Saturday, May 30, 2009
Saturday Night At The Movies
SIFFting through cinema, Pt. 1
By Dennis Hartley
The 2009 Seattle International Film Festival is in full swing, so for the next several weeks I wanted to take you along (especially since you helped make it possible for me, ahem).
Navigating a film festival is no easy task, even for a dedicated buff. This year’s SIFF is screening 392 features over 25 days. It must be great for independently wealthy slackers, but for those of us who work for a living (*cough*), it’s a bit tough finding the time and energy it would take to catch 15.68 films a day (yes, I did the math). I do take consolation from my observation that the ratio of less-than-stellar (too many) to quality films (too few) at a film festival differs little from any Friday night crapshoot at the multiplex. The trick lies in developing a sixth sense for which titles feel like they would be up your alley (in my case, embracing my OCD and channeling it like a cinematic divining rod.)
Some of the films I will be spotlighting will hopefully be “coming to a theatre near you” soon; there may be a few that will only be accessible via DVD. So let’s go SIFFting!
Live bait: The Yes Men chum for corporate sharks
What do you get when you throw Roger & Meand The Sting into a blender? Probably something along the lines of The Yes Men Fix the World. An alternately harrowing and hilarious documentary featuring anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, this is a more focused follow up to their ballsy but uneven debut, The Yes Men. In that 2003 film, they established a simple yet amazingly effective Trojan Horse formula that garnered the duo invitations to key business conferences and TV appearances as “WTO spokesmen”. Once lulling their marks into a comfort zone, they would then proceed to cause well-deserved public embarrassment for some evil corporate bastards, whilst exposing the dark side of global free trade. (Most amazingly, they have managed not to suffer “brake failure” on a mountain road, if you know what I’m saying).
In this outing, Bichlbaum, Bonanno and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a takedown of a very powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world. Of course, there is not much our dynamic duo can do at this point to take the man himself down (as the forlorn expressions on their faces during a visit to his gravesite would indicate); but the Idea survives, as do those who would “drink the Kool-Aid”. And thus, the fun begins.
Perhaps “fun” isn’t quite the appropriate term, but there are definitely hijinx afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: they want to smoke out some corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. I know that “corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one still has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds.
Case in point: the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant mishap exposed 500,000 people (200,000 of them children) to a toxic gas. Between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths occurred within 3 days. Since then, an estimated additional 25,000 Bhopal residents have since died from complications due to exposure. Union Carbide eventually paid an insurance settlement to the Indian government of 470 million dollars in 1989 (it sounds like a lot of loot…until you split it 500,000 ways). To add insult to injury, Union Carbide pulled up stakes (read: fled the scene of the crime) without ever cleaning up the site; to this day residents are drinking groundwater leached by toxins.
In 2004, BBC News did a special report on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, which included an appearance by a spokesman for Dow Chemical (the corporation that had just recently acquired Union Carbide at the time of the broadcast). The spokesman, a Mr. “Jude Finisterra” made an astounding, headline-grabbing announcement: In an effort to truly atone for the Bhopal incident, Dow Chemical was going to invest a tidy sum of 12 billion dollars to clean up the area and compensate the victims. For several hours, all hell broke loose; Dow stockholders panicked and dumped over 2 billion dollars worth of stock in record time. To anyone with a soul, it was too good to be true-corporate criminals coming clean on live TV, in front of 300 million viewers? There’s hope for humanity! Well, not exactly. “Jude Finisterra” was really a member of our intrepid duo.
But the point was made; in fact, the real beauty of the ruse didn’t come into full flower until the Yes Men were “exposed”. When the “real” Dow Chemical spokespeople jumped into the fray to denounce the prank, they only made themselves look more ridiculous (and culpable) by essentially saying “Obviously, we would not commit such a large amount of money in this manner (i.e. of course we would never publicly take responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people).” The most distressing thing on display is how quickly the MSM jumps in to toe the corporate line; in the case of the Dow sting (and later in the film, when they pose as HUD spokesmen, announcing that the government agency will provide housing for all the Katrina victims it had originally displaced in order to clear the way for redevelopment by private sector contractors) the newspapers and TV news anchors condemn the “cruel hoax” that gave “false hopes” to the victims of Bhopal and Katrina, respectively. When the concerned Yes Men travel to Bhopal to personally apologize to the residents for their “cruelty”, they are greeted with open arms; one Bhopal victim tells them that even though he was admittedly disappointed, he was, for an hour or so, “in Heaven”. By the end of the film, the Yes Men may not actually “fix the world”, but they certainly succeed in giving it hope with their sense of compassion and infectious optimism. And for an hour or so, I was in Heaven.
Previous posts with related themes:
There Will Be Blood
We Live in Public: Marshall McLuhan is spinning.
So, how many “internet pioneers” were there, anyway? All jokes about Al Gore “inventing” the web aside, it seems like every time you turn around, yet someone else (usually someone you’ve never heard of) gets credited for being “the” visionary who put “us” where “we” are today (wherever the hell that is, in a virtual sense). Take the naked guy in the photo above, for instance. His name is Josh Harris. He’s an internet pioneer. Ever hear of him? God knows, I hadn’t, until I screened a fascinating new documentary called We Live in Public. The film represents a 10-year labor of love for director Ondi Timoner (DiG!!). Depending on who you ask, her subject is either an unheralded genius, or he’s a complete loon who got lucky during the dot com boom (he’s a bit of both). By 1999, Harris had built a personal fortune of 80 million dollars by cannily presaging the explosion of online social networking. In less than ten years, he was completely broke and had expatriated himself to Ethiopia (um, yes, there is most definitely a story in between, and the resulting profile plays like a cross between Weird Science and 54).
What separates Harris from the rest of the typically nerdy, pocket-protected web entrepreneurs is his self-styled persona as an “artist” (he apparently was referred to by some as the “Warhol of the Web”). He considered his “art” to be his life (and the lives of others), as filtered, documented and shared through the matrix of digital technology.
In December of 1999, Harris bankrolled a “social experiment” that could have been cooked up by Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Jones on an ether binge. Harris narrowed down scores of applicants to 100 “subjects” who would cohabitate in a bunker-like underground environment for 30 days. Each person had to consent to having a CCTV camera exclusively trained on them 24/7. Everybody also had their own monitor, and access to “flipping channels” to watch what any of the other 99 people were doing at any given time (showers and toilets were communal, and there were no bedroom doors, to answer the most obvious question). The complex was generously stockpiled with all manner of food, beverages…and guns (to be used in a firing range, so people could “blow off steam”). Each person was housed in a “sleeping pod”. Harris hired psychologists, who would methodically grill residents in stark interrogation rooms. It was fun and games for the first couple weeks, but things quickly went downhill when people started losing their sense of reality. When New York City law enforcement caught wind of these (literally) underground shenanigans, they pictured a possible Heaven’s Gate-type cult scenario, and Harris’ “experiment” was abruptly shut down on January 1, 2000. Orwellian implications aside, the idea itself was prescient; especially when you consider the current popularity of personal webcam internet sites and the glut of TV reality shows.
Harris soon took the concept to the next level when he wired up every room in his home with cameras and launched the “We Live in Public” website with his girlfriend, enabling any one with an internet connection to peek in on their daily life (with absolutely no holes barred). By the time Harris pulled the plug six months later, his girlfriend had left him, daily hits were down to a handful, and he appeared to be in the middle of a mental meltdown (watching the footage of Harris moping about, I was reminded of Charles Foster Kane’s waning days, listlessly pacing the sad empty halls of his Xanadu mansion).
From a purely cinematic standpoint, Timoner has assembled an absorbing and stylishly kinetic portrait; but curiously, her subject remains somewhat of an enigma by the film’s end. Is he truly a “pioneer”, or is he just a glorified exhibitionist? What did he “pave the way” for, ultimately-Katie Couric’s televised colonoscopy? Is there such a thing as “too much information” in the Information Age? Does EVERYBODY necessarily need their “15 minutes”? If so,why? IS the medium the message? And while I’ve got your attention, have you seen this video of my kitty with a bag stuck on his head? Oh, kitty!
Somebody’s watching me: The Truman Show, EdTV , Guy, Pleasantville, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Being There, Network , Real Life, Sherman's March, Time Indefinite , Six o’clock News, sex, lies, and videotape, Following, Manhunter, Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog, Peeping Tom, Rear Window, Blow Up, Auto Focus, The Anderson Tapes, The Conversation, Monsieur Hire, The Lives of Others, 1984, Brazil, Enemy of the State, THX 1138, The End of Violence, Until the End of the World .
Dennis Hartley 5/30/2009 06:30:00 PM