Some insist it’s just baloney that a stupid film from Sony
Should be featured in a censorship debate.
But the issue is much greater -- not allowing some dictator
To determine what should be a movie’s fate.
So free expression was preserved after all. “The Interview” was shown on Christmas day, despite the initial cancellation of its nation-wide booking by Sony and a number of movie chains.
Hackers calling themselves “Guardians of Peace” had broken into Sony’s communication system, revealed massive quantities of personal e-mails and other confidential data, and warned it not to release the comedy about the fictional CIA-inspired killing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un by two madcap American TV journalists. Said the hackers, the movie was an “act of war”, and warned of grave consequences if it were shown to the public.
However, the cancellation set off a great clamor of protest reaching the highest political levels. President Obama insisted “We cannot have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States”. The dictator, of course, was Kim Jong-Un and “some place’ was North Korea (which they denied), and he promised a “proportionate” response in due time. George Clooney and even some Republicans agreed, though former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said this was indeed an act of war and called for a war-like response.
Satirists, of course, piled on. Jon Stewart wondered why Kim was so mad at Hollywood: “You should love them. Hollywood is just like North Korea. Everyone is always telling you how great you are, there are billboards everywhere with your face on them, and no one eats.” Jimmy Kimmel: “The idea that there are North Korean terror cells in the U.S. is ridiculous. If there are any North Koreans in America it’s because they escaped.” And for David Letterman: “That’s it. No more North Korean movies for me.”
Cartoonists showed Sony and the distributors no mercy. Daryl Cagle had all the the dictator saying “Boo!” and U.S. cinemas run for their lives. Tom Toles shows us an American movie marquee announcing the cancellation alongside a condescending pronouncement: “Kim Jong Un rules them by threatening violence and controlling free speech. Poor North Vietnamese” A Lalo cartoon replaced the hillside HOLLYWOOD sign with KIM JONG-UN. Darin Bell drew a Hollywood Hall of Fame sidewalk star dedicated to “”Kim Jong-Un, Minister of American Culture.”
But then a small “Art House” movie chain declared that it would show the movie on Christmas day, and over 300 (a tenth of the initially planed number) theaters so, all without incident. Then Sony, suddenly convinced of the importance of free expression, announced it would make an exception to its ferociously-held policy against allowing a movie to open online, and “The Interview” could be watched at home for $5.95.
But it is ironic that this great triumph of free and open expression should have been identified with “The Interview”. True, the movie is generally described as a satire, for it uses humor to attack the abuse of power, and its targets are the world’s most dysfunctional system as well as a political leader who has to seem utterly ludicrous to anyone outside of North Korea. So the movie would appear, in at least a minimal sense, to qualify as a satire.
Yet the reviews were merciless. The Los Angeles Time film critic asked: “This bonehead film is causing all the ruckus? ... The Interview’s crude, rude Three Stooges-styled comedy is screwball at best. Characterizing it as satire elevates the creative execution of the film’s very silly faux assassination of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un far beyond what it merits.” Variety called the film “a terror attack against comedy.” Time Magazine warned: “if you’re hoping for any cogent political satire here, then the jokes on you.” The New York Times, the London Daily Telegraph, and the Israeli Haaretz were equally critical. For my part, I am grateful that, for the purposes of this blog, I spent no more than $5.95 to fast-forward my way through this gross collection of frenetic pubescent gags.
Clearly if we are looking for work in the great tradition of satire dating from Aristophanes to Daumier and Orwell we will not find it in “The Interview.” Nor does it bear comparison with such movies as “The Great Dictator” or “Dr. Strangelove.” Though there are several studies in university-based publications of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and their counterparts around the world, it would be absurd to assess “The Interview” in a serious assessment of its satire.
On the other hand, “The Interview” will undoubtedly be included in many scholarly essays on a different though related field -- censorship. All of the media critics cited above, despite their caustic reviews of the film, condemn Sony for its initial cancellation. And those “Art Houses”, which usually don’t feature movies aimed at the intended audience for this movie yet rushed in to show it on Christmas day, were making a political not a cultural statement.
But if the outcome in this case appears to be a victory for democratic openness, the uproar leaves some lingering concerns in its wake. Will giant media corporations, no matter how much they spend on their internet defenses, feel confident that their innermost secrets are safe from the ravages of international hackers? Some comedians have suggested, in fact, that entertainment producers, faced with a decision about undertaking a project that a foreign leader could find offensive, might quietly decide to turn their attention and their money elsewhere. Could the outcome of this affair be a reigning in of political satire, a pulling back from its necessarily offensive cutting edge? Highly publicized censorship of the kind so crudely exercised by Sony will now be out of fashion. But that much more common species – self-censorship – may be at least as ubiquitous as ever.
As long as it doesn’t fall into the hands of hackers.