Now that the The Interview has been released in limited theaters and on “pay-per-Youtube,” as well as enabled the questionable Margaret Cho yellowface skit during the Golden Globes ceremony, many of us find ourselves asking some form of the question: “this is a movie we are supposed to care about?” There’s been no shortage of negative reviews of the film and it seems pretty unanimous that the controversy surrounding the Sony Pictures leak is more engaging than the film itself. Included in the 100 terabytes of data leaked in the Sony hack was an internal memo written by Executive Vice President Stephen Basil-Jones of Sony Pictures Australia, who claims “even though we are regarded as a good market for US comedies….this one will not cut-it….we were really disappointed…” The Interview is not hard hitting social satire; it even seems to fall short of the expected standards of a Rogen-Franco bro-medy.
Given such a disappointing text, what should we make of the editorial uproar over the leak’s alleged violation of first amendment and privacy rights? The most interesting thing about The Interview might be the extent to which it exposes the fantasies underpinning our cultural devotion to the rights to free speech and privacy. The Interview is less a worthy example of first amendment “freedom” than simply a market commodity that stood to interfere with other valuable commodities. That we continue to insist on the film’s significance within the tradition of “free speech” reveals just how given we are to thinking in false dialectics: free versus oppressed, private versus public.
Let’s recap what happened. On November 24th, Sony Pictures was hacked by a group that called themselves the “Guardians of Peace,” making away with 100 terabytes of data. Leaks of embarrassing emails ensued. On December 16, “Guardians of Peace” released a statement threatening violence to theaters that showed The Interview. Landmark Theater’s New York premiere was cancelled – Carmike, AMC and Regal Cinemas pulled the movie from theaters. On December 17, Sony suspended the movie’s release indefinitely. The movie was re-released on December 24th (ironically the original release date) in select independent theaters and on multiple streaming platforms.
The interim period between December 17 and the 24th witnessed many editorial pieces decrying Sony’s suspension of The Interview as a threat to the constitutional freedom of speech. “Sony Caved to Terror,” began New York Times contributor Flemming Rose’s op-ed piece. George Clooney condemned the precedent set by Sony’s self-censorship. Even President Obama chimed in, noting in a press conference that Sony should not have pulled The Interview’s release.
While these commentaries’ tone ranged from alarmist to downright sanctimonious, from a bit of distance it’s clear that what was at stake was less free speech than free spending. The Interview reveals just how deeply Sony Pictures found itself embedded in the intricate web that is the American consumer economy.
Though celebrities, pundits, and politicians were decrying “censorship,” we can well imagine the panic that the terror threat inspired among the studios. One only has to look at the films Sony Pictures’s competitors were set to premiere on Christmas Eve to understand what must have been the angry hornet’s nest of ill will that called for the suspension of The Interview’s release. Disney’s Into the Woods, The Weinstein Company’s Big Eyes and The Imitation Game, Universal Picture’s Unbroken all stood to take major losses in ticket sales if families, wary of terrorist threats, chose to stay at home over the holidays.
The Interview’s release also stood to contaminate one of America’s most hallowed commercial ecosystems – the shopping mall. Take, for example, two landmark malls in sunny Los Angeles: Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and The Grove. Third Street Promenade is bookended by two AMC theaters; The Grove sports the posh “Pacific Theatres At The Grove.” Here is a sampling of some of these malls’ other inhabitants: Apple, American Apparel, Crate & Barrel, UGG, Tommy Bahama, Crocs. Nothing could be further from the minds of media, real estate, and retail executives than the concept of “self-censorship.” There was a business decision to be made: The Interview needed to be pulled before it took down the entire nexus of the holiday entertainment industry.
Near the end of the film, Skylark makes the shocking discovery that grocery stores in North Korea are a complete sham. Our businesses, of course, are very much real. The film’s depiction of the assassination of Kim Jong-Un may or may not be doing serious critical-satirical work, but its primary intention was to get viewers into seats. Sony Picture’s decision to suspend The Interview did not curtail the freedom of speech as much as its subsequent release did not constitute its liberation.
We do, however, tend to think of ideas in terms of opposing and abstract extremes – the freedom of truth versus the repression of lies. Here we find ourselves walking in the unfortunate footsteps of The Interview’s Aaron Rapaport and Dave Skylark, whose professional careers rely on unmasking the scandalous “truth” behind celebrities’ concealed lies: Eminem’s closet homosexuality, Rob Lowe’s closet baldness, Mathew McConaughey’s closet zoophilia.
This truth/lie dichotomy structures the film more generally: Skylark suspects he has been “honeydicked” by CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Kaplan) and Rappaport suspects Skylark has been “honeydicked” by Kim Jong-Un, a term that refers to the experience of being deceived into doing one’s bidding. The film’s climax is when Kim Jong-Un and Dave Skylark essentially “honeydick” each other – Kim tries to garner a sympathetic interview from Skylark by offering him a cocker spaniel while Skylark, in turn, interrogates Un on social policy rather than going along with the publicity stunt.
Perhaps the lesson of The Interview is not to “honeydick” ourselves when it comes to how we should think about the film and its surrounding controversy; not merely an impoverished and puerile metaphor, “honeydick” unfortunately (and unknowingly) characterizes the way in which free speech discourse is often deployed vis-à-vis political satire.
The United States was not about to be denied its freedom of speech because it never truly was at stake in the first place. To be sure, Hollywood enjoys the fruits of the first amendment (we don’t live in North Korea after all), but the market subtly informs its content and character – and these influences don’t conform to the dualism of free speech or propaganda.
—Peter Kim: Never had the makings of a varsity athlete