Thursday, January 27, 2011

Movies: Take this job and shove it. I'm not getting demonically possessed no more.

It is sometimes theorized that the ability to tell stories, the seemingly innate narrative drive of humans i a byproduct of a survival-critical system meant to allow us to evaluate hypotheticals. At some point, when our tool use and ability to work complex plans as a team grew formidable enough, we suddenly had "fight" next to the reliable "run and scream" as threat countermeasures and we had to figure out option would end best for us. By projecting possible scenarios onto the future, we could weigh the outcomes in advance, hopefully freeing use from trial-and-error experimentation in situations where error = death.

As common sense as this argument is, there are some reasonable objections to it. For example, if it is so survival-critical that we be able to evaluate potential outcomes, why are humans so profoundly bad at logically constructing outcomes from existing evidence? In study after study, we prove that we regularly misidentify risk levels, allow ourselves to be influenced by illogical external factors, reconstitute memories to serve current desires, and otherwise make a real hash the evaluation process. As often as not, it seems we're not evaluating outcomes, but convincing ourselves that the only reasonable outcome is the one we want.

Still objections aside, there's something intuitive about the idea that stories are, essentially, narrative teaching tools. Assuming we accept this, what do we learn from NIght of the Demons, Adam Gierasch's surprising not irredeemable 2009 remake of the 1988 flick of the same name?

There are, I think, several key lessons: patience is a virtue, all things in moderation, don't plunge sharp objects into your breast and then fish them out of your vajayjay - all important things to know. But the lesson I most took to heart was this: don't work for morons.

After a nicely done black and white intro, the first 15 or 20 minutes of NotD is essentially a long character introduction montage. We get a few scenes, crammed next to one another, introducing the main protags as they go about their early evening Halloween activities. This obligatory mise en place is handled in a perfunctory manner, though the fact that Gierasch's characters are, at their core, blank narrative functions, gives the scenes a weird disconnected aimlessness that verges on the creative. We know we're being getting the key players introduced not because we're learning important details about the characters or we're seeing crucial plot points come into focus, but rather know, through the Propp-like understanding of horror narratemes that genre fandom has given us, that we always spend a few moments meeting the victim pool. Since the very definition of this narrative unit, "meet the victim pool," tells us all we really need to know about what we're seeing, there's no story-telling demands placed on the director and he can just wander about post-Katrina NOLA giving us disjointed bits of his characters' lives. It's the extremely poor man's horror-inflected Short Cuts.

It during this scene that we meet Colin, a down on his luck, small time drug dealer played by a very down-on-his-luck looking Eddie Furlong. For those of us who haven't been keeping track of Mr. Furlong's post-T2 career (and I'm willing to wager that there's more of us who haven't than have), there's something almost poignant about Furlong's current bagginess. In Colin's intro, he's got to confront Nigel. In the world of professional illicit substance retailing, Colin is Nigel's direct report. We catch Colin at his mid-year interim review. Nigel, it's revealed, is not happy. Colin doesn't have many accountabilities - all three of them are "make Nigel a lot of money" - but Nigel's put Colin down for "needs improvement, with extreme prejudice" in all three.

Colin tries to argue that people don't want to pay Nigel's prices.

Nigel counters by explaining the law of supply and demand. The supply of drugs has remained: "The drug supply around here hasn't changed." However, demand has increased: "We are in a city that was destroyed by a fucking hurricane. People are desperate, people are unhappy, they want their fucking drugs." This combo - steady supply and increasing demand - should lead to higher prices. In fact, Nigel says, with typically villainous confidence, there's "no way" prices could go down.

Colin passively agrees to this logic and tells Colin he'll try to make is Q3 numbers by making a big push at a massive Halloween party that's going down. He is, of course, subsequently trapped in a cursed mansion, chased around by flesh-craving demons, and generally made unhappy unto death.

But it didn't have to be this way. Nigel's actually wrong about the situation and a massive push in Q3, at Nigel's higher prices, probably wouldn't help them hit their numbers. Why? Because they're in a city that was, to use Nigel's phrase, "destroyed by a fucking hurricane."

Nigel's mistaking individual demand with demand understood as a market aggregate. No doubt the drug users of New Orleans still want their dope. Their drug users, it's really the only consistent thing about them. What's putting the cramp in Nigel's numbers isn't that drug users want drug less than they used to, but rather that there are simply less drug users around. After Katrina, about 40% of New Orleans's population left the town. In the course of a few weeks, the population of the city dropped from about 450,000 to to just 270,000. Admittedly, given the socio-economics of drug use, I think we can assume that drug users, as a group, were not proportionally affected by the depopulation; but even if we say they stayed at a noticeably higher rate - say, +10% - then you've still lost 30% of your drug taking population.

Let's make a simple model. Let's say, pre-Katrina, Nigel had a customer base of 10,000 drug users. We're going to measure their aggregate demand in an imaginary unit called a Burroughs. Casual users, which make up the bulk of Nigel's customer base, contribute one Burroughs each to the aggregate demand. Let's say that 80 percent of Nigel's customer base - or 8,000 drug users - are casual users. They contribute 6,000 Burroughi to the aggregate demand. The remaining 2,000 users are hardcore users who contribute two Burroughi a piece to the aggregate.

Pre-Katrina aggregate demand of Nigel's clients = (8,000 x 1) + (2,000 x 2)
= 8,000 + 4,000
= 12,000

Now, let's remove 30% of the drug dealing population, assuming for the sake of simplicity that both segments of Nigel's customer base were impacted equally. Thirty percent of 8,000 is 2,400. That leaves us with a casual user base of 5,600. If we remove 30% of the hardcore users - 600 users - we're left with 1,400 users.

Post-Katrina aggregate demand of Nigel's clients = (5,600 x 1) + (1,400 x 2)
= 5,600 + 2,800
= 8,800

Now, arguably, the movement of casual users to hardcore users could eventually push demand back up to pre-Katrina levels. But for that to happen, 4000 casual users - more than 70% - would had to have made the cross over. This seems unlikely to me, but not impossible. I think there's every possibility Nigel's full of crap and he's suffering under the delusion that there far more aggregate demand out there than there really is.

Furthermore, Nigel's probably making matters worse by jacking up his price. Faced with lower revenues, Nigel's charging more to recoup the lost revenue. In a low demand, high supply market, this drives users to cheaper sources. This means Nigel's got more costs to recoup, which history suggests he'll try to recoup by jacking up his prices. Basically, Nigel's shoddy grasp of market economics is putting his drug biz into a death spiral. And that, more than Colin's half assed pushing, is the problem.

But Nigel is stupid, so Colin gets his soul ripped from his body and ends up dead.

Lesson: If you don't want to be hideously used by a gang of sadistic demons, don't work for a dummy.


Heather Santrous said...

Last time I checked, lipstick wasn't sharp. ;)

CRwM said...

Oh, in that case, totally do do shove it into your boob and whip out your bloody hootilly-hoo. So long as it isn't sharp. :)

Sasquatchan said...

I googled the title, and since google happily provides "image results" as part of the search, I saw a lot of soft core action..

That being said, lets also consider where/how drug users get their money to buy their drugs as well. If the town's wrecked, the usual day-work jobs are gone, infrastructure for busking (and tourists) are non-existent.. There may be plenty of wrecked places to pillage, but no market to sell.. No one to mug on a street corner..

Heather Santrous said...

I think I will pass. While it might get a strong reaction at a party, it just isn't my style. Btw, did you get my email? It wasn't anything important but thought I would check.

CRwM said...

I owe you an email Heather.

Sarah said...

I audibly guffawed mid-reading when I saw where you were going with this. Nice economics lesson.

I'm iffy on the original film, so I've been looking forward to watching the re-make as soon as Netflix Autoplay will let me get through it.