February has arrived and Tony Abbott is still our leader. Depending on how the next week goes, we’ll possibly be stuck with him for two more long years. While he may be doing a decent job of orchestrating his own political demise, we can still speed him on his way with laughter and scorn, and by dreaming up other demises.
Last year was big for fictional assassinations. Hilary Mantel imagined the demise of another reprehensible leader in her short story, ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983’. Seth Rogen & co gained notoriety with The Interview, which depicts the assassination of the even more reprehensible Kim Jong-un. Both invite their audiences to laugh at the leader, and the whole fantastic, transgressive premise of the assassination.
Mantel’s story is based on an actual experience – in 1983 she saw Thatcher from the window of her Windsor flat. She claims, however, not to identify with the story’s narrator, or with the assassin that turns up at the narrator’s flat and ensconces himself at a window, waiting for Thatcher to appear. Still, Mantel pours her critiques of Thatcher into the words of her narrator and binds her anger into the figure of the assassin. The result reads at times like Mantel settling the score with an old nemesis. The final line, spoken by the assassin, spits Thatcher’s own words (quoted at the start of the story) back at her: ‘“Rejoice,” he says. “Fucking rejoice.”’
Published the year after Thatcher died (in the non-fictional sense), Mantel’s story politely avoids wishing death on the living. It also narrates only up until the crucial moment: the rifle shot and implied death are not described. Nevertheless, the story provoked outrage. A member of Thatcher’s cabinet who was injured during an actual assassination attempt called the piece a ‘a sick book from a sick mind’.
For a sick revenge fantasy, Mantel’s story is a restrained and funny affair. Thatcher appears only in the final moments of the narrative. The bulk of the story takes the form of a conversation between narrator and assassin – figures from very different political and social circles, united by a deep dislike of Thatcher and by the opportune sightlines of the narrator’s flat. Mantel’s satire zeroes in on the easily flustered narrator, whose clever political quips and critiques appear weightless before the blunt assertiveness of the assassin. While the assassin methodically prepares his rifle, the narrator is mortified to realise that she hasn’t offered him sugar with his tea. The main fantasy here is not of revenge, but one in which a genteel, educated person becomes complicit in a bold, violent act of great historical significance.
The Interview spares none of the gory details that Mantel leaves out. The film lingers, in slow motion, over the final furious moments of Kim Jong-un, as his helicopter explodes in mid-air. Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean poet laureate turned defector, argues that such irreverence can have a destabilising effect on the cult of personality surrounding Kim. It should come as little surprise, then, that Pyongyang allegedly responded so aggressively to the film. Other critics were more outraged by the film’s brand of humour (as if there was anything really surprising there).
Beyond the dull background hum of dick jokes, gay jokes, Asian jokes, things-going-into-or-coming-out-of-bums jokes, The Interview offers a decent send-up of the absurd political machinations of both North Korea and America. The film is funniest when it emphasises the dystopian, stranger-than-fiction qualities of the North Korean state. After one of his minders dies, Kim breaks down in dramatic tears. One by one, everyone else in the room follows his example, including Rogen’s credulous character. The scene evokes the official footage of people mourning former leader Kim Jong-il: faces distraught, arms flailing, feet rooted firmly to the spot. Desperate emotion, but never a step out of line.
The film’s story centres on a CIA plot to poison Kim, but this is not the way in which he eventually dies. The biggest surprise of the film is that it rejects such an approach to outside intervention with the line, ‘How many times can the US make the same mistake?’
Kim is still killed, but not to maintain global US hegemony. Rather, his death is depicted as a matter of necessity and survival – not because he possesses nuclear weapons, but because he is seconds from launching them in a fit of rage and revenge (he’s also trying to kill James Franco). The film is as much a critique of arrogant American interventionism as a critique of an arrogant and reprehensible leader.
These fictional assassinations are not intended as bleak fantasies of violence and revenge. Both seek to disrupt the aura of authority surrounding some reprehensible leader, and to do so through laughter, through absurdity and irreverence. Neither the deaths nor the leaders are taken seriously.
So now, let us imagine Abbott trotting down to the beach in a brand new pair of speedos. He reaches the sand, and looks out over the boiling waves, finding them more than usually thick with industrial effluent and the carcasses of extinct species. Coal dust lies in lazy scrawls along the shore.
Determined as he is to take a quick morning dip, imagine Abbott wandering along the curve of the coast. There are no lifeguards anymore; they’ve all taken second, third and fourth jobs to keep up with their college loan repayments. As he strolls, Abbott wonders why more students don’t just get scholarships to pay for their education.
Imagine his surprise as several men charge him – possibly shirtfront him – knocking him to the sand. They bellow something about private beaches. They bundle him into an armoured truck, the name of some international ‘services’ firm emblazoned along the side.
And then imagine him dumped behind a fence, on a patch of muddy ground, the air thick with humidity and droning insects. He is taunted with threats of violence, his protestations met with confinement in an isolation cell.
Now leave him there, wondering if he will ever see his beloved beach again. He can decide for himself whether or not this counts as bloody murder.