"I Want to Blow Up Silicon Valley"

You can never go home again, an indie film warns, especially if your town's been overrun by techies.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
July 14, 2000 11:26PM (UTC)
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Picture the place where you grew up. Now, imagine it trampled by an avalanche of capital and the stampede of lucre-crazed hordes chasing after it. The picnic tables of your favorite hometown burger joint buzz with the incessant tapping of laptop keys and cellphone chatter. Slickie-slick guys in wraparound sunglasses compare the size of their option grants, gossip about who "got in early" and strategize when to "jump ship." Even ordering a basic burger isn't what it used to be: "Would you like a turkey burger or a hamburger?"

And forget about catching a nostalgic glimpse of the Hells Angels -- badass and mustachioed -- whom you feared and idolized from a distance as a kid. Their supremacy on the local roads has been usurped by colorful packs of fey, clean-shaven cyclists poured into too-tight Lycra shorts, with pagers clipped to their belts. These nouveau "bikers" wield $2,000 21-speeds, and yell self-righteously at all passing cars: "Share the road!" The only motorcycles you'll see in these parts today aren't hogs, but Ducatis.

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This is what Rob Logan goes home to find in "I Want to Blow Up Silicon Valley" -- a caustic, independent film now making the film-festival rounds, which sends up the dot-commers who have overrun Silicon Valley. Yes, you can never go home again -- especially if the suburban house where you grew up is now worth tens, if not hundreds, of times what your parents paid for it.

It might seem hard to muster a lot of sympathy for Rob, a character who's not yet 30 and has just come into what used to be considered a fortune. But this movie makes us see what Silicon Valley looks like through a local-turned-stranger's eyes. With his father's death, Rob has returned to his old stomping grounds to sell his childhood home -- asking price: $2.5 million -- and to search for his long-lost high school girlfriend. (Get it? He's in search of the past.) "I Want to Blow Up Silicon Valley" gently makes the case that with all the creation of absurd wealth in these parts, something else has been lost that can't be brought back or bought. And it may be enough of a loss to drive a native son to violence.

The film is a moody hommage to the pre-Net gold rush days of the rolling hills south of San Francisco, far from the current morass of cubicles, servers and deal-making. There are sun-dappled scenes of tie-dyed hippie girls dancing to the mellow tunes of local bands and lots of shots of the mesmerizing winding roads of the Coastal Range, which dot-commers don't traverse unless they're in search of real estate or engaged in "extreme," stress-relieving athletic pursuits.

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But "I Want to Blow Up Silicon Valley" is also a dead-on parody of what's obliterating the region's laid-back past. In one scene, Rob impassively looks on as a techno-yuppie couple bicker about whether they should buy his childhood home. Are there enough phone lines? What about the commute? "There are no other houses available in this area," reasons the cold-hearted she-dot-commer. "The only reason why this one came up is because that guy died. We have hit the jackpot!"

Another potential buyer is an insufferably arrogant 28-year-old millionaire, who can't resist bragging to Rob about how he's struck it rich. He reflects: "Your dad must have done pretty well." Rob: "Well, he never really talked about it." It gets so bad Rob can't even gaze down on the office parks near Highway 101 without hearing, in his head, the irritating sound of a modem connecting.

Our displaced hero does find new, romantic possibilities in Avy, a recent transplant, who works (inevitably) for a software company. It's local guy meets computer girl. Will he be able to embrace the future? But they're clearly moving at different speeds; she has to excuse herself every few minutes on their first date to respond to urgent pages from the office.

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"I Want to Blow Up Silicon Valley" was written, directed and produced by Portola Valley-native Jason Ward, who went away to college on the East Coast and returned to find that more than a few things had changed. "In the mid-'90s, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing 'dot-com.' The whole area was turning into an industry town, like L.A. or Washington," says Ward. "Everyone who lives there now is new, it seems like, and they have no connection to the place. They don't know what it was like before Netscape went public."

Most of the people he grew up with are now long gone. But he hasn't been driven out by the influx of Net money, and still lives in the area. "It's home. There are still a few good spots left. We just don't talk about them."

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Ward shot the movie in 16 days and made it for less than $100,000. "I spent the money that I would have spent going to film school to make this movie," he says. He cast his high school buddy Mark Newton as Rob, and himself as John-Paul, Rob's childhood friend turned construction worker/drug dealer to the Valleyites. Note that Ward, who went to Princeton, cast himself as the working-class tough guy.

Although the movie might seem transparently autobiographical, Ward says it's not his cinematic bomb threat to the tech industry. (Sorry.) "It's a work of fiction. It's not the next chapter in a manifesto," he jokes.

While I won't reveal the end, let's just say you can't afford a lot of pyrotechnic, explosive money shots when you're making a movie for less than a hundred grand, but Ward found creative ways to work around that.

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Today, Silicon Valley is so widely regarded as an icon of "the future," as a culture motivated by the pursuit of "what's next," that it's disarming to talk to someone who actually remembers the place's not so distant past. "Every area used to have a distinct character -- Palo Alto, Menlo Park -- now it's just becoming one place," says Ward, sounding more like a nostalgic septuagenarian than a 30-year-old.

"People used to come here to live because it's a great place to live, to raise a family, and now people come here to make money." Ward's own family came to the area decades ago, when his dad went to Stanford on a football scholarship, and then set up a law practice -- a non-tech law practice.

"I know guys who come out to the valley to make money, and they plan on going back home as soon as they've made it. So, they have no connection to the place," he says. Still, Ward wants to make it clear that he's not anti-technology. "I just kind of wish they ran it out of Des Moines, or something like that."

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Ward wrote the film back in 1997, and worried "that somehow the message would get dated, but it seems to be more pertinent as time goes on." Certainly the themes of overdevelopment, overcrowding and greed run amok have only grown more urgent. But some of the references are already stale. The "outrageous" price Rob gets for his childhood house would seem cheap today. And a key twist in the plot hangs on the then "new," but now already long-forgotten, push technology. Things really do move fast in the valley, don't they?

The film played at several festivals, including the Silicon Alley Film Festival, where surely it received a warm reception. But it has yet to find wider distribution, or to be screened on the West Coast. How about distributing it online? Wouldn't that be a perfectly delicious irony? "I'm not convinced the Internet is the best way to see a feature film yet," says Ward, diplomatically.

All you screenwriters who think you've got the dot-com story to tell: Sorry. It's too late. The IPO market for everything.com has melted down, dot-commers are facing layoffs and now there's an anti-Silicon Valley movie that's beaten you all to the punch. "I Want to Blow Up Silicon Valley" is just the rotten Valentine that the Net industry deserves.


Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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