Who Are You: Are Home DNA Genealogy Kits Accurate?

18 12 2019

Today, I’ll tackle the big question about direct-to-consumer genealogy genetic testing kits – you know, the ones from 23andMe, AncestryDNA (from Ancestry.com), and Geno 2.0 (from National) Geographic. They purport to tell you where your ancestors came from.

And that question is: are they accurate? Do they tell you where your ancestors came from? Or are they BS? I’ve often talked to people with questions about these tests: “So I’m 30% French!  Can I get citizenship and celebrate Bastille Day?”  “My Dad is from Thailand, why doesn’t this say I have any Thai ancestors??”  Stuff like that. Maybe because I’m the only anthropologist many people seem to know, but I get asked this question a lot, so I figured I’d write something up to help answer questions.

Now, let me candid: I have some training in population genetics, but it is not my primary field (my Ph.D. is in cultural anthropology). I am 100% happy to have any population geneticists or biological anthropologists weigh in on places where I am incorrect, or add anything they think is important (please let me know in the comments section). That said, I have discussed this with a number of people whose expertise is this type of thing, and verified as much as possible of what is below with them.

So, are the tests for real? Yes and no. They are not hoaxes, or lying; the results they are sending you real genetic tests, and they’re giving you real data. BUT TO BE CLEAR, THESE TESTS CANNOT GIVE YOU A COMPLETE MAP OR PERCENTAGE OF YOUR ANCESTORS THAT CAME FROM SPECIFIC COUNTRIES.  Specifically, the results they give you are very generally correct (there are some genetics in you present from those groups), but the percentages are likely to be wildly off, and more importantly, there is a huge percentage of your DNA they are missing.  The problem is twofold: 1) the interpretation they present of your genetic data and 2) what’s missing from the tests (or they simply can’t reveal). So it’s not that the tests are false, per se, the problem is generally what the companies are telling you, and what they’re telling you that the results mean. Or rather, what they are leading you to believe these tests mean.

THE INTERPRETATION

So let’s take things one at a time. First off, the tests do not tell you what percentage of your ancestry is from each different country.   A lot of folks submit their sample and, based on the advertising they see on TV or in magazines, expect something like a map, that says they are 35% Irish, 27% Korean, 48% Chilean, etc. Let’s be clear: these tests DO NOT SHOW YOU THAT. An acquaintance got back a test that said “15% African” and then literally claimed he was now allowed to make African-American jokes (hint: NO. NOT AT ALL. Even if that’s what the test was really saying).  Here are two examples of those type of results:

Ancestry DNA Result Screenshot

Weirdly, some of these results are by country (Senegal), some by region (Africa North) and some by general culture area (Native American). Genetically I understand why, but that’s a very weird way to report them, and they are presented as roughly equivalent groupings. And they all have very specific percentages!

Ancestry DNA Screenshot 2

These results are from a different company, but with similar results: a mixture of types of sources, but with very specific % amounts, some seemingly overlapping to get you to 100%

There are a bunch of reasons for this. One is what the tests are measuring: they test you for certain genetic markers, and the match those markers to those in their database of tested populations. So what they are actually saying is that some of the genetic markers they are testing for (and there are a lot they’re aren’t using) match the markers in test populations taken in those countries, generally within the last 10-15 years. Now, you can probably see the first problem there: what if your ancestors came to the United States 50 years ago? Or 100, or heaven forbid, 200 years ago? Those populations – the ones in those countries that would actually match your ancestors there – have never been tested. These ancestry tests can’t account for recent migrations in those areas, or other populations coming into those areas and mixing genetically with the current populations.

Here’s another: human genetic variation can be geographical, but it’s not politically bordered (thus “broadly Northwestern European” as a result on one of the test examples above). As one geneticist noted, “Present-day patterns of residence are rarely identical to what existed in the past, and social groups have changed over time, in name and composition.”

Let’s hit up another huge problem: the data that they are presenting to you is actually a range of possibilities based on their test, but it is reported as if it is a real, specific percentage. This is what anthropologist Jonathan Marks calls “plausibility genetics.” For example, with 23andMe, a spokesperson noted that their results are based on a sliding confidence scale, ranging from 50-90 percent (it isn’t reveal how they reached these percentages, it’s likely a combination of calculations based on their confidence intervals and the margin of error). Think of how that would play out with any other scientifically-derived information. If you picked a mushroom in the woods and asked a mycologist if it was poisonous, and they said “sure! You can totally eat that!” and you said “how certain are you?” and they replied “50%!” than you would gag, and hack up the mushroom you’d just eaten (apparently you ate it before asking about the confidence interval).

Ancestryrtange

If you got this set of results, you might think you were 30% Irish (Happy St Patrick’s Day!); but by checking the details, you can see the actual range they’re giving you is “somewhere between 14%-46% [probably]”

I’ve seen one 23andme result that said “8.2% British and Irish.” Okay, WTF? The confidence varies by 50%, and they’re telling you to within a tenth of a percentage point? And keep in mind, they’re not the only ones. Ancestry’s senior manager of population genomics admitted “While we think you’re, say, 20 percent Irish, it could be as low as 5 (percent) and it could be as high as 35 (percent). That range will vary depending on that particular estimate and also on other populations that make up who you are.” And because of the way the companies’ algorithms work, the way those percentages are reported within the confidence interval can actually vary: for one set of triplets – with identical genetics – tests reported three completely different percentages of British Isle ancestry: one was 59%, the a second 66%, and the third 70%. Now, those numbers aren’t hugely far off from each other, but when you’re making claims that give people a very specific percentage result (66%?), then those differences do matter: there’s over an 18% increase between 55 and 70 percent, so these genetically identical siblings were reported as significantly different from each other.

THE LIMITATIONS OF THE TESTS

Here’s another problem: there’s also a tremendous amount they’re missing. Let’s start with a standard DNA test: to briefly repeat, you have 25% genetic relation to each of your grandparents. Let’s say 3 of them came from Ireland, and the fourth was from the Sudan. Depending on what markers the ancestry tests were using and what genes you inherited from each grandparents, that could show that you have either 0% Irish ancestry or 0% Sudanese ancestry. Either way: BIG PROBLEM.

Things get even worse because a lot of the tests use mitochondrial DNA to delineate your ancestry. It’s only transmitted through the female line, so that means you would only have the mitochondrial DNA marker of your mother, and she would only have it of hers, who would only have it of hers, etc. So right off the bat, you’re missing 50% of the genetic matching just of your parents! It gets worse fast: go to their parents and you’re excluding 75% the genetic possibilities: that’s right, this “complete” genetic test you’ve got is missing three-quarters of your ancestry just from your grandparent’s generation, let alone any farther back. Of your eight great-grandparents, you’ll only have a mitochondrial DNA match from one of them. Keep in mind, you are equally genetically descended from all of your grandparents, but this test would only show that you were related to one of them.

mtdna_med

A pretty good visual representation of what information you would get with an analysis of nuclear DNA vs. mitochondrial DNA (credit to the University of CA Museum of Paleontology)

The exclusion of so much data leads to a lot of problems: I’ve had a friend with known Native American ancestry get worried when their test showed 0% DNA matches with Native populations – because the genes the companies tested for simply didn’t come from that part of their ancestry. It also leads to articles like this one, where somebody whose father is Samoan (i.e. 50% genetics should be from him) got results back saying she had 0% Samoan ancestry:  https://e-tangata.co.nz/news/my-dna-results-are-in-im-whiter-than-the-milkman

On a related note, and to further muddy the waters of what you can tell about your ancestry from the test results, we’ve got what demographers call “pedigree collapse.” Basically, think of it this way: there are currently 7.6 billion people in the world. Each of them has two parents, so to find out the total number of ancestors they all have, you’d double that: but if you go back a generation, there were not 15 billion people alive. Now, that includes multiple generations, and a lot of these people are siblings, or share parents, etc., but there is no way that you can keep going back in time to look at your ancestors, and assume they’re all separate people – there simply weren’t enough people alive; I have eight great-grandparents, but their generation did not contain 60 billion people. The explanation for why there weren’t a kajillion people in the past and the ancestor numbers still work is because of pedigree collapse: if you go back a little – even in modern historic time – your ancestors start to overlap in their ancestry quite a bit; everybody shares common ancestors with everybody else. So take it back far enough in the past, and you’ll basically have the same ancestors as most of the people you know. Among other things, the testing companies use this to show how you’re related to some famous people, as we’ll see in a moment.

FINAL PROBLEM: MEANINGLESS FLUFF

Finally, we need to talk about some of the absolutely ridiculous additional findings that these companies give you based on their sample of your genes. There’s an ever-expanding set of bizarre test results and related claims, because the companies selling the tests are constantly coming up with new ways to interpret your data to keep people interested: we’ll just look at three.

Let’s start with an interesting example from Nat Geo’s Geno 2.0 test: they have a “genius section” that tells you which geniuses from the past you are related to, and when you shared a common ancestor. The list includes King Tut, who was apparently a “pharaoh genius,” whatever that means (since he reigned for just nine years and died age 18, Tut must have been a child prodigy).

We can look at an example from my own test, below: hey, good news, I’m related to Abraham Lincoln and the dashing explorer Sir Francis Drake! Wait, I share an ancestor with them from…45,000 YEARS AGO?

Geno Genius Results

BTW, I’m also related to King Tut, Charles Darwin, Genghis Khan, Queen Victoria, Thomas Jefferson, and my favorite Renaissance poet, Francesca Petrarca – all about 30,000 years ago, of course

In other words, you’re telling me that so long ago that people were literally living in caves, I shared an ancestor with Abe Lincoln? So what? Does genius transfer genetically? If so, would it stay in the genome for 45,000 years undiluted? This leaves on the table the idea that 45,000 years ago, genius basically meant turning to the person sitting next to you and saying “hey man, what if we banged these two rocks together?” (that’s a poor anthropology joke, of course: human control over fire is thought to have been “discovered” roughly one million years ago).

Many of the tests also tell you what percentage of your DNA is from ancient, now-extinct human species, like the Neanderthals or Denisovans. According to Geno 2.0, I’m 1.4% Neanderthal, slightly higher than the average for modern humans, at 1.3%. And it’s even weirder that some of these testing services will tell you the percentage of DNA you share with the Denisovans, an ancient group of hominids so little understood that essentially nothing is known about them, and all the information we have is from a measly six fragmentary fossils: a part of a finger bone, a single molar, that sort of thing. Look, I’m not saying this information isn’t interesting, because it is, a little bit. But it isn’t meaningful; among other things, almost all humans have some of that DNA, so it doesn’t tell you anything about yourself per se.

One more example, just because it’s so ridiculous: 23andMe claims they can tell you what time you’re likely to get up in the morning, “based on 450 places in your DNA that are associated with being either a morning person or a night person” TO WITHIN FIVE MINUTES.

23andmewakeup

Don’t hit that snooze button! Your DNA says that you get up at precisely 8:55 am!

Among the genetic sources they have for this is a study, published in a real academic journal, that does indeed find a correlation between certain genetic markers and being a self-described morning person. But here’s the thing: the study itself notes that they are missing links saying genetics caused the love of mornings: “we did not find evidence for a causal relationship in our Mendelian randomization analysis.” (study here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26835600). Seriously, ask any geneticist whether you can legitimately predict within five minutes when somebody is going to wake up based on their DNA, and then hand them a hankie to dry the tears of laughter that will be streaming down their face.

 

THE BIG WRAP UP

So the answer to the question “are these tests bogus” is: they’re not, but the data they give you is not particularly useful for really determining your geographic ancestry. I’d say they’re fine to vaguely spark your interest in genealogy, or give you an idea of some interesting but not genetically meaningful information (like your % of Neanderthal DNA), but they will not really tel you where all your ancestors are from.

Finally, I should be very clear: we are speaking only of geological, ancestry-style consumer genetic tests; the one that link you to your relatives, or determine paternity, or are used in criminal cases: those are a different beast entirely, and all completely legit.

So go out there, pick up a kit for you, or your aunt, or your dog – but also, know exactly what you’re getting.

Until next time, I’m Scott, your friendly neighborhood anthropologist.

 

P.S. – here are a couple of other writeups on consumer genetics tests by anthropologists.  They’re complimentary to each other (and to mine), if you really want the full story:

1) From  John Edward Terrrell: https://www.sapiens.org/technology/dna-test-ethnicity/

2) From Jonathan Marks (Marks has some of the best writing on the subject): https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vx-OU3LwdNoxBnSLRcr9_4tctA7VuR32/view

 

 





Vidi, Veni: I Saw, I Came (I Shot Some Photos)

24 07 2014

If you really enjoyed Field of Dreams, you can step into the screen and play baseball with Shoeless Joe!  If you thought the epic scope and fantastical world of The Lord of the Rings was super-awesome, you can ride to Rivendell with Aragorn and Frodo Baggins!  If you miss having Tony Soprano in your living room every week, you can sit down in his!  Well…sort of.

In real life, the Field of Dreams farm and baseball diamond is an Iowa tourist attraction that once saw 65,00 visitors a year, and the impact of LOTR tourism on the New Zealand economy has been estimated at US$27 million per year since the movies were released over ten years (!) ago. And of course, On Location Tours offers a 4-hour Sopranos Sites Tour, taking you through the magical land of New Jersey. Yup, this is the world of Film Tourism, where recreational travel and onscreen worlds combine; it seemed like an interesting topic to briefly delve into. (and yes, scholarly, it’s called “film” tourism even when related to TV shows)

Anthropologists have long been fascinated by tourism; we study it for a number of reasons: 1) it occurs in most, if not all, human societies – that is, most cultures have been touched by it in some way, by being visited if not being the visitors, 2) it has large economic impact around the world, and 3) it involves face-to-face encounters between people of different cultures; both sides get to see part of how the other people live.

FieldofDreams

I wonder how they keep the corn growing all year?

And film tourism – travel to sites people have seen on TV and in movies – is big. In one British study, 10% of people surveyed said they had gone to visit a location or destination featured in a film, 6% said they had done so specifically because of seeing the film, and 13% said they were planning to go somewhere in the future, based on seeing it in a movie. In results attributed to the movie Frozen, the official Norwegian travel website (VisitNorway.com) witnessed its traffic nearly triple since the movie came out, and Flight Tracker reported a 153% increase in searches on Norwegian flights.  A study by Riley, Baker, & Van Doren showed that after a movie is released, tourism to the sites in the film increases for four years.

TV- and film-influenced tourism has a variety of different expressions – it’s not necessarily just a visit to a waterfall seen in someone’s favorite TV show. A few examples showing the breadth of experience we’re talking about here:

ModernFamilyQuantas

Modern Family: Brought to you by Quantas. According to Rain Man, we’ve never had an accident.”

When anthropologists study tourism, they ask what motivates tourists to travel, what distinguishes tourists from other travelers, and what kinds of places and experiences tourists seek. Of these, the most interesting question for us seems to be the first: what is it about a film or TV show that makes somebody want to visit the site where it was filmed, or where it takes place?

There is surely an element of wish-fulfillment; feeling like for at least a little while you live in the medieval fantasy world of the Game of Thrones’ Westeros, or are enjoying the same lifestyle as the vacationing upper-middle-class Dunphys of Modern Family. There is surely some element of pilgrimage, as well: making a trek to a space that is, in a media-saturated world, “sacred” in some ways. And for that matter, some of this tourism is based just on the beauty or draw of the place itself, but people may not have known about the location until its’ appearance onscreen: New Zealand was gorgeous long before Lord of the Rings ever shot there, but for many people, the movies were their first glimpse of the landscape in detail.

Zeland LOTR

Lord of the Rings film locations, mapped onto the actual landscape of New Zealand: turning sight-seeing into site-seeing.

 

Film theorist Giuliana Bruno suggests that film spectatorship itself is a form of tourism (she calls it “site seeing” as well as “sight seeing” – cute). To some degree, what you’re doing is consuming a more constructed view of the real-world location; Middle Earth is a constructed form of New Zealand, the Field of Dreams farm (and field) a constructed form of Iowa. Think of it as having the same relation to reality that Main Street USA at Disneyland has to actual main streets.

One of the interesting things about the evolution of film tourism is the path from organic, populist movement to constructed commercial reality.  That is to say, back when the Brady Brunch visited Hawaii in 1972, anyone who wanted to follow in their footsteps did so on their own; but by the time the Modern Family visited Australia, the tourist tie-in was planned far in advance of the air date, with an sponsorship agree between the network and Quantas. This isn’t bad, per se – if left to my own devices, I’d probably never find some of the cool places in Iceland where they film Game of Thrones. But it’s also inserted an element of the artificial and corporate into what is already a highly constructed media experience; in other words – you can go to Middle Earth these days, but you probably can’t do it with the Bradys.

(which may be good, since on vacations they seem to mess with evil idols)

 — Scott Frank

  • Aside from just the website search increases and the hotel suite in Quebec, Frozen is definitely the big winner this year, film-tourism wise. In addition to the figures noted above, Norwegian hotel bookings in the first 3 months of 2014 were up 37% from 2013, and tour operators are predicting summer business to up by 40%. In interviews, Harald Hansen, spokesperson for Visit Norway, credited the movie (as do many others).
  • If you’re wondering about the economic impact of tourism, it’s huge: per the World bank, expenditures on tourism in 2012 were US$ 1,187,138,892,127 (roughly $1.1 trillion dollars). Some estiamtes say 2013 spending reached $1.4 trillion
  • As a special bonus image, the official City of Albuquerque “Breaking Bad” visitor map:

cityofalbuquerque

 





Walk the Line – part I

19 11 2013

(note: because this is one of the most important concepts in the cultural anthropology of Hollywood, the topic gets a two-parter.  This is part one).

Outside of the entertainment industry, people use a number of divisions when they talk about Hollywood: A-list and B-list, movies vs. TV, broadcast vs. cable.  But when you’re working in the industry, the most important division may be Above the Line and Below the Line.

What does it mean?  The term originated with a literal line on the paper of studio budget projections; in general, above the line were fixed costs (i.e. people who got paid no matter if the movie ever finished production) and below the line were flexible costs (i.e. if you stopped filming at some point, you didn’t need these people).  But that’s the origin, not really what the terms mean today.

The problem is, this is one of those situations where the distinction is both generally agreed upon and maddeningly vague.  What that means is that if you name a specific position on a film or TV production, it’s generally agreed upon whether that person is Above or Below the line.  For example, a writer?  Above the line.  Gaffer?  Below the line.  The fuzziness enters the picture because it’s far less clear what, in a cultural sense, the distinction means.  Is it a class difference?  A creative one?  A difference in the power structure?

TheLine1

Neither of these are the line that we are talking about.

Before we get into all that, and for those unfamiliar with the specifics, here’s a partial list of where certain members of a production fit:

Above the Line:                      Below the line:

Producer                                Director of Photography

Director                                  Gaffer

Writer                                     Key Grip

Actor                                      Costume Designer

                                              Production Designer

                                              Editor

So who belongs in each group is fairly well-established, generally speaking.*  But as anthropologists, it’s important to look a little deeper: what, in a cultural sense, does the distinction actually mean?

You hear a lot of different ideas about this from people involved in different parts of the industry.  Probably the most generally accepted distinction is that above the line is “creative” staff and below the line is “technical” staff.  But there are a lot of holes in that: directors (good ones, anyway), have a strong grasp of the technical aspects of the production process.  And a lot of below the line positions – production designers, for example – are creative people who can have a lot of impact on the final product.  And rightly or wrongly, not many people think of a producer as creative.

Another perspective that is sometimes heard is exemplified in J.R. Helton’s book Below the Line**: the line is “the demarcation where the real money and power starts and stops.”  This too is pretty simplistic, though – some of the people who are above the line don’t really seem to have a ton of power (ask a writer), and some who are below can wield considerable influence over a production.

Other distinctions that I’ve heard include: 1) Above is “creative” people, or who have financial control of the project, 2) Above is people who get residuals, 3) Below is production and postproduction crew, 4) Below is people who physically produce the project, 5) Above the line is decision-makers, 6) Above is people you hire before shooting, Below is people you hire during or after.  All of these seem to have elements of truth in them, but none of them really captures the entirety of the cultural reality.

photo-15

Unbeknownst to most people, “the Line” referenced in the terms Above and Below the Line is this particular line in the street at La Cienega and Wilshire Blvd. (not really, of course).

One of the more interesting observations is has to do with labor relations (and how often do you hear that sentence, really?); specifically, the organization of unions for the workers involved.  The distinction is this: above-the-line positions almost all have their own unions – actors have SAG, writers the WGA, directors the DGA.  But below the line workers are, in a general sense, bundled together with one larger union: the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE.  Now, the IATSE has specific divisions for each position (like Local 839 for Animators, and Local 44 for props craftpeople, etc.), but still, it says something about the divisions that abovers each get their own union, while belowers have to share.***

There’s much more to discuss, but we’ve reached the end of what I consider an acceptable length for a blog posting, so in part two we’ll see a more anthropological perspective, what people have worked both above and below the line have to say about it.  Also, how the economic needs of below the line workers bring together the LA Mayor and Hellboy Ron Perlman.

— Scott Frank

*Nowadays, one of the current problems is that there are some relatively new positions that aren’t yet clearly in one place or the other, or it hasn’t been determined yet – like if you’ve got a social media manager, are they above or below?

** This mention is not to in any way endorse Helton’s book, which is supposedly a “tell-all” but really seems more a chance for him to vent some bitterness over perceived slights from years of working below the line.

*** Not all below the line employees are in IATSE.  There are some who are members of the Teamsters Local 399.  But in keeping with the main thrust of the argument, they are still members of a larger union, they do not (unlike above the line folks) have one of their own.





What I learned from Gravity

17 10 2013

How do we know what we know, and does it matter where we learned it?

The movie Gravity just premiered to wild acclaim, along with a slew of articles about the science shown in the movie (in the LA Times, NY Times, etc. etc.), and a spate of tweets from Neil DeGrasse Tyson good-humored-ly raking it over the coals for inaccuracies.  This media narrative is pretty common when new movies come out that have any clear basis in real-world science or history; there were a bunch about the accuracy of Lincoln when it appeared last year, too.

Why the apprehension over what’s accurate and what’s not in these things?  They’re just movies.  The fact that we’re concerned about what is reality in these movies shows an admission that we know that many people get information about the world from them (or a fear that they do, at least).

satellite

Neil wants you to know that in real life, satellites orbit west to east, not east to west like in the movie. Though from this picture, stuff seems to just sort of whiz around all over the place, right?

There’s a lot of debate about the effects of media on people’s behavior – do violent movies and videogames make people more prone to acts of violence?  (studies actually do show a consistent correlation – but they do not show a consistent causation).  That issue is far beyond the scope of this blog.  But what is incontrovertible is that while we may not know how much media influences behavior, we do know that it influences knowledge.  A lot.

In anthropological terms, this kind of information is called declarative knowledge (i.e. “Annapolis is the capital of Maryland”  “Mars is red”).  Some of the things we think we know, of course, we’ve really learned from movies and TV, and we’ve been misinformed: ask what a plane sounds like when it lands, and most people will probably tell you about the wheels screeching as they hit the tarmac, just like they’ve seen onscreen a million times – but that sound was created by a foley artist a couple of decades ago, from the sound of his car’s tires; it’s not really a plane at all.  Almost everybody knows a few common conceptions shown in the mass media that they know aren’t true, usually something from their realm of expertise (for example, Dr. Tyson’s tweet about Gravity; or if you know one, go ask a cop about the tv-bred misunderstandings people have about their Miranda rights).

But while its easy to rail against the many misconceptions that arise from media watching, we shouldn’t ignore the positive ones, either – if you asked me to describe what the African savannah looks like, I could tell you.  But I’ve never been there, how do I know?  ‘Cause I saw it on  National Geographic documentary.  And actually, I probably DO have a pretty good idea of what the African savannah looks like, not just because of that long ago documentary from from every time I’ve seen it portrayed in movies or on TV since.

This declarative knowledge that we get from TV and movies isn’t just from nonfiction or documentary shows; we probably have in fact seen many, many places, people, and things that we would not otherwise have had the opportunity to become acquainted with if not for seeing them in movies and on TV.  How many more people have seen the short movie-in-a-movie about DNA in Jurassic Park than ever took an actual college genetics class?  On the balance, I’d say all the things I’ve learned about the world and what is in it from TV and movies that are true probably solidly outweigh the things I have learned that are false.  Now, that’s ignoring things that are supposed to be false, like the fictional stories, etc.  But you can learn what Berlin looks like from watching The Bourne Supremacy without actually thinking that amnesic super-assassins are roaming the streets of Europe.

bourne

noted Berlin travel documentary

What’s interesting is that the declarative knowledge people have – both directly factual knowledge and about beliefs about how the world works – can have real-world effects.  There are a number of research studies show that peoples’ knowledge of how forensic and criminal science works has been so skewed by watching CSI and other shows that it may actually be affecting the pursuit of justice; this is called “the CSI effect” (really – go look it up).

The overall question that we want to ask about this is “how do we know what we know?”  And then – does it matter where you learned it?  Is it better, or worse (or neither), if you learned what Berlin looks like from an action movie, a documentary, or a book?  Think about all of the things you know, and then consider where the knowledge came from, and how much of it may have originated with films or TV.    When we think of what we see on screen, we rarely think of the buildup of declarative knowledge we generate from the media we consume – and hey, when you’re binge watching Breaking Bad, you may be picking up more than you think.

— Scott





Fictionalized Reality, and Real-ized Fictions

29 03 2013

So, two seemingly unrelated stories, that are actually about the same thing:

1)A couple of months ago, the movie Zero Dark Thirty came under some heat for showing that torture (in this case waterboarding) was responsible for the info that led to finding Osama Bin Laden; per the Senate Intelligence Committee, this wasn’t the case.  Before the movie came out, it’s screenwriter said “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history” – but after questions were raised, he admitted that some artistic license was taken and said “it’s only a movie.”

2) A recent article in the Los Angeles Times told the story of real-life shipwreck survivor Stephen Callahan, who because of that experience became a consultant on the movie Life of Pi.  He coached the actor who played Pi on the psychological implications of being adrift, and crafted some of the props for the film based on his shipwreck experiences.

Both of these situations are talking about the line between fiction and reality, though from opposite sides of the coin: for the first (torture in Afghanistan), it’s taking a real situation and fictionalizing it, and the for the latter (shipwreck survivors), it’s taking a fictionalized situation and “real-izing” it.  It’s all part of the facinating tradeoff between reality and fiction in movies and on TV: how much reality do people want?  Where is okay to take dramatic license?  How much of each (real facts and dramatic license) is a good balance?

ThirtyPi

Fictionalized reality and Reali-zed fiction: two sides of the same coin.  (metaphorically)

Obviously, there’s sort of a base level of reality that people require from their entertainment: if you turned on Hawaii Five-O and saw the guys running around on a glacier, you’d call foul – obviously, it’s not Hawai’i.  If an onscreen lion opened its mouth to roar, and a parakeet sound came out, they’d have to explain – people know that isn’t what a lion really sounds like.  At the same time, most movies and TV shows are telling a story, and stories have a right to dramatic license – to make things up. So they flow better, are more exciting, etc.  So how do we talk about the place where reality and fiction meet?

To talk about these issues, it’s good to have a set of terms that conveys these ideas: the ones I like to use come from a somewhat obscure historical source. During the production of  MGM’s 1946 movie The Beginning or the End, screenwriter James McGuinness wrote a letter to Louis B. Mayer.*  In it, McGuinness wrote that “it must be realized that dramatic truth is just as compelling a requirement on us as veritable truth is on a scientist.”  So “Veritable truth” is real factual information about the world or events, and  “dramatic truth” is the version of that truth that is entertaining and commercially viable—in other words, the veritable truth that appears on screen once it is filtered through the limitations imposed upon it by the filming process. These limitations can include everything from studios’ time and budgetary constraints to personal preferences of the director or the dramatic requirement to keep things visually exciting.

All movies and TV shows present some mixture of veritable and dramatic truth.  Sometimes the mixture is heavily tilted towards dramatic truth (as in most fictional dramas and sitcoms), sometimes it is tilted heavily towards veritable truth (more documentary shows, like Nova, for example); but even the cheesiest sitcom has parts of the real world in it, and even the most documentary of shows has some element of dramatic truth – like when they dramatize or put scientific progress into a narrative.

truthiness

Veritable Truth, Dramatic Truth – or Truthiness?? Thanks, Stephen.

So is it “better” to have more vertiable or dramatic truth in any given show or movie?  It really depends on the venue (you might expect more vertiable truth from a show on the History Channel, for example) and type (more dramatic truth in a sitcom or clearly fictional drama).  Issues arise, however, when the line becomes too blurred.  Writing about factual errors in HBO’s made-for-TV movie about Phil Spector, Harriet Ryan wrote “The problem here is that the movie blends fact and fiction into a misinformation smoothie. Characters bear the actual names of participants, dialogue is lifted directly from trial transcripts, and Al Pacino nails Spector’s shuffle and rasp. But when the movie jets off to the land of make believe — as it often does — there’s no red flashing light to warn the audience.”

Things like Zero Dark Thirty run into problems because they’re playing with the line: purporting to be a depiction of a real event makes people have high expectations that it contains more veritable truth than dramatic.  While interestingly, a totally fictional story (Life of Pi) is lauded for including any veritable truth at all.

— Scott

  • What makes this anthropology?  Anthropologists think a lot about what’s real and what’s fiction: do the natives you’re studying really believe their origin myth, or do they just tell it as a story?  Does it make a difference in their lives, or yours?  Is one culture’s origin story better or more important than another’s?  (the answer to the last one, of course, is no: anthropologists consider all cultures’ stories equally valid; though we must recognize that the cultures themselves do not)
  • Interestingly, a copy of the letter sent to Albert Einstein (probably because he had to sign a release concerning his portrayal).  It’s unrecorded what he thought of it.




Headshot Archaeology, Part II

9 01 2013

So, as we often talk about here at Hollywood Sapien, the entertainment industry has its own culture.  And like all cultures, it produces artifacts – objects that are made for various utilitarian, entertainment, and ritual purposes.   In this case, we’re talking about headshots.

Headshots exhibit many of the traits that you would associate with artifacts in other cultures; among them is evolution of form.  “Headshots evolve?” you say (if for some reason you’re reading this out loud).  Not in a Darwinian sense, of course, but like many artifacts, the form they take changes through time.  It’s not at all usual for artifacts to progressively develop; it happens with projectile points (arrowheads):

Projectilepoints

and pianos:

pianoevolution

And pretty much everything else – just think of the difference between a Model T and a Toyota Corolla, or a musket and an AK-47.  In the case of headshots, they have undergone both physical and artistic changes.

One of the physical changes, for example, came about with the common use of digital photography.  For decades, headshots were actual photographs: taken with film, retouched in photo labs, and printed on photographic paper.  With the rise of professional digital cameras and editing software however, they changed to become an almost all-digital medium; both in their creation and transmission.  According to the headshot photographers I spoke with, this seems to have happened roughly between 2003-2004.

But there have also been aesthetic changes to headshots – over the years, trends and alterations in what they depict.   A couple of variations are particularly striking.  One of the obvious ones has been a shift from black-and-white to color; this largely coincided with the change to digital headshots in the early 2000s.  But the artistic aspects of headshots have also changed: though classical headshots traditionally showed a portrait view, trends change, and in the mid-1990s three-quarter headshots were common (see below).  Today the standard headshot is back to showing the head, down to the shoulders.  The “looks” requested by actors also change: per one photographer, in the 90s the “farmer’s daughter” look was common in headshots, ten years later it was the “cougar shot.”  Now I hear it’s “edgy [fill in the blank]”

90sshots

For awhile in the 90s, headshots showed three-quarter views
(also note that they’re in black and white)

Headshots also display what anthropologists call polysemy – that is, they are a single artifact that is interpreted and used in different ways by different people.  I realized this several years ago, while talking to a headshot photographer who said that every actor who came to get their photo taken wanted theirs to somehow stand out, or “be different.”  Cut to a different party, several weeks later, where a casting director told me that the one thing they really hate is when a headshot crosses their desk and it really stands out or looks different.  “I just want them all to look basically the same,” he said, “so I can make a choice.”*  This is polysemy: an actor and a casting director look at a headshot: both see the same face staring out, but the actor thinks “this is unique” and “this will get me jobs”, while the casting director thinks “damn, it’s unique” and “now I have to view 8,000 more of these.”

cookie

Cookie monster deals with linguistic polysemy

In fact, one of the intriguing things about headshots is that they are a single object, with three different types of people whose livelihoods depend on them: actors, photographers, and casting professionals.  And each of the three constituencies uses these artifacts to make their livelihood in a different way:  for photographers, creating the artifact is how they make their living; in Los Angeles there exists an entire group who make their living (or most of it) just doing headshots.  For actors, the images are the way they get acting jobs – they (or their associates) submit the pictures to casting agents.  And of course the end-users of all these shots are the casting professionals, who select actors from the piles of images they have to review for every role.  Because their relationship with the artifacts are different, each has their own preferences and priorities for looking at the it.

So, to wrap up this two-parter: headshots, like arrowheads, are artifacts.  They are produced as material culture; they have totemic and utilitarian functions; they change through time, and they have polysemic interpretations.  There are a vast array of other artifacts created by the entertainment industry, some of which may be the subject of future entries.  Not all of them exhibit the same characteristics of headshots, but all products of the same cultural forces.

  • Anecdotal evidence from photographers and actors also indicates that there is a geographic variation in headshot conventions: i.e. headshots in New York look different from ones in L.A. (I haven’t conducted any research on NY headshots, so I can’t verify that, though a number of people have mentioned it).
  • Technically speaking, what we’re talking about is polyvalence more than polysemy.  Polyvalence is a related term to polysemy; but because polysemy is a more recognizable term (even to academics), I went with that.  If anybody really wants to know the difference, drop a line and I’ll give you the full, jargon-filled explanation.
  • The casting director didn’t literally want them to look the same, of course; he wasn’t interested in clones.  But he wanted the conventions to be the same – i.e, no super-weird angles, or full-body shots instead of headshots, or people in costumes, etc.  (all of which I have seen in headshots).




Holiday Edition – Best Swordfights on Screen

21 12 2012

A lighter entry for the holiday season! Hollywood Sapien is supposed to be an anthropologist’s eye on the entertainment industry. But I’ve also been a fencing coach for twenty years, and a fencer for almost twenty-five; so this week, it’s a fencer’s eye on the entertainment industry instead. Featuring a highly biased selection of the greatest swordfights on screen. There are plenty of other greats, but these are personal favorites.

Other than the first, they are presented in no particular order. Enjoy! And keep your eyes peeled for the next Sapien entry, on the amazing world of headshots.

1)The Princess Bride

PrincessBride

Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) vs. Wesley (Cary Elwes). Hands-down the greatest sword fight ever filmed (though in William Goldman’s script this is specifically called “the second greatest swordfight ever”). It used to be considered gauche to say this was the best sword duel ever filmed; it was critically assumed that you had to list a fight from a classic movie as the greatest, not one from an 80s comedy. But this one truly has it all – it’s exciting and acrobatic, has plot twists all its own, and a dynamism seen in the best screen duels: the pacing and tempo ebb and flow.

2.)Scaramouche

Scaramouche

Scaramouche/Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) vs. de Maynes (Mel Ferrer). A classic, and deservedly so. For many years, this 8-minute long fencing match was the longest sword duel ever put to screen (and it may still be). This is a swordfight of the classic costume picture era, and it shows. Dazzling sets, sumptuous costumes, and some excellent stunt work make for a great duel. And having watched the main character practice his fencing throughout the movie, it really feels like a culmination of the story; like an epic swordfight is really the only way the movie could end.

3)Ladyhawke

Ladyhawke

Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer) vs. Marquet (Ken Hutchison). An often-overlooked film duel, this is one of the greats. It starts as a sword fight on horseback, and degenerates (realistically, for a movie) into an on-the-ground brawl, beginning with the opponents clear hatred of each other, and finishing with two exhausted fighters just swinging away with whatever they’ve got left. It’s the sword fight version of the alley brawl in They Live, and it’s great for the same reasons; two big guys smashing away at each other, getting tired but still giving it their all. (also, see note at the end about the music).

4)Robin Hood (1922 version)

RobinHood

Robin Hood (Douglas Fairbanks) vs. the Entire Palace Guard (lots of extras). Douglas Fairbanks was a longtime fencer, and his passion for the sword shows in this picture. Robin’s fight with roughly 20 palace guardsmen is fantastic, and originated many things that later became clichés of the genre – fighting two guys at once with a sword in each hand, fighting an entire squad of guards and singlehandedly pushing them back – it’s the best. Plus, there’s a great pre-fight with Guy of Guisborne (Paul Dickey) in which Robin opens the fight by throwing his hat in Guys’ face, then just goes to town and chokes him like a baseball bat, before breaking him over a piece of furniture. Then Robin grabs a sword and goes after the guards.

5)Rob Roy

RobRoy

Rob Roy McGregor (Liam Neeson) vs. Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth). What’s particularly great about this fight is that it unfolds the way a battle between two men with these particular weapons (a Scottish broadsword and a rapier) would actually have occurred. The guy with the rapier is much quicker, and dances around his opponent, slashing him to bits. In fact, it’s only the cockiness of the villain that insures his destruction, when Rob Roy grabs the lighter blade, ignoring the pain, and delivers the kind of final stroke you can only get from a good broadsword.

And, like all good DVDs, we’ll add one special bonus, deleted scene:

6)Better Off Dead

Better-Off-Dead-Theatrical-Poster

Lane Meyer (John Cusack) vs. Ricky Smith (Daniel Schneider). You’ve just skied the infamous K-12, and beaten the stuck-up and overtly ubermensch captain of the ski team, Roy Stalin. You’ve escaped the paperboy, to whom you owe two dollars. And your dreamgirl, French foreign exchange student Monique, is on your arm. But one dastardly rogue stands in your way: skeevy neighbor Ricky, who wants the girl for himself. Ski poles are drawn; only one man can emerge the victor.

— Scott Frank

  • Note: it’s true, there are no lightsaber duels listed here. You know why? Lightsabers aren’t swords. It’s not that their blades are energy or anything, it’s that they have no handguards. To stop the blade from sliding down and cutting off your hand. A handguard is one of the basic parts of a sword; without one, you’re not holding a sword, you’re holding a glorified club. (and yes, the ski poles in Better Off Dead don’t really count either – but it’s one of the greatest comedies of the 80s, it gets a free pass).
  • Another note: there are no actual fencing (i.e. the sport) movies here. Good reason for that; first of all, there aren’t many, and secondly, the few that do exist are generally really, really terrible. But if you must…check out Ring of Steel (a favorite, ultra-cheesy classic) and By The Sword (Eric Roberts as a fencing master). Also, I’d be remiss to somehow skip Grace Kelly fencing in The Swan.
  • Ladyhawke takes a lot of heat from genre lovers, who particularly hate the 80s-new wave soundtrack; usually they say that 1980s music doesn’t fit the time period. They’d apparently prefer an orchestral score or classical music, which anachronistically doesn’t make much more sense – those forms of music mostly came about in the 1750s or later; the movie takes place in the 1200s. So is music 500 years out of date better than music 700 years out of date?