Saturday, August 05, 2006

Picked Flick #43: The Corporation

As delightful and hopeful as it has been to observe the popular renaissance of nonfiction film within the mainstream market during these last five years, I've been worried by the trends of self-righteously simplified rhetoric and of over-reliance on arbitrary stock footage (e.g., random bombs while we hear about the Cold War, random Arabs while we hear about Bush family interests in Saudi Arabia). I keep my fingers crossed that more documentarians will show the stamina to live alongside and observe their subjects in real time, as in the superb Love & Diane, instead of building retroactive jigsaws from available archive materials; and that more filmmakers will trust that your subject doesn't need to be explicitly political in order to yield major intimations about social structures and hierarchies, like Spellbound did; or, best of all, that historically and politically premised documentaries will harvest meaty, substantial connections between past and present circumstances, without always prescribing the responses of their audience.

This kind of haughty, anti-intellectual approach is most thrillingly avoided in the tantalizing and fact-soaked film The Corporation, an emblem of leftist cinema at its most honest and effective. Indeed, The Corporation does a magisterial job of raising all sorts of urgent alarms about the traumatic effects of modern capitalism, without privileging reductive cant over concise, illustrated argumentation, and without preaching only to the pre-converted. The premise of the film's opening sequences is sublimely simple, but unexpectedly imposing: that is, to define what a corporation is, exactly—one professor at the Harvard Business School abashedly realizes that nobody has ever quite put this query to him before—and then to sketch the conceptual contours and legal entitlements that don't just allow but require corporations to maximize profits without any ethical qualms or qualifications. From here, the movie hurtles into its second conceit, aligning the hard-wired behaviors of corporations with the basic symptoms of diagnosed psychopaths, and then through a roulette wheel of eloquent case histories. Many of these, like the extended pièce de résistance about how FoxNews quashed their own story about America's contaminated milk supply, achieve the expected goal of arraigning white-collar pirates and amoral dollar-chasers, but the detail and power in the arguments are more supple and lifelike than one usually finds in films of this type. Plus, the pirates often furnish their own swords on which to fall. Wall Street trader Carlton Brown admits that he and every other trader he knows spent September 11, 2001, gleefully selling gold to the highest bidders and relishing the market's good fortune, quite literally. Lucy Hughes, a chirpy vice-president from Initiative Media, tips her hand about how she abets toy manufacturers and other clients to brainwash children into demanding their products. "Is it ethical? I don't know," Lucy admits, but it's the job she has to do, and she does it well. Chris Komisarjevsky, a corporate spin doctor whom some Orwellian neologist has rechristened a "perception manager," describes his job as though the corporations themselves—rather than, say, impoverished laborers or lampooned environmentalists or snookered consumers or corraled protesters or, in one especially vile anecdote, Bolivian citizens who were taxed by Bechtel for the privilege of drinking their own river and rain water—were the victims of an enormously sentimentalized marginality. "I help corporations have a voice," Komisarjevsky testifies, "and I help corporations share their point of view about how they feel about things." Though we almost never hear the interviewers' prompts, it takes a seasoned and careful approach to draw out motivations and rationalizations from such a broad spectrum of CEOs, activists, traders, historians, professors, consultants, and spies. Furthermore, these accounts always refine our sense of how capitalism operates, from its skyscraper summits through its middle management to its immiserated workers: the full canvas of the movie is richer and more important than the local shocks, cheers, or hisses occasioned by any given detail.

Even more to the filmmakers' credit, they film all of their interview subjects before the same black background, in the same light, so that we must actually listen and ruminate on our own behalves in order to assess the value of each person's perspective. If we have trouble discerning whether Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, ex-CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, is an unexpected voice of reason or a miscreant in heavy denial, or whether Roy Anderson, CEO of Interface Carpet, is an epiphanic convert to geo-friendly policy or a canny soothsayer bending to the shape of a new market, the film offers no editorialized clues to sway us one way or the other. Some of the factual assertions are sobering and intractable, and you walk away edified, as from an especially potent lecture: who among us realized that, in practice, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution didn't so much enfranchise former slaves, as per its stated intention, as it enfranchised corporations with newfound permission to own property, engulf other businesses, perpetuate themselves indefinitely, and assert the same rights as living citizens? Other material in The Corporation is energizing and practical, like the rising success rates of anti-corporate agricultural crusades in India, and the concatenation of websites and NGO referrals that conclude the movie. The movie's moral barometer is sensitive, and its funny bone is lively. Sure, some of the stock footage feels like empty accompaniment to voice-over accounts, but the film's overall graphic conception is smart and elucidating: one particular motif, resembling a maze or spreadsheet of problematic corporate practices, is a terse, purposefully overstuffed reminder of how effulgent and multifaceted the problems of corporate capitalism really are. The Corporation knowingly bites off more than it can chew, but it still chews on more than most films even bite off, and it is persuasively grounded in our world's complex reality, without drying up into a husk of scholastic finger-wagging. It's the Lord of the Rings of modern documentaries: epic, vivid, wise, well-paced, expansive. It's the kind of movie that makes you want to do more with your life. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 2003, 2004 Big Picture Media Corporation/Zeitgeist Films.

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