It’s part of my job as a magazine editor to sometimes field submissions from writers who grievously erred in choosing journalism as their careers—people who don’t just produce sub-standard work, but whose work is an insult to the profession. It’s important (a mechanism of self-preservation, really) to realize that the proper response to such writing is quick and total dismissal.
Such thoughts came to mind as I began to consider “The Innocence of the Muslims.” It has quickly gained currency as a controversial film, but some part of the controversy should have subsided every time someone watched it. As the 14-minute YouTube trailer unfurls, it becomes impossible to suppress the realization that it hardly qualifies as a film at all. Yes, it has all the rudiments of a movie; sets, actors, a “message.” But the maker of the movie can’t get out of his own way long enough to deliver that message. How do you want to insult Islam, if you can’t even dub properly?
To clarify, I’m not simply referring to the laughable post-production work, in which the references to Islam and the insults against it—the gratuitous taunts against Mohammad as a buffoon and a charlatan and a sex-obsessed pedophile—were clumsily plastered atop existing footage. “The Innocence of the Muslims” is almost sublime in the way that it includes not a single artistically redeemable aspect at all. The directing is atrocious. (The number of people in any given scene often changes without warning.) The sets are uniformly terrible. (Blue screens of the desert!) The editing induces headaches. (The execution-by-camel scene is particularly confusing.) Some of the actors have since claimed their unwitting participation in the film, apologizing for its existence. But what I wanted is an apology for their acting, their blank eyes and strained line readings.
Rather than soliciting outrage, the movie actually elicits a kind of poignancy. The participants’ unceasing demonstration of their own incompetence sheds light on the underbelly of an American industry. Some of the actors who appeared in this movie must have read the casting call and thought of it as the potential end to an extended bad streak. And for every execrable actor who appears in this movie, there was perhaps another who was rejected at audition. The mind boggles.
The principal maker of the movie, whoever he is, seems to have had a different goal in mind than fame, or an additional line on his resume. He was after martyrdom. But it is a martyrdom that he in no way has earned. Of course, the protesters in Egypt, and Libya, and now Yemen, and perhaps soon elsewhere, seem inclined to give it to him anyway. But if “The Innocence of the Muslims” is worthy only of dismissal, what really needs attending to, and what really merits condemnation, are the critical powers of those committing violence in its name.