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The Camera Lies

November 24, 2008

According to a widely followed dictum enunciated by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “[i]f in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” As a principle of drama this is, of course, quite sensible. But it leads to the odd effect that, unless you have had personal experience with firearms, chances are you have never seen a gun without soon seeing it used to shoot someone. And even taking into account the fictional nature of most of these “shootings,” it is not surprising that a person who knew about guns only through film and television might have an exaggerated sense of the dangerousness of firearms, or of their association with murder and violence.

Many people are rightly wary of negative depictions of members of various minority groups, on the grounds that they may serve to re-enforce stereotypes about those groups, particularly among those whose main experience of those groups is from film and television. In each case the basic principle is the same. When you lack much personal experience of a group, object, or environment, and encounter fictional depictions of it, you are liable to accept those depictions as accurate, even if they are not a true reflection of reality.

To the extent, then, that we lack much personal experience in an area and know that good fiction is liable to distort depictions of that subject in a particular way, we ought to try and take account of how this bias may effect our views on the subject. Another great Russian writer, for example, began one of his books by saying: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I don’t think this is true of life, but it does seem to be largely true of fiction. Happiness is not only harder to portray in drama than unhappiness, but it’s depiction is also less varied, and tends to consist in many cases of little else than an absence of happiness. If a child grows up seeing case after case of unhappy relationships, unhappy friendships, unhappy work, unhappy marriages, etc., with only an occasional scene or two of bliss before the credits roll, this could very well have an impact on their overall view of the world.

Or, to take another example. Business and commerce when depicted in fiction tend to be depicted negatively. Businessmen are greedy and unscrupulous, corporations are at the center of all kinds of plots and conspiracies, and trade is often a thin veneer placed over fraud and coercion. It is easy to understand, even apart from the ideological dispositions of artists, why businessmen and large corporations would make desirable villains and why positive depictions of the marketplace might not make for interesting drama. But for people who themselves lack much business instinct and have little direct experience of what goes on in a corporate boardroom, might not such repeated impressions create in their minds a more unfavorable impression of markets than they would gain from actually experiencing such things first hand?

Examples could no doubt be multiplied endlessly, but you get the idea. Thoughts?

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19 Comments
  1. Antonio Manetti permalink
    November 25, 2008 4:48 am

    Examples could no doubt be multiplied endlessly, but you get the idea. Thoughts?

    What examples? For a fact-based assessment try:

    http://busmovie.typepad.com/

  2. M.Z. permalink
    November 25, 2008 9:49 am

    I can think of several pro-business movies. Billy Madison. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Although complex, not pure, and based on real life, Schindler’s List would be one. It’s A Wonderful Life features businesses as good too, just not Potter.

  3. November 25, 2008 12:38 pm

    It’s an interesting point; I remember expecting as a child that emotional conflicts could be easily resolved by deep conversations, where the perfect phrase was said and all was made right with the world. The idea is ridiculous once you have lived a while, but I had seen it modeled so frequently in films (and had a very stable home environment) that it took me a while to disentangle the the fictional resolution of emotional conflicts from lived experience. And, of course, real relationships with their more gradual growths and difficulties are a thousand miles away from film depictions. As far as businesses, they often are portrayed as greedy and selfish, but I suspect at least one upcoming project may go too far in the other direction…. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0480239/

  4. Antonio Manetti permalink
    November 25, 2008 3:03 pm

    But for people who themselves lack much business instinct and have little direct experience of what goes on in a corporate boardroom, might not such repeated impressions create in their minds a more unfavorable impression of markets than they would gain from actually experiencing such things first hand?

    Setting aside the cheap shot at those you say “lack much business instinct”, an honest look at what goes on in the boardroom of companies like, say Enron, is just as apt to confirm negative stereotypes.

    Here is a partial list of the more noteworthy recent examples. Note that companies whose business has cost lives, such as tobacco companies or asbestos manufacturers are underepresented. These would make an entire category unto themselves.

    2006 HP Spying Scandal
    Adelphia scandal
    Chiquita Brands International Financing terrorist organizations
    Compass Group, bribed the United Nations in order to win business.
    Enron accounting fraud, involving Arthur Andersen
    Exxon overreporting of oil reserves
    Fannie Mae underreporting of profit
    Firestone Tire and Rubber Company for use of child labor
    Ford Pinto scandal
    Halliburton overcharging government contracts
    Harken Energy Scandal
    Lockheed bribery scandal in Germany, Japan, and Netherlands
    MG Rover Group accounts and pensions scandal
    Morrison-Knudsen scandal Led to William Agee’s ouster
    Nortel executives overstate post-dot-com recovery earnings in order to earn bonuses
    One.Tel collapse
    Options backdating involving over 100 companies
    Parmalat accounting scandal & mutual fund fraud
    Phar-Mor company lied to shareholders. CEO eventually sentenced to prison for fraud and company eventually became bankrupt.
    Refco, Inc. commodities & futures scandal involving hidden debts involving underwritting firms Credit Suisse First Boston, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Corp.
    Rite Aid accounting fraud
    Royal Dutch Shell overstated its oil reserves twice, it downgraded 3.9 billion barrels, or about 20 percent of its total holdings.
    Salad oil scandal, where millions in loans were obtained on largely nonexistent inventories of salad oil
    Tyco International
    Worldcom
    Xerox alleged accounting irregularities involving auditor KPMG, causing restatement of financial results for the years 1997 through 2000 and fines for both companies.

    The issue is that corporate lawbreaking happens so often that we take it for granted. Such stories are now of the “dog bytes man” variety.

    It is easy to understand, even apart from the ideological dispositions of artists, why businessmen and large corporations would make desirable villains and why positive depictions of the marketplace might not make for interesting drama.

    On the contrary, a story about a CEO who chose to behave ethically even at great personal cost would make excellent drama, although it might strain one’s credulity.

  5. blackadderiv permalink
    November 25, 2008 3:17 pm

    Where’d you get the list?

  6. Kurt permalink
    November 25, 2008 4:07 pm

    Where’d you get the list?

    Yeah. it is woefully incomplete. You don’t even have a half of it.

  7. blackadderiv permalink
    November 25, 2008 4:31 pm

    Given that there are literally millions of businesses in the U.S. alone, it would pretty much have to be incomplete.

  8. Antonio Manetti permalink
    November 25, 2008 4:53 pm

    Try googling “corporate scandals list”.

    I found this list at Wikipedia.

    Woefully incomplete you say?

    The goal was not completeness. I could have added more without trying hard, but I thought this was inclusive enough to make my point.

    Also, I notice that no one chose to remark on the issues dealing with loss of life, not to mention the likelihood that should ESCR begin to cure the previously incurable, most pharmaceutical companies will be happy to partake of the benefits.

    Why is that?

  9. Kurt permalink
    November 25, 2008 5:43 pm

    most pharmaceutical companies will be happy to partake of the benefits.

    Why is that?

    Could it be because Big Pharma is already bankrolling ESCR efforts?

  10. November 25, 2008 7:38 pm

    Usum non tollit abusus.

  11. Antonio Manetti permalink
    November 25, 2008 8:20 pm

    Just to make things clear, there are films that show capitalism at it is, for better or worse, and we ought to see more of them. The ones I like are those in which the hero defies the imperatives of the marketplace for ethical reasons, tries to exploit the market to benefit society or truthfully presents the moral complexities.

    In none of these are happy endings guaranteed, but that’s life.

    I’m not into making lists, but here are a few that fall into one or another of the above categories. Some of these are of my own choosing. Others come from the link posted above.

    Dodsworth
    King Rat
    Mr Deeds Goes to Town
    It’s a Wonderful Life
    The Insider
    The Shop Around the Corner
    All My Sons

  12. November 25, 2008 9:14 pm

    I’m not clear how providing a laundry list of companies that did bad things shows that corporations are so universally bad that one should invariably expect them to do wrong. One could produce a far, far longer list of examples in which individual people in any given profession or vocation did horrible things, yet none of these would be taken by any reasonable person as proof that one would never expect to see a positive portrayal of parent, police officers, teachers, pastors, doctors or what have you.

    Why are portrayals in movies of “business” almost invariably negative? Quite possibly because movie studios are almost invariably very large businesses in which management seem like (and often are) high paid, egotistical jerks from the point of view of screenwriters. Also, the number of people who hate their jobs far outweighs the number of people who understand why market places are generally the best way to get things done. So the market for anti-business films is clearly the larger one.

    Still, business can certainly make a good story, especially entrepreneurship. Take a book like the MouseDriver Chronicles:

  13. Mark Sizemore permalink
    November 26, 2008 12:01 am

    I thought about listing around 50 violent criminals of an African-American background, but then realised I’m not a moron.

    [ahem]Antonio[ahem]

  14. Antonio Manetti permalink
    November 26, 2008 4:05 am

    I’m not clear how providing a laundry list of companies that did bad things shows that corporations are so universally bad that one should invariably expect them to do wrong.

    That’s a straw man argument. I was responding to blackadder’s original assertion that the treatment of business in movies and the like is lopsidedly negative. And since, the great unwashed (i.e. those of us who “lack business instincts”) don’t know any better, we accept these narratives uncritically. Therefore, if we were truly exposed to business as the benign force for good that it really is, we would doubtless come away with a far more favorable impression.

    Speak to anyone who had Lehman bonds once rated by S&P to be as safe as T Bills, and ask them what they think. Or maybe you should talk to the AIG annuity owners in retirement who are wondering if the government is going to get tired of propping it up. If the hoi-polloi have a bad impression of busines, it’s because the list of corporate governance failures and abuses is a long one and no amount of propaganda is going to fix that problem.

    Also, the number of people who hate their jobs far outweighs the number of people who understand why market places are generally the best way to get things done. So the market for anti-business films is clearly the larger one.

    You’re conflating the workings of the the marketplace with the workings of business. Hating one’s job and loving the marketplace (or vice versa) are not mutually exclusive.

  15. November 26, 2008 7:50 am

    “Speak to anyone who had Lehman bonds once rated by S&P to be as safe as T Bills, and ask them what they think. Or maybe you should talk to the AIG annuity owners in retirement who are wondering if the government is going to get tired of propping it up.”

    I think you are conflating incompetence with malfeasance. People can make mistakes in valuation, for instance concluding that because real estate prices had never previously dropped significantly, they would not in the future. AIG annuity owners were never really at risk.

    http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/09/if_aig_fails_what_happens_to_m.php

  16. blackadderiv permalink
    November 26, 2008 8:50 am

    I was responding to blackadder’s original assertion that the treatment of business in movies and the like is lopsidedly negative.

    Posting a list of two dozen or so instances of corporate malfeasance isn’t much of a response.

  17. blackadderiv permalink
    November 26, 2008 8:52 am

    By the way, when I speak of people who “lack business instincts” I include myself first and foremost.

  18. November 26, 2008 9:13 am

    Antonio,

    True, those are news stories that people hear, and that adds to the impression. But then, although the media certainly runs stories along the following lines, they’re simply not as memorable as the scandals, even if these are actually more usual than the scandals:

    -Retirees with Apple shares continue to feel relaxed about their future.
    -Buck Knives makes efforts to help relocate as many workers as possible to its new headquarters in Idaho.
    -New brewery provides hope and jobs to struggling small town.
    -Dell offers generous voluntary severance packages to workers to avoid layoffs.
    -Software company founders say they wanted to make accounting easier and more worry free.
    -Local manufacturing firm offers second chance to ex-convicts through rehabilitation program.
    -More tech firms strive to make working from home a real option for new mothers.

    Working from memory, these are all stories that I’ve read in places like the Wall Street Journal and Inc Magazine and Fast Company over the years. Most are just plodding along, doing things right kind of stories. I would imagine that you dug in enough to some of them there’d actually be an interesting story that could be told in a dramatic fashion. (Obstacle overcome is a standard plot, after all.)

    The thing is, scandals are generally more exciting and memorable — not more typical. After all: Try finding twenty long feature articles about famous people with good, faithful, functional marriages. Then try finding twenty feature articles about adultery and divorce. Which kind of story is easier to find? Which is more typical?

  19. Antonio Manetti permalink
    November 26, 2008 5:27 pm

    John Henry said:

    I think you are conflating incompetence with malfeasance. People can make mistakes in valuation, for instance concluding that because real estate prices had never previously dropped significantly, they would not in the future.

    Does S&P or Moody’s simply say “Oops — my bad”, then walk away? No, I’d say malfeasance fits pretty well. See http://www.moneyweek.com/investments/stock-markets/the-great-credit-rating-scandal.aspx for the whole sad story.

    Anyhow, that’s quite beside the point. Blackaddr is asserting (without proof) that:

    1) the dominant portrayal of business in the movies is unfavorable.

    2) All these negative portrayals create an unjustifiably negative bias in the viewer.

    I’m asserting that blackaddr is being selective. Furthermore, I claim that the negative bias (if it exists) is a product of real world events.

    Anyone interested in an attempt at a fact-based assessment of how movies portray the free market and business is invited to follow the link I posted earlier in this thread.

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