Hollywood and The World

A number of weeks have now passed since controversy surrounding The Interview reached critical mass. It’s a rare situation when a film, let alone a comedy film, triggers an international incident involving presidential statements, hacking scandals and threats of terrorism. Whether or not you consider The Interview a valid contribution to solving problems surrounding North Korea – it’s tempting to say a film which displays an enemy leader blown up via tank shell is less satire and more militaristic wish-fulfilment – it’s an intriguing stage in Hollywood representations of the wider world.

Reducibly the film is a commercial entertainment product capitalising on the issues of a foreign country. This has had unusually dramatic consequences, and Sony have hardly come out well despite the massive publicity boost the film has gained from the controversy. Alongside the hacking scandal, severely limited screenings have led to a low rate of return; at the time of writing domestic box office takings are estimated to be around $5 million.

The backlash could have been easily predicted. After all, there can’t be many governments which would warmly embrace a film about a successful assassination plot to kill their current leader, let alone North Korea. Some will say it was worth the backlash to illuminate the absurdity and cruelty of the regime, but critical mockeries are not exactly news to Western culture.  Arguably in bringing this to a global platform The Interview further isolates North Korea, giving its powers more material to portray the US as an external threat for controlling the population through fear. North Korea should be criticised, but this is counterproductive. Seemingly the film presumes a viewership restricted to a certain US mentality toward the rest of the world, rather than recognising its position within a global entertainment industry.

Recently this kind of isolationism in Hollywood has been showing through. Ridley Scott’s Exodus has been widely criticized for assigning white actors to all the key roles, surreally including Christian Bale as Moses and Sigourney Weaver as Queen Tuya. In an attempt to explain this through financing, Scott stated that ‘I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Muhammad so-and-so from such-and-such’ (Variety). The idea that this would placate the situation exposes a blasé self-assurance toward representations of foreign places and individuals, in that it doesn’t matter what liberties you take as long as the film is made in some form.

This selectivity is particularly problematic in ‘true story’ adaptations. Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is a prime example. The film focuses largely on the wartime experiences of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. His plane crashes, he is adrift on a raft and then he is captured by the Japanese, and for what seems like hours of running time, he is degraded, abused and tortured, all the while remaining ‘unbroken’. The Japanese guards parallel the sharks plaguing him on the raft; monstrous endurance tests for the American hero.

Obviously this is a rather biased representation of the Japanese. The only determinedly token reference of the atomic bombs is a magazine photo of a mushroom cloud held briefly in a soldier’s hands. Zamperini himself forgave the Japanese and returned to talk with his ex-captors as part of the amendment movement, but this fact is delegated to a few moments of white text before the credits roll at the end of the film.The forgiveness is arguably the more complex and interesting part of Zamperini’s story, giving greater insight into his world-view and what ideas he built his life around. But the film chose to focus on Japanese cruelty in the POW camps. This of course has been well documented – the film is not being untruthful. But over-documentation is part of the problem. Unbroken is an uncritical repetition of Hollywood film traditions, exploiting trauma as a source of shock value, of easy dramatic kicks. Seventy years later we are dragged back to fixations of the past, with no refreshing or constructive contributions.

Hollywood is a production-house for fantasies, but that does not mean we cannot question the specifications to which these fantasies are made. To claim that The Interview it is an expression of artistic freedom misunderstands what motivated its production. It is commercial; the film has a happy ending, our ‘heroes’ destroy Kim Jong-un and solve the problems of another nation. Perhaps such neat conclusions are detrimental to productive satire. If all we need to do is watch The Interview to stand up to injustice, then it hasn’t really achieved anything at all.

Unbroken achieves little as an insight into its hero and his antagonists, rejecting the character developments of reality in favour of stasis and repetition. Exodus similarly displays a lack of development, being unable to move from the preconception that all important historical figures are white. The question is whether calls for Hollywood to take more responsibility in its representations will be listened to, or whether Obama’s blessing of The Interview will bolster their confidence. If nothing else, The Interview’s takings in the box office may lead to some reassessments.

By Nathaniel Spain


[Image Credit: Alice Barigelli]

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