Think Tank: Computers and Technology in Movies (The Sequel!)

What’s the best “hacking” movie, and why is it Blazing Saddles?

Last time, the Overthinkers discussed depictions of technology and computers in movies, and why they are so terrible. Now, the exciting conclusion!

Peter Fenzel: By this model, maybe the best “hacking” movie is Blazing Saddles.

Stokes: GO ON

Fenzel: So, the problem in Blazing Saddles is the baddies are coming to kill everyone in the town. This is treated and mocked as a standard thing that has to happen. The progress of the Western is algorithmic, hitting all the beats a Western has to hit, and the characters seem at least vaguely aware of this.

The solution – which is to build a fake town and misdirect the attack toward the fake town, is not something that would work on a human being.

And it can’t be done in human terms.

It confounds the idea of what a town is, what it means to build one, or to recognize one, and assumes (rightfully it turns out) that the baddies have no ability to think critically or creatively beyond their function as algorithmic Western villains.

Every town the villains attack in a Western is a fake town, so of course they can’t tell the difference between a “real fake town” and a “fake fake town.”

Stokes: Yes. That totally holds up. And the fact that the fight ends up spilling over into the Busby Berkeley musical that’s filming on the next lot is directly analogous to the way that hacks often end up using resources — memory, etc. — that the original programmers had devoted to some other purpose. The user isn’t supposed to see the backlot! The hacker knows the backlot is there, and that it is, in a sense, the only true reality.

So yeah, you don’t even need a computer: you need deterministic processes that only seem like they have comprehensible goals.

Fenzel: Yes! The fight in the studio lot, recruiting the sassy dancers to fight the Western villains, is how you “hack the system.” And the main thing the “hackers” do when they pull off their “hack” is literally buy popcorn and watch.

There’s also the “hack” of the toll booth, where he delays the attackers by setting up a new rule they naturally assume they must follow – they need to go back for dimes to pay the toll to a booth that presents only a symbolic barrier in the wide open brushland.

They could go around, but they’re an algorithm, they don’t just go around things. They respond to rules.

Adams: I definitely agree that WarGames treats WOPR too much like a person to count as a “hack.” The solution he comes up with doesn’t require an in depth knowledge of the system or the programming – the solution is one that a philosopher or psychologist might have come up with just as easily.

Blazing Saddles is definitely much closer to the mark. One of the things that hackers love to do is play with and make use of different levels of abstraction.

And the fake fake town/movie set brawl is a perfect example of this.

My only quibble is that the characters succeed by abusing their knowledge of the level of abstraction above the one they currently inhabit. That is, they know they are in a movie, and act accordingly.

Most hacking makes use of in depth knowledge about levels of abstraction below the conventional one.

That is, they exploit the way a particular application is compiled, or the way that is happens to be implemented in the computers memory.

The best example I can think of in film is some of the check kiting schemes in Catch Me if You Can. Tom Hanks explains that by changing a single routing number on the bad checks, Leo buys himself a week or more of time before anyone catches on (because the check ends up getting sent to a bank across the country before it is cashed).

Fenzel: Maybe the spread that you’re talking about, and this whole division, is characteristic of Doctor Who: the Doctor is a level of abstraction above everything that happens and views it as a technology, and the Companion is a level of abstraction beneath everything that happens and views it as a wonder. Although they both tend to invest technologies, biologies and other instrumental arrangements in normative semantic terms – that they mean things and ought to mean things.

Stokes: And that brings us back to the question that Belinkie started out with: can you make a movie about computers that won’t become instantly dated?

After this whole conversation, we’ve gotten to a place where Pete can say “The Doctor is basically like a hacker; the companion is like a luser.” And I’m totally on board with that. There is something magical about computer programming.

But this only true in a way, which, as we all know, means “it is not true.”

There’s also something nonmagical about programming. And I think the key difference is that we all know juuuuust enough about programming that we kind of think we understand it. From our discussion, it seems like actual programming is mostly about efficient use of resources, and shifting between levels of abstraction, and sometimes about looking for loopholes (or the white magic version of the same task: finding bugs). And when it comes to computers, we all know what that means: we’ve seen something run out of RAM before, and we know that on SOME level computers run on binary, and so on. And because we have some sense of what programming/hacking should actually look like, we can roll our eyes at Hollywood’s version of it.

But can we imagine what it’s like to hack a sonic screwdriver? Does that run on binary? Will it eventually run out of RAM? Hell if I know. It is, precisely, that sufficiently advanced technology which is indistinguishable from magic — which means that Hollywood can treat it however it wants.

The “tech” from the old 1960s Dr. Who holds up better than the tech from Jurassic Park. I think there’s a lesson there.

One Comment on “Think Tank: Computers and Technology in Movies (The Sequel!)”

  1. robbbbbb #

    If you’re going to list Blazing Saddles as a possible hacker movie then, for all the reasons that you mention, you have to consider Looney Tunes.

    Bugs Bunny does this kind of stuff all the time. He reaches to another level of abstraction and exploits loopholes in the fundamental nature of the universe to accomplish his goals. It’s just like Blazing Saddles, only turned up to 11.


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