‘The Interview’ And Using Comedy As A Weapon
A Cinematic Tradition Of Cutting Dictators Down To Size
Friday, January 2, 2015
Credit: Sony Pictures
The Seth Rogen comedy “The Interview," about an absurd a CIA engineered assassination plot to be executed by a TV interview host against Kim Jong-Un, has stirred far more controversy than anyone ever expected. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando reminds us of some films -- armed with nothing more than comedy -- that have taken on dictators.
"The Great Dictator" (Hitler parodied)
"To Be Or Not To Be" (Hitler)
"The Producers" (Hitler)
"Bananas" (Castro-like military leader)
"The Naked Gun" (most dictators gathered in one scene)
"Hot Shots" (Saddam Hussein)
"Team America" (Kim Jong-Il)
"Four Lions" (farce about terrorism)
The Seth Rogen comedy “The Interview” (continuing at The Digital Gym Cinema and now added at La Paloma Theater), about an absurd CIA-engineered assassination plot to be executed by a TV interview host against Kim Jong-Un, has stirred far more controversy than anyone ever expected. Here are some films — armed with nothing more than comedy — that have also taken on dictators.
Woody Allen’s film “Bananas” opens with a sportscaster at the scene of a revolution.
“’Wide World of Sports’ is in the little republic of San Marcos where we will bring you a live, on-the-spot assassination. They are going to kill the president of this lovely Latin American country and replace him with a military dictatorship and everyone is as tense and excited as can be.”
Dictators and the media have long served as prime targets for ruthless comic assault.
In Allen’s 1971 film, even Howard Cosell entered the fray.
“It’s all over for El Presidente. This reporter is going to try to get to him for one last word before he expires,” Cosell said as he tried to weave his way through the crowd: “Would you people let me through? This is American TV!”
That’s right. Make way for American TV! The American media, especially today’s interview shows that pass off entertainment as news, are part of what’s skewered in the new Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg comedy, “The Interview.” James Franco plays Dave Skylark, a preening talk show host who scores an interview with Kim Jong-Un and gets so taken in by the North Korean leader that he reconsiders the CIA plan to assassinate the dictator.
Dave: “I’ve been thinking about the mission. America is always putting their nose in things and screwing it up.”
Aaron (Seth Rogen): “The truth is Kim is a master of manipulating the media. You’re the media. Do you see what’s happening here?”
“The Interview” is a bromance that its makers never intended as political satire. Screenwriter Dan Sterling may come from the more politically savvy shows like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (as a producer) and “South Park” (as a writer), but in an interview with NPR he said he didn’t write “The Interview” as a political film.
“Well, not exactly. I mean, this is a Seth Rogen movie,” Sterling said on NPR, “And, you know, there is a responsibility when you are writing a Seth Rogen movie to his audience. And they aren't primarily expecting a political film. They aren't expecting Paddy Chayefsky.”
But recent events (a cyber attack on parent company Sony Pictures that was initially linked to a North Korean group that was demanding the film be pulled but now is being reported as the work of a disgruntled employee) have given the film an unexpected social importance. But whatever its intentions, “The Interview” does make one clever if obvious point: it shows that media has the power to both build up AND take down a dictator. Kim’s dissatisfied assistant Sook (Diana Bang) suggests the US could do better than assassinate her boss.
Sook: “How many times can the U.S. make the same mistake…. Killing Kim won’t change anything. He will be replaced. He has brothers and generals…the people need to be shown that he is not a God; that he is a man. Then they will be ready for change.”
And how do you accomplish that? By doing a globally broadcast interview and showing that he is human and not the god he presents himself as in his state-controlled media. Taking a dictator down by “humanizing” him is not new. In fact, North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong-Il, was subjected to this kind of comic treatment in the Trey Parker-Matt Stone film, “Team America.”
In that puppet film, Kim Jong-Il gets a singing soliloquy called “I’m Lonely” where he complains about the solitude of being a dictator as torture and executions go on behind him. But in that film, Parker and Stone waged comic attack on everything from the North Korean dictator to right wing gung-ho politics and Hollywood liberalism represented by actors such as Alec Baldwin and Susan Sarandon.
Back in 1968, Mel Brooks understood the power of comedy to cut a dictator down to size. He defined comedy as a weapon and was criticized for his humorous attack on Hitler in "The Producers.” In the film, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are looking to produce a play that’s a sure-fire failure, and they choose to mount “Springtime for Hitler,” which includes dancing female Nazi stormtroopers and a Beatnik Hitler played by Dick Shawn.
Brooks was told that Nazis were not meant to be funny. But the comedian retorted, "If you ridicule them, you bring them down with laughter. They can't win. You show how crazy they are." Since then his film has been remade and turned into a successful Broadway musical.
Director Ernst Lubitsch took Hitler to task during the war with his 1942 comedy “To Be or Not To Be” (which Brooks would remake in 1983). The film (which you can watch for free on Hulu) was about a theater company in Nazi-occupied Warsaw trying to do a “serious” play about Hitler, “a document of Nazi Germany.”
But Carole Lombard plays Maria Tura, an actress who’s more concerned with glamor than history.
Maria: “How do you like my dress?”
Producer: “Is that what you’ll wear in the concentration camp?
Maria: “Don’t you think it’s pretty?”
Producer: “That’s the problem.”
Maria: “I think it’s a tremendous contrast. Think of me being flogged in darkness and the lights come on and the audience sees me in this gorgeous dress.”
But the arts – be they deemed trivial or serious – are often the first thing that gets censored, the film suggests. So an official comes to the actors to inform them that the government feels it is unwise to go on with the show because “it might offend Hitler.” To which Jack Benny’s character retorts, “Well wouldn’t that be too bad. Have you read what he says about us?”
Lubitsch made wartime audiences laugh as well as see the danger of what was going on in Europe. In this scene, Lombard’s Maria reacts to the Nazi request that she become a spy.
Maria: “What are we going to do about my conscience?”
Professor: “I wonder if you really know what Nazism is?... We just want to create a happy world.
Maria: “And people who don’t want to be happy have no place in this happy world. Well that makes sense.”
Lubitsch was known for his light touch, and didn’t need gross-out humor, mass destruction, or heavy-handedness to make a point. Just Lombard’s effervescent delivery. A few years earlier, Charlie Chaplin proved the power of humor by parodying Hitler in “The Great Dictator" (including a brilliant scene in which the Hitler-esque dictator Hynkel plays with a balloon-globe that pops in his face). Chaplin chose to end his film on a serious note with a passionate speech about hope. Here’s the scene.
The irony, though, is that Chaplin would become a victim of the McCarthy witch hunts and would be banished from the US in 1952. Rogen may not be on the same artistic plane as Chaplin or Lubitsch, but he continues a long tradition of filmmakers who can’t resist using comedy as a weapon to cut larger-than-life political figures down to size and to point out the absurdities that allow them to exist.
The Interview continues to play at The Digital Gym Cinema and was just added to the La Paloma film schedule.
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