Unintelligent Agent

Why techno-taste-matchers like Firefly are full of bugs.

Published January 17, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

as if there weren't already enough useless infotainment masquerading as movie criticism out there -- TV boneheads who can reduce layers of complexity into a blithe thumbs-up or thumbs-down; fawning celebrity interviews that treat movies as if they were glass bubbles designed solely to showcase their stars -- we now have the Web site Firefly to give us more allegedly useful information than we could ever hope to use.

Designed to help sophisticated consumers navigate through a world of complicated entertainment choices, Firefly uses something called "intelligent agent" technology to read its users' likes and dislikes and make recommendations based on them. The service, which was launched a year ago, covers music as well as movies. It works like this: when you sign up, Firefly sends you lists of movies to evaluate on a scale of one ("Hate It") to seven ("The Best"). After you've rated about 20, it supposedly knows enough about you to suggest other pictures you might like. What it's really doing is searching its vast data bank, sorting through other members' selections and matching them with yours, operating on the principle that if they liked certain things that you like, you'll probably like some of their favorites, too. The more preferences you enter, the more refined the search and, supposedly, the more likely it is that Firefly will throw things your way that you'll really dig. "It increases your serendipity ten-fold," says Firefly spokesperson Ted Kamionek.

Actually, the first 20 minutes I spent with Firefly were exhilarating. It sent me a list of movies to rate -- what did I think of "Chinatown"? of "Psycho"? of "The Graduate"? -- and the effect was something like the rapid-fire volley of likes and dislikes lobbed back and forth on a first date. And you don't have to wait for Firefly to suggest a movie before you can rate it: you can enter lists of movies you like (or hate) and Firefly will bring them up for you to rate. I typed as fast as I could think, herding all my favorites into one little hog pen that would truly define moi: "The Wild Bunch," "Nashville," "The Rules of the Game," "Blow Out," "L'Atalante," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Holiday," Satyajit Ray's "The Apu Trilogy," "The Godfather" movies. After I'd entered a few dozen, Firefly sent me a list of movies it thought I'd like, including "The Bicycle Thief," which I adore.

But it also sent me a bunch of tasteful snoozers like "Amadeus" and "Babette's Feast" -- it saw my Ray, my Jean Renoir, and felt confident I was an artsy-classics chick who'd fall for anything with a classical score and/or subtitles. Worse, it also saw my "Wild Bunch" -- one of the most poetic films ever made, if you ask me -- and pegged me as a sure candidate for loving "A Clockwork Orange," thinking, with smug certainty, that I'd be taken in by hopelessly affected violence masquerading as high art. I began to pity every poor yob -- myself included -- who'd eagerly given "Taxi Driver" a 6 and thought he or she was making any sort of definitive personal statement.

But if I was annoyed at myself, I was even more annoyed at Firefly. For such a supposedly sophisticated technological tool, it hinges on a pretty shopworn marketing ploy: "If you liked such-and-such, you'll love so-and-so." In the Firefly environment, you don't have to think about movies to have an opinion about them -- and you're milling around in a stew of nearly a million other users who probably haven't thought much about them, either.

The question Firefly raises isn't so much whether this kind of technology will do away with movie critics altogether -- not even Kamionek thinks it will -- but what effect it will have on moviegoers' critical thinking in general. Back in the '70s, the thing to do after you saw the new Robert Altman was to get together with your friends and hash it out. But we've moved away from being a culture of people who think about movies to one made up of people who believe that spouting a list of preferences is the same as registering an opinion. Firefly just requires that you respond, with a click of your mouse, to the buzzer that goes off in your head when you see a particular title.

Firefly's chief advantage is that it's a way to make connections. For lonely, stranded eggheads, it must be something of a blessing: If you're a 16-year-old in some tiny town in the Midwest who's somehow managed to see and fall in love with "Masculine Feminine," you can (in theory) use Firefly to find and communicate with others on-line who'll be hip to Godard's lingo. (Although, after my experience, I'd question Firefly's usefulness even there: When I asked it to find other users with taste in movies similar to mine, it came back with the message, "Sorry, Firefly couldn't find any members matching your request.")

Even after Firefly's hooked you up with what it thinks are kindred spirits, it's best to proceed with caution. Firefly assumes that other movie lovers are your best guides: users are encouraged to write their own reviews. And as most of us know from bitter experience, even people who think they know us well can steer us toward real clunkers.

It's not that Firefly users are necessarily incapable of critical thought. It's just that Firefly puts so much emphasis on simple categorization that users almost can't help oversimplifying their own responses when they write their reviews, which makes for lots of blowhard adjectives that add up to nothing. ("'Chinatown': A cinematic tour de force. Faye Dunaway is terrific!")

And sometimes the things we like about movies are too nebulous to be easily categorized. When Firefly asked me to rate "Forrest Gump" -- a movie I like for its craftsmanship and for the way the actors' performances undercut the movie's sappiness -- I was at a loss. How do you explain to an intelligent agent that there was just something about Robin Wright that burned through all the crapola? I was afraid if I said I liked "Forrest Gump," Firefly would seize upon me as a good candidate for "Awakenings" and "Cocoon." I'd already been earmarked as a nice quiet lady who enjoys charming foreign films and has an insatiable thirst for mayhem and bloodshed; who's to say I wouldn't go for feel-good tearjerkers, too?

In the end, Firefly is less about loving movies than about collecting them; one more excuse to avoid digging deep to figure out why a movie affects us the way it does. It's fun to play around with, for a while at least. But until an intelligent agent can intuit why my heart sinks when Angel's throat is cut in "The Wild Bunch," or why the moonlit barge in "L'Atalante" haunts my dreams, it isn't as smart as it thinks.

EXTRA! Queen of Not-So-Nice

That Rosie O'Donnell always seems so sweet on that talk show of hers -- guiltlessly plugging (and replugging) whatever movie or book her guests are there to promote, fawning over Tom Cruise so extravagantly one begins to wonder if Scientologists have taken over her brain. Turns out, though, as a report by Carl Swanson in the January 13 New York Observer suggests, that she might not be the ideal boss. Since her show began, approximately one-third of the program's 60-odd staff members have headed out the door (or been pushed). And in the "envy-riddled world of New York TV production," Swanson notes, the show has gotten a reputation as "a disaster area, with the host obsessed with controlling every aspect of the show, firing people over vague personality conflicts and loading up her staff with inexperienced people who are easily cowed." Who knew?

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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