Archive for September 6th, 2009

The Final Solution and the Problem of Expectations

Since the opening paragraphs of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—considered by most to be the first English detective story—the genre has been about expectations. Poe practically wrote the formula at the start of his short story, outlining the logical capabilities and ratiocination of his detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Poe and later practitioners of the genre quickly established a basic pattern: damsel presents case to shrewd, all-knowing yet uncommunicative detective; detective investigates, but reveals little; detective’s friend narrates from a certain distance, guessing what’s going through the head of the brilliant detective; detective reveals all in a climactic scene that often includes some trickery and more action.

It’s a tried and true formula—one that sells despite its redundancy.

At the same time, the best detective stories are the ones that both play into and off of this pattern. What lifts The Hound of the Baskervilles above Arthur Conan Doyle’s other novels—and indeed, just about any other Sherlock Holmes short story—was its premeditated arrangement of suspects. For once, Holmes wasn’t dragging in a heretofore unknown cab driver and presenting him to the reader, sans explanation, as the murderer. Agatha Christie takes the genre a step further by playing with the narrative in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and by eliminating the detective altogether in And Then There Were None. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler straddled the line between detective fiction and flat-out thriller with their complex cases and steel-headed Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes, respectively. A contemporary novel such as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time works because it places the houndstooth hat on the able head of a 15-year old boy with autism.

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In Praise of the Oscars’ New “Best Picture” Voting Process

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Back in June, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the Oscar “Best Picture” field would be increased from five to ten. This change was partially brought about by claims that too many films that had a chance of winning best picture had been cheated by not even being included among the nominees. The Dark Knight and Wall-E were two examples from last year. Traditionally, comedies have also had a difficult time making the list of nominees, a problem that may be alleviated by expanding the list to ten.

While there were obvious benefits to expanding the list to ten, it was clear that there were shortcomings too. The traditional way of selecting best picture had been that each of the 5800 voting members would pick the top film among the nominees and the film with the most votes would win. Conceivably, with ten films up for best picture, a film with slightly more than 10 percent of the vote could win. If two films are front-runners, there is an incentive to vote for one of those two films so your vote “counts”, as opposed to voting purely based on preferences. Having preferential voting based on rankings would help to avoid this problem, among others.
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