September 18, 2012

The Art of Defamation

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You may feel sad, disappointed or even angry, but certainly not surprised. If this past summer proved to us how stupidly common rampage shootings have become, the past week reminded us yet again of the long-running, fatal clash between Western free speech and fundamental Islam’s problem with it. As of press time, the surge of revolt sweeping the Middle East, Africa and even Australia has broadened to express a deeper distrust in America and its foreign policy. But the media agrees that the catalyst for these attacks is the movie trailer — by one “Sam Bacile” (whose real name is in dispute) — referred to by various titles such as Muhammad Movie, The Real Life of Muhammad and Innocence of Muslims.

This trailer is why we can’t have nice things. When our armed service men and women die for our freedoms, our resulting liberty should not be twisted to make vile and asinine garbage like this. There was nothing wrong in America’s Cairo Embassy condemning the work of this — to use an Internet term — ‘troll.’ Now, we know of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that took the life of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The reportedly organized assault used protests against the “film” as a smokescreen. Naturally, certain politicians are blaming others for the tragic incident.

But this is an Arts column, and you aren’t here to read about politics. Let us look at this video (“film” has an artistic connotation). Bacile has a deep-seated hatred of Islam and a desire to defame it, which he fails to do through any semblance of satire or logical argument. Of course, his attempt has achieved its goal, likely by casting the lead actor as the prophet Muhammad and depicting him as a womanizing, pedophilic and homosexual buffoon. Let those three adjectives stir around in your head for a bit.

The 14-minute production throws mud at the wall and does not wait to check if any of it sticks. Egyptian Muslims burn the houses of Egyptian Christians. They kill a beautiful woman, so they are irrevocably evil. Flashback. Muhammad fights over a beef shank with a child. Muhammad lusts over little girls. Muhammad talks to a donkey. Some reference about how the Qur’an is a collection of  “false verses,” mixing the Torah and New Testament. All lines are delivered seriously without any apparent subtext or ulterior motive. Besides amateur sound mixing, continuity errors and one-dimensional green screen so bad it makes The Room look like Avatar, the video’s gravest technical problem — out-of-sync voiceover dubbing — extends to its most dire moral offense: All references to “Muhammad” and “Islam” are not even spoken by the actors. Many of these struggling actors now fear for their lives. Oh, and did I mention the video was apparently directed by a ’70s softcore porn director? The whole thing is so bad that no one looks good in the end.

What we are left with is the modern and very ironic phenomenon known as the “Streisand effect” — decrying something public (i.e. photo, website, film), only to widely publicize it through said protest. If Hollywood signed George Clooney and Brad Pitt to lead a Christopher Nolan-directed anti-Islamic film, then we might have a big problem. Instead, what these violent protests amount to is giving a vulgar bathroom door doodle the new judge seat on American Idol and all of its international variants.

The hateful propaganda made over the last 100 years that we still remember has some — crazy as it may sound — artistic value. D.W. Griffith’s racist ode to Confederate America, The Birth of a Nation, pioneered battlefield cinematography and parallel editing. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, documenting the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and glorifying Hitler and the Nazi party, implemented innovative aerial shots. Watch them today, and you may find yourself bored to tears. Film historians and theorists, however, admire the far-reaching technical influence of these films to this day. Just six months ago we had Kony 2012 (six months ago!). While not a hateful film — as much I disagree with it — it is certainly an attractive example of propaganda for the digital age.

I hope it is not a sign of the times that this year’s grossest misuse of art is, by all but the loosest definitions, not art at all. Perhaps there is a silver lining here — for all the shouting matches political correctness has stirred, the days of Joseph Goebbels approaching a visionary director like Fritz Lang to make anti-Semitic films are long gone (Lang, himself a Jew, said “no,” by the way). Instead, we just have to deal with this Muhammad Movie excrement.

Salman Rushdie, target of a still-standing fatwa by the Iranian Shah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1988, made it easy for the intellectuals to come to his defense, for his beautiful novel The Satanic Verses was the instigator. Youth and adults with a functional sense of humor similarly rallied around South Park when it stumbled into these crosshairs in 2010. Right now, we must stand for the freedom of speech and prohibition of violence. The pen is mightier than the sword, even when it’s millions of swords against one of those pens you find on the floor of a bathroom stall.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos