Destroy All Monsters: It's Time To Get Over "The Truth"
This is not a political column, nor does it have any ambitions to become one; but I admit that it's been difficult (as a Toronto-local pop culture writer) to find anything in the sphere to talk about this week that hasn't been drowned out by the monstrous (and surprisingly pop cultural) noise coming from our City Hall. This week also falls in the gully between two of the fall's biggest Hollywood releases, Thor: The Dark World and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. All is quiet at the box office. What am I going to write about, The Best Man Holiday?
Since this is not a political column, let us for the sake of argument declare that it's credibly demonstrable that Rob Ford frequently lies; but then, it's credibly demonstrable that global warming is happening, and look where that's gotten us. My point is only that as a person living amidst the day-to-day evidence that CNN's latest media personality fibs nine times out of ten, on camera, and without much question or challenge by his interlocutors, I can't help but spend my time thinking about the place of "truth" in the media marketplace - or its total lack, and replacement by something else.
Which, for reasons best left to the sorts of snacks I eat before bedtime, somehow leads my brain to think about the Snowpiercer controversy. As regular Twitch readers know, Bong Joon-Ho's latest is a science fiction thriller that earned raves overseas in its original, director's-cut version; and will be arriving Stateside in a version which may have been heavily edited by the industrial guru of such things, Harvey Weinstein.
Some clarifications on these points are made in James' excellent interview with Bong, which you can read here on Twitch. Among them, the simple statement, by Bong, that the conversation on the Snowpiercer edits is ongoing, and that the "original," Asian version of the film tested better in an American market than the edited, "Weinstein" version.
In the sorts of circles I run in, "Harvey Scissorhands" or the sort of worldview he represents is a kind of long-standing bogeyman, who has crawled out of whatever basement he inhabits to rob us of various cinematic masterpieces by way of his/its unceasing interest in cutting out the good bits - usually to achieve a more concise running time, at the expense of (one imagines) the motion picture's soul.
This is probably why initial word of the Snowpiercer edits raised such online ire, on this site and elsewhere. In Pierce's original piece covering the news item (with its admittedly inflammatory title, "Harvey Weinstein Thinks You Are Too Dumb For Snowpiercer"), the comments ranged from the negative to the profoundly negative.
To wit: "A year of my life hotly anticipating this, more than any other film, and Harvey fucking Weinstein has to step in with his pot of gold and shit all over everything that is good and pure in this world. I don't know what I'm saying, I'm just disgusted to the core of my being right now."
And: "Just for that motherfukking Scissorhands, I will wait for it for it on the DVD Import. He just lost my $$$ in the theater for his shrewdness. F**ker thinks we are really dumb to appreciate the auteurs from around the world. Who died and made him Pharoah?!?!?!"
And of course, the inevitable, ignorant conflation of editing a movie with sexual assault: "He's been butchering and raping asian cinema for more than 20 years already."
Is there a "true" version of Snowpiercer? Of course not. There's a version that Bong Joon-Ho declared final, but even he would likely make certain arbitrary (or not-arbitrary) changes at a later date, given perspective and a fresh set of eyes, because that's pretty much human nature. (This is why Ridley Scott continues to vex the known universe with things like his twenty-years-later "final cut" of Alien, which is - sorry to say - a sharper and more interesting cut than the original, in my opinion.)
But more to my point, is there a "true" version of what's happened with Snowpiercer? Again, probably not. Bong's own words on the subject indicate that our initial take on the controversy was altogether too simplistic, easily filing it within a known context of Weinstein's behaviour and then venting our collective internet spleens on the man for taking away Bong's masterpiece. Beyond this, there's the flexible and fluid nature of how all movies are marketed and finalized; and the unseen (and often unconsidered) reality that there are quantities of money at work behind these decisions far exceeding anything the vast majority of us will see in our lifetimes. If I had a poker chip worth $40 million, I probably wouldn't be too quick to gamble it, either.
Further versions of the "truth:" having not had the opportunity to compare them, why is the fan community's instantaneous assumption always that the big studio chief's version is inferior to the director's?
Well - if I may tenuously tie this round to my opening paragraphs - for the same reason that a person like Rob Ford can lie openly on national television, and not have it matter much. "Truth," whether it exists or not, is not an element of any of these conversations any more; something else is.
It's what I'd call "interest," but you're welcome to name it however you please. It's the more essential characteristic of media personalities and enterprises these days; it's what Nielsen ratings don't track (or didn't until recently), but Twitter does. It can be identified by a simple test, which has nothing to do with the "truth" of anything: but ask simply, "whose side are you on?" If you can reduce the element down to a dependable "us vs. them" scenario and then declare your allegiance, you've found "interest."
Interest is more appealing than truth because it doesn't require anyone to invite truth's annoying older brother, accountability, to the party. Truth can't exist without accountability; a politician can't (or shouldn't be able to) stand up on television and misrepresent himself without some sort of repercussion, and a studio chief can't (or shouldn't be able to) release a shoddier, shorter version of a film without the box office retaliating. Except they do, and nothing happens, because interest has taken over.
(Interesting, upcoming case in point: everyone who identifies as Team I Hate Ben Affleck is going to have to decide whether they're also on Team There's A Batman Movie I Haven't Seen. I suspect the accountability of all the "this is the worst Batman they could possibly get" sentiment will dissolve under the rain of "new Batman movie, cool!" interest in the summer of 2015.)
When Michael Moore was releasing films like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, it was identified as the "preaching to the choir" factor, which basically holds that it's lovely to write a lengthy and well-researched essay about why your team feels the way it does, but it's not going to do anything but confirm what your team already thinks, while never treading into the headspace of the opposing team to change their viewpoints. Because they aren't interested in it.
Interest is appealing because it's so much easier to manage on a mental level than any sort of interrogative thought about whether what one is being fed is true or not. It's exhausting to keep questioning, all the time, whether something is representative of one's values, whether one's values revolve around municipal politics or the sanctity of Asian cinema (or both). Much easier to just pick a side and go with it, and mentally send Rob Ford and Harvey Weinstein into the sun together on a rocket made of crack cocaine and rusty scissors. Because they're the enemy - and our team hates enemies, right?
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.