By Alan Scherstuhl
By Mark Holcombe
By Scott Foundas
By Nick Pinkerton
By Michael Atkinson
By Scott Foundas
By Keith Phipps
By Alan Scherstuhl
The Yes Men is a rock 'n' roll moment for the American left, and the left could use a few more rock 'n' roll moments. Made by the team behind American Movie, the documentary follows two affable white guys in their 30s from country to country as they impersonate representatives of the World Trade Organization. They cut their hair short, put on thrift-store suits, and appear at various conferences with Power Point presentations on such topics as why chattel slavery in the U.S. should never have been abolished, why the siesta in Spain is an impediment to free trade, and how selling votes on the internet offers a free-market solution to democracy.
The Yes Men, as they call themselves, are Swiftian satirists for the era of identity theft. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (those can't be their real names) started receiving invitations to trade events in 1999 after they created a parody of the WTO's website, GATT.org, and some mistook it for the real thing. The initial plan was to show up and communicate ideas so outrageous they'd be booed offstage. Instead, the Yes Men's funhouse parody of "free trade" logic found a receptive audience at the international trade law conference in Austria. (A third Yes Man caught the applause on videotape.) When the next invitation came, the group recruited directors Chris Smith, Dan Ollman, and Sarah Price to make a proper movie, and the project grew from there.
The results are even funnier than Ben Stiller's Speedos in Meet the Parents--and there's something of that same slacker-meets-the-ruling class vertigo here. Before Bichlbaum gets into character, he's visibly nervous. He seems younger--and hopelessly out of place. But his blandness is an unstoppable force at the podium: Gandhi, he tells an audience at a textiles conference in Finland, was "a likable, well-meaning fellow who wanted to help his fellow workers along, but did not understand the benefits of open markets and free trade." (Love that fellow workers, by the way.) Within minutes, Bichlbaum has unveiled a gold lamé suit with an inflatable phallus--designed, he says, to administer electric shocks to sweatshop employees.
After this friendly lecture, Bichlbaum is invited to dine with some of the conference bigwigs, and it becomes immediately apparent that no one has caught on to the Yes Men's put-on. "The one criticism they got," says Smith, speaking with me at the Wisconsin Film Festival earlier this year, "was from a woman who said, 'There should be a version of this that isn't so male-gender specific.'"
Later in the film, Bichlbaum addresses a university class in upstate New York and offers the WTO's solution to Third World starvation: recycling human waste into "fresh" hamburgers. (The computer graphics here, designed by another Yes Man, are priceless in a way your little brother would appreciate: Frozen-yogurt-like swirls of turd are mechanically stamped into flat McDonald's patties.) This audience, unlike its more educated counterparts, challenges what it hears. "Have you ever seen starving people?" asks one appalled student. "In pictures, yes," responds Bichlbaum.
Complacence is the butt of The Yes Men's joke. The movie's key stunts are a little like an anti-globalist variation on the 1996 hoax put over by Alan Sokal, a physicist who submitted a nonsensical paper larded with postmodern jargon to Duke University's Social Text, then attacked his editors for publishing it. The Yes Men are more pointed--for the obvious reason that whatever you think of postmodern academics, they don't rule the planet. But Bichlbaum and Bonanno are also more humane: These two are surprisingly nonconfrontational anarchists. Their performance art is more in the time-wasting tradition of Don Novello's fake letters to Nixon as "Lazlo Toth, American" than in the disdainful spirit of the Yippies--whose protest humor echoes through Office Space, Fight Club, Mr. Show, Dilbert, and the work of Michael Moore.
The Yes Men feels like a story first, a protest second. Smith met Ollman at a screening of Smith's first film, American Job, and met Price in film school, so they've all had time to develop a collective filmic sensibility: unobtrusive yet attentive, understated yet timed for helpless laughter. Their movie leaves none of the emotional hangover I felt after Fahrenheit 9/11 or the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, political films that basically tell us we've been deceived and neatly point us to the voting booth. The Yes Men will be relevant after November 2 because complacence is bipartisan and pranks are timeless pop. The movie doesn't even bother making a detailed case about the environmental and labor degradations of WTO policy. The filmmakers bring out Moore for that, and otherwise let the stunts speak for themselves.
In fact, the Yes Men hark back to a protest tradition that precedes the Yippies altogether, one that isn't normally thought of as "hip." Well aware that they were on television, and deeply schooled in the explosive uses of irony, the civil rights movement made the Democratic consensus supporting segregation in the South seem suddenly absurd as well as evil. I mention this because, prior to the Yes Men, no fair-trade advocate had done the same for the consensus that binds neoliberal policy.
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