26 December 2014

‘The Interview’ is not ‘The Great Dictator’
… but is it worth watching?

Patrick Comerford

Last night I watched the most talked about and most controversial movie of this season, The Interview. Today I read that The Interview is top of YouTube’s “Popular Right Now chart” after being released online on Christmas Eve through four digital channels, Google Play, SeeTheInterview.com, Xbox Video, and YouTube Movies.

From its opening in the US in small and independent cinemas across the US, The Interview may have taken in $1 million on Christmas Day alone, according to both Variety and Deadline. Even then, the digital earnings for the movie were almost certainly hurt by widespread piracy.

The action-comedy directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen begins with “what-if” question: What if tomorrow North Korea provide it has nuclear missiles that can destroy the US from in an attack across the Pacific?

It goes on to tell the story of a bumbling television show presenter Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his geeky producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), who run the low-market celebrity talk show Skylark Tonight.

When they learn the North Korean dictator is a surprise fan of the show, they land the interview they hope is going to gain them a reputation as credible journalists. But they are recruited by the CIA to turn their visit to Pyongyang into a mission to assassinate Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).

Rapoport travels to rural China to arrange the promised interview and to receive instructions from North Korean officials.

CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) devises a plan to assassinate Kim by using a transdermal strip to expose Kim to ricin with a deadly handshake. When Dave and Aaron arrive in North Korea, a military officer discovers the strip in a pack of gum and chews it. Agent Lacey sends two more strips in an aerial drop and instructs Aaron to retrieve them.

Kim and Dave spend the day together bonding over their mean fathers, their secret love of Katy Perry, and partying their faces off with drink, cannabis and naked women. They become good friends, and Kim presents Dave with a small dog.

At a state dinner, however, the officer who has been exposed to ricin has a seizure, and in his dying pains he inadvertently shoots and kills a fellow officer. Dave feels guilty and discards a ricin strip the next day. He then thwarts Aaron’s attempt to poison Kim himself. At another dinner, Kim’s true, destructive and deceitful character comes out and Dave is terrified, and also finds the grocery shop he extolled earlier is in truth a façade.

Meanwhile, Aaron and a North Korean spook, Sook (Diana Bang), find they are sexually attracted to each other. In the midst of their tryst, she confesses she despises Kim and apologises for her role in the regime’s propaganda.

During the televised interview, Dave digresses from the agreed questions and raises increasingly sensitive topics. He cites Kim's need for his father’s approval and sings Katy Perry’s song ‘Firework.’ Kim cries and soils himself, debunking the propaganda line that he is above human bodily functions. No-one in North Korea is ever going to accept a flatulent Katy Perry fan seriously as the Dear Leader.

You might expect the move to end with Kim in prison, but instead it turns to a gratuitous yet unbelievable sequence of violence. A fight breaks out between outraged members of the broadcast team and the military. Kim shoots Dave in the chest in a fit of anger, but Dave survives, thanks to a bulletproof vest. He, Aaron and Sook escape in a tank, with Kim pursuing them in a helicopter. Kim is killed in a disturbing scene that is presented in slow motion as his face is distorted by a tank shell exploding and melting into fire and eventually ripping him apart.

Sook guides Dave and Aaron to a tunnel where they escape to South Korea, while she stays behind to lead the coup d’état that results in democratic elections.

The movie includes cameo appearances by Eminem, Rob Lowe, Bill Maher, Nicki Minaj, Emma Stone, Zac Efron, Guy Fieri and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Despite all the debates leading up to the release of The Interview, I found the movie is not so much a shrewd political satire as a coarse and vulgar move that often goes over the top. The best performances are not by James Franco and Seth Rogen but by Randall Park and Diana Bang.

This movie is like an updated episode of the 1960s spy comedy series, Get Smart, but like most of the episodes of Get Smart or The Man from Uncle, the plot is threadbare. It is laced with too many puerile jokes and lapses into racist stereotyping. After all the controversy this film has created, I found myself on the verge of being underwhelmed.

I have a limited tolerance for anal penetration jokes and infantile preoccupation with body parts. But if you have seen shocking comedies in the past, then there is not much left to be shocked by in this movie.

And yet The Interview raises questions about whether the assassination of one leader would bring about regime change and end the North Korean nuclear threat. The problems in North Korea are deeper than one person. Apart from North Korea’s nuclear capacity, military threats and cyber-bullying. These problems include famine, food distribution and food supply, human rights, with many people in prison camps.

This is unapologetic in advocating assassination as a legitimate political weapon. It explicitly endorses killing a political figure, without any irony. But it also proffers severe criticism of a regime that no-one would want to defend.

On the other hand, Kim gets in a few lines about how the US embargo has dramatically worsened the famine in North Korea, and in criticism of US torture of suspects and detainees, although he never actually names Guantanamo. And there are a few lines about the continuing prevalence of anti-Semitism … although even then I wondered whether this was a cheap shot aimed at making me draw subliminal comparisons with The Great Dictator.

Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between the controversy created by The Interview and the controversy generated by Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses and other politically controversial movies and books. But while The Satanic Verses may have, arguably, been a contender for being a work of literature, The Interview might have died a quick death without this controversy.

Yet The Interview is a welcome satire about the way the US media manipulates people than it is a comment on North Korean politics. This is a story of how political debates have been reduced to entertainment debates in the US, and The Interview describes much of what is wrong with the way US corporate media and politics affect the world.

Some of the best jokes are about how US television reports on domestic and international politics. This is a parody that pokes fun not only at one of the world’s most dangerous dictators, but also at US television. As Dave says, the first rule of American journalism is to give the people what they want.

I found myself asking last night whether the same movie be made about, for example, Saudi Arabia? I can imagine no US movie-maker would ever dare to make a film about a fictional attempt to murder the King of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are a key ally of the US in the Middle East, and crucial to the stability of oil supplies and therefore to the global economy. Yet human rights are virtually non-existent in Saudi Arabia, there is no religious or political freedom, and, Saudi Arabia plays an integral role in the expansion of Islamic extremism, assisting the financial operations of IS in Iraq and Syria and providing its ideological underpinning. It was Saudi Arabia too that provided the political and ideological training for most of the 9/11 bombers.

North Korea’s attempt to remove or censor this film has had the unintended consequence of giving even greater attention to its problems. Freedom of expression includes criticism of politicians in your own society, but also politicians in other societies.

This movie is worth watching if only to say No to cruel dictatorships. It is not going to stand the test of time in the same way as Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. Who today remembers Death of a Princess, the British 1980 drama-documentary about a young Saudi princess and her lover who had been publicly executed? Yet its depiction of life in Saudi Arabia led many governments to oppose its broadcast, under threat of damaging trade ramifications.

I have stepped across the border from South Korea at Panmunjom and stepped briefly into North Korea in 1997 in one of the huts kept open for the talks that never seem to get anywhere. If we are going to deal with cruel dictators and regimes, then assassination is not the answer, but satire certainly helps. We need more movies to expose great dictators and cruel regimes. They are not going to bring them down, but they may help us to ask why many regimes are propped up by the West or Russia, and why only a few are singled out as figures of hate and targets for parody.

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (2):
‘Good King Wenceslas’

Deep and crisp and even ... Lichfield Cathedral in the snow a few years ago ... Thomas Helmore was a priest-vicar here in the 1840s (Photograph © John Godley)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflection for this Christmas season, I am looking at an appropriate Christmas carol or hymn each morning.‘Good King Wenceslas’ is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a king braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant “on the Feast of Stephen” (26 December), the day after Christmas Day.

During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king's footprints, step for step, through the deep snow.

The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I,or Vaclav I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935), part of the present-day Czech Republic. However, Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia but never a king. Immediately after his death, he was considered a martyr and a saint, and within a few decades four biographies of him were in circulation. These biographies influenced mediaeval concepts of the rex justus or righteous king, so that he was revered as “the father of all the wretched.”

Several centuries later, following his example, Pope Pius II walked 10 miles barefoot in the ice and snow as an act of pious thanksgiving.

In 1853, the English hymn-writer the Revd John Mason Neale and his music editor, the Revd Thomas Helmore, collaborated in wring the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas,’ which first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide (1853).

Helmore set the lyrics to a tune based on a 13th-century spring carol Tempus adest floridum (“The time is near for flowering”), first published in 1582 in Piae Cantiones, a Finnish song collection of 74 songs compiled by Jaakko Suomalainen, the headmaster of Turku Cathedral School.

Around 1853, GJR Gordon, the British ambassador in Stockholm, gave a rare copy of Piae Cantiones to Neale, who was then the Warden of Sackville College, East Grinstead, Sussex, and who was well-known for his interest in early music. Neale in turn passed the book on to Helmore, then the Vice-Principal of Saint Mark’s College, Chelsea, who was known as an expert in the interpretation of the mensural notation in which the tunes were written.

Neale translated the texts into English, or in a few cases wrote completely new texts. Together, Neale and Helmore published 12 of the tunes that year as Carols for Christmastide (1853), and a dozen more the following year as Carols for Eastertide (1854).

The Christmas set included ‘Christ was born on Christmas Day’ from Resonet in laudibus, ‘Good Christian men, rejoice’ from In dulci jubilo and Good King Wenceslas as completely new words for the spring carol Tempus adest floridum.

Helmore immediately went on to publish a more substantial collection, The Hymnal Noted, where the texts were mostly Neale’s translations from the Latin.

However, the text of today’s carol, which is usually attributed to Neale, bears no semblance to the words of Tempus adest floridum, which was a Spring carol and had no associations with either winter or Christmas. Some critics say Neale may have written the words some years earlier, since he repeated the legend of Saint Wenceslas in his Deeds of Faith (1849). Some Czech sources say Neale’s lyrics are a translation of a poem by the Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda.

In the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), the editors, Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw , were critical of this carol, describing it as one of Neale’s “less happy pieces.” It has been dismissed as “ponderous moral doggerel” and as “poor and commonplace to the last degree,” and these three editors hoped that “Good King Wenceslas” would “gradually pass into disuse.”

This carol is not included in either the New English Hymnal or the Irish Church Hymnal, partly, perhaps, because the editors agreed with Dearmer, Smith, Vaughan Williams and other critics; and partly, I imagine, because this carol makes no mention of Christ, despite the fact that in provides an exemplary model of discipleship.

Nonetheless, this remains a well-loved and popular carol at this time of the year, and it is included in many other collections, including: Carols for Christmas-tide: The Condensed Vocal Parts (London: Novello, 1854), HR Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old (London: Novello, Ewer & Co, 1871); Collected Hymns, Sequences and Carols of John Mason Neale (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914), Dearmer, Williams and Shaw (eds), The Oxford Book of Carols (1928); Eric Routley, University Carol Book (1961); Ehret and Evans, The International Book of Christmas Carols (1963); Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (1965), Willcocks & Rutter, 100 Carols For Choirs (1987), Keyte and Parrott, The New Oxford Book of Carols (1992); Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols (1999); and Clancy and Studwell, Best-Loved Christmas Carols (2000).

Trudging through the snow in Dam Street, Lichfield, some years ago (Photograph: BBC)

Perhap, the question to ask may be whether John Mason Neale ever wrote ‘Good King Wenceslas.’ The true author may have been Neale’s collaborator, Thomas Helmore. Together, Helmore and Neale wrote other popular carols, including in ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ (1853). But the inspiration for the lyrics for ‘Good King Wenceslas’ may have come to Thomas Helmore first after he trudged through 93 miles of snow, bravely and alone, from London to Stratford one Christmas.

Helmore was born on 7 May 1811, the son of the Revd Thomas Helmore, an Anglican priest who left the Church of England the previous year to become minister of an independent chapel in Kidderminster in 1810. The Helmore family moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1821.

After training in London, the younger Thomas took up a position in the 1830s as choirmaster and organist at Holy Trinity Church, the parish church where William Shakespeare was baptised and where he is buried.

Helmore formed a choir that rivalled those in many cathedrals. But he upset some of his father’s friends when he enticed some members of Rother Street Congregational Church (now the United Reform Church), where his father had been minister, to join the choir at Holy Trinity. He was also the founder and first conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon Choral Society. But despite his successes, he eventually decided to seek ordination in the Church of England, when he went up to Oxford in 1837, the school his father had founded closed.

After graduating BA at Oxford University in 1840, Helmore became the curate at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, and a priest-vicar in Lichfield Cathedral. He spent two years in Lichfield until 1842, when he became vice-principal of Saint Mark’s College, Chelsea, the first Choral Training College in England, training teachers and choir leaders for the Church of England.

His main responsibility at Saint Mark’s was traiingn students to sing a daily unaccompanied choral service in the college chapel. With his attention, the choir’s repertoire came to include anthems by Gibbons and Byrd and motets by Palestrina, Vittoria and Marenzio.

The principal of Saint Mark’s College was Derwent Coleridge, a son of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and in 1844 Helmore married Kate Pridham, Derwent Coleridge’s sister-in-law.

In Anglican musical circles at this time, there was a growing interest in plainsong. The 16th-century Booke of Common Praier Noted of John Merbecke was republished in 1844. In the same year, Helmore’s friend the artist William Dyce (1806-1864) published his Book of Common Prayer with Plain Song. Soon Helmore had determined to become involved in this research and to contribute to it.

In 1845, he proceeded MA at Oxford, and in the following year, he became Precentor of Saint Mark’s College. In 1846, as a result of his growing reputation as a choirmaster, he succeeded William Hawes as Master of the Choristers of the Chapel Royal, Saint James’s, where he was admitted one of the priests-in-ordinary in 1847.

One of his early pupils in the Chapel Royal, Saint James’s, was the young Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), the son of an Irish-born bandmaster and later to achieve fame in the partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan.

In 1849, Helmore completed The Psalter Noted, the first of a series of similar works.

The Revd Thomas Helmore ... for two years he was a curate in Lichfield. Is he the true author of ‘Good King Wenceslas’?

Helmore was involved with Neale in the Ecclesiological Society, founded as the Cambridge Camden Society and dedicated to the revival of the ancient liturgical practices of the Church of England. He wrote the music for three of Neale’s translations in Hymns of the Eastern Church (1862): ‘Peace, it is I,’ ‘The Day is Past and Over,’ and ‘’Tis the Day of Resurrection.’

In 1872, he was appointed Rector of Beverstone, Gloucestershire. But he resigned from the parish immediately after his appointment, and remained at Saint Mark’s until his retirement.

Helmore’s interest in plainsong led him to make several visits in 1875 and later to the Abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland, where he worked on an ancient manuscript supposed to be an accurate copy of a book on Gregorian chant written by Saint Gregory the Great.

His Primer of Plainsong (1877) later came to be regarded as the standard work on the subject. He retired from Saint Mark’s that year. He died at his home in Saint George’s Square, Pimlico, on 6 July 1890, and was buried in Brompton Cemetery.

Good King Wenceslas look’d out by John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore

Good King Wenceslas look’d out,
On the Feast of Stephen;
When the snow lay round about,
Deep, and crisp, and even:
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither page and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence.
Underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes' fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pine-logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament,
And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know now how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page;
Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Alternative last four lines by the author:

Wherefore, Christian people, know,
Who my lay are hearing,
He who cheers another’s woe
Shall himself find cheering.

The notes in Bramley and Stainer (1871) indicate that the chorus sings the first and fifth verses. In the second verse, the first four lines are a tenor solo and the last four lines are a treble solo. In the third verse, the first four lines are a tenor solo and the last four lines are sung by the chorus. In the fourth verse, the first four lines are a treble solo and the last four lines are a tenor solo.

Tomorrow: A Hymn for Christmas and Saint John’s Day’, by John Alcock.