Comfortable and Furious

The Yes Men

Directed by Dan Ollman & Sarah Price & Chris Smith

– Phil Bayly as Chicago News Reporter
– Dr. Andreas Bichlbauer as Himself
– Andy Bichlbaum as Himself
– Mike Bonanno as Himself

Matt Cale gets the jokes, but…

The Yes Men is not so much a great documentary as a great idea. A group of young male go-getters (who like to touch each other more than the homoerotic crew of Jackass, it would appear) hijack the identities of corporate lackeys, attend world trade conferences and undermine capitalism from within. Or so they’d like to think. And yet, these performance artists (for there really is no better term for them) are accomplishing the not-so-difficult task of making the business world look ridiculous, often by simply applying the very principles and rhetoric that cruel science espouses. Take globalism to its logical conclusion and you will get the inhumane and the insane, all couched in such benign terminology that hell, maybe it does make sense after all.

These “Yes Men” first hit the scene in 1999 with, a parody website that brought about Dubya’s infamous remark that “there ought to be limits to freedom.” Or only when someone has the audacity to criticize a Bush. Inspired by the publicity, the group then established, a site that mimicked the World Trade Organization and its goals. And yet, many people thought it was legitimate enough to send e-mail requests for appearances and panel discussions. At the same time, the merry pranksters formed loose alliances such as the “Barbie Liberation Organization,” where they switched the voice boxes of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls (and returned them to stores) so that big, bad soldiers came to espouse the benefits of shopping.

They received adequate press attention (even getting a notice on the NBC Nightly News), but were clearly after a bigger game. They sought, in their words, “public spectacles that revealed profound problems.” They had to give the WTO a more honest face, even if that meant humiliation and embarrassment.

One of the men, posing as a “Granwyth Hulatberi,” appears on European Market Wrap to sing the song of free market capitalism. He is so ridiculous and pompous (even painting a picture of a day when young children will choose Milton Friedman over Abbie Hoffman) that it should be obvious he’s a phony, but the host (and other guests) appear unfazed. The goal, of course, is to make the WTO appear mean-spirited and greedy (which it is) as a way to counter the unbridled enthusiasm released for public consumption.

The same man, now disguised as Hank Hardy Unruh, then attends a conference in Finland to speak on “The Future of Textiles.” He and his crew (including a man in the audience with a hidden camera) are late (they forgot about the time change), but manage to hit the ground running in front of a pretty decent crowd, all things considered. The audience members appear bored and listless, but these are economists and tradesmen, so it’s doubtful they ever learned to laugh or express emotion.

The lecture is rather straightforward until Unruh brings up the American Civil War and how it was the “bloodiest, least profitable” war in history. That is key, for he then hits the idea that slavery can be resurrected in the modern day, albeit without the sting of that loaded term. As most corporations have their headquarters in the First World while maintaining factories and laborers in the Third, Unruh has devised a “remote labor system” that allows CEOs and managers to keep tabs on their wards in other parts of the world. Needless to say, this system is silly and obscene (a tacky gold suit with a large inflatable phallus attached, which itself contains a monitor), but the audience members don’t blink an eye.

Worse yet, they applaud the speech with the vigor of having attended the Super Bowl. I’d like to think that these glassy-eyed suits weren’t really paying attention, but I’m inclined to believe that what they heard wasn’t too out of the realm of possibility. After all, the accompanying animation shows a leaping, enthusiastic manager having fun while he works! Order me a dozen!

Unruh then becomes Kinnithrung Spratt, again a WTO representative, as he lectures a group of young economists at a college in Plattsburgh, New York. Thankfully, the kids are more attentive and outraged, but not enough for my taste. Spratt’s speech is on post-consumer waste, and how to use it to solve the problem of world hunger. The animated clip shows a man taking a shit, the waste traveling down a series of tubes and tunnels (all plastered with McDonald’s logos), and finally ending up in a grinder that turns the fecal matter into hamburgers. Logically enough, the product is known as a “re-burger.”

Instead of value menu choices, consumers in these poor nations would select a number that indicates how recycled the product actually was. A #1 would be ideal, as it would have been shat out by only one other human being. A #10, then, has really been around.

Several indignant students questioned the humanity of literally feeding starving people their own crap, but I’ll be damned if some weren’t taking notes. But as Spratt indicates, there is no room for feelings and empathy in the world economy, and if people are pissed at what they see, perhaps some of it has to do with the fact that they didn’t think of it first. In a world that privatizes the rain (see The Corporation), why not serve poop on a bun? This way, foreign aid and food donations could be eliminated, thereby saving the First World billions of dollars per year. After one young person asks Spratt, “Have you actually seen starving people?”, he responds, “In pictures, yes.” What better way to sum up how many of us approach world events? It’s similar to the apoplectic declaration that “America is the greatest nation on earth,” as spoken by the man who has never left his isolated Idaho compound.

The group finally hits Australia, where they reveal that the WTO will cease to exist in its current form, choosing instead to reflect the needs of the most vulnerable rather than assorted boards of directors. Audience members seem shocked by the news, but most don’t seem overly upset. I imagine their apathy has more to do with not really understanding what the WTO does, rather than seeing the light of fairness. After this, the Yes Men move on, staging “happenings” that elicit laughs, but hopefully translating into direct action. In this way, I admire what these people are doing, but like too many idealists, they’re simply pissing in the wind.

The essence of capitalism (and its inherent “wisdom”) is the one thing the world’s power brokers will not allow to be questioned, and sooner or later these clowns will become dead clowns, or at least discredited, dead-whore-planted-in-the-bedroom clowns. No one has lost any real money due to the Yes Men, which is probably the only reason they are still breathing.

Still, as wacky as all of this is (and we get a few moments of face time from the likes of Michael Moore), it isn’t so much a movie as it is a pilot episode for a muckraking TV program. Despite being only a little over 80 minutes in length, the film seemed to wander around aimlessly, as if it would catch us up in later episodes. Too much time was spent watching people sew outfits and get dressed, and frankly, I would have liked more information about the WTO itself. I understand that humor was the raison d’etre, but too much is taken for granted. These guys have a lot of balls (and they never break character, thankfully), so I’d like to see them stick around, but perhaps they should wait awhile before releasing another movie.



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