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Movie Review
The Yes Men


2003

Director: Dan Ollman, Sarah Price, Chris Smith
Cast: Andy Bichlbauer, Mike Bonanno
B-


n a recent column for The Nation, noted anti-globalization activist Naomi Klein referred to George W. Bush as the “Distraction in Chief,” claiming that his “combination of ignorance, piety and swagger…triggers a condition in progressives I’ve come to think of as Bush Blindness. When it strikes, it causes us to lose sight of everything we know about politics, economics and history and to focus almost exclusively on the admittedly odd personalities of the people in the White House.”

Klein argues, essentially, that Bush should be replaced so things can return to normal. By normal, she means a state of affairs in which the leader of the free world can pronounce the names of his weapons (there’s no such thing as a “noo-kyuh-ler” warhead) and the countries at which he aims them. The normal president will continue to enforce policies that are of brutal consequence to the poor at home and abroad. But when he explains his actions, “he will come off as intelligent, sane and blissfully dull.” As a result, the no-logo crowd will need to put on its thinking cap. With John Kerry in office, she writes, activists can get back to the issues instead of spending all their energy hating a man who is clearly a dunce.

I’ll get to the movie in a second, so sit tight. Active leftists, or at least the ones I know, view their causes as timeless. America will always kill people for their oil, regardless of which absurdly privileged Yale man is in charge. Global capitalism will always resemble colonialism, no matter what the president did during the Vietnam years. Corporate interests will always infiltrate the Oval Office, whether or not its occupant believes in evolution.


George Bush's foreign policy team visits the UN


Most activists also view America’s systemic problems as self-evident, which means proselytizing films such as Fahrenheit 9/11, Outfoxed, Bush’s Brain and the superior The Corporation are little more than popcorn documentaries—well-crafted PowerPoint presentations of things they already know or at least believe. “What’s wrong?” is less important than “what is to be done?” The answer, according to The Yes Men, is to subvert the system from within, and to have a damn good time doing it. Because what else can you do? As we’ve learned during the Seattle riots and elsewhere, you can cause a ruckus and send a message, but in the end, The Man will always have tear gas.

The Yes Men is about a group of corporate pranksters who first gained attention through a bit of online sabotage, by purchasing an official-sounding Bush domain and creating an official-looking parody Web site that lampooned the administration’s policies. Members of the Yes Men also participated in the Barbie Liberation Organization, which purchased talking Barbie and GI Joe dolls, switched their voice boxes and returned them to stores (Barbie: “Hand me a bazooka!”; GI Joe: “Let’s go to the mall!”). Activist Andy Bichlbaum, one of the Yes Men featured in the film, coded one of the Sims computer games to include homoerotic activity among its digital characters.

This film, directed by Chris Smith, Dan Ollam and Sarah Price, focuses mainly on the group’s relationship with the World Trade Organization. The Yes Men created a parody of the WTO’s Web site that apparently was so convincing they began receiving invitations to speak at economic conferences, and even on CNBC, as WTO spokesmen. Seeing a golden opportunity for some wickedly funny satire, Bichlbaum, along with Mike Bonanno, began circling the globe, using a hyper-exaggerated form of absurd realism to advocate ghastly policies they feel are logical extensions of the WTO agenda. To their and the viewers’ shock, the suggestions are embraced by members of the international financial community, who remain unaware of the joke.

Bonanno and Bichlbaum receive warm receptions when they claim, among other things, that slavery was merely an inefficient system that would eventually have been corrected by the market, that Americans should sell their votes to the highest bidder and, finally, that the WTO is dissolving because it can no longer in good conscience pursue its nefarious schemes. The straight-faced combination of indifference and approval with which these proposals are greeted is funny, but disturbing.


Huntin' wabbits...


Much of The Yes Men is devoted to a conference in Finland during which Bonanno and Bichlbaum unveil the Employee Visualization Appendage. Bichlbaum tears off his business attire to reveal a shiny gold bodysuit that contains a three-foot phallus affixed with a screen and controls, allowing vacationing managers to monitor their wage slaves and administer electric shocks if they get lazy. It’s every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, yet instead of laughter, the Yes Men get little more than a few raised eyebrows. Getting back to my point—or, rather, Klein’s point—it’s to The Yes Men’s credit that the Bush administration is bashed only peripherally. While it’s probably safe to say none of the film’s heroes will be voting Republican this fall, they are looking at a picture much bigger than what happens in November. The conditions that inspire their actions would likely be just as bad under an Al Gore administration, and unlike any of this year’s political-minded documentaries (with the exception of The Corporation), The Yes Men easily could have been produced during the 1990s.

Granted, the film isn’t perfect. It drags quite often, and I can’t help thinking the subject matter didn’t get as entertaining or informative a treatment as it deserves. The Yes Men, compared to its powder-keg contemporaries, is easy on the eyes and the brain. Other films have sought to make their case by stooping to the level of their targets, manipulating facts to advance their predetermined narrative and pummeling the viewer with an indigestible barrage of alarming propaganda. The Yes Men has no such pretensions, and as a result is a unique entry in the growing field.

There is a moral to Bonanno and Bichlbaum’s shenanigans. The duo is invited by an economics professor (who is in on the joke) to address his students (who are not). Bichlbaum unveils the reBurger program, through which the WTO, in partnership with McDonald’s, will end world hunger by distributing hamburgers to the Third World that are made from First World excrement. The students get roaring mad, as well they should. At this point, Bichlbaum has to decide whether to reveal the farce and avoid getting torn to shreds or to maintain the illusion and keep the students suspicious of the real WTO. Not surprisingly, he opts for the latter. It’s quite possible the Yes Men orchestrated this event to give the documentary a happy ending: maybe the next generation of economists and international businessmen won’t be as greedy and heartless as the one that preceded it. After all, the scenario is extreme, and participants in an international conference would probably react to such a suggestion—that the Third World can literally eat our shit—with similar disgust. Or would they?



By: Troy Reimink
2004-09-28


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