Friday 29 November 2013

Effectiveness Case Study: My Winnipeg

This is the seventh post in my attempt to hierarchize media uses according to a utilitarian rubric. My first six posts dealt with James Cameron’s Avatar, Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, Homer’s The Odyssey, Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera, the Idle No More movement, and with producing media for a good cause such as the Against Malaria Foundation. In this post, I examine the effectiveness of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. This is a Canadian movie made in 2007 that I’ll use as a rough stand in for “art house and independent cinema.”

My Winnipeg is an experimental cross between autobiography, tourist film, and dark comedy. It features Maddin’s traditional use of retro black-and-white visuals, Soviet Montage-style editing, nightmarish imagery, and Silent Era intertitles – but with a voiceover that makes My Winnipeg more accessible than any of Maddin’s other films. The voiceover makes the film feel like a traditional documentary, one in which a filmmaker reminisces about his experiences in his hometown. Of course, many of the “facts” in this documentary aren’t true, some scenes are recreated for dramatic effect, and the film is shot and edited in a style unique to Maddin.

It’s often thought that the increased sophistication of art house films makes them better than mainstream entertainment. But when our criterion for “good” is based on consequences, this may no longer be the case. Will this film, so different from Avatar, receive different scores?

Strength of Impact:
  1. How many people does the project reach?
  2. How significantly does it impact the people it reaches?
  3. How likely are the people it impacts to spread this impact?
  4. How long lasting is its impact?
  5. How grave was the issue pre-impact?
My answers: 
  1. Medium
  2. Low
  3. Low
  4. Low
  5. Low

In terms of SoI, My Winnipeg is just like Avatar except it reaches less people. If anything, some of the “Lows” here, such as SoI-2, would be won by Avatar if there existed a tiebreaker.

Although My Winnipeg is an intelligent, original, and funny film, there’s no reason to assume that it changes people more than Hollywood films do. If anything, it’s less likely to result in narrative transportation and thus less likely to affect viewers. The degree to which intelligent, original, and funny thoughts and experiences alter people is mostly guesswork, but I suspect each viewer is affected in his or her own way. That isn’t a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t scream “optimal.”

According to my basis for valuing art, I can see no reason to expect My Winnipeg to affect people more strongly than Avatar, or for longer, or to make them more likely to pass anything relevant on to others.

Quality of Impact:
  1. How much does it increase the accuracy of people's models of reality?
  2. How much does it improve people's quality of life?
  3. How much more likely does it make people to act altruistically toward others?
My answers:
  1. 0
  2. +1
  3. 0

I again have no reason to score this differently than Avatar. It doesn’t really hold any educational value – and if it does, the knowledge in the film is countered by the fact that there is much false information that is easy to be intertwined with fact – and it certainly doesn’t make people more likely to act altruistically toward others. It is, however, an enjoyable, thought-provoking, emotional experience, and for that it scores a point to QoI-2.

If there is a mistake anywhere in these scores, it’s in the answer to QoI-1. Although My Winnipeg isn’t very educational in the sense of teaching basic facts, maybe it teaches critical thinking skills by forcing viewers to parse fact from fiction, or emotional knowledge by showing them complex emotional experiences, or social skills by making them put themselves in the mind of the narrator. These are plausible and they are part of what QoI-1 is meant to encompass. I’m simply not convinced that anyone is leaving My Winnipeg with more of these skills, certainly not with noticeably more of these skills than they’d get out of the average movie.

By being more sophisticated than Avatar, the film might be better at making viewers more sophisticated or more thoughtful or see the world in a new light. I think that is true to an extent, but I’m skeptical of the idea that people learn core ideas and values through art. This is a somewhat arbitrary call though and My Winnipeg may deserve a +1 in answer to QoI-1.

According to my criteria, art house films are not inherently more effective than Hollywood blockbusters, even if it possesses more of the traditional criteria of artistic greatness. Unless the art house film is especially likely to provoke specific patterns of thinking or specific actions, the difference in “greatness” might not actually amount to anything worth caring about. More research needs to be done on the concrete benefits of standard criteria of artistic greatness.

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