The Interview: The Great American Culture Bomb
My wife's family in Atlanta has a wonderful tradition of going out to the movies after an early Christmas dinner. It's a tradition that I've enjoyed so much that we've adopted it out west. This year we decided that after Christmas eve dinner we would watch Seth Rogan and James Franco's controversial film, The Interview. As pro-Obama folks it would in some perverse way fulfill our latent patriotic impulse - perhaps one thing we can all agree on as Americans is that no one has the right to limit our freedom of speech- as well as meeting the needs of our family tradition. At the very least the film might provide some laughs and a momentary distraction from our troubling times.
Was I skeptical that Sony's reaction to Kim Jong-un's disapproval was part of a broader publicity stunt generated to bring larger audiences to the film? Of course. Look, it's Hollywood. Was I troubled by investing time and money in a film that intentionally poked fun at the North Korean dictator? Absolutely not. It's always refreshing, albeit rare, when Hollywood focuses a critical lens on injustice, and certainly even more deeply rewarding when Hollywood focuses on American injustice. In these times there's certainly ample opportunities for such critiques and ample opportunities for us to grow as a just society. What will be Hollywood's take on Ferguson, the Obama years, Occupy, American plutocracy, marriage equality, the legalization of marijuana, the Dreamers, etc. They've managed to crank out a film on Social Media but Lord knows it took forever to get a big budget film on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Selma) and the iron will of America's greatest contemporary filmmaker, Spike Lee, to produce an epic film based on a screenplay written by James Baldwin on the life of Malcolm X.
What I was hoping for was something on the level of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Satire. Wit. Insight. What I got instead from The Interview was two hours of toilet humor, a high budget collection of jokes about "stank dick" and anal penetration, a rehashing of the kind of Orientalist humor that enabled such racial projects as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and a paean to an Eisenhower-era rich white male heterosexual misogyny.
The Interview is an American Cultural Bomb. In many senses it is a cultural weapon. It's humor is driven by the lowest common denominator of Orientalist/Racist, homophobic, and misogynist humor. It's only redeeming value is that it will inspire countless collegiate drinking games, including taking shots of tequila for every mention of the words "honeypot" or "honeydick" or for every anal penetration, "stank dick," or "bitch" reference.
From the standpoint of being a cultural weapon, there's a lot here to offend the Supreme Leader, not that I could give a wit, but even more to offend me as an American. It's not just homophobic and racist and misogynist throughout. It adds violence as spice, as though doing so is inventive and original. When Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) actually shoots someone "a new asshole" the film goes lower than slapstick and adds a violent twist to its homophobia. When Seth Rogan is twice ravaged by the "me-so-horny" General Sook (Diana Bang), the filmmakers add a particular violence to the worst Orientalist stereotypes of sex crazed Asian women as worshippers of the Great White Dick. When Seth Rogan's character engages in a bloody fight in the North Korean state television control room and viciously throws an assailant onto a control panel, piercing the man's anus with a joystick and then moves the man's impaled body back and forth as he manipulates camera angles, the film asks us and again to laugh at bloody and violent forced anal penetration. When Seth Rogan hides a massive dildo-shaped CIA package lubed by the blood of a slain tiger - yeah, really- in his ass...well...again with the blood and the anal fixation...really, what's the point?
In fact the film completely misses the point. The problem with Kim Jong-un is not that he's "gay." Really, The Interview is almost a two-hour long comedic argument that the Supreme Leader is a bad dude worthy of either death or embarrassment or both because he is "gay" and listens to Katy Perry and drinks margaritas. No. The problem with Kim Jong-un is that he is a totalitarian dictator. That the people of North Korea are repressed and starving and subject to state violence and mass incarceration. We openly critique these phenomena in America and the west in spite of the fact that our societies are characterized by similar impulses and practices under the auspices of an ever more powerful plutocratic rule. Kim Jong-un is certainly a very bad actor, but so are the Koch brothers, Jeff Bezos, the too big to fail "Banksters," and the bevy of crooked politicians who inhabit our local, state, and federal offices. This film is wholly incapable of making that connection. Chaplin, on the other hand, would have had a field day with this material.
The fateful and titular "interview" scene encapsulates the film's central misunderstanding. It begins with Dave Skylark (James Franco) asking Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) a series of scripted questions. Disillusioned by the Supreme Leader's fake grocery store, Franco's character goes off script, questioning Kim Jong-un about mass incarceration and the starvation of 2/3 of the North Korean population. Kim Jong-un fires back with a sharp critique of the American criminal justice system. For a moment, you think the filmmakers have finally found their way! But the critical Frost/Nixon moment comes when Franco questions Kim Jong-un about his father's disapproval of his "femininity" and assessment of his homosexuality. Utilizing Katy Perry's "Firework" lyrics in this verbal battle, Franco emotionally breaks down Kim Jong-un, leading him to cry and defecate in his pants. Yes...we're back to scat! And the ideological battle is won on the grounds of Kim Jong-un's femininity and homosexuality, not his politics. Ugh!
The film has one smart scene that indicates the direction and tone that the filmmakers should have ventured towards. Eminem "comes out" during an interview by Franco's character. It's funny because it represent Eminem's response to his critics -of whom I am most certainly one- and also his willingness to critique the homophobic and misogynist construction of his own masculinity. This is done without mocking homosexuality itself, something that the filmmakers fail to accomplish anywhere else in the film. In similar fashion, The Interview could have succeeded as a Chaplin-esque critique of Kim Jong-un's dictatorship and of modern totalitarianism. It could also have succeeded as a critique of America's mass media perceptions of North Korea or the shared spaces between American and North Korean culture (e.g. mass incarceration, the police state).
In the end it may well wind up a box office bomb as well as an American Cultural Bomb because of its reliance on the basest of American humor, the lowest common denominators of American society. I cannot imagine that President Obama viewed this film before offering his support and encouragement to Sony. But in many respects The Interview does represent what America now offers to the world. Our freedom of expression, our 1st Amendment rights are now foregrounded by the right to express our racist, misogynist, and homophobic views. That is the measure of contemporary American freedom. We are no longer interested in a true intellectual freedom that produces biting critique and irony (e.g. Network, Putney Swope). Ours is the right to potty humor. Our devastating Cultural Bomb is a fragment grenade of crass anal obsessed humor. Welcome to the new age.