Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interview With the Devil: Exit Wounds In the Torso of Democracy

Ever since 9/11, the common fallback cultural hyperbole in the Western world has been the facilitation of the victory of terrorism.

"If you don't fuck that hot blonde and her sister, you are literally letting the terrorists win."

"Every time you refer to a Freedom Fry as a French Fry, then the terrorists have already won."

"Sweetheart, if you don't brush your teeth before you go to bed, then you're basically a terrorist and you're supporting their bloody reign of terror against everything that is good and pure about Democracy.  Now, go say goodnight to your mother before I ship you off to Guantanamo Bay."

It seems absurd to think that anybody outside of a small group of key players in the military-industrial complex (or, of course, any person or group wishing to perpetrate bloody acts of carnage against other human beings) could have any discernible impact on terrorism one way or the other.

Or does it?

The correlation of any action outside of swinging our doors wide open and welcoming in the seemingly growing horde of homicidal maniacs, would-be despots, political extremists, religious nut-jobs, and 50 SHADES OF GREY enthusiasts to shoot, stab, burn, torture, explode, strangle, emotionally manipulate us with increasingly depraved sadomasochistic inclinations, or otherwise run us into the fucking ground to the advantage of terrorists or their benefactors seems spurious at best and nonsensical at worst.

I would have been inclined to agree until November of 2014.

After the fallout from the release of hacked documents straight from the bowels of hell and right off of Sony's (or, more precisely, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.'s) mainframe, it became increasingly apparent that not only were we letting the terrorists win, we were actively aiding and abetting them in their gruesome crusade.  And the only reason we're any the wiser is because of Seth Rogen and James Franco.

The primary catalyst of the hack and the corporate equivalent of doxxing, seemed to be the impending theatrical release of the then-upcoming comedy, THE INTERVIEW.  The movie stars Rogen and Franco as the producer and star, respectively, of a popular entertainment news program who score an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  They are then recruited by the CIA to assassinate Jong-un, a notoriously reclusive despot who they have been unsuccessful assassinating themselves and who is, apparently, a huge Katie Perry fan.  

It didn't take long for the connection to the hack to be made to North Korea, whose government is now believed to have sponsored the cyber-attack, what with their crumbling infrastructure leaving them unable to maintain a stable power grid let alone a dedicated T-4 line.  The hack was apparently perpetrated by a group calling themselves "Guardians of Peace," who issued a disappointingly stereotypical warning to accompany their handiwork, which was nearly as terrifying as it was comical in its syntactical ineptitude:

"We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places The Interview be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to. Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)

Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment. All the world will denounce the SONY"

In the weeks and months that followed, THE INTERVIEW's legacy would be secured, and it looks like it will have little to do with the content of the film itself and more to do with issues related to some of the most fundamental principles of a free and democratic society, such as freedom of speech, due legal process, and access to porn.  It's just a shame that the rallying cry for life, liberty, and security of person had to centre on a middle-of-the-road comedy where the best gag was a gay Eminem coming out of the closet on national television, which happened in the first five minutes.  It wasn't the worst comedy ever, at least nowhere near the range of the shitfest OBSERVE AND REPORT par example, but I think for many concerned with such things, the general sentiment was grim determination mixed with a sort of resignation.
That squirrel is going to have a hell of a time
trying to get out of there...

Unfortunately, as Optimus Prime wisely pointed out, fate rarely calls upon us at the hour of our choosing.  And, whether by fate or by chance, Rogen and Franco have become the most recent poster boys for freedom and justice and all of that other great stuff that has very little to do with getting you laid.  It's just a little disheartening that it seems more like a "Yeah, they're assholes but they're our assholes" type situation. Which isn't to say that I think Rogen and Franco or Sony are assholes for creating this film (although, the relative asshole-ishness of Sony as a black-hearted, multinational corporation is a debate for another time and another place), it's just that the whole situation might have gone down a little bit easier had the movie been some kind of comedic masterpiece.  But AIRPLANE! this ain't.    

Right from the get-go, though, things seemed to be getting off on the wrong foot. Even if you were an avid conspiracy theorist on par with the Lone Gunmen and were skeptical about the connection between the hackers and North Korea, the accompanying threat made the intentions of the cyber-attack fairly clear. They were trying to coerce a social entity into enforcing a specific application of censorship with a stated nebula of consequences, social, financial, and, potentially, life-threatening. Whether or not the origin of this particular plot was North Korea (although, to quote the Magic 8 Ball, “All signs point to yes”), the immediate and final answer to any coercion and suppression of basic human rights relating to freedom of expression should have been an unequivocal “Go fuck yourselves.” The fact that there was any debate about that point at all was troubling enough in and of itself.

But not only did we, as a society, not wholeheartedly condemn these actions, we actually welcomed these fuckers with erect dicks. No sooner had these cyber-terrorists released boatloads of hacked content--everything from emails to entire movies--than a variety of media outlets, including those here in the West, began disseminating all of that information like a motherfucker. And I’m talking some shameless hocking. It was a goddamned feeding frenzy.

And what’s more, audiences ate that shit up. Even on a normal day, hearing about what big studio execs and other employees said behind closed doors about Hollywood stars like Angelina Jolie or Adam Sandler is fucking less than pointless and is and should not be considered news in any way, shape, or form. But taken in context, when these ill-gotten spoils were the result of an explicit strategy at imposing censorship using incredibly nefarious and completely unethical means by an organization that was, quite literally, trying to take a giant shit over the very human rights we hold as sacrosanct and are so vocal in espousing when the occasion suites us, there should have been absolutely no question as to whether or not to profit from this information.

And make no mistake, this is a clear case of the conflicting interests of capitalism and democracy. The only reason any semi-reputable asshole or anybody at all created their click-baity “news” articles or stories was to increase their audience share and reap the potential social and/or financial capital. And the only reason that strategy worked was because we, the audience, validate this bullshit behavior by flocking to the Great Feast of Shit in increasingly unimaginable droves.

It wasn’t like this was life-or-death stuff. It would have been different if it were revealed that Amy Pascal, the now-former co-chair of Sony Whatever Inc., was a card-carrying member of the KKK, secretly abducting and hunting transsexuals on a hidden island in the South Pacific, and/or part of a global conspiracy to add human fecal matter to the world’s cotton candy supply. I think I would confidently assert that on the scale of Ethical Priority, any truly negative consequences that might have been uncovered would supersede the moral imperative to consider the source of the information.

But this wasn’t even remotely the case. The only thing it revealed is that sometimes people say different or slightly inappropriate things to friends and colleagues in contexts considered--and rightfully so--to be more private in nature, just like everybody else in the History of Everything, and that there were talks to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Basically, we were willing to sell our souls to a) learn something about human social interaction that we were already well aware of and b) see Spider-Man onscreen with Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. I don’t know about you, but even if they threw in a clause about mandatory blow jobs from Scarlett Johansen in perpetuity, I would still feel incredibly ripped off.
Missed it by that much.

I believe that people who occupy positions of social authority should be placed under a higher degree of scrutiny and held to a higher level of accountability. But the circulation and widespread ingestion of the information divulged as a result of the Sony hack had absolutely nothing to do with accountability and everything to do with gossip and our current cultural obsession with manufacturing scandal. There was absolutely no information divulged by the hack that revealed any real or pressing threat to the well-being of any member of the community, which is self-evident by the fact that no such information was revealed, which sounds like a tautology, and it is, but it’s necessary to reiterate in this case.

In another context, Sony could be considered the bad guy. I get that they are a large, uncaring, profit-driven monster in a sea of such monsters, and that no movie stars or studio execs are suffering extensively because of the fallout. But there were some severe financial consequences for Sony, and there are a lot of ordinary people working there just sluggin’ their nuts trying to earn a living and who aren’t total douchebag CEOs and who got burned by this whole situation. And it is on their behalf that I would like to issue a huge “Fuck you” to anybody who a) made the conscious decision to disseminate information uncovered by the hack and b) anybody who knowingly accessed this information or c) anybody who unknowingly accessed the information and then decided to stick around for the party anyway.

The only thing that the media feeding frenzy demonstrated was our total lack of a united front on some of the most basic aspects of human rights that we have always asserted were as fundamental to our culture as apple pie, sex toys, or access to luxurious, satiny smooth toilet paper. (Charmin, my anus salutes you.) Just two short months later, the attack on offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that resulted in the actual deaths of twelve people by Islamic terrorists was yet another, more brutal attempt to coerce censorship and another example of how, in the wake of it all, we still couldn’t get our shit together to pull our heads out of our asses.

The targets of censorship were different in the cases of the Sony hack and the Charlie Hebdo massacre; where the former had been focused on suppressing content of a political nature the latter had overtly religious overtones, specifically in the repeated publication of images of the religious figure Mohammad who, I guess, is a little camera shy and who--despite being an all-knowing, all-powerful deity--still hasn’t developed a sense of humour or a social conscience. The goals of the hackers and the murderers in both of these cases, however, were nearly identical; to force another social group into silence, forgoing both the human right of freedom of expression and the moral imperative of being able to legitimately criticize and hold accountable people, ideas, or institutions and their associated real-world consequences.

And just to be clear, to my knowledge there exists in exactly zero declarations of rights and freedoms in any country in the world the right not to be offended. But once again, we fumbled around, fucking up what should have been the easiest response in the world to such action: “Go fuck yourselves.” As Sam Harris--noted author, speaker, and neuroscientist--pointed out in the wake of that attack, one of the reasons that the employees of Charlie Hebdo and other people face the possibility of such brutal repercussions is precisely because the burden is not shared equally. If the same media outlets that had so proudly championed free speech displayed these images that were so vile as to warrant mass murder as opposed to protecting the sensibilities of those who would commit or support such deeds or any institution that would enable the same, that would spread the burden of risk and go a long way towards preventing such threats in the future. Plus you’d save a ton of money on drone strikes.

But instead, we capitulated. In less than a month, or about double the amount of time they usually take to reboot the SPIDER-MAN franchise, Sony had made the decision not to proceed with the release of THE INTERVIEW. What’s more is that this seemed to be largely as a result of five of the biggest movie theatre chains deciding that for “the safety of their customers and employees” they wouldn’t be showing the movie. You know what would have been better for the safety of customers and employees? Not empowering fanatical social groups by giving in to their ludicrous demands for censorship and emboldening them to future actions of a similar nature, or more likely, actions of an incrementally more dire nature. One of the problems of giving in on something as seemingly insignificant as an otherwise moderately entertaining film is that it’s potentially the beginning of a very long ride down a very slippery slope without a kiddie pool full of baby oil and big-breasted, wrestling babes to cushion the fall.

And for those who may doubt the seriousness of the repercussions of not letting us see Franco and Rogen bumble the seemingly foolproof execution of a political head of state including fatally poisoning random people and shoving large, metal objects up their asses, consider that in advance of what was to be the release of the film, North Korea actually tried to make a case with the United Nations to prevent it from ever seeing the light of day. Yes, there was actually a session of the United Nations where delegates sat around discussing THE INTERVIEW, starring “those two white kids from Freaks and Geeks?” “Yeah, you know, and the one guy was in 127 HOURS and the other was in KNOCKED UP?” “Seriously, dude? No way. I didn’t even make the connection.”

Apparently, the position of North Korea--in total ignorance of how the film industry works--was that THE INTERVIEW basically amounted to political propaganda and that the United States was somehow picking on poor, little North Korea. Even discounting the fact that North Korea’s human rights record is lower than Hugh Hefner’s sperm count must be by this point (seriously, nobody can possibly keep production up on that scale for that long) and the numerous verifiable atrocities Kim Jong-un and his regime still inflict on their people to this very day, the argument would still be spurious because in this case North Korea wouldn’t have been treated any differently than any country here in the West. (Although it might be reasonably argued in an appropriate tribunal that this is a legally justifiable case of “They hate us ‘cause they ain’t us.”)

You see, there actually was a movie about the death of a sitting President of the United States; DEATH OF A PRESIDENT in 2006 chronicled the aftermath of the assassination of the then-President George W. Bush. It met with a lot of outrage from politicians who probably hadn't even seen the film but felt the need to condemn it on principle alone and middling reviews from film critics, including one reviewer from Metacritic, one S. Hussein, who gave it one decapitated infidel head out of five. Even though a lot of the criticism of the film probably originated from self-righteous douchebags, it never went beyond criticism. I don’t recall the United States government going to the United Nations demanding some kind of censorship. I don’t recall any hacked computers. I don’t recall any murderous rampages. And the reason I don’t recall those things is because they never fucking happened. Because the correct response in these cases is open dialogue and not human rights violations ranging from censorship all the way up to murder. While there are and should be (rare) exceptions made, for example in cases of slander or libel, there is never a justification for violence in response to free expression.

Besides which, if the real Kim Jong-un had been even a fraction of the fan of Franco and Rogen that the fictional Kim Jong-un had been of Dave Skylark (Franco), then he would have realized that the most offensive thing about THE INTERVIEW wasn’t that it had depicted his death but that they’d already done the same buddy comedy shtick before and (marginally) better in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. I’m not a huge fan of Seth Rogen, but I have come to tolerate him as he seems to be very earnest in all of his endeavors. James Franco, on the other hand, I am a huge fan of, but I don’t think his strength lies in playing over-the-top characters like Skylark, the very definition of a mimbo if ever there was one. Franco’s routine feels a little too forced as though he’s trying to be kooky and vapid, and unfortunately the seams show.

As to the implications from Sony’s response to the hack, threats, and whole circus surrounding THE INTERVIEW, the damage, as they say, had already been done, and the company proved to be no less vapid than Skylark. Despite a revised and limited theatrical release and subsequent releases through streaming services such as Netflix and on DVD and Blu-Ray, the fact that Sony and the major movie chains gave in at all sent a message loud and clear to the entire world and anybody who would be willing to go through such great and/or horrific lengths to stifle freedom of speech or any other freedom: It works.

The fact that there was any debate as to the course of action was bad enough, but the fact that anybody in the civilized world actually decide to give in to these sorts of demands is sickening and horrifying in a very tangible way. The fact that every other party involved displayed a disturbing lack of solidarity with Sony on this issue is even more horrifying. There was a lot of talk, but very few willing to put their money where their mouths were, and the big voices were either silent or spewing out shit. Major theatre chains Carmike, AMC, Regal, Cineplex, and Cinemark decided to give their middle fingers to our most basic tenets of freedom. And despite promptings from the likes of George Clooney, not a single Hollywood executive came forward with any tangible show of support. Even Dr. Doug Ross couldn’t save us from a severe case of Cowardly Bowel Syndrome or the accompanying cultural diarrhea leaking out and staining society’s underwear.

The lasting effects of the whole debacle won’t be known for some time, and until we are tested again we won’t fully understand the potential danger of the precedent that we set. It seems that we fell prey to the classic blunder of writing checks with our mouths that our egos were incapable of cashing (as to another classic blunder of getting involved in a land war in Asia, only time will tell). But it is a dangerous precedent, and one of the only certainties in this situation is that our lack of solidarity and willful offering of concessions will almost certainly come back and bite us in the ass. Hopefully next time we can rise to the occasion, because the minute that we aren’t allowed to see Seth Rogen’s naked, pasty white body, characters debate the existence of another human being’s asshole, or world leaders cry and shit their pants on a nationally televised broadcast while listening to Katy Perry’s fine body of work, then the terrorists have already won. Literally.


THE INTERVIEW was an average comedy with a few good laughs, but it doesn’t say anything particularly substantive. While the subject matter was rife for a biting satire, instead we get another Franco and Rogen stoner buddy film transplanted to an exotic location. With so much potential wasted, this seems like the very definition of a cinematic honey-dicking. THE INTERVIEW is at best 6/10 = One Totalitarian Henchmen Head Dying From a Poison Originally Made Famous on Breaking Bad, Which I Totally Need to Go Back and Watch Again Now


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