its climax. This reveals the overall thrust of the movie, summed up by Luke in his talking head immediately following her death: “Sometimes you just get so wrapped up in your own problems that you just don’t notice anybody else.” In the following talking heads we learn of each character’s relationship with Kelly and how they’re handling her death. The film ends with a talking head from Kelly herself, a happy aunt reveling in the memory of her nephew dressing up like a tiger.

The Fix
There are only two things I would maybe fix. The first being Melody’s talking head immediately following her flashback of Marcus having raped her. She says that Marcus had been touching her in sexual ways since she turned thirteen. It’s unclear if Marcus is a year older than her or if they’re twins, but the sexual abuse has been going on for some time. Here, she says that though this is the case, this is the first time he’d raped her. Melody says something along the lines of (I don’t know the exact quote, but you get the point), “…but that was the first time he fucked me.” Dramatic, emotional, and poignant, yes. But necessary? Nope. Me, I’m cutting her whole monologue after the rape flashback. The scene was graphic and incredibly disturbing on its own and doesn’t need her to sum it up in a talking head. What her talking head should have been was simply the camera being on her as she tried to find the words to relay the horror that was beset upon her, something that should have been an ultimately fruitless task. Her monologue doesn’t take away from the movie as a whole, it just didn’t enhance the emotional punch of the rape.

The second possible fix I would suggest is the final talking head from Kelly, one showed after she killed herself. This brings up a series of fourth wall problems and ends up placing a lot of pressure on the audience. Watching the film, we’re aware that this is supposed to be like a documentary. We work under the assumption that a camera crew was in the school for some reason, filming students as they go about their everyday lives dealing with high school social issues, hence the talking heads and hence cameras following them around, making the characters seem real. But the insertion of a talking head by Kelly makes it appear that either the documentarians knew she was going to commit suicide (a completely unrealistic assumption, otherwise they would presumably do something to prevent it), or that the documentarians found this narrative while filming, a result of Kelly killing herself. If you go down this road (one that’s starting to veer into nitpicking, I’m realizing now), then we have to ask ourselves why is there even a camera in the bathroom with her as she slits her wrists. It’s a slippery fourth wall slope that we’re venturing on but when considering the format, it’s one that needs to be questioned. The result is placing either a lot of faith in the viewer in being able to maneuver themselves into this level of acceptance or assume that the viewer is unconcerned/oblivious to the underlying narrative structure of the story. Successful documentarian style films or TV shows find a way to justify the existence of the cameras in these people’s lives. Doing that immediately sells the believability of the narrative structure.

Having said that, it’s important to realize how essential Kelly’s talking head ends up being regardless of the questions it unleashes on the film’s narrative structure. Giving her a talking head, one with so little relevance in subject matter (she’s talking about the ridiculous tiger noises her nephew makes…that’s it!) solidifies her existence as an actual character, and as we learn through the “In memory of…” post-film dedication, as an actual person. If we aren’t privy to her dimensionalization, we’re instantly working under the assumption that her death is completely symbolic instead of being grounded in reality. She turns from being a symbol to being a person in one monologue about a kid making tiger noises. So with that point made, is it worth fixing? Nah. I’m willing to sacrifice the fourth wall questions for something that swings with that much of an emotional punch.

I was immediately skeptical going into this film knowing that it was done in the documentary format. The danger zone for telling a story in this manner is that the writer quickly sees how easy it is to end up trying to advance a plot by having the characters simply tell the audience how they feel through a talking head. We’re spoon fed the story instead having to do work to draw the conclusions about the characters by way of viewing their actions like a fly on the wall. 2:37 is certainly guilty of this but for good reason. Having the characters divulge their secrets in a talking head allowed for a perfectly fluid and cohesive linear story, that being following them through their day without the wedged in interruption of a scene where we learn of their background. Instead we get that in the form of a much more direct talking head that acts simply as a confession. The emotional impact is amplified because of this and we’re thankful for it.

It’s also worth noting the impressive transitions between arcs. These were done through tediously choreographed scenes in which we follow a character walking through the hall and they pass another character and now we’re following the second character on their arc. Or, as is so often done, after a talking head the movie backtracks a couple minutes to another character’s arc that’s happening simultaneously during a scene we just saw pre-talking head. In these instances the talking head acts as the transition. All this adds up to one result: throughout the movie the audience is intimately identifying with each of the main characters, empathizing with them in such a way that we can see how any one of them can potentially be the suicide at the end of the movie. But when we see that Kelly is the one who kills herself, and the talking heads that ensue show how oblivious each character was to her and her problems, we end up hating the main characters for not paying attention to her. In a matter of minutes we flip sides and despise those who we’ve come to feel for.

For these reasons, the movie as a whole is an incredibly slick production. Its plot and character development are identifiable, accessible, and effective. It’s an intimidating accomplishment especially considering it was written and directed by a twenty year old. So there’s that, too.

Amazon vs. Literary Culture

Over the past few months, Amazon and Hachette Book Group have been at the negotiating table trying to hammer out the revenue sharing plan for e-books sold on Amazon that are published by Hachette. Currently, they’re at a stalemate that has resulted in both sides slinging blurbs of rhetoric at each other in the hopes of sullying the other into submission. There are consequences to be had by all—that’s what happens when a conglomerate like Amazon goes head to head with one of the Big Five publishers (which are Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster). The consequences are both business related—focusing on those in the publishing industry—as well as culturally related.

Their negotiations essentially revolve around numbers—who gets what of e-book sales. Obviously, as the publishing landscape continues to morph toward a more technologically savvy market, there’s a lot at stake for both sides. Amazon is a giant in the book retail business. More than likely if you have the internet you’ve bought something from Amazon. They’ve become a mainstay and aren’t going anywhere. Hachette, though a big player in the literary world, is part of a shrinking practice—traditional publishing. There is a shift in the publishing industry toward the digital, and the Big Five are struggling to adapt. They’re practically holding the door open for Amazon to walk right in and take over the party, and that’s what Amazon, known for ruthlessly pushing people out of business, intends to do. So, needless to say, the outcome of this whole debacle will hold great weight on how the publishing industry continues to evolve.

Right now, the negotiations are basically at a stand still. Amazon’s most recent move has been making a plea to Hachette authors, who sell their books through Amazon, both e-books and physical copies, by offering them 100% of the revenue of any e-book sales done through Amazon until the negotiations are settled. Hachette swiftly shot down this proposal as they would be losing their normal percentage of sales revenue. Surprisingly, and encouragingly, many Hachette authors also scoffed at Amazon’s proposal under the premise of remaining loyal to Hachette, who paid them their advances. Amazon’s response to Hachette’s refusal was to eliminate the pre-order option on their website of soon-to-be-released Hachette books and to delay shipment of many Hachette titles, some previously next day delivery, for up to five weeks. According to Amazon, the negotiations have gone thusly:

1) Amazon contacted Hachette in January of 2014 to initiate negotiations on their e-book contract that expired in March.
2) Amazon claims to have heard nothing from Hachette for three full months.
3) Amazon extended the contract into April.
4) Amazon reduced inventory and discounts on Hachette titles.
5) Amazon claims it last made a proposal to Hachette on June 5 but hasn’t received a counteroffer.
6) Amazon offers Hachette authors 100% of e-book revenue (neither Amazon nor Hachette get cuts) while negotiations continue.
7) Hachette refuses this temporary offer.

Interestingly, a Hachette spokeswoman has said, “We made an offer in April that was the largest we ever made to any retailer, and in May made another that was higher still. Both offers were rejected.” (Both accounts are according to The Wall Street Journal [ http://m.us.wsj.com/articles/amazon-offers-e-book-authors-100-of-sales-amid-publisher-dispute-1404840227?mobile=y ]).

So, clearly, both sides are talking to each other but are making absolutely no headway. That has led to Amazon pulling a bunch of petty tactics on Hachette titles while the negotiations continue. You don’t have to have a law degree to understand what is happening here: Amazon is trying to bully Hachette into agreeing to their terms, something they’ve successfully done to smaller businesses for years. Amazon’s most recent tactic of trying to appeal to authors is pure manipulation. They’re hoping that by trying to win the authors over to their side, Hachette will feel the pressure and quickly cave in negotiations.

Stuck in the middle of this whole charade are the authors, both those represented by Hachette and those who aren’t. Why this matters to those authors outside the Hachette community is because Hachette’s e-book contract with Amazon is merely the first to expire, meaning the remainder of the Big Five are simply waiting for their turn to hash things out with Amazon and, possibly, experience the same thing. Meanwhile, the authors are being punished. When people buy books, a percentage of that revenue would typically go to the retailer (Amazon), a percentage to the publisher (Hachette), and a percentage to the author, as well as any other middle-men involved (probably agents, editors, unions, etc.). As mentioned supra, Amazon wants to eliminate Hachette’s stake in sales until negotiations conclude, awarding all revenue, including Amazon’s, to the authors. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, we know this sucks for you (the author), so here’s some money to ease the pain.” It’s a noble thing to do…ostensibly. But in reality what they’re really doing is trying to decrease Hachette’s position at the negotiating table. Amazon can afford to do this, but Hachette probably can’t. On the P.R. front, what it says is that Amazon is trying to be the good guy while making Hachette look weak for not coming up with this idea in the first place.

Hypothetically, say Hachette did go along with this maneuver. Then, during negotiations, they’ll have to adapt their sales strategy in order to make up the lost revenue of e-book sales and will probably be not that much worse off when things are all said and done. Now Amazon can point to this small sample size and make the claim that Hachette was fine without that revenue, why not just do this all the time and let authors get more revenue of e-books sold at Amazon? If Hachette says no, they look like jerks. If they say yes, they’re putting their financial stability at stake. In the long-run, eschewing that revenue would be detrimental to Hachette as e-books become a more integral part of the publishing industry. So, logically, they’d say no, which gives off the image of not caring about their authors. Amazon’s response to this would be to say to all the Hachette authors that we, Amazon, will give you a certain percentage of e-book revenue, a percentage much higher than what Hachette is giving you, so you should leave the Hachette family and join ours. Next thing you know Hachette is losing clients to Amazon and will eventually go out of business, forfeiting most of their market share to Amazon. If things were to have gone like this with Hachette, Amazon certainly wouldn’t hesitate to do the same with the rest of the Big Five when their contracts are up for negotiation. The only difference would be it’d be the first thing Amazon suggests, knowing how effective is was against Hachette, as opposed to waiting a couple months into the process.

That’s all purely conjecture mind you, just one way this scenario could play out. Luckily, though, authors have responded to Amazon’s tactic with integrity and have sided with Hachette, the publisher that has been on their side from day one. A large group of authors, both Hachette and not, calling themselves Authors United, have signed a petition against Amazon in the wake of these events, specifically the limiting of inventories and delaying shipment of Hachette titles. Names include: David Baldacci, Lee Child, Amanda Foreman, John Grisham, James Patterson, Anita Shreve, Scott Turow, Anne Applebaum, Clive Cussler, Stephen King, Richard North Patterson, and Simon Winchester, among others—debuts, mid-lists, and best-sellers (fr. http://www.thebookseller.com/news/child-grisham-patterson-amazon-protest.html ).

The petition is effectively asking Amazon to leave the authors out of the negotiations, a fair request considering how the authors basically don’t have a representative at the negotiation table, nor do they have a direct voice in how the dispute is settled. Though the letter penned by Douglas Preston claims neutrality, this can be interpreted as a backing of Hachette and the general traditional publishing industry. From the letter: “Without taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon, we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business. None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”

Remember that Amazon is, for now, simply a retailer. They have an e-publishing and self-publishing platform (more on that later) but hardly contend with the traditional publishing industry, who has a lock on selling physical hard copies of books. Amazon facilitates products to the consumer rather than refining those products to the point that they can be consumed. By pointing the finger at Amazon, authors are providing themselves with insurance. Eventually, these negotiations will conclude and a new contract will be agreed upon. If authors signed a similar petition against Hachette, saying that they desired the 100% revenue of e-books during negotiations, they would informally and indirectly be saying that they support Amazon as a publisher over Hachette. What this means is that when the authors would be trying to sell their next book to Hachette, Hachette would most likely pass knowing that the author basically betrayed them during this dispute. That would be bad for the author, who probably wouldn’t be able to find another member of the Big Five to buy their book for the same reason. Very rarely do people forget acts of disloyalty. The publishing industry is very close knit, and agents, editors, and publishers are always talking to each other. The author would be forced to either publish with a small publisher (sometimes an undesirable option, especially if the first choice was one of the Big Five), not publish at all, or with Amazon.

Wait, but Amazon isn’t an actual publisher. An interesting sub-story to this whole issue is Amazon actively pursuing a purchase of Big Five publisher Simon & Schuster. Both Amazon and Simon & Schuster are mute on the specific details concerning this but also are not denying that they’re talking. If Amazon were to obtain Simon & Schuster, they would then own a large part of the book publishing industry as well as a large part of the book retail industry. The implications of this are staggering. Amazon would then own all the titles associated with Simon & Schuster and then be able to obtain all the revenue from e-book sales of those titles without having to divvy it up between them and an outside publisher. Owning Simon & Schuster sure would ease the negotiations of a new e-book contract with them for Amazon. Add this onto Amazon’s already thriving self-publishing niche, in which authors can present their manuscript to Amazon and publish it as an e-book at little cost or publish it as a hard copy governed by print-on-demand, and they’ll basically be a majority market share holder in the e-book industry as well as having a new hand in the traditional publishing industry. It’s the undeniable making of a monopoly within the publish in industry.

The sneakiest aspect of Amazon’s play for Simon & Schuster is their motivations behind it. They truly aren’t interested in selling books, like, at all. They’re only interested in converting hard-copy books into e-books and selling them on their Kindle where they make the real money. Their technology revenue far exceeds their revenue from selling e-books, so why all the fuss? Amazon is now in the market of manipulating trends in literary culture and the publishing industry. The more buzz they can generate about e-books, regardless of the type of press, the better off they’ll be. If they can get more people talking about the Kindle, more stories written about their intentions in the industry, more water-cooler talk about them and what they’re doing, that will be reflected in their sales numbers. All the obsession about the direction e-books are heading is a way to push the Kindle and other e-readers upon the masses. Amazon could care less about what is being published as long as it’s being read on their Kindle.

This is why Amazon’s self-publishing and their probable acquisition of a traditional publishing company is detrimental to the quality of literature being sold. When an author approaches Amazon for the chance to self-publish through them, whether as an e-book or in a print-on-demand basis, Amazon practically foams at the mouth to work with them. E-books barely cost Amazon anything to publish, so they’ll make up their losses through any sales of that book. Print-on-demand incurs a larger cost but still a negligible one as they cover it by taking a larger percentage of any sales. In either sense, Amazon is counting on the author to do all the marketing for the book, which can be a good or bad thing. Some authors are really good at marketing while others stink. The good ones make money for Amazon, not an uncommon occurrence. It would seem, though, that Amazon would lose money with the authors who are bad at marketing, and maybe that’s so. But there’s a hidden audience every author has regardless of their marketing abilities—their friends and family. Say an author has twenty friends and maybe ten family members (probably low-balling it), that’s thirty books sold right there at whatever price Amazon puts them at (usually $9.99). Though you can download an e-book to your computer, more than likely Amazon will still be selling a Kindle or two to those thirty family and friends, which is, again, Amazon’s real goal. So any cost Amazon burdens to help an author self-publish is more than made up for in a certain amount of guaranteed sales. Every sale beyond that is a bonus for Amazon. And then, let’s not forget, some authors get lucky and really rake in the cash, which of course makes Amazon really happy.

This shows that it’s in Amazon’s best interests, as a business, to publish as many authors as possible through their means rather than in cooperating with traditional publishers to do so. Amazon wants authors to come directly to them and to skirt the traditional publishing route in favor of their quicker, easier publishing methods. Buying Simon & Schuster takes one competitor out of the picture and builds the pressure on the other big traditional publishers. Publishing, in any form, is incredibly attractive to authors of all calibers. When you write a manuscript, you should rightfully be proud of it and want to show it to people besides your best friends and family. You want to share your creation with the world and hopefully make some scratch in doing so. The biggest complaint about traditional publishing, especially from new and debut authors, is the presence of threshold guardians or gatekeepers in the industry. These are interns, readers, agents, editors, publicists, etc. Those people who have a say in whether you are welcomed into the publishing community or not. They have very refined tastes for the manuscripts and stories that they feel they are most capable of selling at a large volume. They have honed their sensibilities to niches and specifics in order to root out the flawed pieces of work that surely won’t sell and to find the big hitters that are just waiting to be made into box office behemoths. They are picky, and that can be frustrating. It’s not uncommon for authors to experience rejection in daunting numbers. Some deserve rejection and some don’t, either way, though, it’s trying, which makes Amazon’s self-publishing option all the more attractive. How wonderful it is to completely bypass the presence of gatekeepers for immediate satisfaction. This is what Amazon offers, and they’re not ashamed about it one bit.

But they should be.

Gatekeepers are uniquely gifted at maintaining a standard of quality within the industry. They’re there to tell an author when to push something to the forefront of their manuscript or when to ease off it. They consume books and movies in order to develop their own tastes and to see what works and what doesn’t. They then give us, writers as well as audiences, feedback in that regard. They correct our grammar, spelling, and punctuation. They notice when a trend is on the upswing and when it’s on the downswing. They keep the crap from ever seeing the light of day, and the entertainment industry and pop culture are better for it. By negating this crucial role in the publishing process, Amazon is allowing any ol’ thing to get published. That means a story that isn’t really a story but an author’s mindless ramblings could get published and read by someone in high school who wants to be an author someday. If that high schooler confuses this piece of crap as brilliant, they’ll aspire to write like that and then will also publish (through Amazon, probably) something equally terrible down the line. Quality is at stake when you eliminate the position of the gatekeeper, specifically agents, who are the first line of defense against mediocrity in traditional publishing.

When an author writes a novel, they submit it to an agent via a query letter (like a cover letter pitching the story in a concise fashion along with some sample pages). Often times the query letter will get rejected for whatever reason and a wave of despair will wash over the author. This is normal, for sure, but discouraging. Few debut authors realize the importance of these rejection letters, though, and often write them off as the agent being a doofus and missing out on the next big thing. The right way to take these letters is to see them as a quality check. Does the author, after ten rejections to the same query letter, view those rejections as the industry being wrong or they, the author, doing something wrong? Maybe it’s the query that needs work and the rejection is just an easy way for an agent to say so. Or, better, maybe it’s the story that needs work and not just the query. When a rejection is accepted like this, the value of the agent/gatekeeper becomes multifold. They’re giving free feedback on not only the query letter but the pitch and the overall story. This is something that is completely missed when the author goes straight to Amazon without even attempting to go through an agent in the traditional sense.

When a manuscript does get accepted by an agent, that agent will edit it and give revisions. After those revisions, they’ll try to sell it to an editor at a publisher, who, if they buy it, will then give more edits, further refining the manuscript to a notion of quality that is upheld throughout the traditional publishing industry. It’s a lot of work, to be sure. Publishing with Amazon suffers no such trial. Sure, there’s some editing, it’d be ridiculous of Amazon not to try and gear what they’re selling toward a certain sensibility, but then you have to ask yourself, what exactly is Amazon editing toward? Their recent activities regarding publishing indicate that they’re solely in it for the money (see the kerfuffle with Hachette). So if they do take the time to edit a manuscript they want to publish as an e-book, they’ll edit it for the purposes of selling it as opposed to editing it for the purposes of making it into a quality story. Their motivations are loyal only to the bottom line, not the integrity of artistic endeavors.

This makes Amazon acquiring Simon & Schuster a very dangerous thing for the quality that is expected in the publishing industry. Losing Simon & Schuster would be the equivalent of losing the mosquito in the food chain. It’d be an elimination of one of the essential steps (sources of food) in creating a quality product (the ecosystem). What happens next would be a tightening of the entire industry. As more and more authors reroute to Amazon in order to try their luck with self-publishing, having heard the fantastic success stories from the few that have seen some success ( http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/technology/amazon-a-friendly-giant-as-long-as-its-fed.html?ref=books&_r=0 ), the rest of the Big Five would then be losing money to Amazon. Less money for them to play around with means tighter standards. That means they’ll take on less clients, focusing on those that are known sellers and those who have very specific niche markets. The publishers will gear most of their marketing budget to people like James Patterson and Stephen King, knowing that they’re proven moneymakers, sucking dry the funds reserved for finding and marketing new talent. Next, the agents will then have to follow suit and tighten their standards to fit what the publishers are looking for. An agent may have taken on 1% of the queries she received but now only takes on .5% because her tastes have gotten that specific. This pushes debut authors further away from traditional publishing and into Amazon’s welcome embrace. Admittedly, the quality of work that does get through in traditional publishing will probably increase, assuming those publishers maintain a standard and don’t just try to follow trends in order to make a buck. But with Amazon producing more and more work of a lesser quality, the more refined stuff will get lost in the fold and struggle to make it to the consumer’s hands.

It would logically follow that agents would surely side with Hachette and desire to maintain Simon & Schuster as a separate entity from Amazon. Their livelihood is very much at stake. If Simon & Schuster is bought, Amazon would be redefining, if not eliminating altogether, a lot of gatekeeping jobs—editors, agents, and the like. It’s in an agent’s best interest to support the traditional publishing industry in standing against Amazon and their not-so-favorable business practices.

But it’s still all business, isn’t it? The bottom line is inevitably what will make the decision, which is why Amazon will probably come out on top of this, one way or another. What may keep that from happening, and what essentially drives all business and art, is the consumer and their sensibilities. How long would consumers tolerate Amazon flushing the market with crappy, loosely-edited books after having read pristine masterpieces, edited and re-edited, seen by countless sets of eyes before reaching bookstores, for centuries? Amazon is a business that’s acting on a principle that practically defines the field of economics: that people will act rationally. What this simple concept fails to note is that it’s solely referring to financial decisions. It’s an assumption that is essentially wrong—people rarely act rationally. Along those lines, what economics sees as acting rational often has no place in industries that deal in the arts. Economics defines acting rational as making the smart purchase and it doesn’t factor in the nature of the product, in this case, the quality of literature.

Consumers will catch on very quickly that an Amazon exclusive e-book simply isn’t as good as one that has endured the rigors of traditional publishing. The notion that e-books are superior because of ease of access and lack of being cumbersome will never live up to the quality of a thoroughly vetted, traditionally published piece of work. Consumers will gladly end up spending a couple extra bucks for a better product. It will all come down to their awareness of this fact, and willingness to follow up on it. Quality is the crux in literature and holds far more influence over human behavior than Amazon gives it credit for.
Sources:
http://m.us.wsj.com/articles/amazon-offers-e-book-authors-100-of-sales-amid-publisher-dispute-1404840227?mobile=y

http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-amazon-and-hachette-explained-20140602-story.html#page=1

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/simon-schuster-talks-amazon.html

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/child-grisham-patterson-amazon-protest.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/technology/amazon-a-friendly-giant-as-long-as-its-fed.html?ref=books&_r=0

Last Slice Anxiety: An Inner Monologue

Is he—yes! I knew there was more. Jim, you are a saint, my man. You were born to be the Parties and Particulars Planner. Whoever appointed you should get a raise. Man, he just swooped right in when that box was empty. Like a ninja. A glorious, beautiful ninja. You’re a sight for sore eyes, Jimbo, this one’s for you.

Shoot, it’s half gone already. Jim, please, that can’t be the last pie, can it? What about those boxes over there? Empty? No way, this is not good, not good at all. And—yup, there it goes. All gone. That’s it, party’s over. See you next week folks, it’s been a real—
Wait! That looks like…YES! The last slice. One more glistening slice dripping with grease and pepperoni. Aw man, the cheese is practically oozing off it, a perfect golden brown, just totally right. And that crust, not too firm, not too soft, perfect. Absolutely perfect.

But…I can’t…right? Who takes the last slice of pizza at an office party? Gluttons, that’s who. They already think I’m fat, well, they know I’m fat, look at me. Man, I can’t even see my shoes anymore. I look like I’m shoplifting a beach ball. A sad, saggy beach ball. Remember when putting on socks wasn’t a chore? Remember that? And forget cutting my toenails. Now, that’s, like, an event.

Also, come on, the box is all the way across the office by Carol’s desk. She of the not so subtle invitation to join the office’s Who-Can-Lose-the-Most-Weight-In-Eight-Weeks-It’s-Just-Ten-Dollars-To-Join pool. Is it worth the ensuing murmurs and devastating glances? Everybody will see me. I’ll just stick with the two slices. Yeah, just the two. Not too bashful, not too greedy, perfect.

Did Jim just look over here? Shit. He’s coming over. He saw me looking at the pizza, he definitely did. Just act cool, act like him, just be—Jimbo! Great party, bro! Oh yeah, no, I had plenty to eat, plenty! Ha ha! Look at you! Congrats on the promotion, my man! Hey, you deserved it, you know, much more than Carol, am I right? Ha ha! No no, I’m fine, I’m good with two, totally cool. Well, if no one else wants it, it’d be a crime to let it go to waste, right? Ha ha! OK, Jim, all right, buddy—…Aw man, that was a disaster. Now if I don’t eat it, what will he think? He practically gift-wrapped it. Jeez, I really screwed the pooch on that one. It’s not like if he ate it anyone would care. He’s an Adonis! He could eat a whole pizza and it would only be charming. So what, am I just going to stand here? Go on, make the sad stroll over. Get going, loser.

See? It’s not so bad. What, only half the office is boring holes through my back with accusation and contempt, no big deal. Did somebody turn up the heat, or am I supposed to be sweating puddles into my shoes? And if only I could manage to un-cling my dampening shirt from my man-boobs with some amount of discretion, yeah, that’d be great. Oh! And what’s this? Wait for it, wait for it, waaaaait—Carol ladies and gentleman! Her and her black beady eyes of judgement and judgey-ness. Why don’t you double park your car in a handicapped space again, Carol, you wretch. And no one thinks you’re funny; you’re just loud. You know what, Carol? Two slices are enough. There are veggies in the freezer at home. I just needed some paper towels, see? Paper towels. I don’t need that slice. Just paper towels and maybe another soda, too. Diet this time. Turn around, Carol. Go misspell the boss’s name in a company-wide memo again. You type with your elbows.

Yeah, veggies, good. What is it, peas? Maybe some baby carrots, too? That’s the stuff, that’s what men eat. Some nice leathery peas that taste like wet newspaper. How long have they been in the freezer? Seven months? Eight? Sure, they’ll thaw out by midnight…probably. The carrots maybe by morning. They’ll go great with a side of guilt and a glass of self-loathing. Yummy.

But that slice—still there, man, still there. Screw it. Everybody knows I’m going to take it, that’s why it’s still there. They don’t care anymore. Nobody cares. Jim gave me the thumbs up. What’re three slices anyway? A lot better than deflated peas and soggy carrots, that’s for sure. That glistening triangle may as well have been made especially for me. Look at that shiny, shiny grease. Ah! I can hear it—Eat me! Eat me! I’m yours!—no, I’m yours. That slice is me. I am that slice. I deserve it. All this hemming and hawing is exhausting, enough to make someone, oh say, hungry? It’s time to do my duty—save it from the ghost-like vestiges of the grease stains surrounding it. It has suffered enough. I’ve suffered enough. That’s it, go, go—Quick! She’s eyeing it! Hurry! Before sh—too late. She got it. That’s her fifth slice. Fuck you, Carol. You’re horrible.

 

The Monster Under the Bed

“Hey?  Are you there?”

“…”

Psst.  Are you awake?  I can see your tail.”

“Hm?…snrrrrkungf…ugh.”

“Are you OK?”

Ahemsnrrrrk…yeah, yeah.  Hmphsh.”

“You don’t sound great.”

“No, no.  Just a, uh, the waking up part, thing.  It’s–”

“Oh.  I didn’t mean to wake you, I just saw your tail is all.”

“No, no, kid, don’t worry about it.  It’s fine, all fine.”

“Oh, OK.”

“…”

“I’m sorry I woke you.”

“Oh, thank you.  But it’s fine, I assure you.  I’ve slept long enough, I have.”

“You never did say how that works.”

“What do you mean?”

“The sleeping thing.  You’re not there in the day, only at night.”

“It’s really complicated, I think.  I still don’t get it myself.”

“Really?  So but where do you go?”

“I just, you know, go.  It’s not like a place, it just, well, is.”

“I don’t get it.”

“I don’t know, it’s hard to describe.  It’s like I’m not here anymore, but I know I’ll be back.  Does that make sense?”

“A little bit.  It’s still kind of weird.”

“…”

“Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Uh huh.”

“Am I normal?”

“Um…”

“At school, they make fun of me.  They say things like ‘freak’ or ‘weirdo.’”

“The kids do?”

“Uh huh.  One of them took my book today and threw it in a toilet.”

“They shouldn’t do that.”

“I don’t like it.”

“I understand.”

“Am I?”

“What?”

“Not normal?”

“That’s not an easy question.”

“But if everyone says so.”

“What about your parents?”

“I think they worry sometimes.”

“Because of what the kids say?”

“No, I haven’t told them that.  I hear them whisper in the kitchen when I’m watching TV.  And sometimes I’ll be watching cartoons, and then my Mom will just sit at the kitchen table and watch me.  She always looks sad.”

“Has she said anything to you?”

“She did yesterday, yeah.  She sat down next to me at the TV and sort of, like, talked to me.  But it was different.”

“What’d she say?”

“She asked me if I was happy.”

“Are you?”

“She said I can have friends over whenever I wanted, or if I wanted, I think she said.”

“You don’t have many friends.”

“No.”

“Any friends, right?”

“…”

“What did you tell her?”

“I said, ‘Not many kids want to talk to me.’  I said that, and she looked sad again.  Then she asked me why, and I said, ‘They don’t like me.  I don’t think anyone likes me.’  And then she was quiet for a long time and watched cartoons with me.”

“…”

“And then she went back to the kitchen and made dinner.  She was very loud.  She banged pots and pans and chopped stuff really loud.”

“…”

“I don’t know if I am.”

“Am what?”

“Happy.  I don’t know if I’ve been happy.”

“Hm.”

“Does that mean I’m not normal?  Is that why they call me ‘freak?’”

“Do you know if you’ve been sad?”

“Maybe.  I think so.  I get sad sometimes.”

“Like at school?”

“Yes.”

“Well, being happy feels like the opposite of being sad.  How do you feel when you’re sad?”

“Um, sad?  I don’t know.  Just sad, is all.”

“No, no, I mean your body.  How does your body feel?”

“Like, um, slow, kind of.  Tired.”

“Heavy?”

“Yeah, everything is kind of heavy, sure.”

“Maybe being happy, then, is the opposite of that.  Like if you were light, you know?  If moving wasn’t so hard.  Have you ever felt like that?”

“…”

“Hm.  Well, think about it.  Or if you do feel like that, remember it.  That’s how you know you’ve been happy.”

“So being happy is not being sad?”

“Sometimes, sure.  How do you feel right now?”

“My tummy hurts.”

“Roll over on your side, sometimes that helps.”

“…”

“Better?”

“A little.”

“Good.”

“Is that what makes me not normal?”

“Everyone gets tummy aches, sometimes.  They just happen.”

“No, I meant because I don’t know if I’ve been happy.  Aren’t normal people happy?”

“Or are happy people normal?”

“…”

“OK, what do you think ‘normal’ means?”

“Um, like, when other people like you, right?  If I was normal, they would like me at school.”

“Hm, I see.  Well, to be normal means to be of a certain type that’s not really different from what people expect.”

“So I’m not what people expect.”

“Right, I think that’s true.  You’re a different person than others.  You are what some people would call ‘unique,’ you see.”

“What does that mean, ‘unique?’”

“It’s like being special.  One of a kind.”

“I don’t–“

“I don’t think you should get caught up on being normal.  It’s a weird word.  Let me ask you something, why do the kids at school get to decide if you’re normal?  Why does your Mom get to choose what you want to do?”

“If they’re normal though, then they decide, right?”

“Who decides that they’re normal?”

“But they’re all alike, they all like each other.  Isn’t that what being normal is?  To be liked by other people?”

“Maybe.  I think that people liking you happens no matter how you are.  It’s luck, really, is all.”

“Huh?”

“OK, what’s the rarest thing you’ve seen?”

“Um, I saw a Cardinal last week.”

“OK, good.  You don’t see many of those do you?”

“That’s the first time I saw one.  It was at the bird feeder next door.”

“So Cardinals are rare around here, right?”

“I guess so.”

“OK, then it was pretty lucky of you to see that Cardinal, right?  If that was the only one you’ve ever seen, chances are that you won’t see one for a while, right?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“It’s like that with people, too.  Finding friends, true friends, the real ones, is a matter of luck.  People liking you is just being lucky is all.  You just haven’t gotten lucky yet, but you will.”

“So am I the Cardinal?”

“No, you’re you.  You will always be you.  The Cardinal just hasn’t come yet, I mean, as a friend, you see.”

“But why not?  Why am I unlucky and everybody else is lucky?”

“Maybe you’re not unlucky.  Maybe everyone else is pretending to like each other while they’re waiting for the Cardinal to fly by.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Maybe they’re scared.  But you’re not scared, are you?”

“What are they scared of?”

“Being alone.  Being sad.  But you’ve been sad, you know what it’s like.  You’re stronger now because of it, because you’ve gotten past it and you’re still here, right?”

“…”

“Look, don’t you think that if they’re pretending to like each other because they’re scared, then they’re not being real?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s sort of like they’re being dishonest with themselves.”

“Because they’re scared?”

“Right.  Everyone gets scared.  You get scared.”

“Uh huh.  So getting scared is normal?”

“Sure, but you need to know that why one person is scared can be different from why another person is scared.”

“So we’re all different.”

“Right, but you all get scared, too.  You can all be different and normal at the same time.  It’s that thing that makes you different that makes you you.”

“So I am normal?”

“Maybe, maybe not.  All I know is that you’re you.  That’s all anyone can know.  And if you weren’t you, if everyone wasn’t themselves, the world would have too many of one thing.  So why not just be you, normal or not?”

“Are you normal?”

“I’m just me.”

“Do you ever think about it?”

“No.  I only really think about stuff when we talk.”

“What happens when you sleep?”

“I don’t know, I’m just gone, I think.”

“You’re only here when I am.”

“I think so, yes.”

“Does that mean I’m making you up?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it.”

“It doesn’t bother you?”

“What?”

“That maybe I’m making you up?”

“Not really.”

“That would bother me, I think.  I would want to know I’m real.”

“How do you know you are?”

“I just know.  I feel like I am.”

“Do you feel like I’m real?”

“Yes, of course.  But I don’t know if other people think you are.  But you don’t care?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Either way, I’m still myself.”

“…”

“…”

“I like that.”

“…”

“I think I like being myself.”

“…”

“Hey?”

“…”

“My tummy doesn’t hurt anymore.”

“…”

“Are you there?”

“…”

“I’m glad you’re not normal.”

“…”

The Skeptic and the Surrealist

“What a waste of two and half hours.”

“Are you kidding?  It was incredible.”

“Bull.  Pretentious, art-house crap.  None of it made any sense.  Pretty hot, though.”

“It was not pretentious.  Art-house maybe, but not pretentious.  God forbid you should have to use your frontal lobe to figure out a plot.”

“This is just like you— defending your hipster, too cool for everyone else directors and artists.  You probably don’t even know what the hell happened, but you’ll defend the guy to your death because he’s ‘indie’ and ‘subversive.’  You people are so elitist even though you claim to hate elitism.  Hypocrites.”

“You people?  What does that mean?”

“All you hipsters.  I’ve seen Eraserhead.  That was way worse than this but no, everyone thinks it’s amazing and groundbreaking.  Like I said, art-house crap.”

“OK, so what’s your definition of a good movie?  How should stories be told?”

“Gimme a nice, tight ninety minutes any day of the week.  Linear.  Straight lines.  Something that actually makes sense.  Keep the plot simple but compelling.”

“OK, sure, this definitely was not ninety minutes, and it certainly wasn’t told in a linear way.  But it made sense.”

“Bull.  Shit.  Did we just watch the same movie?  Let me see you ticket, does it say ‘Mulholland Dr.’ on it?”

“‘Hey, pretty girl.  Time to wake up.’”

“OK, real cute.  Fine, hot shot.  Let’s hear it.  Enlighten me, my ears are at attention.”

“Right, so, the movie begins, not the story mind you, the movie, it begins with the car crash.  Fade in on a woman escaping being shot in the head by way of a lucky accident.  She hits her head and now has amnesia, right?  So she wanders down into L.A. and goes to the only street she can remember, Franklin Ave. where she wanders over to an apartment that looks familiar.  Luckily, the resident is vacating it at the moment and our little amnesiac finds unexpected sanctuary.”

“So we did see the same movie.”

“In walks, Betty, the virgin to Hollywood.  The innocent girl from Ontario who is in for one mother of a culture shock as she plunges headlong into a broken reality.  She’s naive as hell, to the point of frustration really, and quickly befriends this amnesiac, this stranger, this nobody.  So, together, they turn her into somebody, Rita.  Rita’s got a purse full of cash and this weird blue key.  Now we’ve got Betty and Rita, right?  Pay attention, names are important.”

“Rita and Betty.  A brunette and a blonde.”

“Mmhm.  Meanwhile, while all of that’s going on, the flick is being spliced with scenes about this director guy, Adam, and the movie he’s trying to make being influenced by the mob.  Let that be the extent to which we talk about Adam for now.  We’ll table him for later.”

“Back burner.”

“Right.  Also, we’ve got this weird scene with two dudes at Winkies who talk about dreams then get freaked out by a homeless guy out back.”

“Homeless monster.  He was a monster.”

“Right.  Let’s put that on the back burner, too.”

“Fine, so who’s on the front burner.”

“Let’s just keep following Betty and Rita for a while, see what they’re up to.  At this point they’re getting into their investigation as to who Rita is.  Betty’s curiosity is insatiable.  They stop by the Winkie’s and are served by a waitress, Diane.  Remember what I said about names?”

“Right, Diane is the waitress.”

“So, seeing this waitresses name, Rita remembers a name of her own, ‘Diane Selwyn.’  That’s the only purpose of the waitress, that’s it.  Put her on the furthest back burner before you have the chance to read too far into her.”

“Done.”

“So they find this Diane Selwyn and break into her house.”

“Wait, wait, wait.  This is after Betty auditions and gets that part right, after she visits the director, Adam’s, set?”

“Right, but that doesn’t matter.  Who cares.  Don’t worry about Adam for now, remember he’s on the back burner.  So they go to Diane’s place and break in, what do they see?  What do they smell?”

“A dead body.”

“A decaying dead body.  Betty is slightly taken aback but Rita’s got the howling fantods.  She’s having a grade-A nervous breakdown, on the edge of losing it completely.  They beat it and go home, have some sex and wake up in the middle of the night and head to a weird night club, Silencio.

“No ay banda!”

“Damn right.  There, they both break.  They’re having their own little collective breakdown, or crying session, or realization, whatever you want to call it.  They’re moved is all.  And in Betty’s purse, what do they find?  A pretty blue box.  Blue box, blue key.”

“One plus one equals…”

“They go home, and open the blue box.”

“Betty’s gone and then Rita’s gone.  What the hell happened?  This is where I call B.S. on Lynch.  It was all looking good until that damn blue box.”

“Right-e-o.  So where are we going?  Note the word I used there, ‘we,’ just remember that.  Now we’re back in Diane Selwyn’s apartment, right?  Where she died.  And who’s there?”

“A roughed up Betty.”

“Nope.  That’s Diane.  For now, pretend Lynch ran out of money, and he had to use Naomi Watts for two roles.  Let’s just pretend that for now, for simplicity.  So now we’re in a timeline where we’re following the ridiculously depressed Diane, someone who lives in the grayest, drabbest, darkest existence you can imagine.  This is the beginning of her arc in our eyes.  I’m going to describe her arc in a linear way, but remember, the movie doesn’t tell it that way.  Start with Diane being cast in the same movie as Camilla.  Here, they’re involved in a relationship they–”

“Wait a second.  Camilla.  That’s Rita.”

“Let’s pretend for a second that Lynch ran out of money again.  Pretend Camilla is just another actress in L.A.  She’s a new character to us.”

“Right but in the scenes with Adam and the mob before–”

“Back burner, remember?  Back burner.  Camilla is a new character for now.  So Diane and Camilla are in the same movie and they’re in love or close to it.  In walks Adam who steals Camilla away from Diane and Camilla and Adam fall in love leaving Diane depressed and alone.  Then Adam and Camilla throw some sort of dinner party where they subject Diane to witnessing them loving each other totally crippling her psychologically.  Camilla visits Diane at her place and tries to explain, but Diane is super pissed and tells her to fuck off, basically, right?”

“And then that scene where she’s naked on the couch.”

“Right, ultimately irrelevant because it’s just Diane’s fantasy in her head to masturbate to.  That’s it.  The way it’s edited makes it appear as if it’s more but it’s not.  It could have actually happened but it doesn’t matter.  So but then now Diane can’t take it anymore.  She slings herself into a wild depression and seeks out a hit-man to kill Camilla.  They go meet at Winkies, of course, and they hammer out the details.  The hit is on.  The hit-man tells Diane that she’ll find a blue key when it’s done.  OK, great.  Soon enough, Diane finds that blue key on her coffee table and she totally breaks.  She can’t stand that she hired someone to kill Camilla, the woman she loved.  It tears at her heart and soul and eventually she goes into this hallucinating psychosis where she sees tiny old people chasing her and other insane things.”

“The old people Betty met on the plane.”

“Right.  Remember that, but put it on the back burner.”

“It’s getting awfully crowded back there.”

“So Diane curls up on her bed and puts a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger.  No more Diane.”

“Diane is dead.”

“Diane is dead.  Absolutely.  Silencio.”

“And that’s how the movie ends.”

“Right.”

“So what about all these people on the back burner.”

“Let’s take a look at them.  First we’ve got Adam, the director.  Where does he play into this whole equation?  First let’s figure out where he belongs on the timeline.  The way the story is told is that his scenes are spliced in with Rita and Betty’s which give the appearance that his timeline is happening at the same time as theirs.  This isn’t even remotely close to being true.  Remember how his wife cheated on him?  In terms of chronological order of all the events in the whole movie, we can place that happening as either the first or the second thing that happens.  The other option would be the hit-man stealing that black book and killing those three people.  Those two things happen way, way, way before anything with Camilla, Diane, Rita or Betty.  So now Adam is up shits creek with the mob and is newly single.  What does he do?  He gives in to the mob and casts who they want in his movie:  Camilla.”

“But it’s not the same Camilla.  It’s a different actress.”

“Right.  Two different movies, two different Camillas.  Proof?  They kiss at the dinner party.  Same name, different people.”

“Ugh.  Fine.”

“So he casts Camilla, our Camilla, formerly known as Rita.”

“You said Lynch ran out of money.”

“But now I want you to think of Camilla as the same person as Rita.  Two different identities, same person.  Camilla is pre-car crash brunette.  Rita is post-car crash brunette.  Rita is Camilla with amnesia.  Plain and simple.  With me?”

“Barely.”

“Perfect.  And he also happens to cast Diane as well, just in a supporting role.  At this point it’s safe to say the two ladies are hooking up like crazy when Adam seduces Camilla and steals her away from Diane.  This is when Diane goes into her depression and whatnot.  We see Adam’s storyline spliced into Betty and Rita’s as well as into Diane’s.  It’s a mess.  The point being that Adam stole Camilla away from Diane which slung Diane into depression.  That was his role.”

“OK, so what about the homeless monster?  And what about the guys at Winkies?”

“Easy.  The monster represents the beginning of one person and the end of another.  We first saw him at Winkies, right?  What was the next scene?  Rita sleeping after the car crash and Betty arriving in L.A.  The next time we see him is in Diane’s hallucinations and suicide.  Beginning and end, my friend.”

“So now you’re going to tell me that Diane and Betty are actually the same person and Lynch didn’t run out of money.”

“Bingo.”

“…”

“OK, here’s where it gets weird.”

This is where it gets weird?”

“At first blush, the main character of the movie would appear to be Betty, right?”

“You mean Diane.”

“Let’s just say Naomi Watts.”

“Fine.”

“I submit to you that Laura Herring is actually the main actress in this movie.  Her character, Camilla, is actually the main character in the whole movie.  Not Naomi Watts’s Betty/Diane.  And not Rita.  But Camilla.”

“Big whoop.”

“So let’s follow Camilla’s storyline in terms of chronological events in the story, not in terms of when they’re told in the movie.  To start, Camilla falls in love with Adam.  They have the dinner party.  Diane puts a hit out on Camilla.  Camilla is in a car crash and loses her memory.  She is now an amnesiac and wakes up in a strange apartment that she doesn’t know how she got to.  And in walks Betty.  Who is this Betty person?  Why does she seem so cliche and naive?  Simple, because she’s a figment of Camilla’s imagination created out of distress from not knowing who she is anymore.  It was a psychological release by her subconscious.  Betty was created by Camilla’s subconscious using details of Diane’s arrival in L.A. that Diane told Camilla when they were in relations.  This is all surfacing through Camilla’s subconscious.  Betty is Diane’s origins story just with a different name.  She’s Camilla’s safety net.  Her security blanket.  Her comfort food.  Whatever.  So now, with the help of her imaginary friend Betty, amnesiac Camilla gives herself the name of Rita after Rita Hayworth.  This is why Rita freaks out at the sight of Diane’s dead body, she knew Diane when she, Rita, was Camilla.  Now we’re going through the whole story of Rita/Betty and end up at Silencio after they have sex.  That must have been a pretty groovy hook-up since Betty is just Rita’s imagination.  When they go to the night club, Rita and Betty are struck with some realization, could have been the singer collapsing or her lyrics or the whole No ay banda! thing.  Whatever it was, it woke up Rita to the point that she new she had to open the blue box.  Now the blue box is barely relevant in the story of the characters but in our eyes, it’s key.  Once Rita decides to open the blue box, Betty vanishes.  That’s symbolic of Rita’s subconscious subsiding to the fact that she’s remembering who she was.  Then Rita opens the box and now Rita is gone.  Figuratively, not literally.  The person Rita isn’t gone, just the identity.  The person now becomes Camilla having remembered who she is, and she now goes about her life, whatever that is.  We don’t know and shouldn’t care.  The identity of Rita is sucked into the blue box and is never seen again.”

“And then we get sucked into it.”

“Exactly!  The blue box takes us back in the story’s chronological timeline, it transports us all the way back to when Diane was alive and depressed and helplessly in love with Camilla.  The character Camilla continues on her timeline but we, the audience, get taken back in time.  We’re a character in the story just as much as anyone else.”

“OK, so let me get this straight.  Diane kills herself.  Amnesiac Camilla resurrects her as Betty, who is made up of details of Diane first arriving in L.A.,  and Rita is actually just Camilla under a different name.”

“Right-e-o.”

“And you’re saying that when the movie ends is different from when the story ends?”

“Depends on whose story you’re talking about.  If you’re talking about Camilla’s, then yes.  If you’re talking about Diane’s then no.”

“I’m still not buying it.”

“What’s not to buy?”

“What was with Silencio?  What about the guys at the diner?  And the Cowboy?”

Silencio was just a way to wake up Rita.  It was just a catalyst to her remembering she’s actually Camilla.  The guys at the diner are there for thematic interpretations.  They actually hint at another way to view the whole movie which may be more plausible but also easier.  Their scene occurs exactly after Diane and the hit-man meet at Winkies.  The Cowboy is just a guy that works for the mob.  He threatened Adam, and then he made his presence known to Diane who was messing around with Camilla pre-car crash.  Or maybe he was in on the hit, doesn’t really matter.”

“Wait a second.  There’s an easier way to interpret this mess?”

“Sure.  The Betty/Rita story is just a dream of Diane’s who is looking to escape the harsh realities that she’ll never be with Camilla.  The last third of the movie where Naomi Watts is Diane is the real world, everything else is in her head.  But that’s a tough sell if you ask me.”

“So then Diane is the main character in that sense.”

“Right, Diane or Betty, doesn’t matter.  The weird part about this interpretation is that if we’re witnessing Diane’s dream, we’re also witnessing Adam’s reality spliced into that dream.  What’s the point of doing that from a storytelling point of view?  The only thing that accomplishes is that it makes the telling of Adam’s arc non-linear, but that non-linearness has no effect on the two arcs that actually matter, Diane’s and Camilla’s.  It’s just a way to confuse the audience which would be a pretty dick move by Lynch if you ask me.  Also, that would mean in Diane’s dream Betty and Rita discover Diane’s suicide.  She would have dreamt her own suicide.”

“So I kind of get it now.”

“Pretty cool, right?”

“I just don’t see the point.”

“Well, I think it’s just a way to show that time is more of a concept than a concrete fact.  It’s a way to tell the viewer that you can fracture reality anyway you want, and that the way Lynch fractures reality is close to bats.”

“What a self-indulgent piece of crap.”

“The movie or Lynch?”

“Both.  Subjecting us to this.  Whatever happened to not punishing your audience?”

“Yeah, thinking is a real downer.  It’s better when it’s spoon fed to you.”

“Screw you, man.  Whatever.  You’re going to stick by this?  This genius shtick?”

“Genius?  Maybe.  I’ll tell you this though, he’s a damn good illusionist.”

“Huh?”

No ay banda!