Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Sony Pictures Email Hack, the DPRK, and the Cancellation of the Upcoming Release of The Interview

This week Sony Pictures cancelled the December 25th opening of its new film The Interview--a buddy comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, about an assassination plot to kill North Korea’s (DPRK) boy-leader Kim Jong-Un.
The cancellation occurred in the wake of the now infamous Sony Pictures email-hack.
I’ve heard theories that Sony, being a Japanese company, has all the more reason to be nervous of the DPRK’s threats. I’ve heard theories that the DPRK relies on its public reputation as being unhinged, crazy, and dangerous because that’s the only real power or influence they have on the outside world.
Yesterday, I saw one of Sony’s big-wigs explain on CNN that the film was not, in fact, banned. Nor did they “cancel” the film. He maintained that Sony was committed to releasing the film in the future, but explained that they had little choice but to cancel the upcoming release when individual theater chains announced, one by one, that they would not screen The Interview.
I later heard that Sony is making plans for a possible release of the film on Crackle--a movie channel/platform owned by Sony--in the new year.
While the FBI now says it has proof that the DPRK is responsible for the hack, the DPRK has maintained they are not responsible, and that they “will work with the FBI in a joint investigation” to prove they did not hack Sony. Of course, the statement was issued with an ultimatum threatening “grave consequences” if the US rejected the proposed joint investigation. I really don't believe the FBI. Anonymous just posted that the DPRK is indeed not responsible.
Without these public threats it would have been very easy for Sony to simply bury the film, or shelve it--which is essentially what they’ve done for the moment. Films are buried all the time. However, because of the publicity surrounding the hack, Sony was not able to do so quietly.
Earlier this week, President Obama said that Sony made a mistake cancelling the film’s release, stating, "We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship."
I’d like to note that banning a film is not the same as cancelling its release. There are actually very few officially banned film in the United States, and the few banned films are banned in only in certain objecting states, but not across the entire United States. Bans are usually brief and overturned, and bans are often based on sexual or blasphemous content, and less because of political content.
It’s clear the DPRK wants to ban the film, on a global scale. The Sony cancellation of the upcoming release, however, is not a ban.
In reaction to the film release cancellation, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin announced that they would screen Team America: World Police in its place. Other theaters followed suit. It seemed like a good alternative, and would certainly make a statement.
Team America is a 2004 comedy from Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park. Notably, Team America features the DPRK’s former leader Kim Jong-Il as a singing marionette. 
Then suddenly, out of left field Paramount Pictures announced that they would not allow anyone to screen Team America. I’m not clear as to why exactly Paramount would ban screenings of a 10 year-old film. A film that was not openly condemned by Jong-Il.
Regardless of who is responsible for the hack, and regardless of the DPRK’s threats of retaliation if the film was released, the DPRK has an interesting history when it comes to cinema.
Jong-Il was known to be a fan of Broadway musicals, opera, and was a cinephile with a personal collection of over 20,000 film titles. He loved Slasher films and Monster movies. He even wrote some books about cinema: The Cinema and Directing and On the Art of Cinema.
In 1978, Jong-Il kidnapped South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, while they were in Hong Kong. He brought them to the DPRK in order for them to make movies for him.
After a few years in prison, in 1985, Sang-Ok conceded to make Jong-Il’s Monster movie, Pulgasari (you can watch Pulgasari in its entirety on Youtube).
Between 1983 and their incredible escape in 1986, Sang-Ok directed seven films produced by Jong-Il.
Sang-Ok had once been considered the “Prince of South Korean Cinema.” I’d like to say that he went on to make some important films after his escape. Unfortunately, Sang-Ok ended up producing the 1990s 3 Ninjas franchise in Hollywood. He was reluctant to return to Korea until the late 1990s, and he passed away in 2004.
Apparently Jong-Il’s son and predecessor Jong-Un, despite growing up in democratic Switzerland, exposed to Western and European cultures, is not the cinephile his father was.
Coming back to the Sony Pictures hack, and more notably, the ban on Team America screenings by Paramount, it is clear that this is very much about intellectual freedom--something that does not exist in the DPRK.
Russ Collins, director Art House Convergence, issued a statement this week addressing the film’s cancellation saying, “circumstance has propelled this work into a nexus of values, both societal and artistic.” Adding that, “It is also, as an artistic and national community, an opportunity to respond clearly to the behavior of an international bully opposed, by word and deed, to the value of freedom.”
Despite whatever its artistic and cultural merits, it’s notable that the unhinged threats issued from Jong-Un and the DPRK were enough to scare Sony Pictures into cancelling the film’s scheduled release. At what cost? I’ll tell you. At the cost of freedom. Freedom of expression, and of intellectual freedom. Artistic and creative freedom. The freedom to joke and laugh. The freedom to think critically about censorship. And, the freedom to produce creative, critical, and political content for entertainment purposes. This is also about repression and censorship, and to an extent it is also about terrorism.
While The Interview is very likely a mediocre comedy at best, cancelling a film due to vague political threats from an outwardly unstable and repressive regime is not something to be ignored. It’s a political issue and it subsequently raises many questions and concerns about control of content in Hollywood.
The more broad effects of the Sony hack have revealed some of the inherent hypocrisy, compounded by deeply entrenched sexism and racism, that is systemic within the Hollywood. Those Sony emails, they are the tip of the iceberg.
The Sony hack also exposed that it was a Sony executive who was chose Jong-Un as the evil villain in The Interview. Other emails detailed the negotiations on how graphic the scene would be, when Jong-Un is killed. Whether or not these choices were made in poor taste, and as risky as this was, it was, perhaps unwittingly, political.
I’ll also add that satire is an often misunderstood form of comedy that regularly relies on politically unsavory tropes and is aimed at skewering aspects of contemporary cultures, and (hopefully) evokes critical thinking in its audience. Satire is always for a particular effect.
I am still most curious about the Paramount ban on Team America screenings. It’s bizarre. Perhaps, it’s a pathetic attempt to drum up any kind of publicity at all. In my gut, I don’t think Paramount was acting out of any legitimate fear. It seems like a knee-jerk reaction.
The fact of the matter, however, is that we are talking about Hollywood. Some might argue, “it’s just a movie”. Surely, missing out on The Interview will not be devastating for mankind. I’m not sure seeing it will better our cause either.
I'm curious what happens next. If violence is perpetrated because of a screening of The Interview I would bet money it won't have anything to do with the DPRK. I pray, nothing happens. Period.
In any case, the Sony hack will eventually blow over, and The Interview will be released. It will probably be rather underwhelming in the wake of such a scandal. I’ll probably watch it eventually on Netflix, and I’ll have some cheap laughs. It’ll be fun. I will admit, I enjoy Rogen, Franco, et al. More importantly, I will watch it because I’m a cinephile dedicated to upholding and preserving intellectual freedom.

1 comment:

lindseycampbell said...

Just an update: Sony is now allowing the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin to show The Interview on December 25th. All three screenings sold out in minutes.