Movie Review: The Interview (2014)

I finally watched the movie Interview. In my previous blog post about this movie, I focused on its political impacts, without giving any thought to the movie’s merit. Now, I have a couple of things to say about the movie itself.

1. First, I think it is perfectly fine and possible to make a smart political commentary on North Korea. This movie is just not that.

3. Second, I also think it is perfectly possible to make a smart political commentary on North Korea and be funny at the same time. But this movie is not funny. Not funny to me, at least. I have to agree with another reviewer who says that the first 10 minutes of the movie is the funniest part. After that, the movie just goes downhill.

3. Third, I want to point out that the movie is not so much about what North Korea really is as what Hollywood thinks North Korea is. The movie, at times, posits itself as a political commentary on North Korea’s oppressive regime. By and large, I agree with the movie’s view of North Korea. NK is fucked up in so many ways. Where on earth does your blood line determine your real political power? Even the most corrupt political leaders have to put up a facade of democracy and bother with elections. Sure, election processes are not clear, election results are manipulated, but nevertheless, they “become” a leader through some mock democracy. In North Korea? Forget about it. And where on earth are all foreign tourists sequestered into one hotel and shown designated areas only? We can definitely criticize the North Korean regime, and the points of criticism can go on. And, I emphasize once again that I think the movie’s overarching view of North Korea is not totally wrong. But in order to make a comedy out of the hermit country, the movie hastily jumps into what it thinks North Korea is. This self-indulgent move in pursuit of comedy proceeds to the extent that by the end of the movie, North Korea becomes nothing but bloody, gory video game material appropriate for teenagers.  I think that presenting NK in this way to American audiences does nothing but breed the American sense of superiority and exacerbates tension in international politics.

So, yeah, this movie quite stinks, and it is too bad that there is a real political price we have to pay for this movie, which does not have any smart thing to say and is not funny, either.

Yielding to the Rogue?

interview

One of the hot news these days is Sony’s decision to cancel the screening of the movie The Interview. As many of you know, the Interview, a comedy, describes the assassination of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Sony’s decision seems to infuriate many people and definitely, George Clooney. He said, “We cannot be told we can’t see something by Kim Jong-un, of all fucking people … we have allowed North Korea to dictate content, and that is just insane.” (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/dec/19/george-clooney-sony-pictures-hack-the-interview) In this post, I would like to respond to the sexiest man alive on earth.

First of all, Clooney is not entirely wrong. I cannot determine what you are allowed to say and what you are not allowed to say. If you decide to make a film to mock me and make fun of me, well, too bad, but I cannot really stop you from making the film. I can definitely quarrel with you about the legitimacy of your movie’s description. I can say, for example, that your movie does not  represent me fairly but grossly distorts me. Put differently, you can say whatever you want to say about me. That is one matter. But whether you are talking shit or not – this is another matter. So, when Clooney says that North Korea cannot dictate what we say about them, he is right in principle.

But here is an important caveat. He’s right “in principle.” It means that in reality, he may not be right. What our sexy man misses is the enormous difference in the weight of statements. If you and I are both classmates in an average American high school, yes, the weight of what you’re saying about me and the weight of what I am saying about you might be comparable. But if you’re President of the United States and I an ordinary citizen of humble origins, it’s safe to say that your criticism of me carries a lot more weight than my rebuttal. And this is exactly the situation surrounding the making of the film The Interview. Sony, a Hollywood company with enormous cultural influence and clout, makes a movie about North Korea, one of the most isolated countries of the world with little to no voice to reach the world population. Given this huge power imbalance between the subject of mockery and the object of mockery,  it is understandable that North Korea objected to Sony’s making of the film from its initial stage. This is point #1 that our sexy man misses.

Here is point #2 that Clooney misses: despite North Korea’s threats that it would terrorize Sony if it continued to make the film, Sony chose to ignore the threats and pushed its plan. In other words, what is going on today – Sony is hacked and movie theatres are threatened – should be understood in relation to what was going on yesterday. I want to argue that this intended blindness is very dangerous. Look, North Korea IS capable of violence. Nobody can accurately gauge their military force, and nobody can determine if their highly inflammatory threats are real or hyped. But nobody can deny that we are in tension and conflict with North Korea, and when provoked, they can do violence. We should be cautious. If we react with the attitude of “if you hit me, I will hit you harder,” the angry one can grab a gun and shoot us. This is why we should be careful not to escalate tension. I don’t know why the effort for peace – the effort to reduce tension and calm down the angry opponent – should be dismissed as a cowardly act of yielding to the rogue’s pressure. (Unfortunately, this seems to be Clooneys’ and the New York Times’ view as well. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/19/opinion/sony-and-mr-kims-thugs.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=c-column-top-span-region&region=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region&_r=0)

I want to conclude today’s post by saying two more things. First, I think it does not really help us much to see North Korea as an emotional, unpredictable, irrational petulant child. I don’t deny that North Korea acts like one. But they must be thinking something. What that something is, we don’t know. If our ultimate goal is to reduce tension in world politics and promote peace, however, it is tremendously important to keep North Korea on the negotiating table and keep talking to them. To treat them as lunatics barking at the moon will do nothing but chase them away from the negotiation table.

Second, when a big brother and a little brother fight, the big brother is the loser. Always.

Is academic isolation justifiable?

I sometimes wonder about these questions: Are academics, trapped in the ivory tower, removed from reality? Do academic discussions have any meaning outside academia?  Is academia blinding?

To address these questions, I want to start by sharing an anecdote. This is a story about my friend’s advisor. Please note that I did not attend the conference that Professor A attended and the story is twice removed (the Professor told her story to her advisee, and this advisee told the story to me.) Professor A is a renowned scholar in her field. She went to a conference. A lot of people recognized her and wanted to shake hands with her, talk to her, etc. She did. And it was the time for the first panel presentation. At the end of the presentation, there were Q&As, and Professor A asked a question to one of the presenters. The presenter answered the question. Professor A said that the answer did not fully address the question that she raised (“no, you’re not answering my question”) and asked the presenter a more pointed question. The presenter tried once again. But alas, Professor A still did not find the answer satisfactory enough. They went back and forth a few times. That was it. At the end of the 3 day conference, however, all conference participants were invited to a trip to a nearby beach, and Professor A was the organizer of the trip. People signed up for the trip, but when Professor went to the meeting place at the designated time, she found that nobody showed up. She went to the beach by herself. She hired a taxi, talked to the taxi driver on the way and had lunch with the taxi driver at the beach. She came back home, and she said this story in tears to one of her advisees, who told me this story.

I shared this story with another friend of mine, and he was not sympathetic with Professor A. He said, “People in academia may be A students in institutional schools, but a lot of them are F students in the school of life. They really don’t know how to speak in a non-academic language.” In saying this, my friend was not questioning the validity of Professor A’s question. He understood that the question itself could have been legitimate. What he was questioning was if Professor A was tactful enough to present her question. Or, if Professor A could have asked her question without coming across as dismissing the presenter’s idea. My friend thought that she totally failed in this regard.

I agree with my friend. At the same time, however, I see where Professor A was coming from. She wanted to have a rigorous conversation about the topic. When she saw that the conversation did not go as far as she thought it could, she wanted to push it further. Yes, too bad that she did not push it more diplomatically and tactfully, but I appreciate her desire for intellectual rigor, because, well, that’s what academics are there for.

I see that academics speak in a way that gains acceptance in academia but not outside it. But is this necessarily evidence of their elitism, snobbism, and isolation in the ivory tower? Does this necessarily suggest that academics engage in their own game that has no relevance to real life? I am not sure. Not all academics are intellectuals in the way I understand the word intellectual, and I agree that some academics do nothing but enjoy their inflated ego. Down with those scum! But there is the other group of academics, who genuinely think, try to expand our knowledge, and test the boundaries of our habits and feelings. I think that this type of academics – I consider them true intellectuals – need a language of their own, a language that may not be comprehensible to everyone but should not be disparaged for its opacity. What these intellectual say may not be immediately clear to us, not because they are arrogant and refuse to communicate with us, but because their ideas may be based on certain premises that cannot be all explained to us in a given time.

For example, I think that feminist scholars are one of the intellectual groups that are least understood and do not get respect they deserve. As of 2014, feminism in academia has established itself as a very elaborate critical theory on how our society operates. Feminism is no longer about equal pay for equal work, or allowing women to do what they want to do. Maybe it was about 100 years ago, but today, feminism works as a critical tool that sheds light not only on gender inequality but racial inequality, LBGT inequality, global south-north inequality, and all forms of oppression. I can see why feminist scholars cannot engage people who understand feminism simply as a demand of equal pay. Feminist scholars need to develop feminism even further than what it is now. They owe us that intellectual job.

I want to say the same thing about scholars who study American exceptionalism or whose work draw on the basic premises of American exceptionalism. These scholars are viciously attacked for their “unpatriotic” writing, when they share their work online with a wider public. Again, these scholars owe us the intellectual job of developing a sophisticated critique of the American nation. Chances are, we are not well versed as they are about what it means to develop a social criticism and how it is supposed to function. That’s fine. That’s not criminal. But then, let’s be clear about the gap between their knowledge and our knowledge, and let’s not call them unpatriotic or offensive for not making their ideas clear by our standards.

Is Jargon Necessary?

On Facebook, there is a page called “Shit Academics Say.” One of its posts reads:

Homoscedasticity.
Heteronormativity.
Hermeneutics.
Hegemony.
Problematize.
Pedagogy.
Paradigm.
Praxis.

I laughed. Yes, academics use jargon. And they use it a lot, and sometimes unnecessarily. I hate people who use jargon as an index of membership, or to distinguish insiders from outsiders. It is like asking, “hey, do you know this word? Prove that you are one of us.” I hate this insistence on inclusion and exclusion.

But at the same time, I wonder if jargon has positive functions. Today, I think it does. I think there is knowledge that requires jargon. I understand that intellectuals have the responsibility to express their complicated ideas in a plain language. I am not sure, however, if all knowledge can be translated in laymen’s language without losing its point.

I have a relevant personal experience. When Margaret Thatcher died a couple of years ago, I posted an article on my Facebook page. Discussing Latin Americans’ reaction to the death of the former British Prime Minister, the article said that Chileans, who continued to suffer from Thatcher’s oppression and exploitation of the Latin American country, “celebrated” Thatcher’s death. One of my Facebook friends of the time revolted. She found it “poor taste” to celebrate somebody’s death. She said that her death should be mourned. And she added, “when I die, I don’t want my death to be celebrated for the poor choices of my lifetime.” I took time to explain to her that why she should not take the article’s discussion as a personal attack to Margaret Thatcher. I said that Thatcher the person and the Thatcher the politician are not interchangeable. I emphasized to her that Thatcher the person deserves mourning, as she suggested, but the article discussed Thatcher not as a person but as a politician. I told her that we could and should discuss Thatcher’s political achievements and failures without attributing them to the person.

I was not successful with my friend, though. And, because I had to spend time explaining the separation of Thatcher the person and Thatcher the politician, I did not launch a discussion on what I really wanted to discuss: how to understand Thatcherian legacies.

Chances are, I had nobody to blame but myself. Perhaps my explanation was not good or clear enough. But would the situation be different if I used the phrase “the separation of body political and body natural?” I think it would be. If I and my interlocutor had understood what this jargonistic phrase meant, we could have jump started a discussion on the meaning of Thatcher’s political achievements. Using the jargonistic phrase would have helped to clarify the direction and the goal of our discussion.

So, I don’t want to use jargon to exclude people, but I feel that sometimes it is necessary for rigorous discussion. Imagine that your topic is the American hegemony in world politics. You replace “hegemony” with the plain word “influence” and you go on to discuss the idea of consent. In this case, I am pretty sure it will take forever to get your discussion started.

Capital Punishment

This will be a short post because I am writing this in the middle of grading my students’ essays. One student wrote an essay on the death penalty. One way she defended the death penalty was by appealing to people’s sense of vengeance. She asked, “if someone kills your beloved one, wouldn’t you want to kill the murderer?” Below is my quick response to her.

First, my answer is, “of course!” My life philosophy is, “if you are nice to me, I will be nicer to you. But if you hit me, I will hit you harder.” I am sure my blood will be boiling, demanding the blood of the murderer. And I am pretty sure that most people will feel similarly, although I have no doubt that there will be some saintly people who choose to forgive the murderers.

But the question is if we can transfer an individual’s sense of vengeance to the judiciary system. Or can we determine a judicial punishment based on an individual’s sense of vengeance? I think that the answer ought to be negative. At this point, I imagine a large room where the murderer sits in the middle of the room, I stand across him, and a judicial committee of 100 people surround him and me. Let’s assume that I appeal to the 100 committee members for the execution of the murderer and that the murderer will be executed if the 100 members press an “execute” button. By then, I will be so afraid that I may persuade the judicial committee members. As a family of the victim, I certainly want them to press the button, but at the same time, I don’t want them to press the button. It is because I don’t want to live in a society where my neighbors kill someone on my behalf. I want to be neighbors with people who sympathize with me but cannot bring themselves to kill the murderer.

People who defend the death penalty argue that when capital punishment is in practice, murder rates go down. But if reducing murder rates is our ultimate goal, the most important task is to create an environment which does not produce murderers, or to be more precise, an environment where the idea of killing people is not even conceivable. A child grows up, seeing that his neighbors kill people, and another child grows up, seeing that his neighbors don’t kill anyone. Which child do you think will grow to accept killing people as a possible thing to do? I think the answer is obvious.

American gun control and Heart of Darkness

heart of darkness

Gun control, gun related crimes. These are headlines that feature our newspapers perennially, and this afternoon, the New York Times reported the result of a poll. According to it, “fifty-two percent of respondents said it was more important to protect gun ownership rights, while 46 percent said the priority should be controlled access to firearms.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/12/us/gun-control-gun-rights-pew-survey.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0)

I was driven into despair. I felt, “there is no way to get rid of gun violence in this country. It is simply a matter of time that another Sandy Hook tragedy happens.” Oh, yes, I hear you. My interlocutor will challenge me by saying, “Wait a minute. Aren’t you drawing such a hasty conclusion?” There is nothing wrong with gun possession per se. Gun violence happens when people who are not supposed to have guns lay their hands on them. What we need, therefore, is not a restriction of gun possession for all but the enforcement of regulations to limit mentally ill people’s access to guns. Let’s do background checks. Let them present their mental health history, if they want a gun.” We hear this kind of argument all the time, whenever a massive shooting happens. After the Sandy Hook shooting, for example, moms across the nation organized to demand stricter gun control. The moms said that they didn’t want to send their child to school, when any crazy person can carry a gun to the school and kill their precious angel.

The moms of the nation and my imaginary interlocutor (and I will add President Obama later) have one assumption in common. That is, gun violence is committed by a few crazy people, when a vast majority of us are sane people who won’t misuse guns. So is stricter gun control is really the answer? I think that about gun possession, there are only two positions. Either you approve of gun possession for all, or you disapprove of it altogether. There is no middle ground. No “depending on who owns a gun.” If you are calling for stricter gun control, you are joining the first group, the one who approves of gun possession for all. So, the NYT poll result reads to me like 98 (52+46) percent of approval.

To make my point, I want to discuss a novel. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of the  literatures most widely read in American colleges. A very problematic book, but nonetheless, it includes a number of insightful ideas. Let me provide a two minute summary of the novel for those of you who have not read it: the novel is set in the late nineteenth century Congo under Belgian colonial rule.  Marlow, a European man, travels to “the heart of darkness,” to observe that European men on the colonial mission become – subject to capitalist avarice, greed, and an insatiable will to power and domination – become irredeemably corrupt. The novel calls this process of corruption “going native.” In other words, these European men are decent people at home before they set out to Africa, but while they stay in Africa, they turn into bloody monsters. To prove that I am not lying, let me share with you one passage from the novel. The passage is from the opening pages of the novel. Marlow got the job that sends him to the Congo, because the guy who previously had the job got killed and needs a replacement. Below is a story about Marlow’s predecessor:

It appears the Company had received news that one of their captains had been killed in a scuffle with the natives….Fresleven—that was the fellow’s name, a Dane—thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn’t surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs. No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly.  (Emphasis mine)

One of the Joseph Conrad’s insights in his novel is that we can all flip over from sanity to insanity in a split second. Nobody is inherently good or bad. We are mostly sane and nice most of the time, but we have some mean streak inside us.  In unfortunate situations, the mean and violent streak will find its way out. As a result, we can swing from one extreme to the other. (Conrad suggest in the novel that Africa, the space of darkness that lacks civilization, is responsible for taking out the dark sides of European men, and this is exactly where his colonial thinking shines. But this point is rather irrelevant to today’s topic, so I will skip it.)

So, the sentence I want to emphasize in the Conrad quote above is this: Fresleven, the guy who “whacked the old nigger mercilessly,” the guy capable of such violence, was in fact “the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs.” Did you hear something similar to this somewhere else? I did. I heard it about Adam Lanza, the gunman of the Sandy Hook shooting. People who knew Lanza remembered him as “a very quiet kid, a shy kid” and were shocked that the “nice kid was responsible for such horror.” (“Who was Adam Lanza?”  http://gawker.com/5968719/what-was-adam-lanza-actually-like)

I think that if we really want to eliminate gun violence, we should agree with Conrad. People like Adam Lanza are not a separate group from us. We can all become Adam Lanza. When the moms mentioned above say that they want their children to be safe from crazy people, they would like to imagine their children as innocent victims of gun violence only. Sadly, they are not quite right. If they really want a gun-free school, they should admit that their children can become gunmen as well. Instead of saying “crazy people should not own guns,” they should say, “nobody should own guns.”

President Obama once asked, “why do we have a monopoly on gun violence when we don’t have a monopoly on crazy people?”  (http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/10/politics/obama-guns/) Good question. The answer is that we have a monopoly on gun violence, because we are all potentially crazy people and can misuse guns when situations allow it. This is why guns should not be allowed in any circumstance. Guns are dangerous not only in the hands of a small number of crazy people but also in any and every hand. Your hand, my hand, and the hand of that dude on the street. I won’t have a problem getting a gun permit. But I know that if a gun is around, I am going to use it. And I know you are going to use it, too. Remember that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature. Remember that Adam Lanza was a quiet, shy kid. Remember that when we allow gun possession even limitedly and partially, we are basically soliciting and paving the highway to rampant gun violence.

The Barbarism of Perfection

kyung hwa chung

A couple of days ago, I read an interesting article on the Guardian.(http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2014/dec/03/kyung-wha-chung-london-concert-coughing-child?CMP=share_btn_fb) Kyung Wha Chung is a world famous violinist, and she gave a comeback recital in London to break a silence of 12 years caused by an injury in her hand. But in the middle of her performance, she chided the parents of a child who was coughing. According to the Guardian article, the violist said to the parents, “you can bring her back when she is older.

Chung’s statement made headlines in many newspapers, and many criticized her “inappropriate” reaction to the coughing child. The author of the Guardian article, for example, asked, “If, as Chung seems to be suggesting, we reserve the wonders of Bach and Mozart and Prokofiev et al for when we’re older then at what age are you old enough?”

About a week later, Chung posted an article on the Guardian to offer an explanation of her “surprised” reaction. (http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2014/dec/09/kyung-wha-chung-i-have-always-welcomed-children-to-my-concerts)  Below is her answer to the question raised above:

I think it is important that the very youngest children are taken to appropriate events, where they can feel comfortable to move, whisper and react animatedly. The concept of “children’s concerts”, which foster much more relaxed environments in which small children are actively encouraged to engage with music on a physical level, is the perfect example of this.

Reading Chung’s response, I got baffled. Strangely, the whole episode became a debate on “is it okay to take children to classical music concerts? If so, how old is old enough?” This may be an important question to some people, especially parents of young children, but to me, at least, the Guardian author’s questioning of the violinist’s behavior as well as the violinist’s response both seem fail to address a more important question that underlies the tension of the recital day. By this, I am referring to the violinist’s understanding of music.

In her apology piece, Chung makes a lot of excellent points. She confesses the oppressive pressure that a soloist experiences on the night of a recital. I’ve never given a recital, but I can relate to that. She also talks about intense concentration required to perform music. Anyone who plays any sort of musical instrument will know that without focused attention, you gain nothing but a caricature of the piece you’re playing. In addition to these cogent explanations of her experience as a classical musician, she also makes some valid commentary of larger generality. She explains the importance of developing “the art of true listening.” On this blog, I wrote a post on a similar topic (“Let’s Practice Listening,”  https://kimchiforthought.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/lets-practice-listening/), and I wholeheartedly agree with her, when she says, “Learning to listen is a life skill [which] opens us up to a world beyond our everyday experiences and enables us to connect with something transcendental and extraordinary.” I am totally with her, too, when she emphasizes the vitality of music education and the need to introduce children to the magical world of music. However, behind all of these valid statements, I saw an inarticulate but highly problematic premise – that is, classical music is something sacred and unpolluted by everyday concerns and distractions. Something that we put on a pedestal and bow down before. In a word, something unworldly.

Chung, like all other classical musicians, strives for excellence, and I am sure she wanted to perform what she prepared flawlessly. To do so, she had to use the best of her virtuosic skills. However, let’s not forget that her virtuosic skills are not the point of her concert. Why? Because classical music concerts are not a circus. They are not a high end version of America’s Got Talent. Classical music concerts are not about the classical musician’s superb musical techniques. We don’t go to classical music concerts to be inspired by the fast fingering of a violinist or the subtle pedaling of a pianist. We go to classical music concerts and pay attention, because the performer invites us to the process of making meaning. At the beginning of a concert, there is deadening silence. We hear the first sound which breaks the silence, and the performer struggles to create something, some meaning, out of nothing. The performer proposes an idea, explores it, questions it, and discards it, only to reconstruct it later. Strictly speaking, therefore, I think that a classical musician cannot really prepare for a recital. Insofar as s/he considers a recital as an organic process of meaning making, it should happen right there, incorporating and responding to what’s available at that moment. A tree grows at different speeds and in different shapes, responding to the amount of rain and the amount of sunshine it receives. No tree says, “I refuse to grow, because I don’t get the right amount of rain and sunshine that I expect.” I think that Chung was like this tree that night, though.  She seems to have come to her recital, already knowing what she has to say. To her, meaning is like a ready-made product that is already complete in her practice room. The coughing child had to be removed that day because the child was antithetical to the reenactment of the sacred, complete object of music.

I conclude this post by quoting Theodor Adorno. The title of this post “The Barbarism of Perfection” is from his writing. Adorno says what I am trying to say here 1,008 times better.  Darn it!

Perfect, immaculate performance in the latest style preserves the work at the price of its definitive reification. It presents it as already complete from the very first note. The performance sounds like its own phonograph record. The dynamics is so predetermined that there are no longer any tensions at all. The contradictions of the musical material are so inexorably resolved in the moment of sound that it never arrives at the synthesis, the self-production of the work, which reveals the meaning of every Beethoven symphony. What is the point of the symphonic effort when the material on which that effort was to be tested has already been ground up? The protective fixation of the work leads to its destruction,for its unity is realized in precisely that spontaneity which is sacrificed to the fixation. (“On the Fetish-Character in Music”)