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What Non-Aardvarks are Pondering

By Curtis C. Chen

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May 4, 2002

Visions of Blight

Zero Sum


Earlier this week, I saw a trailer for The Sum of All Fears, the new movie based on Tom Clancy's novel of the same name. The basic plot is this: terrorists plan to detonate a nuclear device during the Super Bowl, and it's up to Jack Ryan to stop them.[1] Unfortunately, he doesn't, and then it's up to him to stop World War III,[2] which he does. The end.

The subject matter is rather sensitive in these troubled times, and the filmmakers have made some efforts to reduce the hotness of the buttons they're pushing. If I recall correctly, in the book, the villains are Palestinians who dig up an Israeli tactical nuke that was lost in the Yom Kippur War; in the movie, according to the trailer, the bad guys are European neo-Nazis who purchase a Soviet warhead on the black market. But the filmmakers aren't shying away from everything.

The very end of the trailer depicts what appears to be a nuclear explosion. And not only do we see cars and helicopters being devastated by the blast, we see the shockwave blasting through an hospital corridor and the people inside. We clearly see those people being slammed into the back wall and vaporized. We see them die.

How is it still okay to show, as part of an entertainment, thousands of innocent people being killed by a large explosion?

I understand it's all computer graphics and make-believe, but after September eleventh, how is it okay to show this in a movie? How is it okay to show this, ever? How the hell do you not address this in production meetings, or worse, decide that it's acceptable?

And don't give me any shit about censorship or artistic integrity. This is Paramount, the most miserly studio in Hollywood, working from a Tom Clancy potboiler! They didn't want to pay Harrison Ford's salary, so they hired Ben Affleck to play a much younger Jack Ryan, but instead of making this movie a "prequel" set in the past, it's set in the present day or near future. They don't even care about that much continuity.

The only reason the filmmakers are showing us this repulsive scene of death is to generate a cheap tingle of horror, to infuse their paint-by-numbers thriller with a veneer of gravity, and that's despicable.

I suppose they think people will give in to a morbid fascination and want to see this. They probably believe that the American public has become so desensitized to violence and mass murder that millions of people will pay good money to watch other people being killed by a bomb. They must be counting on this, since they made sure to feature those images in the trailer.

My fear is that they're right.

[1] Yes, it's a lot like the 1977 movie Black Sunday-- this is even acknowledged in the book.
[2] The frantic communication between the Presidents of the United States and Russia is very reminiscent of the 1964 movie Fail Safe.

Are You Now or Have You Ever Been

Like I said last week, I'm a programmer, but I'm not a fanatical, hardcore programmer. This has become very clear to me recently as I've been interviewing. People ask me incredibly esoteric technical questions and presumably expect me to answer off the top of my head. What, do I look like a graduate student?

For my fellow interviewees, here are some facts you might like to tuck under your belt:

  • In perl, my() is lexical scoping and local() is dynamic scoping.
  • 232 is equivalent to 4GB.
  • To reverse a linked list, you'll need three pointer buffers.
  • The best RFCs are published yearly on April 1st.

If you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, maybe you should be looking for a non-technical job.

Smart Chicks are So Hot

Several newspapers, including The Washington Post, recently published a story about a letter to the editor that actress Natalie Portman wrote to the Harvard Crimson in response to this editorial about the current crisis in the Middle East. The author of the editorial speculated that the only reason the Crimson published Natalie's letter is because she's a movie star. The Crimson responded that they always select letters for publication based on their content, not the identity of the sender.

I'm more inclined to believe the latter argument. Natalie's family is from Israel, and "Portman" is a stage name. Though her real name is known on the Harvard campus, other newspapers have refrained from publishing it. No one wants another John Hinckley.

Of course, no major newspaper would have picked up this story if the letter writer hadn't been a celebrity. It's sad, really, how so many people naturally assign more importance to the words coming out of somebody's mouth when that person is on a TV or movie screen. Being an actor is, on the whole, no more or less difficult than any other job. The only difference is that the small percentage of outrageously high-paid actors are much more visible in the mass media than people who are successful in other fields.

Personally, I don't envy movie stars and celebrities. I'm glad I have a private life that nobody cares about. I'm glad I don't need to hire publicists and security consultants to manage my daily activities. I'm glad I don't have to worry about an accountant stealing all my money. I'm glad I don't have to think about whether millions of strangers approve of my girlfriend, and whether their opinions will affect my career.

You knew there was a Buffy quote coming, didn't you?

"My life happens, very occasionally, to suck beyond the telling of it. More than I can stand sometimes. And not just me. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're way too busy with their own. The beautiful ones, the popular ones, the guys that pick on you... everyone. If you could hear what they're feeling -- the confusion, the loneliness... It looks quiet down there. It's not. It's deafening."

-- "Earshot"

Someday, I hope to be able to write affecting prose as well and as prolifically as Joss Whedon. Until then, I'll just keep using his stuff. (Fair use! Fair use!)




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