So Sony has put the kibosh on “Interview,” the Seth Rogan/Evan Goldberg comedy about bungling American journos attempting to assassinate Kim Jong-un – which, let’s face it, is a lose, lose, lose situation for everyone.
“The bad guys won,” inveterate tweeter Mia Farrow pronounced. But whom is she kidding? No movie theater is going to show a flick that audience members sit through looking over their shoulders – as The Christian Science Monitor shrewdly observes.
Trust me, I know. I went to see “The Dark Knight Rises” with my pal novelist Barbara Nachman shortly after a gunman opened fire at a screening of the movie in a Colorado theater. We spent most of the movie watching every young man who came in or, especially, left and came back. That’s not entertainment.
As with any complex story involving hacking, terrorist threats in a post-9/11 world, freedom of speech and corporate profits, there’s another side to “The Interview” debacle.
What if Rogan and company had simply made the North Korean dictator a fictional character?
Charlie Chaplin did it in “The Great Dictator” (1940), playing both a Jewish everyman through which we see the disastrous circumstances that plunged Europe into two world wars and a certain dictator, one Adenoid Hynkel of Tomainia. Of course, it was Hitler right down to his little moustache. (How any woman ever found him attractive is beyond me.) Of course, it stirred up antifascist sentiments at the time America was not yet in the fight – which was just what Chaplin wanted to do. Still, Chaplin could say, “Any resemblance to persons living or dead,” etc.
Orson Welles got into the same trouble with “Citizen Kane” (1941) – which media mogul William Randolph Hearst, the model for Charles Foster Kane – threatened to destroy. But Welles not only changed Hearst’s name, he created a rich scenario that in the end had only something to do with Hearst. The parts of the film you remember, that made it hum – the snow globe, the childhood winters, the sledding, the haunting whisper of “Rosebud” – that longing for a childhood happiness that faded with the acquisition of power, that wasn’t Hearst. That was all Welles himself. Kane/Hearst was just the metaphoric mirror in which Welles presented himself to us.
And that’s what fiction does, that’s what art does: It takes something that might be otherwise unpalatable and organizes in time and/or space in such a way as to enable us to digest and consider it. You know if you lived next door to the folks in “Hamlet” or “Wuthering Heights,” you’d be putting the “For Sale” sign in your yard. But when you see “Hamlet” onstage or “Wuthering Heights” in the movies, better yet, when you read them on the page, you can’t get enough of them, they’re that good.
The problem is we live in a digital, reality TV age that has no use for fiction, unless it’s “fact-based” and “ripped from the headlines.” When I tell people I’ve written a novel about two tennis players and two swimmers (“Water Music”) and that I’m working on one about a gay, biracial quarterback (“The Penalty for Holding”), their eyes light up. “Who’s it based on?” they ask, mouths watering. When I say it’s based on my imagination, the air goes out of the enthusiasm balloon. Unless it’s real, it’s not good.
But what is real? Or rather what is true? Great art, which has some basis in everyday life, always contains psychological truth. Whereas a reality series in which people enact a version of themselves for the camera may have little psychological truth beyond the desire to be famous.
There is another aspect of this: Fiction is hard work. It requires the exercise of the imagination, something that has been dulled by sitting in front of two many screens.
Nonfiction is hard work, too. It requires a lot more fact-checking than fiction. You can’t just make it up.
With fiction, you can. More important, you should.