B>The most intellectually compelling of the rash of politically oriented documentaries that have graced local screens this year, The Corporation isn't as emotionally devastating as Fahrenheit 9/11, but it illuminates an issue that predates George W. Bush and will plague us long after he's gone. This Canadian film is also unlike Fahrenheit in that its concerns are more likely to connect across ideological divides. One can imagine economic populists in the conservative movement being as persuaded by the film's central argument as the progressives most likely to see the film.
The Corporation begins with the premise that the titular institution is the dominant one of our time, all-pervasive in a manner that the monarchy, the church, or the Communist Party have been at other times and in other places. In examining the nature, evolution, and impact of the modern corporation, The Corporation rejects the "few bad apples" argument that has been used to explain away recent corporate scandals. Instead, it seeks out a better metaphor to explain the crimes of these institutions.
This metaphor is based on the corporation's status as a "legal person," which the film traces back to arguments growing out of the 14th Amendment, which was meant to guarantee the rights of former slaves but which, the film illustrates, has been used by opportunistic attorneys to acquire individual rights for corporate entities.
What is most ingenious about The Corporation is that, instead of merely railing against this reality, it takes the "legal person" status and uses it against its subject. The film asks: If the corporation is a person, what kind of person is it?
This defamiliarizing strategy is novel and effective. Utilizing case histories of bad corporate behavior (such as labor and environmental abuses) and the testimony of a wide swath of commentators both inside and outside the corporate world, The Corporation employs the World Health Organization Manual of Mental Disorders to diagnose the corporation. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others? Check. Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships? Check. Reckless disregard for the safety of others? Check. Deceitfulness and repeated lying and conning of others for profit? Check. Incapacity to experience guilt? Check.
The diagnosis? If the corporation is a "legal person," then that person is a psychopath.
That might sound outlandish, but the argument marshaled by this nearly two-and-a-half hour film is hard to refute. After all, the corporation is an institution designed by law to be concerned only with its stockholders, to put profit ahead of everything else, even the public good.
The Corporation makes its case with grimly amusing use of industrial and educational films and a kaleidoscopic, globe-spanning series of evidence. Among the catalog of outrages are the privatization of rainwater in the Third World and sweatshop-labor costs that make up only three-tenths of 1 percent of the cost of a pair of sneakers. A commodities trader confesses that when the World Trade Center towers went down, his first thought was, "How much is gold going up?" Talking about oil prices as a response to the war, he says, "We couldn't wait for the bombs to fall." His matter-of-fact moral: "In devastation, there is opportunity."
The one hitch might be that the audience that most needs to see The Corporation isn't consumers but business leaders. Indeed, the smartest move that the filmmakers Joel Bakan, Mark Achbar, and Jennifer Abbott make is to include interviews not only with celebrated lefty critics such as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Michael Moore but with a string of CEOs, economists (including Milton Friedman), and corporate insiders. Indeed, the hero of the movie isn't Moore or Chomsky but Ray Anderson, the Southern, gentlemanly CEO of Interface Carpeting, the world's largest carpet manufacturer.
Anderson was a typical CEO whose epiphany came from reading a book. Asked to give a speech about business and the environment, Anderson realized he had nothing to say on the subject, so he did some research. In his reading, he came across the phrase "the death of birth," a phrase referring to species extinction. Anderson remembers the phrase as a "point of a spear into my heart." Anderson, who is now taking pains to convert his business into something environmentally sustainable, refers to himself as a "plunderer" and wonders out loud whether someday CEOs like himself might find themselves jailed for their crimes against the planet. He calls the "terrible legacy of poisoning and diminishing the environment" that he and his corporate colleagues have perpetuated a form of "generational tyranny," taxation without representation for the kids and grandkids who'll have to face the consequences.
This might sound radical, but it comes from the mouth of a straight-laced man in a dark suit, a wealthy business leader whom some might call a "captain of industry." Michael Moore might not win many converts, but what about Ray Anderson?
The Corporation will be shown at 6 p.m. Sunday, October 24th, in the screening room at First Congregational Church in Midtown's Cooper-Young district. The screening is co-sponsored by the Memphis Digital Arts Cooperative and local activist Brian Baird, who brought the Howard Zinn documentary You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train to the space earlier this year. Admission is $3.
I made the mistake of allowing myself to hope that Team America: World Police would be the funniest movie ever in the history of the universe. Such expectations can do little but disappoint, be it the hope for that ever-elusive birthday pony or that Iraq really has weapons of mass destruction. It has been a good five years since the hilarious South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, and one could only expect that auteurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone would have spent that time honing their filmmaking skills and saving up their delicious offensiveness for something big. Alas, Team America, you are no South Park.
Team America is a small squadron of jingoistic militants who, headquartered behind the faces of Mount Rushmore, police the world for terrorist threats. Opening in Paris, France, Team America zeroes in on a group of terrorists wreaking havoc on innocent Parisians that is, until the team shows up! Within a matter of minutes, the terrorists are destroyed but not without taking down some of the world's most valued landmarks: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe.
When a lone casualty creates a hole in the team's lineup, mastermind Spottswoode scouts out a promising possibility currently starring in the Broadway musical Lease. He's Gary Johnston, Broadway star and graduate of the University of Iowa with a double major in theater and world languages the perfect candidate for a paramilitary spy! (Brace yourself when the cast of Lease sing the jaw-droppingly irreverent "Everybody's Got AIDS.") Handsome, dedicated, and a great actor, Gary is a perfect fit for the team, but he has several lessons to learn about teamwork and courage. When the rest of the team is imprisoned by Jong Il and the world is on the verge of takeover, it's up to Gary to get it together and save the day. Complicating matters: the Film Actors Guild (F.A.G. Get it?) led by Alec Baldwin and peopled by the likes of Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Martin Sheen, are up to no good, what with their fight for peace and all. Oh, and Michael Moore's along for the ride.
What I like most about the South Park television show and triumphant film version is that it is nonpartisan in its offensiveness. But behind the potty jokes and sometimes tasteless anti-everyone jokiness, there is a keen perceptiveness to the satire coupled with an accomplished and well-researched aesthetic. Parker is an excellent musician, for example, and the musical sensibilities of the series, the South Park film, and now Team America are spot-on homages (maybe "homage" isn't the right word) to Hollywood archetypes.
In the case of Team America, one can hardly distinguish the plot, score, and excessive Hollywood-ness from, say, any Jerry Bruckheimer film. And, in fact, much is borrowed or derived from Bruckheimer films, ranging from the love ballad "Pearl Harbor Sucks and I Miss You" to the quote from Armageddon on the subject of the terrorist plot: "Basically, it's like all the worst parts of the Bible." The rest is recycled Top Gun, Lethal Weapon, Knight Rider, Star Wars, and a hoary host of just about anything in which guns are fired.
Did I mention that there are no actors, only marionettes? Yes, Team America is a puppet show but an impressive one (cinematography by The Matrix and Spider Man 2's Bill Pope and sets by uber-architect David Rockwell). But this highlights the film's biggest flaw: The technical accomplishment of the puppetry and sets is somehow funnier than anything written. No line in the film (by the oft-quotable Parker and Stone) is funnier than, oh, the sight of two marionettes having Monster's Ball-style marathon sex or the four-minute projectile vomiting of Gary after an alcohol binge. And for all of the awkwardness of the puppets' movements, such pains are taken to make their world lifelike that it's sometimes easy to forget that they're not people. Their concerns, likewise, are those of real-life conservatives and liberals. (Both sides will see the film and think that it's a critique of the other.) I couldn't help wanting more. More gross. More mean. More something. But like two sophomoric pranksters, Parker and Stone have followed up the successful flaming bag of poop of South Park with merely another flaming bag of poop. Team America is funny, yes, but not nearly as funny as the political vaudeville you can watch nightly on Fox News. n Bo List