Feb 6, 2020
North Korea owns Hollywood, apparently
One of my favorite films of all time is 1940’s The Great Dictator. It’s a political comedy that stars comedian Charlie Chaplin as a thinly-veiled caricature of German dictator Adolf Hitler. At the time of the film’s release, Hitler was still in power and a very real threat to the world. The United States hadn’t entered the war yet, and in fact, the war hadn’t even started when Chaplin conceived of and began work on the film. Back then, the true atrocities of the Third Reich were not yet known, so the movie almost comes across as soft on Hitler now. But while there are no concentration camps in the film, it’s still a scathing rebuke of the brutality of the Nazis and Hitler’s antisemitic rabble-rousing.
It’s hard to imagine a time when talking smack about Hitler could be considered brave or controversial, but remember, at the time, both the US and England were officially at peace with Germany. During the making of the film, the British government made it known that they intended to ban it in the UK (they changed their tune once war was officially declared), and even after release, it was prohibited in some parts of Europe. Regardless, The Great Dictator quickly became the most commercially successful film Chaplin ever made, and it’s remembered as a classic, and one of the greatest political satires in film history.
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That was 1940. Now it’s 2014, and comedians Seth Rogen and James Franco have made a film called The Interview. It’s a political comedy revolving around a caricature of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. It was scheduled for release Christmas Day. However, following a threat by hackers to attack any theater showing the film (threats which Homeland Security says aren’t even credible), theater chains slowly began scrapping plans to screen The Interview, until finally Sony Pictures cancelled the release of the film altogether. In response to the cancellation, some theaters elected to instead show Team America: World Police, a 2004 film that takes similar satirical aim at Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il. However, Paramount, the studio that owns that film’s distribution rights, responded by pulling that movie, too.
I can’t even…
Seriously, this whole thing it’s so insane, it legitimately leaves me speechless. A major studio has just cancelled a much anticipated Christmas release based on a vague, unsubstantiated threat by an anonymous group. How is this even possible?
Forgive me for getting a bit nationalist for a moment, but this whole thing feels so terribly… un-American. I admit to having mixed feelings about my country. We’re not perfect, and in fact we quite frequently suck. But if there’s one thing we’ve never been known to do, it’s bow to the demands of terrorists and dictators. Defiance of authority is at the very core of our cultural identity. As a nation, we still cling to our distorted self-image as the plucky rebel underdogs who fought off British tyranny*, even now that we’ve become a major superpower. We jump at the chance to take down any dictator that even so much as looks at us funny, even when it’s not a terribly good idea. We’ve prided ourselves on our hardline stance against negotiating with terrorists. And yet, we now have several American corporations (Sony is Japanese, but Sony Pictures is an American subsidiary) rolling over for a dictator who’s no threat to anyone outside of his own country, much less to a global superpower on the other side of the planet. We’re not only submitting to his demands, we’re actively silencing attempts to show any defiance to those demands, no matter how small the scale.
[*Emphasis on the “distorted” part. We have a very warped view of our own history here.]
And whenever I think about The Interview side by side with The Great Dictator, which my brain stubbornly refuses to stop doing, it becomes even more baffling. Granted, Seth Rogen and James Franco, fans of their work though I may be, are no Charlie Chaplins, and I highly doubt The Interview is going to be regarded as a classic on the level of The Great Dictator. But still, comparison is warranted, especially considering how Chaplin received comparatively little resistance for what was, at the time, a far riskier film. He took aim at one of the most dangerous dictators of our age. Rogen and Franco are targeting a regime that’s so little of a threat to global superpowers that its constant ineffective posturing is a running joke in most of the world. So how are Rogen and Franco the ones that got their film completely banned?
And why is this happening now? The Interview is hardly the first piece of American media to be insulting to North Korea or any of its long line of horrid leaders. There was the aforementioned Team America. There was that terrible Red Dawn remake. They were the bad guys in Die Another Day and Olympus Has Fallen. Iron Sky and GI Joe: Retaliation took a few jabs in some throwaway jokes. Saturday Night Live, MADtv, 30 Rock, CollegeHumor, Epic Rap Battles of History, and I’m sure many others I’ve never even heard of have all filmed skits satirizing both Kim Jongs, -il and -un. Are we going to pull all of those from circulation as well? Why are we suddenly tiptoeing around this issue?
I’m terrified as to what the implications of this could be. Everything our current president does, down to the way he holds a cup of coffee, gets called a “sign of weakness” by his opponents. So how much of a sign of weakness is it that our country’s media is bowing to the wishes of one of the most ineffectual dictators in the world? We’re sending out a message that we can be bullied and blackmailed by anyone, even with no proof of a threat. Anyone with an agenda can make any demand of the entertainment industry as long as he/she phrases it as a threat and, if this incident is any indication, they can expect to have their whims fully catered to.
Great art is courageous by nature. Nothing changes without courage. Chaplin was courageous when he made The Great Dictator. And whether or not The Interview ends up being “great” art, it’s art nonetheless, and it’s certainly courageous (even if there was no reason to expect this kind of resistance). If we censor those who would use art to criticize real people, regardless of who those people are or how dangerous they may be, we’re essentially robbing art of its ability to impact us.
Imagine if we reacted like this during the Cold War. Every other movie was about the evils of Communism and the Soviet Union. Art constantly targeted the only superpower that could rival us, which was a nuclear-armed one at that. The USSR had a figurative gun to our heads and it didn’t silence us. We can’t let it silence us now. We can’t send the message that we can be threatened into submission, or that anyone, much less Kim Jong-un, has immunity from satire.
Ever heard of Pulgasari? It was a North Korean monster movie, directed by Shin Sang-ok, at the time a South Korean prisoner of Kim Jong-il. The elder Kim was a fan of the kaiju genre and wanted North Korea to have its own Godzilla-esque movie, so he kidnapped Shin and forced him to make it. The finished film’s narrative reads as something of an allegory for the rise of the communist regime, said regime being represented by a giant monster. It’s often believed that the film was actually Shin’s subtle rebuke of the tyrannical North Korean dictatorship. Which means a man who was a prisoner of North Korea had the courage to satirize the country’s leadership. How can we, being at infinitely lesser risk, be so cowardly in comparison? Shin Sang-ok risked his life to take a dig at North Korea. Can we do any less?