Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ding Dong, Kim Jong Il is Dead

On Sunday I glimpsed, by chance, a televised airing of The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West, perverse and dangerous, was terrorizing the Munchkins, not to mention Dorothy and her friends. Monday morning I read in the L.A. Times about the death of Kim Jong Il. Though glorified by the North Korean propaganda machine as the people’s “Dear Leader,” Kim too was both hated and feared by the subjects over whom he ruled with an iron fist. The Wicked Witch may have had her secret sorrows (hey, it’s not easy being green!), but she dealt with them by gleefully inflicting torment on those beneath her. From what we know about Kim’s repressive regime, he wasn’t so very different. Extremely short, unattractive, and by all reports desperate for love from the despot father (Kim Il Sung) who preceded him in office, he literally starved his people while personally enjoying sumptuous gourmet meals. He also locked his countrymen up by the thousands while he himself gallivanted through life, enjoying romantic flings and hobnobbing with celebrities. And, most seriously as far as the world is concerned, he spent the bulk of his nation’s limited resources on developing a nuclear bomb, a far more dangerous prize than the ruby slippers.

Wouldn’t you know it? Kim Jong Il was a movie buff. That puts him in the same camp with other totalitarian leaders determined to mold their people’s outlook through the motion picture medium. When cinema was still a young art form, Stalin used the work of Sergei Eisenstein and other brilliant filmmakers to build support for Marxist ideology within the Soviet Union. And Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels enlisted filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to rally the Germany people to the Nazi cause. Her Triumph of the Will (1935) masterfully made Hitler into a larger-than-life hero. Kim Jong Il apparently hoped for some of the same movie magic. He even wrote a book on the subject, espousing the idea that movies and other “revolutionary art” could inspire a nation. In 1979 he went so far as to kidnap a prominent South Korean actress and her director husband, forcing them to work in the North Korean film industry for eight years, until they managed to escape.

Though Kim Jong Il maintained a personal library of 20,000 movies, including many American classics, the average North Korean could be sent to prison for watching U.S.-made films. It’s clear that Kim realized how powerful movies can be in showing a repressed people what the wider world looks like. I’ve run across countless stories about individuals in faraway lands whose lives were forever shaped by what they learned through American movies. The movies taught them about personal choice, and about the right to pursue one’s dreams. And Hollywood movies also showed them a lifestyle that a poor North Korean or South African or Eastern European couldn’t hope to emulate. For the price of a ticket, movies provided far more food for thought than Kim Jong Il could ever permit his countrymen to taste. And so he kept his movie collection -- his treasured copies of The Godfather and Gone With the Wind -- to himself.

Today’s headlines remind me of the dangerous power vacuum now left by Kim’s death. And photos of grieving North Koreans send me back to John Donne’s timeless message that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Still it’s hard to feel sad that the Wicked Witch of the East has now gone where the goblins go . . . below, below, below. Yoho!


  1. His publicity machine has also has him as the author of 1,600 books (or was that 16,000?), and the inventor of the microwave oven, amongst many other things.

    But yeah, I can totally see him with a film library numbering into the tens of thousands. His son's supposed to be well into the fight genre...

  2. I'm waiting for word about a new movie from North Korea: "The Dear Leader Arrives in Heaven"

  3. If I were a religious person, I'd say he's no doubt in good company and anything but "Ronery" where he is right now!

  4. It's hard to say something nice - and you know what Thumper's mom said...