Manufacturing Dissent

'The Corporation' creates a market for itself

Now that Michael Moore is a certified box-office giant, one imagines that in some executive suite in Hollywood, a corpulent mogul is chomping a cigar and barking the following orders into a speakerphone: "Get me a commie documentary, goddamn it, and on the double! I want Roger Moore or whatever that fat guy's name is. I want Harvard professors. I want starving kids, bombs bursting in air, hints of conspiracy, all that shit. And see if you can't work in a cameo for Spider-Man."

As Moore--Michael Moore--notes in The Corporation, a documentary by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, capitalism encourages dissent in more ways than one. In a capitalist system, as you've perhaps noticed, there is injustice and exploitation, which naturally breeds pockets of anticapitalist sentiment and might create a market for antiestablishment songs and books and T-shirts and motion pictures. And if the people will pay money to see activist, anticapitalist movies, and if capitalism is functioning in a country with political freedom, corporate producers will sell activist, anticapitalist movies to the people. (Leftist product, of course, isn't typically all that fertile, financially speaking. Then again, capitalism is also good at creating a minority of rich people, a tiny few of whom--Friedrich Engels, for instance--will finance unprofitable rabble-rousing.)

The give-the-people-what-they-want scenario described above follows the demand-creates-supply model. But sometimes, as this owner of one melon baller and 13 or so pairs of shoes knows all too well, supply can create demand--or at least demand can be manufactured. Perhaps then, corporate consolidation, environmental destruction, and unimaginably grim worker exploitation in the Third World is really just an elaborate, long-term ad campaign that's finally starting to pay off at the box office.

Psycho seller, qu'est-ce que c'est?: 'The Corporation'
Zeitgeist Films
Psycho seller, qu'est-ce que c'est?: 'The Corporation'

I'm kidding. The point, however, is that capitalism--let's hone in on the corporation, since that's what this film is about--isn't concerned with the substance of what it sells. The corporation, like evolution and other abstractions, is amoral in and of itself; the individuals that compose it supply the morality. (What I like about this movie--and there is much that I like, much that I don't like--is that it asks us to think about the sort of things that are so big, so pervasive, so seemingly inevitable and immutable, that we tend not to bother discussing them at all.) But corporations are both collections of individuals and individuals themselves--in that a corporation, as the word suggests, is a legal person with the same rights as an actual, corporeal person. Drawing from Joel Bakan's book The Corporation, Achbar and Abbott use this legal definition to ask what kind of person a corporation is. Citing environmental destruction and worker exploitation and ethical malfeasance far beyond the common "few bad apples" apology of recent years, the film concludes that corporations fit the characteristics of a psychopath as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They exhibit reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness, lawlessness, incapacity to experience guilt, and so on.

It's a trenchant and, yes, funny thesis, but one that would be more effective if the film presented it more as satire than as truth. After all, one could focus on other products of the corporate economy--standard-of-living increases in the West, corporate philanthropy, the existence of upstanding corporations such as City Pages Media, Inc., and our benevolent father Village Voice Media, Inc., who together will be giving me a hefty raise as recompense for calling them "upstanding" and "benevolent"--to assert a much different psychological profile of the corporation. Thanks to narrator Mikela Mikael's automaton delivery and the film's use of ominous music and sinister images, the corporate-psycho bit feels more than a little sophistic and hysterical--to the point of trivializing the film's very real and righteous concerns.

This movie resembles what I know about corporate board meetings in that it's very long, and in that its 145 minutes feel like...I don't know, 305. During its sprawling middle section, The Corporation runs through a series of chapters about various corporate abuses, stains, and dangers. There's a fascinating story about how Fox News killed an investigative report on the dangers of bovine growth hormones, and an examination of the involvement of U.S. corporations in Nazi Germany, and lots of other stuff. In one sitting, it can get a bit exhausting, but the piling on of bad news is quite effective in that it makes the movie's last act, a genuinely inspiring and even optimistic argument for activism, all the more moving.

In that last act, there are tales of successful activism, small democratic victories, and the real possibility of change. Most inspiring perhaps is the story of Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer. In 1994, Anderson was asked to give a speech about environmentally sound business, and he didn't have much to say on the subject. To prepare, he read Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce, and had an epiphany. "I realized that I was a plunderer," he says, and he resolved to transform his business according to the principles of sustainable production and small environmental footprints. And to a large extent he's succeeding, without loss to profits. In Anderson's interviews for the movie and in a clip from a lecture at a corporate seminar, Anderson talks both like a Jeremiah and a wide-eyed dreamer, and his passion is as infectious as his warnings are stirring.

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