Friday, December 26, 2014

The Beguiling Fireworks

"No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style." - Oscar Wilde

Is 2014's The Interview a stupid film, a bad film? It's a lot smarter than its critics. I won't presume to say just how calculated it is, the effective arguments it makes could possibly have come from either a genius or an idiot, probably precisely because it doesn't really attempt to make arguments but follow a comedic instinct in the direction of what makes people laugh. Its lack of moral restraint is the remarkable thing in that regard. In a word, this film is punk. And critics don't know how to handle it, that's why it has a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it's why no two articles on the film seem to agree, it's why the positive reviews feel compelled to say negative things about the movie and why the negative reviews seem to spend a lot of time talking about what's good about it, almost against the critic's will. To quote Oscar Wilde again, "When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself."

This is a movie about how people use sincerity to lie effectively. It's about how sympathy is used to manipulate people. A telling example of the effectiveness of the film in this regard is how an ingrained terror of offensiveness has produced bizarre reactions to the movie. This astonishing review from i09 describes Kim Jong-un in the film (Randall Park), in his dealings with American tabloid TV host Dave Skylark (James Franco), as turning out to actually be a cool guy. It seems, incredibly enough, that the critic has in some degree been manipulated along with Skylark. But more fascinating to me is the reaction from Slate critic Aisha Harris to Lizzy Caplan's CIA character:

But after this funny opening, the film piles on lame Asian jokes (“Me so sorry,” Aaron says while on the phone with a North Korean contact) and too many rotations of Katy Perry’s “Firework” (Kim is a secret fan), while woefully underusing Lizzy Caplan, who plays the boys’ CIA handler. (Though in one of the movie’s funnier scenes, she does get in a tart response to Aaron and Dave’s sexist assumptions about her role for the CIA.)

After an initial meeting with Caplan's character, where she wears a low cut top and glasses--the latter something Skylark is known to have a fetish for--Skylark and his producer, Aaron (Seth Rogen), accuse her of "honeypotting" them when in their next meeting she's not wearing glasses and is dressed in a less revealing pant suit. And she responds to the accusation by saying how sexist it is to assume this is the scope of her job, to be seductive to those she whom wishes to cooperate. This shuts down Skylark and Aaron, because they're in the media where any possibility of upsetting someone's sensitivity as part of a demographic is dangerous and now inspires fear. Of course, she was honeypotting them, just as practically everyone in the movie is honeypotting or "honeydicking" someone. The layers of humour are too complex not necessarily for the critics but for the matrix of phoney sensitivity the critics are shackled to.

Take the various reactions to the "racist" Asian jokes in the movie--when Aaron receives a call from a North Korean representative confirming the interview, Aaron is drunk and thinks the caller is a friend and insists the Korean accent is bad and responds with the "Me so sorry" routine to send up how broad he thinks the accent is. Who is the butt of this joke? It's not merely Aaron for being so rash in his assumption of the caller's identity, it's the fact that in his instinct to mock something he manifests the very offensive behaviour he intends to mock. What this reveals is the media drive more towards telling on someone for doing something against the rules than for having a sincere sympathy towards the issue. It's not unlike the brilliant rape joke scene from Rogen's previous effort with Interview director Evan Goldberg, This is the End, where a fevered discussion between a group of guys about how to avoid making a young woman think they're going to rape her is exactly what makes the young woman think they're going to rape her. The point is brought home when, realising his mistake, Aaron finds despite his desperate effort he can't stop saying "me so sorry."

Similarly, the running gag about how propaganda in North Korea about how Kim Jong-un has no anus implies an anal fixation. It's of course Rogen and Goldberg's fixation, too, but, judging from, let's call it "the reaction", it may truly be the North Korean administration's, too.

In A.O. Scott's positive review for the film, he alone of all the critics feels compelled to say, "the women who show up are aggressively reduced to objects of sexual interest. There are two of them: Lizzy Caplan as a C.I.A. operative, and Diana Bang as a North Korean official in charge of managing the logistics of Dave’s interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park)." Yes, Lizzy Caplan's character, the same one whom Aisha Harris said had a satisfying feminist comeback for Skylark and Aaron. It's like in the Doctor Who Christmas special where the Doctor proves everyone is dreaming by having them all look to the same page in individual copies of the same book and finding that the first word appears different in everyone's copy.

It's particularly hard to see how Diana Bang as Sook, PR executive for Kim Jong-un, is objectified. Although Aaron falls in love with her, she's rarely portrayed in a more sexualised manner than the other North Korean government officials, and she voices the argument in the film that assassinating the leader of North Korea would be pointless when his place would simply be taken by any one of a number of equally corrupt generals.

The superficial sensitivity that dominates media discourse is as much a target of the film's satire as Kim Jong-un and his regime. In being honest with Skylark about his issues with his father, his fear that his love for Katy Perry and margaritas makes him seem gay because that's what his father said, he endears himself to the media personality who, in a very American fashion, values emotion above all else. One can forgive, the American mind says, a man for starving millions of people off screen if that man cries over the question of whether or not he met with his father's approval.

The fact that this strategy backfires on Kin Jong-un in the film, that he ends up crying on television, is a big part of what American critics, who act incredulous over the idea that North Koreans could find the movie particularly incendiary, don't understand. There's a funny parody of the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar from South Korea's Saturday Night Live where they make fun of how much people cry in that movie. It's not something anyone in American media would think to make fun of because wallowing in emotion is culturally encouraged in the U.S. while such flagrant displays of emotion are seen as ridiculous and embarrassing in countries like North and South Korea, Japan, and China. The fictional Kim Jong-un gets caught in his own trap but he had a real shrewd game he'd been playing. And it's likely the one the real Kim Jong-un played with Dennis Rodman.

I'm not sure anyone would have conceived of this film without the bizarre real story of Rodman going to North Korea and coming back sounding like he was fast friends with Kim Jong-un. Listening to Rodman tell Howard Stern how he respected Kim Jong-un and how it's the haters that have made the dictator's bad reputation was fascinating for hearing the effects of brain washing. And the revelation of how easily brain washing can be adapted and manipulated to make use of a modern, media obsessed American. Someone for whom the trivial bullshit of theories about the paramount importance of self-validation eclipses the harder to digest, very real problems having to do with millions of people being tortured, starved, and executed in the name of one man's vanity.

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