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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On The Interview, Terrorism, and the Artistic Expression

By now, you'll have heard that Sony had opted to cancel the release of Seth Rogen and Ethan Goldberg's The Interview (2014)(starring Rogen and James Franco) in response to threats against their employees and movie theaters (many of which have refused to show the film).  They have since announced that the film will play in select theaters on Christmas Day and that they are still trying to find places to play the film so it will have a proper release.  Now, it seems, the film's future is up to theaters.

Update:  On Christmas afternoon, Sony will also release The Interview via several streaming sites, including Google.  So at least we can all see it if we want to.

Chuck Wendig has already written an interesting post on the situation, and if it's not already obvious, I have a few thoughts.  But first, a quote from Wendig:

This proves that hackers, terrorists, and enemy nations now have a vote as to the media we make and the stories we see. That’s blood gone cold scary. This sounds like the plot of a Neal Stephenson or William Gibson novel, or worse, the plot of a novel by someone trying to emulate them. (“The sky was the color of a movie theater screen not carrying Sony’s THE INTERVIEW.”) 
Disagreeable and controversial art is an essential element of our cultural discourse.
These are the two points that I want to address here.

Precedents and Cowardice

The first is actually more terrifying than Wendig indicates.  It's not that hackers, terrorists, and enemy nations now have the vote, but that anyone perceived as representing the interests of such groups have the vote.  Sony and the theaters which pulled The Interview didn't need to know with 100% certainty that anyone would be attacked, nor that any 9/11-level events would occur; they only needed to believe that the threat was credible.  This gives far more power than I think Sony or anyone realizes.  Extremists of any stripe can dictate the terms upon which art is presented to the public based on perceived threats, rather than real ones, and corporations will listen.  Those threats needn't be credible beyond the scope of the corporation.  The U.S. government, after all, doesn't believe the threats are credible (and neither do a lot of Americans, apparently), and it's unclear to me whether anyone actually consulted the U.S. government in any capacity (or any government, for that matter) about the matter (though they certainly did not

Free speech isn't an issue here (well, it is, but not in any legally binding way).  We're not talking about whether a company has a right to withdraw its own artistic products, whether businesses can refuse to carry something, or whether criticism of any kind should be ignored simply because art is art.  This is about precedents.  Sony and theaters have now set that precedent.  North Korea, or any entity which has the means to present credible threats, can dictate terms and expect a response.

So, congratulations, Sony and every theater which pulled The Interview.  You've set the precedent.  Now Paramount Pictures has recalled its 10-year-old comedyTeam America:  World Police.  A Steve Carell vehicle entitled Pyongyang will never see the light of day, too, since its studio decided to can it.  And by doing so -- by responding -- North Korea has been granted power.  They now know that when something they don't like occurs somewhere else, they can issue a threat and be heard.  A nation which most of the world views with contempt or pity now has the validation of the international community, or at least a portion of it.

In the end, I agree with President Obama that Sony's decision to cancel the release of The Interview was a mistake, even more so because Sony never consulted the U.S. government about the matter.  This sets a terrible precedent, one which we all should find disturbing regardless of our political affiliations.  That art can so easily be stifled by the threat of violence should give us pause.  This is not the first time, and it won't be the last.  If this is the trend for the future, then we should all be deeply concerned.

There's hope, of course.  Sony has retracted its cancellation, and the community of viewers seems to have roundly rejected the notion that Sony should have caved at all.  Thus far, that's had an impact on Sony, but we'll see if the other studios and the theaters which pulled the film, cowards that they are, will do the same.  At least Sony listened.

Controversial Art

To the second part:  indeed, controversial art is not just essential, it is required in our cultural discourse if culture is to advance in any discernible way.  Controversial art challenges existing cultural patterns, not necessarily to uproot them but to introduce advanced thought about our traditions, our everyday lives, and our cultural vices.

In that respect, The Interview is a necessary feature of our artistic world, even if the film itself isn't all that great (I haven't seen it, so I cannot assess its merit).  That fact became apparent the moment North Korea responded to it with threats.  Any artistic work which is met with (threats of) violence is a work that deserves careful attention.  Communities which resort to such threats are ones which have insulated themselves from criticism, and by doing so, they have stagnated, as North Korea has.  The same thing has occurred in the science fiction community (albeit on a much smaller, perhaps less violent scale) and in gaming (regardless of what GamerGaters may think, there are people who identify with their group who have attacked women for criticizing gaming).

Insularity breeds violence, literal or figurative, and to the insular community, artistic expression, particularly of the satirical mode, is perceived as a threat.  For that reason, art must continue unabated.  It must be shared.  It must be free to satirize and mock.  It must be free to be controversial.  And that means it must have a place to be shared.  Without controversial art, insularity reigns supreme because it can reinforce its own values through the art around it.  Art needs to be able to challenge those values, to uproot them, to shine a light underneath them, or to simply show them as they are.

Otherwise, we create an environment in which violence dictates expression.  I would hope that nobody would think that a good thing.

And on that note, I'm done.  If you have any thoughts, the comment zone is all yours.

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  1. An interesting tweetstorm by Jeet Heer (@heerjeet on Twitter) pointed out that movies are already heavily targeted at China, with all sorts of implications. Things like 7 Years in Tibet wouldn't get made anymore. China, at least, already dictates Hollywood's moviemaking, so the notion that this event will have a novel chilling effect seems overblown.

    1. Well, no. China dictates the terms by saying "we won't play X," but since it is one of many markets, its influence, while significant, is not enough to result in entire productions *about* the nation (in any capacity) to be shut down. The North Korea issue is drastically different. China is a matter of capitalistic "force" whose weight is mitigated by a diversified market; North Korea's is a matter of perceived threats of violence, which, if credible, could result in serious repercussions for anyone involved.

      I'm not convinced China could actually stop a film from being made on the basis that it just doesn't like it. It might affect a certain brand of film (blockbusters, perhaps), but I don't see its influence going beyond that.

      That doesn't mean we shouldn't think about China's influence, though. That's just a whole different can of worms, I guess.