Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Madagascar: In Retrospect

Warning: Here Be Spoilers




Those are the years that the main Madagascar films were released in. And you can see some of the changes in computer animation over that time. It's a bit like watching the Incredibles versus The Incredibles 2 or the Toy Story Trilogy but not quite as stark. And there's a reason for this: Madagascar was released and developed basically concurrently with a much prettier movie called The Wild (2006) but it looks wildly different. You see, Madagascar is very stylised. Very. And part of the reason for this is corporate espionage alerted Dreamworks to The Wild and so they rushed Madagascar to get first mover advantage. It worked. Madagascar has a trilogy, a spinoff film and a television series. The Wild? Hell, do people even remember it? I was eleven, it should be a nostalgia film, right?

If you read the link I just gave you, you'd notice that the reviewer thinks The Wild is a better film. That's... probably not true. Reviewers, in general, are way too far up their own arses. They watch movies in ways removed from how adult target audiences consume films and value different things about them. For a profession whose social utility is largely founded on their ability to distil hours of content into a short read that can be used to determine how to spend rather a lot of money, reviewers are... ill adapted to their environment. That's a Darwinian metaphor, to be clear. Reviewers get even worse when the target audience is children. I don't know how many reviewers have kids but I'm willing to bet that the proportion who pay attention to the child reception of a film is pretty low. You shouldn't be able to review a children's movie without watching it with children. I'd be very surprised if this is the way they do make these sorts of reviews.

Madagascar succeeded in ways The Wild just didn't because it's in equal measures manic and sentimental. You don't lose attention at any point because it balances the two. Its sequels aren't quite as good at this. Escape 2 Africa's main storyline is way too sentimental for me. Now, I'm on an extreme end when it comes to sentimentality but one of the reasons why the manic side plots (the Penguins and the Lemurs) work is because they contrast with something. The third film is... disappointing and fairly non-memorable. I watched Escape 2 Africa because not all the manic parts are (easily found???) on Youtube. I watched Europe's Most Wanted today because I couldn't remember it... to a large extent the third film is too manic, putting the Penguins too close to the main plot and I've never been a fan of its particular brand of sentimentality. But I'm not a kid any more. Hell, I haven't been a "child" for a decade now. I'm 23. So, what do I think now?

Madagascar's three films are about a group of four friends who want to go home. The first film shows how Marty is beginning to wonder if there's more to life... and his feelings of dissatisfaction are projected onto the wild (a bit like the great outdoors or the greener grass on the other side of the bridge). Marty's fascination ultimately gets the friends stuck on Madagascar where they have to try and survive. It's a film which engages with the sense of home, the disappointment of dreams and the carnivorous nature of lions. At the end of the film, the friends just want to go back home. Which they try to do but, well, this.

The second film sees Alex, the main character, return to the Nature Reserve he was abducted from as a cub. This is the real Wild that Marty was initially dreaming of. It doesn't really work out for the friends. They are definitely zoo animals at heart and what they "learn" in this film is more or less to be okay with themselves. Melman and Gloria get together, for instance. Alex is his kind of lion and Marty his kind of zebra. It seems, therefore, that it's best to go home, i.e. back to Central Park Zoo.

The third film starts off with a gag from the second film... at one point Gloria's would-be love interest Moto Moto digs up a whole bunch of gems and a lot of gold when looking for water. The penguins and the two chimpanzees (Mason and Phil) want to use this to gamble in Monaco so they fly off on their aeroplane-copter having said they'll return (Skipper reveals that was a lie on take-off). The friends then (somehow) make their way to Monaco, leave with the Penguins and join the circus to be incognito in Europe. Eventually they get back to the Zoo and decide it was not for them any more. It's too small and too restrictive now. The circus is best for them, they decide. And that's really how it ends. After two and a half films of wanting to go home, they decide that's not them any more.

The end of the Madagascar series is, thus, a massive cliche. This is how these things always end. Just for once I want to watch something where they learn their original intentions were right. Hell, they don't need to do any learning.

In the case of Madagascar it's completely understandable why they "can't go home again" because even ignoring their nostalgising when they are put back in their cages they're, well, cages. That's not what they wanted and it's not even what they remembered. And they were turning against the zoo before the zoo staff acted and made additions in case I'm leaving you confused. This is probably true of most of the stories that you see out there in the fictional worlds we dream up and consume: these "lessons" characters learn always make sense. But in the real world people aren't really like this. Of course, it's very hard to break one's life up into a story sized chunk and the best one can do is usually something like the first Madagascar film which ends with the friends trying to get back, their mission obviously incomplete but a story arc completed nonetheless. In real life we experience a whole bunch of things and of course we learn things from them but usually they don't involve total reversals of this kind. Yet the clearest way to show character "growth" in fiction is clear changes even if that's not really what growth is.

When it gets down to it, I should really bring a whole bunch of examples to bear here. Even if my case isn't true I could at least demonstrate the validity of my complaint as a critique of my personal sampling of fiction. I haven't done that. It's too much. Mostly I'm just a little dissatisfied with a creative direction a series of films I started watching as a child went. I think it's because I dislike a cliche but maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe my problem runs a bit deeper. All I really know is that I have it. I can see how and why it makes sense but it's not me.

The Madagascar film series is entirely enjoyable. The first film is probably its best but its successors provide a coherent and logical (if increasingly absurd but that's okay) conclusion to the same problems posed and presented by the first one. The spinoff Penguin film isn't awful but it is very forgettable... the television show spinoff about the Penguins was pretty good when I was watching it but that was a long time ago now and I've forgotten it. If you've got kids or like kids films as films made for kids, I really don't see what you could have against this franchise. We are here to be entertained and regardless of whether or not you're a fan of all the story elements, these are entertaining films.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

University Admissions in the USA

I remember watching an episode of Bones once way back when where Cameron's daughter wanted to go to uni and had to write an essay. This is, to my knowledge, a standard process in the US but it's rare here... to my knowledge Auckland asks for additional materials of this kind (essays and portfolios and the like) for only a few programmes. We also don't have anything like the SAT of The Perfect Score's set-up, with entrance to university being based on school results only. On the whole, I prefer our system but the American one is much more Romantic. (Americans wanting to come to Auckland are entered based off their SATs.)
A movement in the arts and literature that originated in the late 18th century, emphasising inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual.
I'm not sure how common it is to think of the messy world of university admissions in the States as a Romantic process but it's a very apt description, I think. I mean, the essays are all about these Romantic ideals from my handy dandy dictionary to my understanding (I've never written one nor seriously researched them; in hindsight I wish I'd thought of the idea of... and had the readies for... applying to an American university to see what it's really like when I was in year thirteen but I did not). The political mess over the process probably really comes down to Romanticism too... Affirmative Action is all about "holistic" admissions in practice (see: subjectivity) and ultimately the charitable take on much opposition to Affirmative Action is individualistic (because, America). At least, that's what my 3am brain thinks when I read this.

What I really want to just briefly discuss (because 4am) is the whether or not universities have any right to choose what their student body looks like. Let's forget about Affirmative Action and instead think about that instead.

In practice, people tend to sort themselves. As a result, people typically live near people broadly like them and have friend groups broadly like them. My brother's friends, for instance, definitely wouldn't be used for the main cast of a contemporary sitcom but you might find them in a 1990s version. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration but my own friends are more diverse... to an extent (I have few close Polynesian friends). Why has this happened? In my case it's largely due to a quirk of the academic streaming at my college (secondary school) with some other factors I don't understand... like I can tell how I know persons A and B but how C and D came to be friends with them too I do not know and it's that we all know each other that really matters. With my brother's friends? Yeah, I can't tell you why my brother is friends with anyone because I don't know (I just know most of his friends). But it's probably a fairly similar story. Self Sorting happens because similar people have similar responses to the same stimuli and, furthermore, similar people are similarly likely to experience given stimuli.

If you are a university, you quite likely do not like self sorting. It's boring. It's dull. And if you're a university you're meant to be stimulating and cultured. It's kind of the whole point. So if self sorting is bad you're going to want to do something about it, right? This is where things get interesting.

Anyone who's got any familiarity with Sherlock Holmes or Around the World in Eighty Days knows about Victorian social clubs. And they know that they had a tendency to be male spaces for men. This kind of exclusion is problematic these days. Now, I'm of the mind that you should be able to make gender specific formal clubs if you want. These are, after all, formalised friend groups and the manifest difference between an informal group of friends and a formal one is that the former's membership dues are unspoken and unthought of not that they don't exist. Extending this to the issue of ethnicity (or, in the States, race) gets even more complicated. But the impression I get is that both exercises are illegal because they're held to be discriminatory (which, er, they are).

I think this is generally how Affirmative Action is seen by its opponents... manipulating admissions in order to achieve cohort characteristics rather than evaluating individuals individually. The key difference is that the cohort characteristics aren't binary in groups and out groups but rather loose quotas of multiple categories. That's not actually a substantive difference is what I mean, it's just a quirk. Hence, the challenge is to find ways of achieving cohort characteristics without relying on individual characteristics implicated in discrimination. And that's holistic admissions in a nutshell.

Remember how I said similar people tend to respond in the same way to things and that they tend to experience similar things to begin with? Well, this is the logic of holistic admissions as an alternative to "conventional" Affirmative Action based on discriminatory characteristics. After all, it's possible to choose things which are associated with gender or ethnicity and if you look at those *and* academics *and* gender/ethnicity it's all okay because it's a "factor of a factor of a factor" or something like that. But you're going to get the fat kids and the weird kids who get picked last for the sports team and they'll be disappointed because getting picked last here means "not getting in". But here's the thing... the sports team wouldn't be as good were these kids picked earlier and lit's similar for the student body.

In a university of 40,000 students like Auckland, there's really no point in fiddling with admissions because no-one knows anyone and even if they did the odds they're actually on campus are very low. Universities tend to not be quite this big in the States and even when they are campuses are a lot stickier so fiddling around with the student body's composition can add value. You can make a more interesting university. And I think, if I wanted, I should be able to choose the incoming students such that they all play President, support Arsenal and, what else have I discussed here... let's see... ah, that'll do, read Discworld novels. This wouldn't necessarily be the most fascinating student body but it's not daft to put things in these terms. There is value in having this student body and there's a different value in that student body and it just so happens universities have a vested interest in defeating self sorting.

In R there are automated ways of drawing samples and it's easy to calibrate them so that they broadly line up with reference populations. I don't know if it'd be legal but in theory you could put every applicant who looks like they could succeed (and, remembering, some of these will look like they could blow peoples' socks off whereas others will merely look like passing) into a list and then draw a sample calibrated to some desirable reference population. Everyone who'd get in would be in for a pseudo-random reason but not every applicant would have an equal chance of getting in. You could even do this several times and give each applicant a point every time they get in the final sample... probably using a different reference population each time. Factor of a factor of a factor...