Let Freedom Wring!

I will make the claim now: this is not the good fight. This is not the cause for which we should express our outrage and concern.

If you pay any attention at all to movie news, no doubt you've heard of the massive Sony hack, purportedly carried out by North Korea as retaliation for backing the film The Interview, directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. This action, unprecedented in both scope and effect, has left many corporations scrambling to review their security policies. 

Subsequently, four major movie theater chains decided it was just too risky to show The Interview as planned on Christmas Day, probably after those executives imagined their own racist, sexist and insulting emails released for public consumption. After losing the lion's share of committed theaters, Sony took the brave stance of cancelling the release. When some theaters said they'd show Team America as a replacement, Paramount also tucked its tail between its legs and ran behind the couch.

Kim Jong Il

Sound the alarms! Thus began the great groundswell of public support for our cherished and threatened freedoms, fueled by the usual hyperbolic 24-hour news cycle coverage. (Ah, if only there had been half that emotional reaction to the release of the horrific details of the CIA torture report earlier in the month....)

Then, some folks in the Art House Convergence worked out an alternative release plan with Sony (we are members of AHC, a group that supports independent art house theaters).  Some theaters will be playing this purely on principle, as a blow against censorship and/or foreign attempts to restrain our freedom. I can understand the appeal of this position, and I believe it's the stance of one of the first to sign on, Portland's own Living Room Theaters, who regularly screen documentaries and issue-driven films (see it there if you must, or opt to see the more important Citizen Four also playing at LRT).  I'm sure there are others who will play it just because it will bring media attention and some serious coin - also a perfectly ok motive, as long as they don't publically wrap themselves in the flag while doing it. 

Of course I have not seen the film, and won't pre-judge its merit as comedy or political statement, but it's safe to say that this would not have been screened in many art house theaters in the original release schedule. I've seen a pre-screen message from Rogen and Goldberg, containing the comments, "If you're watching this, it means you are a goddamn fucking American hero" and "we hope you enjoy your freedom." They both look terribly amused by it all, and no, I'm not missing the tongues planted firmly in cheeks.

But is this truly a cause worthy of serious response? Personally, I can't help but think that if we all go to a Hollywood movie we'd otherwise ignore just because we think some l'enfant terrible voices opposition, then "the terrorists have already won".  I say that considering three important points ignored by most of the commentary about this issue:

  1. There is still no smoking gun which proves the North Korea link, so we may be assigning power to the powerless.
  2. All of the decisions made by Sony and the theater chain corporations have been about the bottom line, not politics or free speech.
  3. Seth Rogen is not a "voice that has been silenced"; in fact, this whole brouhaha only fuels the intense media attention to to himself and a film that probably would have passed silently from public view within a fortnight (the Streisand effect).

So I will make the claim now: this is not the good fight. This is not the cause for which we should express our outrage and concern. This is mostly a case of corporate BS and the media's insatiable focus on fluff instead of substance.

It's not that we don't believe in promoting free speech and human rights. In the last year, in addition to our regular radical programming we've had several free shows to promote particular issues and values, including a full day celebration of peace activist and folk icon Pete Seeger, a screening of the Aaron Swartz bio doc The Internet's Own Boy, and another of the blacklisted workers' rights classic Salt of the Earth

Sadaam from LebowskiThis week we're playing The Big Lebowski, a movie that has a remarkably relevant subtheme.  From "this aggression will not stand, man", to the antics of the Viet Nam vet Walter, to the appearance of Sadaam offering bowling shoes in the dream sequence, the spectre of the futility of war haunts this film.

That dictator and the current supreme leader in North Korea have a lot in common. Both are petty tyrants with enough power to cause a great deal of horror for their own people and some severe problems for their region, but neither could pose any serious existential threat to the world at large. Negative outside attention is the manure needed to fertilize their regimes. And those regimes are vitally impoortant to those who would politic on the premise of exchanging freedom for safety, or increasing the already obscene sums handed over to the military industrial complex - our greatest threat to our personal freedoms.

On New Year's Day, we're going to play Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece The Great Dictator.  Lore has it that it was formulated as a response to 1935's Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. He did this using a small fortune of his own, during a time when the war had not yet begun and there was still considerable support for Hitler's "modernization of Europe" amongst powerful people in the U.S. Ironically, during production it was banned in England while they practised appeasement, but by the time of release it was welcomed propaganda for an England at war.

Chaplin stated that he regretted making this comedy after the war, once he had found out the horrific details of the reign of the Third Reich. I respectfully disagree. What could be better than to bring down the high and mighty through pointed ridicule, or than to make an important statement about the realpolitik through comedy?

We play this film, a wonderful, artistic and eloquent response to a clear and dangerous threat, in stark contrast to the events of the day.

UPDATE: Proving that Sony has no real affection for the art house community that has rushed to their aid, they've decided to release the movie for home streaming simultaneously.