Can the “Yes Men” and Michael Moore Fix Capitalism?

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on November 6, 2009

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With billions of taxpayer dollars propping up the largest financial institutions amid news stories about record bonuses on Wall Street and forecasts for a “jobless recovery” at best, there are a lot of good reasons to doubt the core promises of the capitalist system these days.  Populist anger abounds and two movies in theaters now are helping bring the evils of capitalism into focus; “The Yes Men Fix The World” by the “Yes Men,” (opening in Los Angeles this weekend) and Michael Moore’s “Capitalism, A Love Story.”
Perhaps you haven’t seen Michael Moore’s latest film about capitalism because you’ve seen some of Moore’s other works — “Roger and Me” about the demise of GM’s auto plants in Flint Michigan, “Fahrenheit 911” about September 11, 2001 and the buildup to the Iraq War, “Bowling for Columbine” about gun violence and the political power of the Gun industry, and “Sicko” making the case for socialized medicine in America — and you just assumed you already knew how he would treat this topic.  Well, you just might be right about that, but the topic and the times seem to be a particularly good fit and Moore raises important questions even if he becomes substantially less eloquent when he tries to answer them.
In “Capitalism” Moore continues to do what he does best which is to introduce you to real people with real problems.  Capitalism produces winners and losers, and Moore wants to introduce his audience to some of the losers, people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes, and lost their confidence in “the American Dream.” And Moore also continues to do other things you expect him to do; using archival footage, cartoons, juxtaposition, and campy “educational” film reels from the 50s and 60s to amuse (occasionally) and enrage.
The best moment of the movie is video of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union Address, where he proposed a Second Bill of Rights, which would be an Economic Bill of Rights, guaranteeing every American an education, a job, a home, and medical care.  This footage alone, apparently unearthed by Moore for this film, is worth the price of admission and serves as the film’s climax.
At the core, though, the problem with Moore’s body of work is a lack of growth.  Just like too many other films at the multiplex, especially the ones with comic book origins, Moore presents an economic landscape populated with villains and victims.  This immature world view was forgivable when Moore was young and making his first film about the demise of his own hometown, but now in his mid-50s, Moore should have realized that his audience is made up of more complex beings.  Most people in his audience are themselves capitalists.  In some ways each are part villains, and at the same time each of us are also victims of the capitalist system — suffering and inflicting suffering on others.
In short, Moore lacks the ability to take his audiences farther than he has traveled himself, and Moore’s meditations on evil seem to have stopped a few semesters short of Hannah Arendt or the Buddha’s teachings on compassion. Moore’s compassion for his victims may be admirable, if a bit thick, but his lack of compassion for the people he supposes are “villains” comes up short of enlightening, so rather than informing, educating, and motivating corporate executives to change their behavior, Moore is betting on complaining, taunting, and mocking.  That Moore consciously places himself at the end of the film standing alone outside the glass tower of a major Wall Street bank pleading with his audience to join him in a “revolution to replace capitalism with democracy” is perhaps the most honest and sympathy inducing moment of the film.
The Yes Men Fix the World is the second movie by the “Yes Men” who are actually Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno.  Since we didn’t see the first one, their brand of impishness and chutzpah is fresh for us.  You may know the Yes Men’s work from a stunt they pulled off a few weeks ago – probably to get publicity for the movie – where Bichlbaum impersonated a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at the National Press Club “announcing” that the Chamber will now support legislation to fight global warming until a real Chamber spokesman showed up.
Just like Comedy Central’s Daily Show, the Yes Men have found a chink in the armor of an entity in a self-important industry to exploit.  Jon Stewart frequently has to remind people that despite the easy target that was the Bush Administration, the real purpose of the Daily Show has always been to expose the foibles of the cable news channels that seem important but have 24 hours to kill every single day, so they do a lot of stupid stuff while most of us are at work, and the Daily Show makes sure we don’t miss it when we get home.
The Yes Men appear to be skewering corporate America, but the real vulnerability they exploit is in the corporate conference industry, that will sell tickets to just about anyone willing to spend a couple of hundred dollars to see presentations by just about anyone.  And like bookers for 24 hour news shows, conference organizers are not checking credentials as closely as the TSA inspects your toiletries.     So with a fake website that intriguingly combines the words “Dow Chemical” and “ethics,” the Yes Men are able to get invited to these conferences, where they presumably wait out two other unrelated presentations on disjointed panels, and then impersonate executives from Halliburton or Exxon and “announce” the company is finally taking responsibility for its past wrongs.
The announcements are designed to shock, but the fact that hung over conference attendees find their stunts more amusing than appalling is only remarkable to those who have experienced little of the boredom of these conferences.  The real audience is the cameras the Yes Men bring, and with skillful editing, juxtaposition, some cartoons, and – oh did we mention the movie is co-edited by Kurt Engfehr veteran of two Michael movies?
The Yes Men have a firm Michael Moore Legacy (he appears in the trailer for their 2003 film, “The Yes Men”) but they do not yet have his audiences.  Despite stunts at the National Press Club and the U. S. Capitol earlier in the week, the film opened to less than sell out crowds when it came to Washington, DC.  This is unfortunate because the Yes Men are nearly as good as Michael Moore at his best, and we can hope both sets of filmmakers will add greater depth of understand to their current mix of humor and outrage.

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