I was stoked for the 2nd installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug. Peter Jackson had so far proved himself an adequate steward of Tolkien on the big screen. I didn't agree with all of his artistic decisions, but I understood them at least, and could forgive him the occasional gaffe simply because he got most things right. I'd give him a B+, perhaps even an A- for his work on the Lord of the Rings, and the first installment of The Hobbit looked like it was going to continue in this tradition.
The Hobbit is not a large book. So stretching the middle third of it out into a 2.5 hour movie was going to involve some creative plotting. But that's okay, there were actually quite a few little adventures the dwarves and Bilbo got into while crossing Mirkwood, plus I knew they would be delving into auxiliary material covering Gandalf's adventures with the Necromancer, so I wasn't too concerned.
So I was a little surprised and concerned when the band got through Mirkwood, apparently in less than 1 day. Literally, "We're going in circles, oh no, spiders!" and then they were in the Elven King's dungeons, and Mirkwood was dispensed with. Jackson apparently wasn't going to spin out the movie with the awesomeness of the dark forest. Shame, so much potential for medieval mythic imagery, and the Faerie-like trickery of the dark sylvan elves. But he just phoned it in, recycling old Elvish art direction from Rivendell and Lorien, despite the differences in the elf cultures described by Tolkien.
To make up for dropping all of the Mirkwood potential (perhaps the DVD will reinsert them as bonus scenes), he added a ridiculous barrel-riding chase scene, and an extended Laketown sequence that tried to evoke political intrigues for no apparent reason. It was here that I began to get deeply concerned about an impending shark jump. Jackson split the dwarf band in two, leaving behind 3 dwarves in Laketown, which then led to an orc attack, and an elvish counter-attack... inside Laketown. Perhaps I am alone in wondering how this could go down in a fortified town of hardy northern men without any of them getting involved. This skirmish did nothing to advance the story, so I can only assume that there is more nonsense to come that will only become apparent in the next movie, so we have that to look forward to.
Meanwhile, Thorin and the rest of the company rush to the Lonely Mountain in a single day, get into the secret side door, and send Bilbo in on reconnaissance. Another hasty rush through essential plot points--which is alarming, because there is close to an hour of movie to go.
And then the movie goes completely off the rails.
I'm not going to dissect it in detail, because frankly, it was just plain stupid and I have no desire to re-live it. But suffice it to say that the 10 remaining dwarves get into a running battle with Smaug the dragon, and defeat him by taking a few minutes out to smelt more gold than exists in the whole world, cast a huge statue of a dwarf, and use it to flabbergast Smaug long enough that they can attempt to drown him in a veritable lake of molten gold.
In a feat of 1990s-level CGI, Smaug emerges from the gold like a glistening T-1000, and decides at that point that he should just abandon his lair and gold to these intruders, and fly off to Laketown, because... well who the hell knows at this point!? I'd like to say "because that's what he did in the book!" but that clearly was not a concern during the preceding 45 minutes of fucktardery.
I'll be looking forward to the fan re-edit of this one--one that drops the idiotic "action" sequences that do nothing to advance the story, and restores some of the faerie whimsy tone that was enticingly present in the first instalment. I'll also spend a lot of time wondering what Guillermo Del Toro might have done instead.
And he chose this over Synecdoche, NY. I guess some things in life just defy analysis.
But this does raise the question: what are the absolute worst best films of all time? Here's my list, and I'm putting Tree of Life in the #1 position, just because it's annoying me right now.
I recently turned my attention back to groovology, in an attempt to find a scientific answer to
an age-old question: who was the greatest band of all time? There are
lots of opinions out there, of course, but unlike those musical
pundits, I have data. Hard, hard data, and the numbers never lie.
I tried numerous formulae to aggregate the grooviness data for
various artists, and finally settled on a formula that rewards not
quantity nor quality, but quantity of quality. Furthermore, the formula
punishes producers of inane drivel. A band with 3 consistently good #1
hits can outscore a band with 6 number ones of varying quality, and
both will outscore a band with 9 hits that were pure drivel. The basic
method is to sum the grooviness quotient for all of the band's #1
tunes, adjusted so that drivel counts as negative groove. The median
score ("tolerably bland") is slightly positive, so a high number of
hits should, on average, count as positive groove. For reference, a
score of 100 is equivalent to 2 holy-shit-that-was-awesome number 1
hits, or 10 meh-that-was-okay-but-ultimately-forgettable number 1
hits. Since this measures quantity of quality, this is really a
measure of how good the artist was at making good music, and not a
direct measure of the quality of the music itself.
On to the results, then. The 25 grooviest acts of all time are shown below. Aggregate grooviness scores are shown; ties are broken using average grooviness (this favours artists that make fewer but better #1 hits over artists that churn out more, but blander #1 tunes).
The Beatles took the #1 spot, by a shockingly large margin. Rumours of them being the greatest band ever appear to be confirmed. Elvis, who is also claimed to be the greatest rock-and-roller ever, actually had more #1 hits (23 to the Beatles' 18), but he also churned out a huge amount of drivel, which negatively impacted his overall rating. Abba turned in a surprisingly good performance at #3; they weren't musically great (not even making the top 10 in terms of average song grooviness) but they were very consistent, and they cranked out more #1 hits than the Stones, who came in at #4. Eminem beat Madonna for the #7 spot, on account of achieving a grooviness score of 160 with only six #1 hits, whereas Madonna's blander music required twelve #1's to achieve the same score. The Kinks got to #9, right below Madonna, on the strength only three songs.
Some other interesting facts:
We can attempt to normalize the grooviness of the band by dividing their score by the number of hits. This basically removes quantity from the above equation, allowing us to compare the actual grooviness of the music, rather than the artists' ability to produce grooviness. To exclude one-hit wonders, I only considered acts with at least 3 #1 hits. In this case, our top-10 are:
Interestingly, this list contains only two American acts, both with female leads - Blondie and Connie Francis. The other eight are European, 6 from the UK, one Irish, and one Swedish. This is partly due to the data being UK #1 hits, of course. But it's not that Americans are under-represented: Elvis has 23 #1 hits in this data set, more than any other artist. But when we normalize grooviness, Elvis falls to a distant 35th place. The UK acts are more consistently groovy--the British Invasion was not for nothing.
If we reduce the threshold for inclusion to artists with at least 2 #1 hits, the top spot is taken over by Louis Armstrong. Other acts that sneak onto the bottom of the list are New Seekers, Outhere Brothers, Don Maclean, and Duran Duran.
We can apply the same general approach for determining the most overrated acts of all time. If we set a limit of at least three #1 hits to be considered for the title of most consistently awful hit musical act, we arrive at the following list:
For the record, I was a bit surprised that George Michael and Elton John appeared on this list, since they have both produced music that I like. But none of their better stuff made it to #1, apparently, so it's not in my data set. The UK public preferred different stuff than I did, and man was it awful. Really awful.
For the record, here are all the artists who are best at producing #1 hits, but who are neither groovy nor awful, in order of number of hits. This can be interpreted as a list of the most mediocre acts of all time.
So I recently had the opportunity to go through a list of every #1 hit in the UK from 1952 until 2007 -- over 1100 of them. At first I wanted to separate the good from the bad, to make a short(er) list of music I'd be interested in. So I dutifully rated every song according to a quantitatively precise and scientifically robust system invented by... me. Each song got a grooviness rating from 1 to 5:
But after completing this onerous task, I realized that I had an interesting data set: over 1100 data points of grooviness versus date. It's unclear exactly what this data set measures in aggregate, but I think it is one of the following:
With 15-30 #1 songs per year, the simplest analysis was to compute the average grooviness by year, and then graph it to look for interesting trends.
I propose the following two theorems of pop music. Proof will follow.
Music from before you were born is dorky and lame.
After you become a productive adult, the music of "kids these days" is idiotic and lame.
If these theorems are correct, the smoothed chart of grooviness should show a distinct bell curve, peaking at some point during my youth. Let's see what the data has to say:
The graph speaks for itself. I consider these two theorems proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Surprisingly, the peak of grooviness is in 1977, a year that I would not otherwise have singled out as being particularly groovy. I mean, seriously: Abba and Boney M at the all-time peak of grooviness? But correlation is not causation, so perhaps Blondie and Pink Floyd had a little more to do with the late '70s being the grooviest years of all time. By the way, I consider this to be evidence that I have kept my personal biases from influencing the data too strongly, otherwise the 1980s (my high school and university years, when I actually followed pop music) should surely have scored better. On the other hand, perhaps the '80s really were as dumb as they now seem.
Curiously, however, the data shows that the idiocy of modern pop exceeds the dorkiness of classic pop. This might have something to do with the fact that the grooviness of Frank Sinatra has withstood the test of time, whereas the purported grooviness of 'Nsync and Westlife have yet to be tested.
Here's another widely posited theorem that has never been quantitatively proven until now:
Music has a distinct character in each decade. '80s music is different from '70s music, which is distinct from '60s music. Etc.
Let's look at our chart to see if we can detect any 10-year cycles or patterns that might back up this thoerem:
Not only does the data support the theorem, but the pattern itself is very interesting: grooviness has a natural sawtooth pattern, peaking in the last years of each decade. It's pretty much common knowledge that the pop-culture movements collectively known as "the Sixties" were really just the years 1967-68, with '69 being the hangover. This data supports the idea that the same cultural effect occurs in each decade. That's why the '50s are associated with Elvis and tailfins on cars, and why the '70s are associated with big collars and bell-bottoms.
Why is culture (as reflected in pop music) comparatively lame in the early years of each decade, and notably awesome in the last? I hypothesize that it is a decade-level variant of the millennial effect on people's need to celebrate. As decades come to a close, a certain desperation for change takes over the popular consciousness, allowing truly innovative works to percolate up to general popularity. In the early years of a decade, by contrast, there is a sense that the future is here, leading to a general sense of self-satisfaction and mediocrity. For now we will identify this phenomenon as the "Party-Like-It's-1999" Effect, or PLINE. (You heard it here first.) Unfortunately PLINE implies that next year is likely to suck it big.
Arguing against the PLINE hypothesis is that the absolute peaks of grooviness seem to occur in years ending in 8, not 9. Also, the PLINE effect is weakest in 1999, the year when you would expect it to be strongest. In fact, the chart suggests that culturally speaking, the 1990s didn't actually happen at all, and we more or less threw out the whole decade and merged it with the noughties. Perhaps genuine millennial anxiety threw us off. After all we were already starting to get a little worked up in the 1980s—the chart suggests that it took us until 1984 to completely put the 1970s behind us, and that the 80's actually peaked in 1992.
Edit: I've been thinking more about PLINE theory, and realized something significant: the fact that grooviness peaks in years ending in 8 is actually an important feature of the data, not an unexpected weakness of the theory. Years ending in 9 seem to be on the cusp of the future—we are almost there, so to speak—so cultural mediocrity gets a head start. If you scale up this "Party-Like-It's-1998" Effect to the century level, it suggests that the all-time peak of grooviness would be around 1980. The charts support this analysis, with the highest peak of groove occurring in 1979.
For what it's worth, I was more than a little surprised that the 1990s were basically a no-show in grooviness. I distinctly remember than the 1990s actually put out some damn good music, certainly better than what I was consuming during the 1980s. But it appears that comparatively little of the damn good music made it to #1. I think my correction to PLINE theory adequately explains this anomaly.
Things that mobu likes, things that mobu does, things that mobu makes, things that mobu thinks.