Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Letter from California-May 4, 2004

Let’s pretend for a moment that Myrtle Beach, South Carolina rather than Hollywood, California were the worldwide capital of the movie-making business. If it were, you would have Woody Harrelson and his grass-powered craziness to put up with, but there would be definite benefits. For example, many of the movies that get shipped worldwide would depict a “typical” American neighborhood not as a neat and tidy Los Angeles suburb like in E.T. or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Instead, it would be a brick sub-development around an artificial lake with a name like Deerwood. People all over the world would picture the rest of America being a lot like all the little housing developments that have been built on top of the pine woods like the ones where my brothers and I used to shoot BB guns at each other when we were little.
Having moved to California, I understand this in a way that native Californians don’t. Since I, like all transplants, know that the rest of America doesn’t generally resemble Reseda or Irvine, it’s fascinating to think that, for example, a foreign exchange student could come to the country and based on watching HBO back in Germany for his whole life, he would expect a four-bedroom Ranch style house with a two-car garage and instead find himself in a 2-story log cabin five minutes from his own mailbox and 30 minutes from his adopted school.
Image is important. I lived in Japan in the early and mid-90s, and despite the many wonderful thing about Japan and the Japanese, I always got a little ticked at one thing that almost every Japanese person I ever met would say.
“America is very dangerous.”
Ok, some of them would actually say, “America is very danger,” but I got the message. Thanks to the L.A. gangster movie craze of the late 1980s, Japanese people assumed that the minute they got to the curb with their suitcases at L.A. Airport, Ice Cube was going to pull up in his car, shoot them in the head and take all of their Hello Kitty merchandise. Worse yet, he’d be speaking to them in English so fast while he was doing it, that they wouldn’t even get a chance to put those expensive English lessons to use.
In reality, of course, for the overwhelming majority of Japanese who visit us, America is very safe. Millions visit every year. Ice Cube can only get around to assaulting a couple dozen, so those aren’t bad odds. I’d say a chance to see Stallone’s handprints on Hollywood Boulevard and a visit to Disneyland are probably worth the risk.
So the question is why people would make movies that make their own home country, state or town look worse than it really is? Why would these moviemakers go around deliberately scaring people about things that they don’t need to be scared about when it’s actually not good for business?
That’s what I’ve been asking myself this week as I think about the movie that just aired on NBC called 10.5. The premise is that an earthquake of magnitude 10.5 hits the west coast and threatens to turn Southern California into an island. The destruction is mind-blowing. Picture Ruben Studdard fighting his way out of an enormous birthday cake, and you get the image of what this earthquake is doing to the Pacific states. Of course, the whole movie comes down to scientist’s plan “just so crazy it might work” to explode a nuclear bomb to make the San Andreas fault melt back together and prevent the worst. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin it, but basically the nukes are just the medicine for the situation and everyone is sipping cappuccino again the next day. Everybody, that is, except for the people who get killed when the smaller earthquakes level Seattle and San Francisco.
It probably doesn’t have to be said how silly this all is, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s very, very, very silly. Just for reference, a 10.5 earthquake is thousands of times more powerful than the earthquake that caused the Bay Bridge to come apart and put a stop to the World Series in 1989. If the 1989 quake were one water balloon hitting you in the back of the head, you can picture a 10.5 quake by thinking of thousands of water balloons all hitting you at the same time. If the shaking from the 1989 quake were like the crazy pelvic gyrations of Elvis Presley, a 10.5 would be the equivalent of more than 5000 Elvises.
Whole lotta shakin’ indeed.
It’s not to say that a 10.5 earthquake couldn’t hit. It could. It has. It will again. But probably not when we, our children, their children, their children, their children, their children or their children’s robot clones are around to care. If images of Southern California breaking off and falling into the ocean have the same effect as some of the images that Hollywood has put out there over the years, a movie like this can cause people to waste precious brain cells giving it a second thought.
Moviemakers should uphold their responsibilities as good citizens to keep people focused on the real danger here.
Ice Cube. He wants your luggage and will stop at nothing to get it.


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