Tom Goulter - The Best Thing Since Danny Watson - Christchurch

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Man: A Critical Biography

We've been spoiled for choice this year when it comes to probing-social-commentary documentaries. Errol Morris' The Fog Of War took the life lessons of the much-maligned Robert Strange McNamara, largely forgotten by history [1], and turned it into a gripping alternate perspective on c20th conflict.
While McNamara's observations on war (it's hell) were ostensibly limited to theatres he'd actually been involved in, his philosophising provided some trenchant commentary relevant to that business that's going on lately overseas; so Jehane Noujaim's Control Room, focusing quite explicitly on Iraq - Present Day, as filmed and relayed by Al-Jazeera, was a nice companion-piece indeed. Particularly, of course, when placed next to Fahrenheit 9/11, the latest salvo from Mr. Moore - the fellow we can arguably thank for the prominence of much of this fare (or, at the very least, our easy access to it).
If all the violence and death were a bit much to (ahem) stomach, Morgan Spurlock was right there with his eminently watchable (if, ahem, kinda flabby) assault on the fast-food industry, Super Size Me. Spurlock's TV Nation-esque clown act is, by his own admission, flawed in its reasoning - McDonald's never told anyone to eat only their food for a month, or even for a week - but the film's (oh dear) delicious central conceit belies a wealth of research and commentary on the fast food chains' practices and techniques.
This, however, is something of (look, I'm really sorry: I promise this is the last one) an entree next to the carpet-bombing of big business that is Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's The Corporation.
The Corporation has a delightful central argument: that large multinationals, if they were a person, would be a dangerous, criminally violent psychopath. It arrives at this point with beautiful, simple, ruthless logic.
First we're invited to ponder exactly what might be a good metaphor for the megalithic entities selling us shoes and soft drinks (a lovely hyper-montage establishes that the default analogy is to, well, "apples"; and that this isn't really a very good comparison). Other options considered are "a machine", "a family", and, laughingly, "a proud soaring eagle". These are all, we're agreed, pretty atrocious metaphors: what can today's supercompanies be compared to?
In answer, the movie segues to an explanation as to how the corporation as we know it was born. In the heady days of the Industrial Revolution and American Civil War, rich white guys with moustaches going out to their ears discovered a loophole in legislation that meant that their companies were entitled to be registered for legal consideration as single people. This entitled them to select financial benefits and rights of citizens. Companies were people.
Fast-forward to now, and these "people" are wreaking considerable havoc on the world - havoc that is explored in a series of "case histories". If the corporation is indeed, as it claims, a person, then it's subject to the WHO's checklist of psychological traits inherent in psychopaths. No CEO or executive can be singled out and blamed for the actions of these companies - but as entities unto themselves, greater than the sum of any of their parts, they pass the test with flying colors.
Who do you call when a dangerous psychopath is terrorising your country? Why, the FBI, of course - which is why that organisation's leading consultant on psychos is called in to sound his agreement.
Thus follows an examination of the behaviour of these dangerous, pathological nutcases that we call corporations: CEOs, spies, marketers, lawyers, whistleblowers, activists [2] and observers are given turns to speak on their experiences and perceptions of the companies that run our world. What emerges is a gripping, thrilling, terrifying (this is where I would use the word "Orwellian" if I weren't so averse to it), animated, lively portrait of entities gone wild and terrorising the world's citizens, cultures and environment.
Cameras attempt to probe Nike's DMZ factories; a disarmingly reasonable Shell CEO drinks tea with activists while Ken Saro-Wiwa's death is mourned. We're guided through Fanta's Nazi origins, and we visit the debate as to whether or not IBM took an active role in processing the paperwork of the Holocaust. Familiar ground is trod with the cinematic flourish that documentary filmmaking does best; new facts and concepts unfold with well-reasoned, sombering logic.
In a year of quality we're unlikely to see equalled any time soon in documentary pictures, The Corporation deserves to be remembered as the heavyweight: a film that validates and unifies much that we've seen elsewhere, while standing alone next to the invaluable efforts of Messrs. Moore, Morris, Spurlock et al as a document of power and resistance in our time.

[1] By which I mean that Muggins over here, for all my pretensions of being au fait with Kennedy-era US politics, had never heard of him.
[2] Among them such Superstars Of Lefty Ideology as Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, who, aside from making the requisite Damn Good Points -- look, will it utterly defeat my hearty endorsement of The Corporation if this footnote ends up containing the word "delectable"? Okay, well, I tried.