Sony Pictures has chosen to pull its planned debut of the movie “The Interview” in the face of threats of a terrorist attack at theaters showing the movie and after the North Korean regime apparently hacked into Sony’s internal computers, unearthing unseemly emails. The movie depicted a plot to assassinate the leader of North Korea.
I do not pretend to know anything about how cyber warfare works, or how it can be prevented. But, the hysteria this episode has unleashed – with impassioned cries for artistic freedom and dark fears of moviegoers shot in the dark – seems devoid of any serious perspective. I will grant that censorship has rarely been deployed in such an extravagant fashion, but the concern is not new and the stakes are less stark than many imagine.
It takes a lot to offend my sensibilities, so I did not flinch when the ads for “The Interview” began airing and the key elements of the plot were divulged. I do not fantasize about the assassination of anybody, but fantasies come in many flavors. And, it struck me as refreshing that someone, anyone, recognized that humor had something to tell us about the North Korean regime. No one should be indifferent to the sufferings of the North Korean people, but there is something, well, laughable about talking heads and experts trying to discern what the North Korean regime will do next when there is more than a little craziness at work in Pyongyang, and it is not easy to know what crazy people will do next. Still, you do not need to be a brain surgeon to have anticipated that they would be upset by a movie in which their leader is killed.
Censorship is born of a natural, even humane source, the desire to protect our own from influences that will harm them. This moral concern often, and quickly, becomes quite coarse. And, it always, with equal speed, comes into conflict with another moral concern, the desire of others not to be circumscribed in their freedom of expression. These two moralities collide and the debate over censorship is ignited.
Catholics of a certain generation will be familiar with these issues if they are old enough to remember the Legion of Decency, founded in 1934, to render moral judgment on movies. Catholics across the country were encouraged to sign the Legion’s pledge not to go to movies the Legion condemned. The pledge was signed in duplicate, with the parishioner keeping one copy and the pastor the other. Hollywood, trying to pushback against government censorship, welcomed the involvement of the Catholic Church. Church leaders testified before Congress in opposition to government proposals for censorship, fearing that Protestant concerns would always trump Catholic ones in any governmental system of review, and the movie producers submitted scripts and final versions to Joseph Breen, a Catholic layman who was chosen to head the Production Code Administration. The rules were simple: bad guys had to lose in the end, no gratuitous sex, and passion could never be used “to stimulate the lower and baser elements,” as the Code read.
Breen was powerful. The post-coital scene between Rhett and Scarlett in “Gone with the Wind” was cut if half. The 1937 film “You Can’t Have Everything” starred Gypsy Rose Lee, but concerned that her burlesque reputation would taint the industry, Breen demanded, and Twentieth –Century Fox agreed, to advertise the star by her given name, Louise Hovick. Breen rejected Howard Hughes’ 1943 film “The Outlaw,” because too much of Jane Russell’s bosom was displayed. Hughes appealed the decision, and brought a mathematician to the appeals board review to demonstrate that no more of Ms. Russell’s bosom was shown than had been on view in other, approved films. The review board approved the film, but the Legion condemned it, and Hughes withdrew it. Feeling like he wanted to challenge the Legion’s prudishness, the film was released three years later with an ad campaign built on the controversy: “Not a scene cut!” the ads read. “What are the TWO reasons for Jane’s rise to stardom?” The movie, a rather mediocre affair, was a hit, but the ad campaign violated the industry’s advertising code, and the PCA withdrew it approval. 85 percent of movie theaters declined to show the flick. Hughes, after unsuccessfully trying to bribe a cleric, made further adjustments, and the film was finally approved and re-released in 1949, six years after it was finished.
We look back at the Legion of Decency and Joe Breen and can easily side with their critics: Their desire for an idealized depiction of human reality was not very realistic. But, realism is not the only criterion for cinematic genius. True, few nuns look like Ingrid Bergman. But, Thor and Superman did not return to earth a few years back either. The concerns of the Legion may have been prudish and even silly but they are no more arbitrary to the creation of art than are the on-going financial concerns of a film’s underwriters. Hollywood is a business, not an art school. There is something a little cloying about the protests about “artistic freedom” from the Hollywood set. I would note, too, that in this litigious society of ours, there are all sorts of producers who alter their products, who engage in self-censorship, on account of extrinsic concerns.
I am concerned about the apparent ease with which the North Korean regime infiltrated Sony’s computer systems. If they could infiltrate, say, the traffic signal systems in New York City, they would cause real harm. The Department of Defense’s computers contain the potential for grave harm if the wrong modems get hooked up to them. All sorts of trade secrets in industry and diplomatic secrets in government are best not seen by the public. We pay a large price for our open society: It exposes us to such interventions by malevolent people and regimes. But, it is that same openness that, ultimately, leads me to think “The Interview” will someday be playing at a theater near you. And, like Jane Russell in “The Outlaw,” I am sure the advertisers will make as much hay as possible out of this controversy. But, artistic freedom is not jeopardized forever by Sony’s decision to pull the film anymore than it is jeopardized everyday by concerns about the bottom line. Relax everyone and hope that our cyber warriors will prove themselves as capable as the North Koreans. There are graver dangers in this episode than not seeing a movie.