Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hooray for Hollywood

I was up in Mountain View yesterday chatting with Y Combinator companies, and I was really struck by the difference in cultures between the Silicon Valley and LA. It was hardly any effort at all to get twenty of the world's most brilliant hackers in the same room at the same time, while in LA we consider ourselves lucky to find even one decent Python programmer. But LA has its charms. Today I was on a panel at a seminar for filmmakers learning how to raise money for movies, and one of the people on the panel was Frank Darabont who directed The Shawshank Redemption, one of my favorite films of all time.

I arrived way too early for the panel, so I decided to pop over to the Kodak Theatre to grab a bite to eat. The place was crawling with tourists taking pictures of the out-of-work actors in front of Grauman's who hustle for tips by dressing up like famous movie characters. I had a brief chat with a convincing but rather dispirited Albus Dumbledore, who had been out of work for weeks as a result of the writer's strike. That is just not an experience you could ever hope to have in Mountain View.

I once told Paul Graham that one of the things I love about LA is its phoniness, but that wasn't really the right word. The word I should have used but didn't for fear of coming across too starry-eyed was magic. I love LA's magic -- but not in the phony Disney-esque sense of the word. I mean in the real professional-magician sense of the word. The kind of magic a magician does is not real magic. It's acting. It's sleight-of-hand and misdirection and when it's done right it gives a very convincing illusion of magic happening before your eyes. A really good magician makes it look like magic even if you know how the trick is done.

The film industry is all about creating those kinds of illusions. Everyone knows that ET is just a muppet, and that bicycle isn't really flying across the moon, but film can create mighty convincing illusions, and in that sense film is magic. Not "real" wish-upon-a-star kind of magic, but professional-magician kind of magic.

The trick with film is that it takes its magic to a whole nuther level from traditional magic. Traditional magic is designed to elicit only one emotion: wonder. But film can elicit the entire panoply of human emotion: laughter, fear, love, joy, sorrow. What's more, those emotions are real. And because the emotions are real, the illusions that evoked them seem all that much more real and vivid.

There's a kind of delicious and fearsome danger in the extent to which movies present convincing illusions. It makes it hard, for example, to separate actors from the characters they play. People love movie stars because they think they know them when what they really know are the characters they play. Sometimes it becomes difficult even for actors to separate themselves from their characters, because to really act well you have to get yourself to actually feel the emotions that you are portraying. Good acting isn't really acting, it's genuinely feeling, which is one of the reasons that acting can be such an emotionally taxing line of work.

This perilously fuzzy line between illusion and reality permeates the culture of the entire city of Los Angeles. Culturally, it is the diametric opposite of the culture in the Silicon Valley, where everything revolves around the harsh objective reality of MOSFET transistors. People in Silicon Valley are very good at slinging bits and crunching numbers, and are generally (except for VC's) pretty earnest and straightforward. People in LA are the exact opposite. There's a huge amount of phoniness, but it's a particular kind of phoniness that I find fascinating and wonderful. Everyone is dreaming of being a movie star or a producer or a director or selling their screenplay. The fascinating thing about it is that the reality of being any of these things is nothing at all like the dream. Frank Darabont has been nominated for three or four Oscars, and he has to hustle for money to make his next feature just like anybody else. His rolodex is a bit fatter, but other than that he's pretty much in the same boat as anybody else. And we're all driven by this desire to make a particular kind of magic happen, of rendering a transcendent experience on film. That what I feel when I look up at the Hollywood sign, and that's why I love LA. The Silicon Valley is cool, but it's not magic.