The Hollywood Magnet

Some places are magnets – Manhattan, Paris, Hollywood – you’re going to end up there one day, somehow, and maybe you’ll stay, and maybe the move from upstate New York in 1981 was inevitable. The marriage had ended and the prospect of teaching English at that prep school, year after year, and ending up perhaps beloved but certainly insignificant, seemed like death. The walls were closing in. Los Angeles was the answer, and a job in the real world – aerospace out here was booming at the time. The military needed lots of satellites and other gizmos, and Hughes and all the rest needed support staff for the scientists and engineers who created all that secret stuff no one could talk about. Life was good, and Manhattan Beach was cool. The rent was cheap – the landlord was a PhD researcher at Rand Corporation over in Santa Monica, an expert on game theory as it applies to global thermonuclear war, who had bought up a lot of small beach apartment buildings in his spare time, to get rich too. He was cool, but Manhattan Beach wasn’t Hollywood. That was still far away – if ten miles is far away. It is. Ten miles is an hour’s drive in Los Angeles.

Hollywood would have to wait. A second marriage led to living in a leafy and pleasant condo-complex in Culver City not far from the old MGM Studios – Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, and so on – that place. The condos had been built on what had been the old back lot. Tarzan – Johnny Weissmuller – had swum in the lake by the parking lot. But that was all gone by then, and MGM was gone too. Sony-Columbia-TriStar took over the old studios, behind those high walls. No one knew what went on in there, and then circumstances led to moving down to San Pedro, the gritty port city down by Long Beach. The place was full of stevedores and longshoremen, and Croatians. Hollywood was just twenty miles up the freeway, but it might as well have been on the moon. The studios sent crews down for location shoots, when they needed that moody east-coast On the Waterfront ambience. Then they left.

It was time to leave too. The second marriage had ended and all options were open. It was finally time for Hollywood, the Dream Factory, as they say, the place that invents popular culture for the world, or at least expresses it in condensed and intensified form for the world, confirming the details for everyone. How else does everyone know what’s cool, and what’s not? This was the center of it all, the belly of the beast, or the heart of darkness.

This apartment just above the Sunset Strip seemed just about right, with a view out east across the hills to the observatory where James Dean was that rebel, without a cause, being moody. Schwab’s Drugstore was once down on the corner – there’s a shopping mall there now – and the Oscars shut down the streets here each year for a week. They hand those out a few blocks away. The after-parties are here on the Strip, but after twenty years here, Hollywood seems like a silly place. It is visually fascinating – see the photography site and its archives – but movies don’t really matter that much. Ten years ago it was hanging with the studio crowd – the below-the-line bean-counters and crafts folks, and a studio facilities manager, in charge of allocating office and production space – but even they turned out to be a self-absorbed and self-referential and a self-congratulatory lot. They admire each other, or wonder if they should, this week, given this weekend’s box-office figures. The industry is serenely insular. That may be a defense mechanism.

It is a defense mechanism. The problem is that the movies are basically an adolescent art form – not that the technology isn’t all grown up. The current technology is superb, and Hollywood’s marketing is peerless, even if it is incessant – but the product itself has to be condensed and intensified for the widest possible audience. The subtle becomes blatant. The complex becomes simple, as there’s no time for nuance. The movie has to grab you to make back its production and marketing costs, much less make a profit. It can’t be deep. It has to be compelling. Tolstoy can be deep. He will use nine hundred pages. When you’ve got a bit under two hours, on average, deep is out of the question – and thus most movies are the simple forceful stuff that is the essence of adolescence, and the target demographic is usually the eighteen to twenty-four crowd, who buy most of the movie tickets. It’s a perfect match.

Late each year the studios do release their “serious” films for the older demographic, their loss-leaders they hope will win an Oscar for hinting at something like depth and nuance. Those are their “prestige” films, not really intended to make money. The money is in the condensed and intensified broadly-drawn in-your-face movies. Some are dark, like the three Christopher Nolan Batman films, and some are sunny and warm like the Shrek movies, but none of them are terribly important in the grand scheme of things. They’re entertainment after all. They shouldn’t be taken seriously, and that’s what makes living in the heart of Hollywood so ironic. These people take all this stuff seriously? After twenty years here that now seems amazing. It was amazing after the first year here.

The inevitable happened. There would be no more wrap parties with the self-absorbed and self-referential and self-congratulatory folks at Musso and Frank. That got old real fast. Hollywood invents no more than entertainment, some of it quite wonderful, but none of it very important. There’s no need to take it seriously, but don’t tell that to that fellow with the bad haircut in North Korea:

Hackers caused tens of millions of dollars in damage last month to Sony Pictures’ computers, destroyed valuable files, leaked five films, four of them unreleased, and exposed private employment information including 47,000 Social Security numbers. In response to the cyberattack and a threat against movie theaters, Sony canceled the Christmas Day release of “The Interview,” a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that depicts a fictional assassination of Kim.

And now we knew who took this movie far too seriously, although there’s not much we can do:

With intelligence analysts quietly pointing to North Korea as having a hand in the destructive hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment computers, Obama administration officials scrambled Thursday to consider what, if anything, they should do in response.

Options are limited, partly because the United States already imposes strict sanctions on North Korea’s economy and because the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, relishes confrontation with the West. White House officials are wary of playing into an effort by nuclear-armed North Korea to provoke the U.S. into a direct confrontation.

“How do you sanction the world’s most heavily sanctioned country?” asked John Park, a specialist on Northeast Asia at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

You could tell the guy it’s only a movie, but that’s not going to work:

The Obama administration has stopped short of saying openly that North Korea was involved in the intrusion. Such an allegation would probably bring about calls for a response, and with an unwillingness to lay out its evidence, lack of available economic punishments and little desire for acts of war, the White House so far appears reluctant to make a public accusation. …

Spokesman Josh Earnest would say only that the White House considers the breach of one of Hollywood’s largest studios to be a “serious national security matter.”

The administration is considering a range of options, he said, but wants to take care not to respond in a way that legitimizes those behind the attack. The attackers might try to provoke the U.S. to “enhance their standing,” Earnest said, indirectly nodding to North Korea’s appetite for needling other countries.

And there’s that other problem:

Proving that North Korea was involved won’t be easy. The attack was reportedly routed through servers in Singapore, Thailand and Bolivia. Experts believe that North Korea lacks the capability to infiltrate Sony’s computers on its own and would have required the assistance of mercenary computer hackers, and possibly disgruntled Sony insiders.

Though most citizens in isolated, impoverished North Korea have no access to computers or the Internet, a small stable of highly skilled hackers are believed to work for the country. Computer attacks are a useful tool for North Korea’s aims of provocation because they are inexpensive to carry out and can be plausibly denied, experts said.

North Korea is “really working on their cyber capability; it gives a poorer nation international reach,” retired Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel, a former Pentagon official, said.

The public information linking North Korea to the attack is largely circumstantial.

And someone’s hopping mad:

In June, the nation called the plot of “The Interview” an “act of war.” After the attack on Sony began, though, North Korea said it had no part. Still, it lauded the hacking as a “righteous deed of supporters and sympathizers.”

Somehow what was only a silly film became a matter of national security, and Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post’s movie critic, considers what Sony pulling the film really means:

The truth that the Sony “Interview” debacle has laid bare is that all films are political, from the most banal escapist romp to the self-valorizing action adventures we aggressively send to the overseas markets – especially in Asia – that account for around 70 percent of the movie industry’s profits.

That point was inadvertently proved with perhaps the most provocative kernel of information that emerged during the disorienting past few days. In the middle of the swirl, the Daily Beast revealed communications between Sony Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton and the State Department, which told him that “The Interview” had the potential of actually moving the needle in North Korea.

Ah, Michael Lynton worried that someone, other than the industry insiders, would actually take one of their movies seriously, and he had called a friend in Santa Monica:

Lynton had already run the project by a specialist at the Rand Corp. (where he sits on the board of trustees). In a June e-mail, Rand defense analyst Bruce Bennett wrote to Lynton: “I have been clear that the assassination of Kim Jong Un is the most likely path to a collapse of the North Korean government. Thus while toning down the ending may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people (well, at least the elites) will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North (which it almost certainly will).”

Lynton subsequently wrote back: “Bruce – Spoke to someone very senior in State (confidentially). He agreed with everything you have been saying. Everything. I will fill you in when we speak.”

They decided to release the film anyway, a miscalculation:

Even films that don’t culminate in the assassination of a sitting world leader possess their own politics: As purveyors of the culture we all swim in, they possess commensurate elemental power, from informing what we expect from life to modeling how we treat one another. …

Meanwhile, the fallout from waking the dragon has begun, with Fox dropping Steve Carell’s adaptation of the graphic novel “Pyongyang” on Wednesday. “I find it ironic that fear is eliminating the possibility to tell stories that depict our ability to overcome fear,” said the film’s director, Gore Verbinski. On Thursday, Paramount canceled planned screenings of the 2004 parody “Team America: World Police” – which included a spoof on former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Oh my! The whole industry is in trouble, and now they say it’s so unfair, but Hornaday isn’t buying it:

One of the most enduring wish-fulfillment fantasies that Hollywood sells is that you can have it both ways. You can have your work taken seriously at think tanks and panels, yet insist that it’s “only” entertainment. You can couch ideology in the rhetoric of “complexity,” and evade responsibility to the truth by invoking moral “gray areas.” As depressing as the “Interview” spectacle has been as political theater, at least it has reinvested otherwise trivial, disposable cultural products with the meaning they’ve had all along.

In other words, movies matter, whether they shouldn’t or don’t want to. There might have been a time when the studios’ calculus of whether to make a movie had only to do with budgets, box office and ancillary revenue streams. Now, they might ask themselves what movies are worth fighting for to the bitter end.

As for fighting for something like this to the bitter end, the cyber war expert Peter Singer calls Sony canceling the theatrical release of The Interview a case study in how not to respond to terrorism threats:

We have just communicated to any would-be attacker that we will do whatever they want.

It is mind-boggling to me, particularly when you compare it to real things that have actually happened. Someone killed 12 people and shot another 70 people at the opening night of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. They kept that movie in the theaters. You issue an anonymous cyber threat that you do not have the capability to carry out? We pulled a movie from 18,000 theaters.

Eugene Volokh adds this:

I sympathize with the theaters’ situation – they’re in the business of showing patrons a good time, and they’re rightly not interested in becoming free speech martyrs, even if there’s only a small chance that they’ll be attacked. Moreover, the very threats may well keep moviegoers away from theater complexes that are showing the movie, thus reducing revenue from all the screens at the complex.

But behavior that is rewarded is repeated.

Thugs who oppose movies that are hostile to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, and extremist Islam generally, or any other country or religion, will learn the lesson. The same will go as to thugs who are willing to use threats of violence to squelch expression they oppose for reasons related to abortion, environmentalism, animal rights and so on.

This isn’t even about the goofy movie any longer, and Ron Dreher notes here that studios are already self-censoring:

Production on a new thriller starring Steve Carell and based in North Korea has now been cancelled. So film studios are afraid that what happened to Sony will happen to them. It is easy to imagine that studios and publishers will be intimidated into canceling or never taking on all kinds of projects on a wide variety of topics, simply out of legitimate fear of cybercrime or worse. Troubling.

Todd VanDerWerff sees that too:

This decision was driven as much by placating theatre owners as much as anybody else, but it also has the effect of essentially writing off a whole area of the map.

What happens when someone wants to make a dumb action movie set in North Korea? Or a romantic comedy on both sides of the Korean border (as improbable as that would be)? Or a serious, weighty political drama about the struggles of the North Korean people, aimed at winning some Oscars? What do the bean-counters say then?

Slate’s Fred Kaplan, however, sees something new here:

Most cyberattacks to date – by China, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Israel, the United States, and a dozen or so other nations, as well as scads of gangsters and simple mischief-makers – have been mounted in order to steal money, patents, credit card numbers, or national-security secrets.

Whoever hacked Sony (probably a North Korean agency or contractor) did so to put pressure on free speech – in effect, to alter American popular culture and suppress constitutional rights.

Matt Devost, president and CEO of FusionX LLC, one of the leading computer-security firms dotting the Washington suburbs, told me in an email this morning, “This is the dawn of a new age. No longer do you have to worry just about the theft of money or intellectual property, but also about attacks that are designed to be as destructive as possible – and to influence your behavior.”

That’s pretty scary:

The precedent is disturbing. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people in the world – ranging from military cyber officers to clever teenagers – have the means and talent to hack into corporate computers, especially those of arts and entertainment companies, which have never thought of themselves as cyberattack victims and have therefore never taken more than the most basic precautions. Will hackers now threaten to raid and expose the computer files of other studios, publishers, art museums, and record companies if their executives don’t cancel some other movie, book, exhibition, or album?

This has already happened:

Last February, Las Vegas Sands Corp. – which owns the Sands, Venetian, and Palazzo hotel-casinos – was hacked by Iranians, in revenge for a speech given by its CEO, Sheldon Adelson, calling for a nuclear attack on Iran.

Adelson may be a distasteful figure, but he has the right to express his views without having to worry about some anonymous techie from across the oceans wiping out his computer servers at a cost of $40 million in damages. (The damages to the Sony attack could total as much as $100 million.)

And there may have been more cyberattacks of this sort on who knows how many other companies. Adelson covered up the true scope and nature of the attack on his company until an article just this month in Bloomberg Businessweek revealed the full details. Dell SecureWorks, the firm Adelson hired to trace the intrusion, concluded that the “attack was in response to CEO comments regarding Iran.” Adelson had that line excised before releasing the report.

Who can say what, now? That’s the issue, and one beyond Hollywood:

Should the U.S. government play some role in protesting this attack, taking retaliatory measures, or helping to prevent, trace, and repel such attacks in the future? In other words, is this a matter to be left to the private companies affected – or does it cross some line into the realm of diplomacy, national security, or (in the Sony case) a defense of American values?

The government and private industry – especially software, computer, and telecommunications companies – have been tossing around these questions for 30 years. The debate turned particularly fierce during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton’s adviser on counter-terrorism and infrastructure-protection, Richard Clarke (who would later start a consulting firm on cyber security and write a book called Cyber War), argued for imposing mandatory security requirements on companies and utilities. Clinton’s economic advisers, as well as several CEOs, firmly resisted.

As a compromise, Clinton created ISACs, or “information sharing and analysis centers,” in which government agencies would help companies better secure their servers and networks. Presidents Bush and Obama strengthened these centers, but the arrangements remained voluntary – at the insistence of the private companies, which abhor regulation, and several civil liberties organizations, which are leery of any government intrusions into the Internet.

Forget this one movie and look at the big picture:

Another problem in coming up with national policy on these issues is “attribution.” If a missile lands on American soil, its trajectory can be traced to the launch pad. If a server or network is crashed, the hacker’s signature can be traced, but it’s common for hackers to hijack other servers or hop from one platform to another. Sophisticated analysts – in the CIA, NSA, and a growing number of private computer-security companies – can usually track down the source, but it’s not a sure thing. North Korean spokesmen have praised, but denied involvement in, the Sony hacking. Even if President Obama were inclined to take some sort of action, would he do so without proof that Kim’s regime was the culprit?

But what happens now, after the hacking of a major movie studio and hotel-casino chain, when it’s clear that every American enterprise might be hacked by foreigners – and when not just their assets, but their beliefs and public remarks might be the targets?

Will they now start requesting government assistance? Should the government assume responsibility for their security? And if so, how?

This is a mess:

It may be the dawn of a new age, but the glimmerings of this dawn lit up the sky decades ago, and those with the power and money to confront its challenges have evaded their responsibilities or been beaten down in their efforts. There never has been a serious debate about the issue’s costs, risks, benefits, and complexities. Maybe the unlikely pair of Sony Pictures and Sheldon Adelson will force the debate to happen now.

Or maybe they won’t. It seems that among the thousands of leaked Sony emails are those showing all the executives agreeing that this was a really crappy movie in the first place – and they knew that all along. It was puerile adolescent nonsense. That was in private “secure” emails of course. No one here admits, publicly, that Hollywood is a silly place. No one told the North Koreans. Maybe you have to actually live here to understand that – and maybe it’s time to move to Manhattan or Paris.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Hollywood Magnet

  1. Rick says:

    It’s ironic, thinking the federal government can help American companies fight cyber attacks. Didn’t the White House itself get hacked in the last month or so?

    But there is this other angle to that movie, “The Interview”. I remember when I first heard about it, it set me to thinking about, oddly, where the concept of common decency enters into all this.

    I remember wondering whether this flick wasn’t taking cheap and insulting shots at an easy target, just another in a succession of always-amusing leaders of North Korea. True, he’s starved his people and insists they worship him like a god, plus, he had his uncle killed (maybe because he never did like those pull-my-finger jokes at Thanksgiving, and finally got a chance to do something about them.) Still, I can’t help but think filming a comedy about two guys trying to assassinate this guy, I guess on the assumption that people will think you’re pretty courageous — even though you will, of course, get away with it — does seem oddly cowardly, if not out-and-out rude.

    Yes, I know how enjoyable it is to poke fun at the Kims. One of my favorites was back in December of 2002, a holiday-themed political cartoon by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mike Luckovich — a White House aide, standing outside the Oval Office next to the tiny, nuke-carrying Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un’s dad, and saying to Bush Jr. (paraphrasing here, since I can’t find the actual cartoon on the web): “Sir, I know you’re focused on Iraq, but do you have time for a little fruitcake?” It’s hard not to laugh.

    I remember, when I first heard of this movie, wondering how the North Koreans thought of it. Then again, I reasoned, what the hell can they do about it anyway?

    Now we know.

    And it’s not that this hasn’t come up before. A few years ago, it was Salman Rushdie, under an alleged fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for writing the Satanic Verses, and later, it was those Danish cartoonists, under the threat of death for mocking Mohamed. These folks all took precautions, but they made a point of not backing down to the threats.

    And if you think back far enough, there were a few American films that mocked Adolph Hitler during his rise (Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in 1940) and even once he was in power (To Be or Not to Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, in 1942), even though, at the time, Hollywood was reluctant to stick its collective neck out, maybe because they didn’t want to risk losing European box office receipts (with the Nazis either fixing to or having already taken over many of those countries), or maybe it had to do with so many studio heads having relatives back in the old countries.

    So I’m a bit torn. While a small part of me isn’t comfortable with the mindless taunting of even some tyrannical coocoo-bird, launched from what seemed to be safely behind thousands of miles of ocean — and am even inwardly pleased to see these clueless producers being taught a lesson, that actions do indeed have consequences — the better part of me, of course, has to admit annoyance that those North Koreans got away with making these threats.

    Remember back in the Rushdie and Danish-cartoon affairs, when some Muslims asked rhetorically what Christians would think if someone made fun of Jesus? The answer, of course, was that sometimes people do mock Jesus, but we know to just let it roll off, like water off a duck. I realize, this is a clash-of-civilizations thing, but when it comes to a choice between living in a dark world, where nobody can express an opinion that might offend somebody else and where nobody laughs, or living in a bright world, where you know people have the right to say mean things about you but you have the right to just ignore them, we in the western world choose the latter — and are, we think, better for it.

    That’s where we are today, and where I am, too.

    If you look back and see pre-code Hollywood movies, pre-1934, you see a lot more cheesy sex in them. And yes, that sex was there because sex sold movies back then, but in fact, probably because of the freedom, the movies were, on the whole, more fun to watch than the ones that followed. So it’s not that I necessarily want to defend the banality of Hollywood, I’d rather live in a world that allows it than doesn’t, and am somewhat perturbed that SONY didn’t stand up for America — since this attack is really an attack on the country, not just the studio. (In fact, I’m wondering how much SONY not being an American company had to do with its decision to shut the movie down.)

    So although they apparently have said they won’t do this, I think SONY, just to make the point that we won’t be completely bowed, should release that dumb movie straight to DVD or Pay-Per-View or something — maybe even for free — and maybe even promoting the idea that people should see it as a patriotic statement.

    Sure, it would be sort of a smarmy gimmick, but I’m pretty sure I myself would play along, even if it meant I’d have to actually watch the goddam thing, being a sacrifice I’d be willing to make for my country.

    Rick

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