Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (2 of 4): Revisiting The Interview after Charlie Hebdo

A scene from Death of a President (2006)

In 1971, in a novel that was first published during Richard Nixon’s first term as President and has since been reissued as part of the Library of America series, Philip Roth killed off  “Trick E. Dixon,” described the American people joyously celebrating their President’s untimely demise, and signed off with a chapter in which Tricky, in the afterlife, vigorously campaigns for the leadership of Hell. (“Now, Satan has indicated on several occasions during this campaign that I have been misrepresenting his role in the Job case.”) Six years later, Robert Coover used Nixon, called “Richard Nixon” this time, as a major character in his novel The Public Burning, which was set during the McCarthy era. This time, Nixon made it out alive, but he was subjected to speculation regarding his lusting after Ethel Rosenberg, and in the finale, was sodomized by Uncle Sam. A year or so later, a Saturday Night Live sketch depicted Nixon as a vampire who had to be executed with a stake through his heart to spare the country from being subjected to his self-exculpating memoirs. In the play Secret Honor, which Robert Altman filmed in 1984, a drunken, grotesquely self-pitying Nixon spends an evening recounting the crime against basic decency and human dignity that was his political career, promising to blow his brains out when he gets to the end.

Around the same time Roth’s Our Gang came out, the National Lampoon published an article describing the “assassination” of Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, with the same punch line that appears in Roth’s novel: the news media, eager to duplicate its coverage of a country in the grip of a national trauma that followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, has a hard time finding anyone who’s not tickled that the man is dead. In 1972, the Lampoon published a parody of an EC horror comic, written by Michael O’Donoghue, in which it was revealed that the segregationist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace had murdered his first wife by feeding her cancerous rats, and that the assassination attempt that put him in a wheelchair had been a publicity stunt that he’d arranged to gain sympathy. (The comic ends with Wallace being killed and eaten by ghouls who are Dr. King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and other black martyrs of the civil rights movement.)

More recently, the British faux-documentary Death of a President (2006) presented a dry-eyed depiction of the assassination of George W. Bush, which turned out to be meaningful chiefly for the degree to which is allowed President Cheney to further ratchet up the administration’s assault on the civil rights of the accused and the American public. If playing around with the lives of actual world leaders strikes some people as juvenile, in the most notable (and notably outrageous) cases, it also seems to be born from real, passionate anger. In 1939, four months before Germany invaded Poland, the British thriller writer Geoffrey Household published Rogue Male, a novel whose hero was a big game hunter stalking Hitler. The assassination of President Kennedy inspired a wide array of provocations, from Barbara Garson’s mock-Shakespeare play MacBird!, which accused a sitting president of complicity in the murder of his predecessor – Oliver Stone would attempt to make the same case, with a straight face,  twenty-four years later in the movie JFK – to Paul Krassner’s prankish assertion that President Johnson had violated the late president’s neck wound while aboard Air Force One; there’s also the Robert Condon novel Winter Kills and the 1979 movie version, directed by William Richert, which reveals that the Kennedy-like president’s murder was engineered by his own father, after “President Kegan” got wild notions in his head, about democracy and his responsibility to the will of the people, that were bad for business.

James Franco and Randall Park (as Kim Jong-un) in The Interview (2014).

I could go on and on, but the point is that scolds are always complaining that artists and pop culture figures never engage with the real world, and this is one way that it’s traditionally been done: through satirical and irresponsible fantasies driven by anger at world leaders and other contemporary historical figures, the more scurrilous the better. Yet, after Sony’s announcement that it was canceling its wide release of The Interview – the Seth Rogan-James Franco comedy that climaxes with the assassination of South Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – in response to threats of terrorist violence against theaters, professional scolds lined up to blame Sony and the filmmakers for having gone too unforgivably far, in pieces that mostly read as if they’d been written in a void. Again and again, we heard that nothing this outrageous had ever been done before; how had anyone decided they had the right to depict an actual, living human being’s murder, for laughs, and how would we feel if someone did it to us? The suggestion that there might be some meaningful difference between Kim Jong-un and “us,” or even between the tyrannical despot and the democratically-elected American President, was more or less off the table.

The lack of any long-term cultural memory was of great help to those insisting that there was no precedent for this sort of thing. Technicalities were also employed. For instance, in the unlikely event that anyone noticed that the plot of The Interview had a passing resemblance to that of The Chairman, a forgotten thriller from 1960 in which Gregory Peck, with a bomb planted in his head, is sent to Red China to meet a fellow referred to as “the Chairman,” played by an actor made up to resemble Mao Tse-Tung, much would be made of the fact that the Mao figure is never called by his actual name, and for God’s sake, they don’t really kill him onscreen. Bottom line: it’s not a big-budget holiday release from modern Hollywood, a distinction that is supposed to give The Interview a special malignant magic to its transgressions. The more recent Trey Parker-Matt Stone puppet film Team America: World Police is a trickier matter: the villain is explicitly depicted as Kim Jong-il, Kim’s predecessor and father. No one really lost their shit over that movie, though, certainly not to this degree, so it was left to a Washington Post editorialist to explain why its treatment of a then-living world figure was more acceptable: Parker and Stone’s Kim was revealed to be a cockroach-like alien from another planet, which almost everyone presumably knew the real Kim Jong-il not to be, and instead of being killed, he was allowed to return to his home planet. That’s some real grade-A professional hair-splitting.

The real reason that the depiction of Kim Jong-un in The Interview was seen as unprecedented and unforgivable is that it had consequences, and Americans have apparently become so softly insulated that they think that anyone whose actions are met with some high-level pushback is to be resented for making the world seem dangerous, and surely must have had it coming to him. The idea that satire is to blame if someone angered by it issues a statement that makes you afraid to go to the multiplex is connected to those poll numbers showing that most Americans think that it was all right for the U. S. to torture people during the Bush years. I suspect that most people giving that response aren’t expressing sadistic indifference to the Geneva Conventions but a feeling that it’s already happened, it can’t be taken back, and so long as it’s not still going on, what good does it do to say it was wrong? Doesn’t that just make us all complicit in something we’d rather pretend was necessary at the time, since apparently we’re not allowed to pretend that it didn’t happen? Nobody wants this to happen again, but nobody wants to come right out and say that his principled opposition to showing Kim Jong-un’s face blowing up on a thirty-foot screen is based primarily on cowardice. So if the solution is for reputably sane adults to pretend that they care deeply about an officially certified member of the Axis of Evil getting his feelings hurt by the stars of Pineapple Express, well, there not be a less messy answer to this predicament.

Charlie Hebdo's first issue (1970-11-23)
The murders of four cartoonists for the French humor weekly Charlie Hebdo, at the hands of terrorists who felt they were “avenging” the Prophet Muhammad, serves to remind us that there are consequences and then there are consequences. The members of the Charlie Hebdo staff, who survived the firebombing of their offices and kept working in the face of death threats, are authentic heroes, perhaps on a loftier plane than those saying, with a not-so-faint smirk, “See our shitty little stoner comedy to show your support for free speech.” Charlie Hebdo was originally founded in 1970, the same year that as the launch of National Lampoon in the U.S. That might not be a coincidence. Both magazines were ostensibly of the post-1968 counterculture, but driven to include the counterculture among their targets for mockery, in a way that today’s culture of black-and-white partisan “satire” would find incomprehensible. (The Lampoon’s “Is Nothing Sacred?” issue, published in 1972, went after such sacred cows as R. Crumb, The Whole Earth Catalog, Buckminster Fuller, and the Bolivian diaries of Che Guevara.)

The verbal attacks on Charlie Hebdo that have appeared since the killings – attacks from the likes of Teju Cole in The New Yorker and Salon’s Brittney Cooper (both of whom accused the cartoonists of indulging in white privilege) and The New York Times’ David Brooks (who, being no great enemy of white privilege, simply pointed out that it was his understanding that the magazine’s humor was all puerile and gross and stuff) – are of the “killing people over drawings is wrong, but…!” variety. The core of the “but” comes down to that dread, beaten-to-death phrase, political correctness. Cole and Cooper deplore violations of it; Brooks, who pointed out, not wrongly, that Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire would have gotten it in trouble if it were published in a university humor magazine, deplores the thing itself, but still feels kind of icky about people making fun of others’ religion. Sean Kelly, who worked at the Lampoon during its salad days, once referred to “wealth and religion” as “our enemies.” Today, politically correct tight-asses and reactionary conservatory tight-asses are united in their discomfort over jokes at the expense of anything that some self-proclaimed religious people really, truly believe in their heart of hearts, and they preside over a campus college increasingly dominated by young people who’ve been indulged in their feeling that they have the right to be shielded and protected from any speech that makes some of them uncomfortable – which is not the worst definition of any speech that has any real meaning at all.

There was a dress rehearsal for these reactions in 2006, when violence broke out over a Danish newspaper’s call for cartoon depicting Muhammad. The late, liberal blogger Steve Gilliard wrote at the time, “My attitude here is simple. I respect Muslims and their concerns because I want them to respect mine, enough so that they reject terrorism and inform on those that do embrace it. We cannot say reject terrorism and then mock what they see as holy.” Sure we can; people mock things that people see as holy all the time with the expectation that anyone who feels insulted will be a rational adult about it and not pull a gun, and the fact that most Muslims in France neither took part in nor expressed support for the killings proves that Gilliard was wrong to think, as he plainly must have thought if he meant what he wrote, that Muslims, as a group, simply do not have it in them to behave like rational adults.

Gilliard also felt it necessary to misrepresent the cartoons themselves, even playing the David Brooks “This shit wouldn’t fly here” card. “Most major US newspapers will not run these cartoons any more than they run racially or sexually offensive cartoons,” he wrote. “They wouldn't run a cartoon mocking church buildings being burned either. To the most vigorous defenders of free speech on the planet, in a country which allows all manner of hate speech, these cartoons will not be shown, because they are needlessly offensive." Actually, only two or three of the Danish cartoons could be called "needlessly offensive", and that's using the most thin-skilled, context-sensitive definition of the term imaginable. A couple of them attack the paper itself for the shit-stirring implications of its big idea. One of the funnier ones mocks the idea that Muslims would be so oversensitive as to react to some disrespectful doodle in the way that they have--which means that the cartoonist showed more respect for the members of the Muslim street than any commentator who's tried to declare their reaction to be "understandable."

Paul Berman, having taken the time to actually look at Charlie Hebdohas called “the accusations that Charlie Hebdo is a racist newspaper, has drifted to the reactionary right, and foments hatred for Muslims and immigrants” a “slander,” pointing out that its cartoons have consistently portrayed Muhammad as a good and worthy figure who is pained and dumbfounded at acts of carnage committed in his name by “assholes,” just as Western satirists like Lenny Bruce have sometimes depicted Jesus Christ as bewildered at the mangling and misuse of his teachings by greedy, predatory churchmen. Would the sort-of defenders of the Muslim gunmen extend the same sympathy to the Christian rednecks who gun down abortion providers? Probably not; their alienation and frustration at what they see as a culture waging war on their beliefs is tainted with too much white privilege.

Joe Sacco, "On Satire" (The Guardian, 2015-01-09)
The most disheartening – okay, the most disgusting – of the reactions to the Charlie Hebdo killings comes from the “cartoon journalist” Joe Sacco, who, in a strip published online at The Guardian, begins with the boast that he is too sensitive to “feel like beating my chest and reaffirming the principles of free speech,” preferring to just feel sad that “People were brutally killed, among them several cartoonists – my tribe”; sneers that making fun of Muslims is “a vapid way to use the pen” and touches on the slander that Charlie Hebdo is a racist rag, even somehow managing to go from mentioning the fact that “Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist […] for allegedly writing an anti-Semitic column” to asking how “funny” it would be if the magazine had printed a cartoon showing “a Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class”; and winds up by urging us all to “tire of holding up our middle finger” so we can instead “think about why the world is the way it is […] and what is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image.”

The time and place is the global world in 2015; I’m pretty sure that what’s wrong with anyone who answers a mere image with murder is that he’s psychotic, and Sacco’s tender regard for the feelings of psychotics, his concern that we might make fun of them instead of searching our souls and asking what we did to make them incapable of behaving like civilized human beings, is both nauseating and deeply insulting to all the millions of Muslims who are civilized human beings. Yet the worst thing about his sensitive little placemat may be the hubris that allows him to call the dead cartoonists members of his “tribe.” No, they were the tribesmen of Robert Crumb, Thomas Nast, Lynda Barry, Jules Feiffer, Edward Sorel, Posy Simmonds, Harvey Kurtzman, Carol Tyler, George Herriman, Ralph Steadman, Walt Kelly, and all the others who earned the title by functioning as imaginative artists and social and political commentators. Sacco doesn’t deserve to be called a cartoonist; he’s just a guy who visits trouble spots, publishes his sketches, and pins medals on himself for being understanding toward the downtrodden, including the downtrodden who bring hellfire down on blameless members of their own tribe by making it possible for the racist, right-wing politicians who Charlie Hebdo has regularly skewered to promote the lie that Muslims are, as a group, no better than a few nuts with guns and apocalyptic temperaments.

In more than one article I read about The Interview, I saw Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) cited as the classic example of how to do it right. Chaplin, you see, didn’t use the names “Adolf Hitler” or “Benito Mussolini” or “Nazi Party.” He made up cute fake names for the characters who were unmistakably meant to be Hitler and Mussolini, and that meant that Hitler, that notorious good sport, could have no legitimate gripe with how he was portrayed. As critical, historical, and political argument, this has the disadvantage of being insane, but it also misses the real point. The Great Dictator ends with the Hitler figure’s good-hearted Jewish lookalike replacing him at the microphone and telling his followers that he’s been wrong all along, that all men really are brothers. Chaplin, who sent a print of the finished film to Hitler, seems to have actually believed that it could be as simple as that to change the course of history for the better, that the fascist dictator wasn’t giving his people something they deeply responded to, and that if everyone just heard that goodness and hope were all we need, they’d agree: it must be that the thought had simply never occurred to them before. The real message of the movie is that satire that’s too tender-hearted – “satire” from people capable of looking at monsters and thinking, “If only we would reach out to them and try to see things their way instead of making things worse by making fun of them, then they’d want what we want” – is a bigger threat than smartass putdowns and even assassination fantasies, not to mention a much worse waste of time.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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