Dirs.: Jennifer Abbott &
NR, 145 min.
Opening Friday at the Belcourt
In the movie-market sweepstakes, I usually root for the independent local Belcourt over its chain competitors, with whom it wages a no-blood-no-foul fistfight for films every week of the year. But I wish Regal Cinemas were showing the new documentary The Corporation instead of the Belcourt for one basic reason: Fanta.
Before every movie that plays at Regal, there's this ad for Fanta orange soda with an irresistibly catchy jingle, delivered by a quartet of eye-popping babes swimming in candy-colored psychedelia. "Wanta Fanta!" they chantit's a demand, not a questionwhile they entice a man from his sickbed and take over various public spaces. It's loud, brassy and largely irresistible, made even more so by a kind of flattering conspiratorial irony about the aggressiveness of its commercial come-on. "You're smart enough to see how dumb this is," the ad coos. "Show people you get it. Buy Fanta."
The picture of Fanta that emerges from The Corporation is less rosy. In 1940, the Coca-Cola Companybased in America, God bless itwas having a hard time getting its syrup into Nazi Germany because of wartime restrictions. Faster than you can say, "Achtung, baby!" the company's overseas affiliate created an orange drink that didn't require the formula. The plants in Germany could operate under Nazi rule while funneling the profits back home.
Had a viewer seen The Corporation at Regal, he could have chosen his own emblematic mental image of Fanta. On the one hand: hot babes and carefree fun. On the other: jackbooted thugs packing inmates into ovens, washing away that pesky Zyklon B with the great taste of Fanta. Of course, Coke would rather the first choice be the only one, because a corporation never wants to be seen as uncaring. Or even, this enraging and persuasive documentary argues, as a corporation at all.
Made for Canadian television, The Corporation is part of an encouraging recent phenomenon: activist documentaries that have tapped into an unusually large audience, largely out of frustration with gutless broadcast media. Like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Outfoxed, it has benefited from shrewd guerrilla marketing, promoted by word of mouth through organized e-mail and Web site recruitment. Like those essay films, it also offers a mixture of reporting, analysis and cultural free associationthe coinage "blogumentary" is aptthat defies accepted notions of what a documentary is supposed to be.
But unlike its blog-doc brethren, The Corporation is harder to dismiss. A wide-ranging attack on the insidious influence that corporations exert over every facet of contemporary life, it isn't focused to the exclusion of all else on one entity (like Outfoxed) or one politician (like Fahrenheit 9/11). Instead of blasting one partisan target, it challenges an entire system that cheapens life, poisons the environment, pollutes public space and treats people as cattle. If anything, the movie subtly laments that issues of importance to any Americanclean air, safe food, healthhave been marginalized or diverted to the left.
The modern-day corporate entity, as examined in Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's film, resembles a corrupt Pinocchio: it wants the look and the rights of a real boy, but the legal culpability of a log. In 1888, a railroad company petitioned the Supreme Court to be legally considered a person. The argument was founded upon a perversion of the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment meant to protect newly freed slaves, but the Court held that it gave corporations the same insuppressible right to pursue "life, liberty or property." By doing so, it shielded individuals within the corporation from personal liability and moral responsibility. Hundreds of corporations followed suit, filing to become "people." The puppet became flesh; the puppeteers got rich.
The Corporation argues that the ensuing multinational conglomerates have become the world's real governments, and their unchecked self-interest overrides any other doctrine. "In devastation there is opportunity," says a commodities trader who describes how the gold market made a killing on Sept. 11. And yet the corporations want to establish themselves and their brands in the public eye as personality extensions. So they spend billions to plaster logos on every public surface. They sponsor "nag studies" to teach kids how to annoy their parents more effectively for goodies. They hire flack firms like the good folks at Burson-Marsteller, whose job is to paint happy faces on the gargoyles at Union Carbide and Philip Morris. It is important to look like a caring corporate citizen, if not to actually be one.
So if the corporation is a person, what kind of person is it? In a masterstroke, directors Achbar and Abbott and writer Joel Bakan subject the corporate entity to the World Health Organization's personality test for detecting mental illness. It's a gambit that not only grounds their argument but gives shape to what could have been an overwhelming sprawl of ideas. After going through an entire checklist of symptomsdeceitfulness, incapacity for guilt, reckless disregard for the safety of othersthe filmmakers arrive at a diagnosis: we're dealing with a psychopath.
To build its case, The Corporation scrolls through a century of corporate megalomania, serving up a sobering seminar in history as pathology. In this history, U.S. industrialists plot to overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt and quash the New Deal, while IBM helpfully supplies the Nazis with computer punch cards to promote a more efficient Final Solution. The filmmakers illustrate their lesson with newsreel clips and educational films, and time has turned these artifacts of privatized devastation into the sickest of sick jokes. In a segment on the biotech behemoth Monsantomaker of killer pesticides and would-be owner of the world's DNAwe see Japanese detainees getting a playful dusting of DDT while a narrator chortles, "The laugh's on them!"
What keeps The Corporation invigorating rather than numbing, over the course of two-and-a-half hours, is its balance of incendiary ideas and a coolly detached tone. The danger with activist docs is that their fervor can turn into artless venting; the one-note outrage of Outfoxed wore me out after only an hour. The Corporation, too, has a segment on FOX News: an account of how FOX higher-ups gutted an investigative piece on Monsanto's use of bovine growth hormones. But the segment's methodical, dispassionate layoutthe explanation of the hormones' dangers, the 83 reviews and revisions demanded by FOX lawyers (e.g., replace "cancer" with "human health implications"), the eventual lawsuit brought by the straitjacketed reportershits all the harder for being so levelheaded. When FOX eventually gets off the hook, aided by inexplicable amicus briefs from fellow news corporateers (including Gannett), nobody has to prompt a viewer's fury.
These are not partisan issues, and neither is the stranglehold of corporate interests on the individual, the society and the environment. FOX News and Village Voice Media have exactly the same agenda: money. "Liberal" and "conservative" have as little bearing in this climate as Christianity and Islam would in a world ruled by computers. The most infuriating parts of The Corporation are the most up-front about profit as the world's prevailing orthodoxy. It's one thing to hear usual suspects like rent-a-leftie Noam Chomsky (the subject of Abbott and Achbar's previous film Manufacturing Consent) decry the corporate model's amorality in the abstract. It's far more damning to hear a glib corporate shill, "undercover marketer" Jonathon Ressler, compare the gullible public to a "roach motel." Or to see a $178 Liz Claiborne jacket outsourced to El Salvador, to a worker who makes it for 74 cents. Or to hear that milk tainted with pus and antibiotics is knowingly sold to the public. All these details add up to a systematic worsening of life, no matter who's in the White House. Presidents come and go; Monsanto is forever.
Which makes The Corporation one of those dangerous movies that strip away some tranquilizing filter from the world, leaving us to rub our eyes in angry disbelief. On Saturday, The New York Times reported that in April the Bush administration quietly issued a regulation that would restrict the public release of some data on unsafe vehicles. The reason? Such information might cause "substantial competitive harm"i.e., a car company might lose sales if buyers knew their SUV was a rolling time bomb.
Surely this led the evening newscasts, right? Not during the Olympics, that battleground for competing endorsements. The Corporation will not put an end to such outragesand neither will the November election, whoever wins. See how many Democrats took handouts from tobacco companies over the past century, even as they were publicly grandstanding about accountability. But at least the movie exposes the globe-threatening creep of the bottom line in a way that could unite rather than divide viewers. This invaluable documentary shows that no matter what our political leanings, the invisible hands of the market are everywhereincluding around our throats.
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