The Most Important Movie in America

by Matthew Cabe

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When South Park, and later Family Guy, finally came into their own and made the “nothing is off limits” approach to comedy en vogue in the early noughties, an ironic but obvious by-product emerged. Because nothing was safe, both shows occasionally targeted art mediums, a few of which serve as the very reason for either show’s existence. While South Park tended to focus its lampooning on movies and actors, Family Guy usually went after writers given that one of the characters, Brian (a dog), fancies himself a serious writer who believes in his ability and refuses (in theory) to pander in order to achieve fame as a serious artist.

These moments are undoubtedly funny. You can’t help but laugh when George Clooney is depicted as a giant smug cloud traveling across America in South Park, or when Stewie mocks Brian’s dream of penning the next great American novel in numerous episodes of Family Guy. Underneath the comedy, however, especially in Family Guy since it’s essentially a farce and lacks the satirical moral compass that underpins South Park, is the feeling that creating serious art with something dangerous or provocative to say, is merely a fool’s errand in our current culture.

I don’t mean that the creators believe this, by the way. In their own ways, both shows are artistic, daring and have something meaningful to say. I mean that the actions and opinions of the characters on the shows perpetuate the notion that art is created only in a vacuum, and has become niche, spineless and, as a result, inconsequential to a majority of people who have more important things to worry about like working to pay their bills and making sure their kids get to school on time.

My point is that amid the pressing realities of day-to-day life, there isn’t much time left to engage in anything capable of making people think critically or feel outrage toward injustices that have been done. There’s barely enough time to watch a full episode of these shows anymore, which is why the hits on their YouTube clips are in the millions.

Dan Sterling is a former South Park staff writer and wrote the screenplay for The Interview, which became the most important film of 2014 when, earlier this week, Sony Pictures Entertainment banned the film’s theatrical release, a decision that stemmed from online threats of terrorist acts similar to what occurred on 9/11 if the movie was shown in American cinemas.

In an interview on KPPC’s The Frame, conducted before Sony scrapped the film’s release, Sterling said, “I don’t think [The Interview] was going to change North Korea, but I thought it might change the way people approach comedy and encourage people to make bolder movies.” He added, “The fantasy was is that this would be a huge box office success, and that they would hold me and Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] up on their shoulders and carry us all around saying, ‘From now on we’re gonna do comedies that are really risky and that attack big, political subjects and find ways to be funny!’”

Sterling’s comments shouldn’t come as a shock. South Park, the show for which he was once a writer, is about as bold a commentary as anything in pop culture today. So it makes sense that one of his ambitions was to embolden other writers and filmmakers to be more daring in their approach to comedic films. It also makes sense that he would want The Interview to become a financial success because that might’ve opened the door to production companies taking risks on more comedies (and films in general) that do have something important to offer.

Sony’s decision to ban the film’s release effectively destroys those dreams. But this controversy goes far beyond the immediate discussion of an unprecedented denial of free speech in America at the intimidating behest of another country that itself has no free speech. Sterling’s hope that the film would be a box office success says a lot about the state of the film industry on a whole, which has grown increasingly more profit-centered since corporations began taking over the studios.

They’re only after the bottom line, and as Mark Harris apocalyptically laid the reality of the situation out in a recent piece for Grantland, profits in a capitalist society are ensured by sticking to what sells, not what’s provocative or bold, different or original. It’s fair to assume, then, that in the future it will prove even more difficult than it already is in the present market not only to get studios to release films that have something to say, but also to get writers to write screenplays for those kinds of movies. In turn, what’s left of art in the film medium will suffer and, ultimately, die.

But let’s get back to the ban itself. It’s been called a “canceled release”. “Shelved” and “pulled”  are other terms that’ve been used. But that doesn’t change the fact that a ban is what we’re now dealing with. Using more easily-digestible words doesn’t change that. “Enhanced interrogation methods” are still acts of torture, to use a recent and disturbing example.

Of course, many films have been banned in America and other countries throughout history for one reason or another. According to good ol’ Wikipedia, in 1939, when Charlie Chaplin was in production on The Great Dictator, a film that satirizes Nazis and, more pointedly, Adolf Hitler, the British government stated it wouldn’t allow the film to be shown in the United Kingdom. That changed after the films release in 1940 because Great Britain was then at war with Germany. Hitler also banned the film, and Chaplin was included on a death list of Hitler’s, which gives an idea of what the former führer thought of the film, if in fact he saw it.

The ban on The Interview is different though because it is widespread and perpetuated by Americans. It’s granted that the ban came in the wake of terrorist threats, but giving in to demands based on the vague possibility of retaliation robs us of our right as Americans to stand up to those threats. What’s more is Sony’s decision has worked to exacerbate the demands rather than stifle them since now, according to CNN, the hackers have instructed Sony to also scrap any and all Interview-related materials from public consciousness. In essence, the goal is to snuff out the film’s entire existence, which is probably absurd in the age of endless content.

This is what happens, and will continue to happen, when the distribution of art is left in the hands of corporations rather than artists. It would be easy to shrug this off as not a big deal because, after all, it’s just a little comedy. Just a little movie. Doing so, however, would be to miss the point entirely, which is that our freedoms (what supposedly make us Americans) have been violated. As Americans, we should be enraged in the same way we are enraged when other inalienable rights are taken from us. We should be demanding the release of this film, and damning the actions taken by all involved that have irrevocably jeopardized both artistic expression and our right to reckon with and determine that art’s merit, or lack thereof.

Odds are The Interview isn’t as pointed or even as good as the backlash to its ban implies. Currently, the film holds a 52% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though 96% of fans rightly want to see it) and a score of 45 (out of a possible 100) on MetaCritic. In a segment also on KPPC’s The Frame, Justin Chang (Variety‘s chief film critic) and Silas Lesnick (associate editor at ComingSoon.net) weighed in on the film and agreed that its subversiveness could have gone further.

Whether the film is good or not is immaterial, but that it’s subversiveness and daring has been deemed lackadaisical by those few who have seen it makes the ban all the more perplexing and contemptible. Because if something as apparently benign as The Interview is capable of being banned, it’s logical to conclude that future films with possibly more bite will certainly suffer the same fate.

There is, however, one positive than can be gleaned from the ban, and that is despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, art is not a silly trifle to be disregarded as unimportant or comical. Clearly, art still holds the power to be substantial in our lives, to contain ideas and messages that warrant the very risk of censorship. In short, to be dangerous. But it’s up to us to allow that power to flourish, those ideas to be heard and seen, and that danger to exist. And we’re failing.

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