Last night, Michelle
Obama presented the award for best picture at the Oscars. She said
all the usual inspirational stuff about movies making us laugh and cry and teaching
us something important about the human spirit. In Hollywood’s America, it doesn't matter what
you look like (wink, wink - race), where you come from (wink, wink -
immigration), or who you love (wink, wink - gay marriage), if you believe in
yourself, you can make your dreams come true. We all know it’s bullshit, and yet… hey, it’s
But wait a second! Isn't Michelle Obama the First Lady of the United States? The wife of the President? And who are those smiling white people standing behind her in military pomp and little bow ties? Is she actually speaking from the White House? Presenting an entertainment award? I know that's kind of weird, and yet... she looks great! Her bangs are a little heavy, but it works.
Have you seen this movie? I haven’t. I’ve only seen the trailer. Did this stuff really happen? Well, sort of.
Here’s a Canadian perspective on the film:
In the film, Mr. Affleck takes several liberties with history, big and small. In an interview from New York, where he has lived for years, Mr. Taylor said one of his main concerns is that the movie gives the false impression that that extrication of the Americans was an operation run entirely by the C.I.A. in which he and other Canadian diplomats simply followed orders.“I don’t want to be hard on Tony Mendez,” Mr. Taylor said. “I want to give him all the credit I can. But at the same time I’m a Canadian and enough is enough.”
And a British perspective:
By concentrating on the daring CIA-backed mission to rescue the diplomats, it puts a positive spin on an event that is still widely regarded as a US foreign policy disaster.
But Argo has faced criticism for its alleged historical inaccuracies and for claiming that British and New Zealand officials initially turned away the US refugees.
"My immediate reaction on hearing about this was one of outrage," said Sir John Graham, Britain's then ambassador to Iran. "I have since simmered down, but am still very distressed that the film-makers should have got it so wrong."
And a former hostage’s perspective:
Barry Rosen, another former hostage, had a different perspective. He said the crisis, from November 1979 to January 1981, was no more than “a point of departure” for the movie, which he called a version of “Mission: Impossible.” Mr. Rosen, who has begun work on a documentary himself, added, “If people use this to understand the hostage crisis, then they know nothing about the hostage crisis.”
In any case, Mr. Affleck said the escape made a good story, and so did the C.I.A.’s ruse, that the six were Canadians scouting locations for a movie. As retold in “Argo,” the C.I.A. set up a fake movie company as part of the cover story given to Iranian officials. And a movie about a movie, or even a fake movie, is an easy sell, Mr. Affleck said.
“Maybe it speaks to the narcissism of Hollywood,” he said.
And an Iranian perspective:
Minor mistakes aside, the film takes a black and white view towards Iranians, like many other western films about Iran. It portrays them as ugly, poor, strictly religious, fanatical and ignorant – almost in line with the young revolutionaries behind the hostage-taking at the US embassy in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, which the film is about. The only nice Iranian in the film is the Canadian ambassador's maid.
The whole experience is like asking an Iranian who has never been to the US to make a film (let's say in Cuba) about the Columbine high school massacre. You'll probably end up watching a film in which all Americans are crazy, have a gun at home and are ready to shoot their classmates.
And an official Iranian response:
Director Ataollah Salmanian told the Iranian news agency MNA that he was working on a film to be called The General Staff, and which "should be an appropriate response to the ahistoric film Argo". Ever since its premiere in the US in October 2012, Argo has been viewed with disfavour by the Iranian establishment, and Salmanian hopes to secure funding from the Art Bureau wing of the Islamic Ideology Dissemination Organisation.
So what really happened? What happened during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, what happened when Ben Affleck made this film, and what the hell happened last night when Michelle Obama presented this award?
I have no idea. My brain is still exploding from the initial shock of discovering (on facebook, of all places) that Michelle Obama made an appearance on the Oscars. But I think that Zizek’s account of the structure of fetishistic disavowal could be helpful here. The fetishist says: “I know well, but nonetheless ... /I believe/”
"I know very well that this person is a corrupt weakling, but I nonetheless treat him as if /I believe that/ the symbolic big Other speaks through him": I disavow what my eyes tell me and choose to believe the symbolic fiction. On the contrary, in the case of the simulacrum of virtual reality, "I know very well that what I see is an illusion generated by digital machinery, but I nonetheless accept to immerse myself in it, to behave as if I believe it." Here, I disavow what my (symbolic) knowledge tells me and choose to believe my eyes only...
In order to grapple with ideology in a critical way, we have to interrupt both what we see and what we know - both the spectacle as it presents itself (the self-congratulation of Hollywood, and of America more generally, through Michelle Obama’s Oscar-worthy performance) and the belief that we can discover the truth of history – or of anything – if we just do the research in a neutral, objective way.
We have to interrogate the structure of our desire, the interplay between what we want to know and don’t want to know, and the implications of our fetishistic disavowal. What becomes visible when Michelle Obama takes the stage? What becomes invisible? Whose desires and knowledges are invested with power? And how high is the body count?