Anghus Houvouras on The Interview: protecting free speech, or the bottom line..?
This Sony hacking scandal is unprecedented. Like a tiny snowball pushed from the precipice of a high peak picking up mass and speed as it rolls down wreaking havoc on all who come into contact with its massive, icy surface. An inescapable maelstrom of controversy and old school tabloid reveals about some of Hollywood’s biggest players. Reputations being dragged through the slushy wake. Careers buried deep beneath the debris as it levels everything in it’s path. The most frightening thing: there is no end in sight.
By now, everyone in the modern world has heard about the hackers who have crippled Sony, bludgeoning the mega-corporation with a construct of their own making: a data dump of their own information revealing abhorrent behavior and trade secrets. Earlier this week the hostilities took a dark turn as threats of violence emerged and Sony decided to pull The Interview from theaters. It’s a complicated ordeal with a lot of levels. Over the course of the scandal I’ve formed three opinions on the matter.
Opinion #1: It’s a shame when people are bullied into retreat by threats of violence. It sets a bad precedent.
This is my first instinct. Where my brain goes to whenever I read about censorship. That principled stand you take when you think about how you would want to handle such a scenario. When you picture yourself in your mind as the best version of yourself. Bullies need to be stood up to and shut down. It’s as simple as that.
Opinion #2: I can’t believe this movie got the greenlight in the first place. Surely someone thought this was a bad idea.
This is the second instinct, after you start to think about the issue in more detail. When common sense creeps in and starts to poke holes in your stalwart, black and white stand on an issue. Surely the same common sense argument making it’s way through your brain was shared by at least one person on the Sony food chain and the whole debacle could have been avoided.
Opinion #3: I wish we were arguing principles & precedent over something other than another Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy aimed at stoners
This is that final thought. The one that sticks in your craw and lingers when the discussion ends and you begin to put some real thought into the subject. After the holes have filled your argument with water and it begins to sink. This is the cold, hard reality. The unpopular truth. I had the same thought 20+ years ago when a raunchy rap act called 2 Live Crew went to the Supreme Court to argue the claims of obscenity being levied against their ‘classic’ album: As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Sure, I understood the principle, but there was a part of me wishing we were going to bat over Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or London Calling.
I have nothing against The Interview or Sony. As interesting as this whole train wreck has been, we would still be better served in a world where it didn’t happen. My fellow FM-er Kat Kourbeti said it best:
“Very much with you re: all these opinions… probably leaning more towards #1 though, despite everything.”
You’re going to read a lot of people’s opinion on this subject (if you haven’t already). Most are going to take the high road and tell you why The Interview deserves to be seen. They’re going to incorrectly invoke the American doctrines of “Free Speech”. They’re going to cite the evils of a society that censors their artists. They will tell you a line has been drawn and you’re either on one side of it or the other. I’m not in favor of censorship, and I’ll never be in support of anything that involves threats of violence. However, in an effort to examine my diverse range of opinions on the issue, I’m going to try and play devil’s advocate. You’ll read a thousand pieces on the subject that tell you the same thing. This isn’t going to be one of them.
You can pretty much invalidate much of the grandstanding going on about The Interview when you add the following words to every statement being made about it.
Seth Rogen & Sony put together a movie about assassinating Kim Jong-Un… for profit.
The Interview is about two Americans tasked by the CIA to kill North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. It’s a work of fiction involving some real people. A comedy… a satire… nothing to be taken too seriously. It’s simply a work of fiction involving the murder of a real life figure for comic effect. As much as the creative forces involved want you to have a laugh, the fact is The Interview was made for $42 million dollars and their priority is recouping that investment. Romanticizing The Interview as an artistic endeavor seems to have picked up speed since the film has been pulled from theaters. Based on Sony’s own documents, few inside the organization saw The Interview as anything of creative value. The film was widely panned by its own people. It’s release was contractual obligation. An opportunity to recoup costs.
Free speech does exist. It guarantees you the right to share your opinion. However, there’s no such thing as consequence free speech. If you make a movie that fictionalizes the murder of a known world leader, no matter how despicable, you may be forced to deal with the unfortunate fallout. Obviously no one at Sony did. No one seemed to care when Trey Parker & Matt Stone did the same thing with puppets in Team America: World Police. Or perhaps they simply lacked the capacity at the time to euthanize Sony electronically.
2014 has provided us with a few examples that feel like they occupy a similar space. Lena Dunham has been raked over the coals this year after recounting uncomfortable episodes in her youth involving her sister as well as an alleged sexual assault that happened to her in college. Opinions were formed and wars of words were waged. While many were quick to defend Dunham, quickly invoking her rights and ‘free speech’, I couldn’t get past those two little words.
Lena Dunham recounted stories of abuse and sexual assault… for profit.
I’m not denouncing Rogen or Dunham. I’m simply stating the painfully obvious. This isn’t free speech. This is “for profit” speech. Artistic endeavors with big payouts for those responsible for their creation. The victims aren’t innocent artists or creators being stifled. These are people who made a choice in expressing themselves and are unhappy about the consequences of sharing their particular whimsy with the world for six figure paychecks.
It’s just such a sad argument. Forced to talk about very serious issues while referencing a movie like The Interview. A movie engineered to make stoners laugh. When you take to social media You can only read the sentence “The sad part about pulling The Interview…” before you start to realize how empty every argument is. Even the most principled stands start to become paper thin. The transition from ‘person of principle’ to ‘pragmatic realist’ happens far faster than you’d like.
If there’s a point here, it’s that artists like Rogen and Franco lack a realistic world view. They want to create without consequence, even when they make inflammatory choices. To hide behind the concept of ‘free speech’ while picking up a hefty payday.
This isn’t about free speech. It’s about the bottom line.
George Clooney recently said “With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson, it’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid. This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot. We have a responsibility to stand up against this.”
He’s right on two points. The freedom of speech is one of those principles that gets tossed into the discussion most often when defending the seemingly indefensible. It’s brought up when the Ku Klux Klan wants to stage a rally, or those a-holes at the Westboro Baptist Church want to protest a soldier’s funeral because they think tragedies are the product of God’s wrath because of homosexuality. But none of those examples account for profit seeking ventures like feature films and best-selling novels that intentionally stir controversy to reap higher profits. That doesn’t mean The Interview doesn’t deserve the same protections, but excuse my cynicism if I find it difficult to muster any sympathy for the film, the creators, or the billion dollar corporation at the center of the controversy. Boo hoo.
Clooney’s second point is more salient to me: Just because we cynics often lose footing when it comes down to principle, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rally behind those who do. Still, I vacillate on the topic not because of my aversion to the principle, but due to a lack of faith in the corporation too stupid to see the potential for peril and artists like Rogen who don’t understand that free speech still has consequences.
There’s no point in fighting amongst ourselves. We all know the real enemy here are the ones terrorizing Sony and threatening violence. Still, I think somewhere between the principle and the production budget, we as a society have to understand that free speech can still have a cost, or in the case of The Interview, a price tag.
What do you think about The Interview debacle?
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter.