It goes without saying that the Sony hack — in all likelihood North Korea’s response to the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy The Interview — and the Charlie Hebdo massacre vary in the severity of their crimes. But in both cases, strong and articulate progressive voices have countered all the calls to defend “freedom of expression” and #JeSuisCharlie’s by criticizing the content of the debateably satirical works themselves. Adrian Hong wrote a popular piece for The Atlantic titled, “North Korea: Not Funny,” while many on the left, in publications like Vox, Slate and Jacobin, criticized the content and motives of Charlie Hebdo. For The Hooded Utilitarian, Jacob Canfield said Charlie Hebdo’s “cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia.” These are well-meaning, well-informed lines of argument that raise issues we should be considering in 2015.
While in theory I should consign these critiques, I do not, because theory has no claim on comedy. While watching The Interview, I laughed a good many times, even as the critic in me groaned this has got to be Franco’s worst performance to date. While decoding the seemingly offensive cartoons via the blog Understanding Charlie Hebdo, which provides translation and context, I did not laugh, necessarily, but I understood how the caricaturists effectively put air quotes around their most egregious creations, often lampooning the perspective of their country’s serious and seriously racist National Front party. The politically engaged French citizen, knowing the context, could find these cartoons humorous, because their inherent shock value can catalyze in said person a needed second or two of reflection during his or her average, busy day.
Because if there is one thing art does that political criticisms of it too often forget, it provokes a response from the viewer — an emotional, physical, automatic response that imbues that art, no matter its quality, with an individual significance. So I may laugh at The Interview, a stupid film, and not be considered callous to the suffering of North Koreans or — worse of all! — a bad critic. It is a superficial, irresponsible movie with many many flaws, but it succeeded, for me, as passable entertainment. To judge The Interview as a failure because it does not convince its viewers to “do something to help change this odious regime and bring about human rights for North Koreans,” as Hong does, is to freight it with an Oscar-baiting importance that would induce fatal cases of eye-rolling in its target audience.
But I am grateful Hong wrote that Atlantic piece. While I may disagree with the parameters he chose for critiquing a particular film, he brings a far more significant issue — the plight of innocent North Koreans — to the attention of many. For every thousand Facebook shares fueled by schadenfreude, there has got to be one person who read Hong’s story and felt a pang of profound moral outrage, worth exploring more and taking action against. That positive outcome is something only the popularity, and stupidity, of The Interview made possible. Whether Franco and Rogen respected or trashed their film’s sensitive subject matter, the media will be there, assuming its post-Twitter role as a spontaneous and widely visible corrective to the sins of popular culture.
For better or worse, this chatter only crescendos when the object of passion is a challenging, thrilling piece of bona fide art. It is for this reason that no one is talking about The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, with their spectacularly unearned denouements,and why we cannot stop arguing over Selma and American Sniper. Pitted by opportunists as ideological enemies, the latter two films both complicate their heroic narratives through changes of perspective (in Selma, Coretta Scott King rightly accuses her husband of something he does not fess up to) and uncomfortable pauses (as a V.A. psychiatrist questions the historically efficient sniper Chris Kyle, the camera lingers on the soldier’s face as he conclusively denies any feeling of regret). Neither film is totally devoid of sentimentality, but both provoke thought through emotion, ensuring that any moral misgivings will fester and leech.
I know there are some fine, smart people out there who will disagree with my praise for Selma and American Sniper especially, and that they could pursue more productive routes of attack than “Selma gets LBJ wrong!” or “That Chris Kyle was a liar.” That is how these things go, as they should. But it does us little good to go on about what A gets wrong about X or Y, because a great film’s politics should be difficult to reduce to binaries and viral polemic. Find a recruitment poster if you’re looking for a call to action, and go outside if you’re looking for facts. Emotion remains the only barometer of truth, so long as that emotion stubbornly resists translation.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.