Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ridicule and Reprisal: a preview of coming attractions?

Seth Rogen's The Interview is not on my holiday viewing list. The ads have made it look like just the sort of stupid slapstick comedy I'd expect from that source, though my direct experience of Rogen's work is limited and I was mildly amused by The Green Hornet. The film has received a lot of free publicity recently, whether Sony Pictures desired it or not, as the apparent provocation for a hack of Sony computer files by a group sympathetic toward or simply employed by the North Korean government. Besides making other as-yet unreleased Sony films available for file sharing, the hackers acquired Sony memos revealing creative differences over The Interview reaching to the Japanese peak of the Sony corporate empire. As everyone must know, in The Interview the characters played by Rogen and James Franco are tasked with assassinating Kim Jong Un, the ruler of North Korea, whose father was dispatched earlier by the Team America World Police. The North Koreans have reacted to the idea much as many right-wing Americans reacted a few years ago to a pseudo-documentary imagining the assassination of George W. Bush. Whatever the British filmmaker's actual intention, many Americans felt that to imagine was to advocate. The North Koreans are probably more justified in feeling that way about The Interview because Americans definitely see the Kim dynasty as monsters who deserve death. Are they (or their sympathizers) justified in expressing their anger by hacking Sony or (allegedly) threatening the company's employees? Justification is hard to measure in what's become an international incident, and to an extent it's hard to sympathize with Sony, not to mention Rogen, given how likely such a reaction was to such a project. Naturally, liberal minded people in the U.S. are far more offended by the hacking and the alleged threats than by the still largely unseen movie. Most of us would scoff at an argument that Kim Jong Un is owed any respect by liberal minded people. To the American mind, he is nearly the perfect tyrant, the last real totalitarian ruler that we know of in classic 20th century style. Even for those on the left, his hereditary claim to rulership must be an affront to everything Marx and Lenin, or even Stalin and Mao, stood for. While nations have some obligation to show a certain minimal respect for one another -- an obligation the U.S. often neglects -- people here assume an inalienable right as private citizens to express their poor opinion of the Juche monarch. They see Kim Jong Un as their grandparents saw Hitler and their great-grandparents saw the Kaiser -- as an enemy and thus a fit subject for ridicule.

If the controversy over The Interview provokes any soul-searching, the relevant question is why the Kims fascinate us in such a morbid, infuriating way. The answer was obvious sixty years ago when the first Kim had just invaded South Korea. Then, North Korea was part of the International Communist Conspiracy. Later, the persistence of oldschool Stalinism there served as a reminder beyond the demise of the USSR and the reform of China of what Communism was essentially in American eyes: the totalitarian nightmare of regimentation, indoctrination, forced festivity and so on. In the 21st century the Kims simply represent "Evil," if not an older, ultimate affront to human dignity: the man who demands to be worshiped like a god. As with previous bogeymen, Americans sometimes try to exorcise their fears by turning them into jokes, the pudgy Kims making particularly good material. Yet had we the contempt our ridicule of the Kims should imply, we could simply ignore them. If we can't ignore them now because of their weapons, that's because we weren't content to ignore them before. Far away as he is, even on this admittedly shrinking globe, Kim Jong Un embodies something not merely contemptible or ridiculous but unacceptable to Americans, something that makes it seem impossible for him to share the earth with us, and something that makes it important to Seth Rogen that he call Kim by name rather than have his characters kill a fictional tyrant. If The Interview were to address or satirize this American obsession with dictators, at a time in history when many people see Americans as dictators of the world, it might have something more than the trainwreck interest it's bound to have now, when people may even feel brave by going to see it.  On some level, North Korea's predictable reaction must give Seth Rogen satisfaction, or simply the lulz. If their reaction escalates, someone besides him will most likely take the hit. Speaking for myself, I do think it's his prerogative to mock a tyrant, but when you mock a hypersensitive, defensive foreign ruler it could be like messing with sasquatch, and since more people than Rogen could be held accountable by this particular squatch I'd be more impressed by any bravery Rogen may pretend to have if he were more exposed to the anger he's provoked.

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