Tuesday, December 9, 2008

So Much Depends On "Napoleon Dynamite"

The people in charge of Netflix are disappointed by their movie recommendation algorithm. The customers of NetFlix are even more disappointed. So the people in charge have opened up the code, allowing anyone to see it, and asked for edits to the program that would improve their customers’ satisfaction rates. The Sunday New York Times Magazine had a story about the search for a better algorithm in a recent issue.
To make recommendations, NetFlix runs a program much like that used by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other online retailers. It looks at what you have rented or purchased and asks you to rate as many films, books, or purchases as you have patience to rate. Then the numbers get crunched, you get compared to many, many other customers and their ratings, and out comes a recommendation for you. It may say something like, “Other customers who have liked that movie you just rated so highly have also watched and enjoyed ‘Porky’s Two—The Next Day.’ Would you like to add it to your cart now?”

Approximately seven out of ten times, the software at NetFlix gets it right and the customer actually rents, watches, enjoys, and rates the movie highly. Management would be much happier with a success rate of 80% or higher. They feel they have taken the code as far as they can on their own and now it is time to see what the dedicated amateurs can do. After looking through the data, many of those entering the contest have come to the same conclusion: the programmer who can figure out what to do with “Napoleon Dynamite” will win the prize.

“Napoleon Dynamite”, it turns out, provokes VERY strong feelings in people. And unpredictably so. Customer rankings of that one movie don’t seem to correlate in any predicable way with any other set of films. People who otherwise seem to have exactly the same taste, even on obscure foreign films and artsy French New Wave cinema, disagree strongly on “Napoleon Dynamite.” And because of this film and a few others that push people’s buttons just as hard and just as unpredictably, the software seems stuck in the 70% Success range.

I thought of this “Napoleon Dynamite” conundrum yesterday on the train into New York. We had convinced some new friends to spend a fair chunk of money and much of a Sunday going to the city to see "Slava’s Snowshow". It is very hard to describe Slava’s Snowshow to anyone who hasn’t seen it. In fact, it is very hard to describe Slava’s Snowshow to myself—and I HAVE seen it. The best I can do is say that Slava is a Russian existentialist clown who is equal parts Charlie Chaplain and Vladimir from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Erica, Isabel, and I have seen Slava three times now and we think it is brilliant. I really do think Slava himself should win a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

But suddenly it struck me that I didn’t really know these people all that well and here I was asking them to trust me on an item as personal as taste in quirky performances. I had a flash of a scene in my mind of our friends rising in the middle of the first part of the show, grabbing their five year-old by the hand, and storming out in a huff, muttering about “what a waste of money—this is so STUPID.”

“Napoleon Dynamite” makes for such a tricky flick because it is so unpredictable. A person would be on solid ground recommending many movies to a friend whose taste they were somewhat familiar with, but not Napoleon Dynamite. It is simply too quirky and too unpredictably polarizing. Sitting on the train I was suddenly afraid that maybe Slava’s Snowshow was the Broadway version of Napoleon Dynamite.

As things turned out, my fears were unfounded. Our friends loved the show and we had a good time. But the whole experience got me thinking about preferences and about how much or how little our taste in books, movies, television shows, sports teams, music, etc. says about us and how much we feel other people's taste in these same domains says about them.

I imagine we can use our preferences as shorthand. We can employ them to send signals to others when we want to communicate something about ourselves. If the others are tuned to the signal, it works and a message is sent. It might not always be the message we think we are sending, but it certainly gives others information about us. On the train ride back from New York I nodded off thinking that it would be great to have a constellation of books, movies, television series, and musical acts that would best represent Erica and me to the world and act as a clear signal of who we are and what we are like. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more important it seemed to me that Erica and I create a list of cultural and artistic references that we can drop into conversations with new potential friends to measure their reactions and thus decide if they are worth pursuing as friends.

It would save so much time and effort if, instead of trading dinner invitations and play dates between our kids, we could just show each other our lists and decide from there. I might be on to something. It would be like speed dating for couples. I know already our list would include the television series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Flight of the Conchords," music by Greg Brown and Kevin Johansen, the movies "Being John Malkovich" and "The Lives of Others," and books like "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and "Mating."

Though I would probably leave off "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Slava's Snowshow", just to be safe.


  1. There are other films like this I think... for example... My sister said that she and her husband thought "Galaxy Quest" was stupid. I told this to Colin and he replied, "It is!! but it's hilarious!!"

    I think there has to be some kind of subtly quotient is measuring the films your like. For example, you have to sort of pay attention hear and get the hilariousness of Sigourney Weaver's line from GQ: "Let's get out of here before one of those things kills Guy!" I am sure my sister totally missed it. It's a brainy line in the middle of a "stupid" movie. Hence Allan Rickman's appearance in it.

    "LA Story" is like that too. "Finally, a funny gravedigger." It is subtle and so hilarious. And brainy. Not at all like "The Jerk" for example. It is also not just funny, but kind of existential... uncomplex and non-brainy sorts hate that crap.

    Obviously I adored Napolean Dynamite.

  2. I loved Galaxy Quest--and i think you are right about its status as a polarizing movie. Alan Rickman is amazing.

  3. What an interesting idea, to compile a list of movies, albums and books as a way of constructing and projecting your identity to the world. I'm a big fan of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," but I don't reveal this to everyone, for fear of the labels such a revelation might subject me to. And I have lent my "Flight of the Conchords" disk to folks I was sure would appreciate it, but who returned it to me with a sideways look and a mumbled apology: "Couldn't make it through the first episode. Too oddball."

    I've also found that Royal Tenenbaums can provoke reactions angry and gleeful. I think it's Owen Wilson's best film, but, as we've seen with Napoleon Dynamite, Wes Anderson's films are like that quirky guy in school who loves Monty Python and Frank Zappa and who unabashedly laughs in the face of fashion and convention: he's both magnetic and maddening in his eccentricity.

    I'm intrigued by your review of "Slava's Snowshow." May try to fit it in this season.