Thursday, January 1, 2015

"The Interview," Propaganda, and the Power of Art (PS: Happay New Year!)

Unless you were living under a rock last week,  you probably know all about the buzz drumming on the media airwaves regarding the whole “ Interview” debacle (those of you who have been under rock can catch a summary of the whole sordid affair here).  While this is old news in most quarters, and I’d prefer to reserve an extended discussion on the movie itself for my review, I would like to note that although I applaud Sony’s decision to ultimately give the film its due release, the conglomerate rightly got a sound spanking from the media for its initial choice to pull the plug.  I’d rather ignore the usual round of “whodunnits-and-why” extrapolation, since other avenues have provided that angle with a substantial amount of coverage as is. Rather, I’d like to examine how  this story illustrates yet again the power and paradox of the creative media, and its impact - whether through book, film, or visual representation - on the minds of those who ponder its meaning.

In a perfect world, this lesson would need no reiteration, since history is littered with the metaphysical wreckage left behind by one creative whirlwind or another.  Think Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or The Jungle;  even if you’ve never read either book,  no one can deny the impact each has had on how slavery and industrial dehumanization, respectively, are viewed in America.  Yet despite this recognized influence across time, it’s often hard for writers, playwrights, and movie makers to get any respect from either politicians or paragons of “practical” industry .  This is not a matter of measuring the quality or merit of a particular work and finding it wanting.  Rather, it’s about whole segments of the human population who believe that any piece of fiction, however serious or lauded,  is fundamentally trivial, frivolous, and a waste of time.

The irony is that these perpetual pooh-poohers are often the very first to take up arms whenever these “trivial” arts do anything to upset their sensibilities.  The paradox of art’s power is that it’s simultaneously impotent and dangerous in the minds of ruling elites.  “Good art” is a nice moment’s distraction - or it’s an incendiary ready to destroy the status quo.  “Bad art” is an awful waste to be soon forgotten - or its a corrupting influence that must be bottled at all costs.  Whether good or bad, whether  popular or unpopular, those who fear art’s ability to seep into the skull and shape minds in an uncontrollable fashion usually find it more comforting to clothe the whole enterprise in insignificance.

These layers of self-deceit become complicated when a film like “The Interview” suddenly thrusts itself onto the national stage.  While the goofy, gross-out comedy centered around the assassination of North Korea’s supreme leader (read: dictator) is unlikely to be hailed as the next Citizen Kane, the hoopla surrounding its release was far outsized for a movie of any stature.  In the West, it became a clarion call for the Free Speech truckers, with everyone from author George R.R. Martin to the President himself criticizing Sony’s timidity.  Meanwhile, North Korea was willing to use military force in order to keep the movie out of its borders.  Big fuss for such a frivolous comedy film, right?  

Wrong.  North Korea, like most oppressive regimes, fully understands the subtle power of the arts; they are, after all, the primary vehicles of propaganda, which is really just creative fiction with an agenda, even when masquerading as “truth”.  The most insidious element of propaganda’s influence is just how many people don’t take it seriously  - after all, it’s just a war movie, just a Reconstruction Era film, just a painting.  And yet the very act of dismissing propaganda as harmless grants it a doorway into our minds and our hearts.  The thing is, while you can force someone to follow an order, you cannot force them to believe anything - like, say, the larger-than-life status of their “supreme leader”.  But with a fully functional propaganda machine in place, you can plant the seed of an idea even in the most resistant of minds, for while a persistent rebel can reject and protest any attempt at coercion, this modus operandi is not as effective against a siege on your mind.  You can sneer at the latest government-backed “documentary” on the greatness of the nation, crumble the newspaper extolling why your leader is practically God on Earth, and convince yourself that it’s all just propaganda swill.  Fiction masquerading as truth.  Bad art.  But since you can’t take up arms against a movie or a painting, the contrarian is usually left with no other recourse than to sit back and watch these fictions sprout around him and even within him.

It’s a very effective system, but it has one caveat for the would-be dictator: doubt can spread just as easily along the same channels.  This is way North Korea is willing to mount a military defense against “The Interview”; while I sincerely doubt the movie would spawn a legion of vigilantes gunning for Kim Jong-un’s head, the fact that no one can predict the type and magnitude of its effect is exactly what scares oppressive regimes everywhere.   To elites in the (so-called) free world, the triviality of the arts is a comforting fiction to soften the blow for when an Uncle Tom’s Cabin occasionally upsets business as usual. But for nations like North Korea, this same triviality is part of the psychological artillery used against their own people, and they’ll be damned if they let a silly foreign movie upset their delicate acts of manipulation.

I believe that this whole incident with “The Interview” will soon die down, and everything will go back to “normal.”  However, I do hope that a recognition of the power of the arts could linger just a little longer in the national imagination, as well as an understanding in elites everywhere - in both “free” and “unfree” nations - that their fortunes can rise or fall on the propagation of a simple, even silly, unrestrained idea.

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