by Alvin G. Burstein
The jihadist massacre of Charlie Hebdo staff in response to their publication of a cartoon of Muhammad and the putative hacking by North Korea of Sony Pictures in response to a movie, The Interview, highlight searing questions about a complex of issues including ridicule, freedom of expression, hate speech, et al.
In that context, I decided to see and review the 2014 Sony film. That decision triggered memories of another film, one I had seen as a child, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; because my memories of that film were dim, I watched it again, as well.
What the two movies have in common is their involving caricatures of foreign dictators, Hitler and Mussolini in the Chaplin film, North Korean Kim Jong-un in the Sony film. Both are comedies in that they ridicule their targets, making them the object of our laughter, encouraging us, not to fear them or to hate them, but to look down on them.
There are, however, striking differences between the two. Chaplin not only mocks Hitler and his cohorts, but dramatizes the injustice of anti-Semitism, or more bluntly, Jew hating. The movie centers on three characters, Adeniod Hynkel (caricaturing Hitler), played by Chaplin; Benzeno Napaloni (charicaturing Mussolini), played by Jack Oakie, and a little Jewish barber, a ghetto dweller, who is Hynkel’s look-alike, also played by Chaplin.
The movie ends with the little Jewish barber, managing to masquerade as Hynkel, giving speech in which the pseudo dictator eschews hate and pleads for tolerance and love for all. The Great Dictator is a propaganda piece urging us to be better.
There is none of that in The Interview. For those who haven’t seen it, the story is that of Dave Skylark, a Jerry Springer type of TV interviewer who wangles an invitation to meet with the North Korean dictator, is recruited by the CIA to assassinate the leader, finds himself drawn to Kim as his soul mate, but ultimately becomes disillusioned and kills him.
That film is remarkable for its scatological turn; the audience is lavished with crude references to every level of sexuality: oral, anal and genital. Some might be amused, others repelled, some bored by the excess.
I found myself taken with the psychoanalytic aspects of David and Kim’s mutual attraction. There is a mutual recognition of their having failed to earn their fathers’ approbation, and feeling driven to undo that lack with public adulation.
Kim seduces David with two gifts; an idealized bust of the TV celebrity and, later a puppy to replace a pet David had lost as a child, reminding me of a sign in my veterinarian’s office—I would like to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.
Kim recognizes that David shares his aching need to be admired. Self psychologists argue that one of the anchors of self are self objects who are images of us. The powerful attraction that the two feel for each other lies in their recognition that they mirror each other.
On the other hand, David and his producer Aaron are bound together, but in a different way. They explicitly see each other in Tolkeinian terms. David describes himself as Frodo, and Aaron as his needed Samwise. We are not surprised when Aaron loses a finger protecting David; in Oedipal struggles, someone has to be castrated.
I do not see The Interview as a propaganda film. Unlike The Great Dictator, there is no positive message, little to admire and no one to love. Chaplin’s comedic art that invited us to look down on the little barber, but also to find him, like a puppy, someone loveable. And to listen to his plea for goodness.