Saturday, January 29, 2011


Simple Math

Based upon the bestselling book written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics the film is an omnibus of shorts, where different filmmakers adapt a segment of the book for their respective sections, and then putting them all together into a feature length documentary. In some ways, it could have been directed by an invisible hand rather than the "big name" documentarians of today and probably still come up on tops, since the subject matter is rather contentious at best, and in my opinion, a little bit too stretched.

For my limited understanding of basic economic principles from school, there's hardly any straightforward demand and supply theories that can be applied by anyone not too well versed with various theorems and hypotheses that Economics deal with, though you need not have intimate knowledge of the subject in order to view the film. I thought it was more of a sociology experiment, since there are many of topics here that deal with the basic human condition on social principles rather than an economic standpoint, and in many ways, through its touted in depth analysis, it's more akin to hammering a square peg into a round hole.

It adapts from chapters in the book such as discovering cheating as applied to teachers and delving deep into the closed community of sumo wrestlers, the patterns that emerge with the naming, or misnaming of children, and how bribery can be used as an incentive to succeed. You can imagine how economics can be applied to these, so perhaps it's quite apt that the concepts discussed are freakish to begin with. Economics theories and principles are filled with plenty of assumptions and "ceteris paribus"es, so in twisting some of these assumptions, what you get is the content as explained in Levitt and Dubner's book, which are adapted by the likes of Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), Rachel Grady and Heldi Ewing (Jesus Camp), and put all together with various transitional, brief topics by Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).

Perhaps the only economics related idea here is how the lack of information and irrational choices by consumers have led to skewed markets, which goes to show the sneaky arsenal of tactics that real estate agents have up their sleeves to manipulate markets to their advantage. But while you shouldn't expect economics to fit into most of the subject matter discussed here, the concept that gets explained are incredibly sexy, and brought out through eye-catching methods, sometimes with the use of effective animation like a lubricant to force ideas down and eventually nailing that square peg into the round hole.

What's more important is the fact that we cannot deny the little things everyone does to get ahead, where the objective is to use whatever means possible to get a desired outcome. The teacher and results segment remind one about how school ranking pressures here become an obsession, with results to the detriment of those who somehow fall by the sidelines, and how an elite community help each other to stay afloat for various benefits and back-rubbing. It's human nature to seek out competitive advantage, and one constant in sitting through the various topics and scenarios presented, is how data mining (a term I got introduced to when in varsity) has that ability to present a wealth of information that can be used to analyze for gaining that upper hand. Businesses use it, and so does the many researchers of topics in Freakonomics.

You won't become an expert or a whiz after viewing this, but what it'll open your eyes and mind to, are the plenty of behind the scenes shenanigans that even the seemingly innocent industry or individual get up to, that indeed like the tagline of the film says everything has a hidden side to them. It's really more than meets the eye, and presented here in a very alluring manner.

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