It’s a twisty path we thread when we argue that popular culture has an impact in the real world. I believe, firmly, that what we see in movies and on television, what we read in the few books that become mass phenomena these days do shape our assumptions about what is normal and what is real, that we can help build the dream of a more just and inclusive world and work through the nightmares we may be building for ourselves. I do not believe that mass culture makes individual killers pick up guns and build bombs and murder the diplomatic representatives of foreign nations. But that doesn’t mean that popular culture can’t enrage people, that certain narratives and characters can’t become the stones disturbed minds use to sharpen their views of the world, and that movies can’t become a tool by which people ficitonalize themselves.
Oldboy and The Dark Knight Rises are good movies. Innocence of Muslims, the movie that sparked protests in Egypt and Libya, the latter of which ended in the deaths of four Americans, may not even be a real movie at all—BuzzFeed suggests it may be cut together from other footage. If it is, and the trailer is any indication, then it is is a very bad one, abysmally written and acted, with laughable production values, and rotten ideas. Seung-Hui Cho and James Holmes seem to have ruminated over the former in private, though whatever those films meant to them will probably never be really comprehensible to us.
Innocence of Muslims appears to be something even more complicated, a fiction that began with its creators and has spawned further fictions that have, at last, resulted in an international crisis. Sam Bacile, the pseudonym of the man who was initially credited with making the movie, has been up front about his opinions about Islam, telling the Wall Street Journal that Islam is a cancer,” and that “The movie is a political movie. It’s not a religious movie.” Bacile is a familiar type, a person who conflated individual extremists who happen to be Muslims with the entirety of Islam. But it’s unclear who he actually is as a distinct individual—he appears to be neither Israeli, nor a real estate developer, as he’d previously claimed.
It isn’t merely the production of the movie, if it even exists as a full feature, or who actually made it, that’s in question. Initial reports suggested that protests against the film had spiraled out of control, leading to the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and other American diplomatic workers. Now, it seems that the protests may have provided cover for a planned attack, though whether the attackers instigated the protests or took advantage of them remains unclear.
The ideas behind the clip are shameful and ignorant, and the execution of them is a travesty of filmmaking. Bacile, whoever he is, and whoever else may have been involved in the movie’s production, of course have the right to make it, just as those of us who find it unattractive and shoddy have every right to harshly criticize it. But there’s something truly tragic about the fact that the clip, an irrelevant little piece of trash, was presented as a U.S.-government-sponsored provocation, used to spur precisely the kind of division between Americans and Muslims that the film’s producers hoped it would create—Steve Klein, who consulted on the film, told the Associated Press he told Bacile “you’re going to be the next Theo van Gogh.” It’s a sign of intellectually insecurity to need to violently suppress ideas that offend you, particularly when the expression of those ideas comes in a form that will convince no one, that presents no real threat. And the narrative of how the clip came to be viewed as a major provocation is a story it will be as important to untangle as who made it, and how they managed to present it as a legitimate enterprise.