Killer companies

Post-"Fahrenheit," the stellar documentaries -- including "The Corporation" and "Imelda" -- just keep coming. Plus: A moody meditation on familial love, or homoerotic cologne ad?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 2, 2004 10:03PM (EDT)

Inside the dominant institution of our age: Building a better "Corporation"
Why is every important independent film of 2004 (so far) a social or political documentary? This year seems to mark some kind of golden age for what a friend of mine used to call "spinach movies." Of course there's a ripple effect from the prodigious success of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which, despite the caviling of skeptics, looks like it may be that rare work of pop culture that actually influences politics. But leave Moore out of the equation and you've still got Jehane Noujaim's "Control Room," Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me," Ramona S. Diaz's "Imelda" (reviewed below), Chris Smith and company's prankish "The Yes Men" and a forthcoming biopic of historian and lefty cult hero Howard Zinn. So something big -- yes, bigger even than Michael Moore's outsized if huggable ego -- is going on here.

Jennifer Abbott, co-director of "The Corporation," an ambitious new Canadian film that seeks to demystify the dominant institution of our age, sees a mini-rebellion in progress among information consumers.

"People are craving substance," she says. "A lot of people feel alienated from mainstream media and fiction films, Hollywood films. They're craving something deeper, something that gives them answers to some of the questions they're asking. At least, I hope that's why it's happening."

Mark Achbar, her co-director (and previously the co-director of campus cult hit "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media"), chimes in: "The longer you try to hold down this kind of critical perspective, or push it out of the mainstream -- it's like trying to squeeze Jell-O; it's going to ooze out between your fingers no matter what. The theatrical releases of these films prove that people are willing to pay money to see their values reflected in a legitimizing package."

Abbott and Achbar, along with Joel Bakan, a professor of law at the University of British Columbia (who wrote both the film script and the accompanying book just published by the Free Press), stopped by Salon's New York office this week to chat about "The Corporation." Their film is long and dense, and may lack the balls-out entertainment value of "Fahrenheit 9/11," but it's an ingenious and startling work that explores a subject few of us understand well. In an election year when the balance between corporate power and democracy seems near a tipping point, it's every bit as crucial as Moore's movie. (Now playing in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, Calif., Sacramento, Calif., and several other West Coast cities, "The Corporation" will reach much of the heartland by September.)

In a sometimes vertiginous collage of file footage, voice-over narration and interviews with critics (such as Chomsky and Moore) and corporate insiders alike, "The Corporation" tries to untangle the ideology behind a social institution that is often believed to possess no ideology at all. There's no question this is a radical and didactic work, and its premise at first may seem outlandish: The modern corporation, which has been legally endowed with many of the rights and conditions of personhood, is in fact a psychopathic personality, constitutionally incapable of doing good or caring about others. But the longer you sit and watch the movie, the more irresistible the conclusion becomes.

As "The Corporation" demonstrates, although the concept of legal personhood for corporate entities stretches back to the dawn of the Industrial Age (and in fact, says Bakan, to the Roman Empire), the dominant social role assumed by the 20th century corporation came about largely by accident. When the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed after the Civil War, it was intended to guarantee the civil rights of newly freed slaves. But sharp-eyed lawyers began to wonder whether it also guaranteed rights (such as freedom of speech and due process) to the artificial person known as the corporation.

The courts ultimately agreed, setting the stage for a day when corporations would become so powerful that they virtually dominate the society around them, controlling public philosophy and discourse to a significant degree. That day, Bakan and company argue, is today.

By far the most convincing aspect of "The Corporation" is that much of its critique comes from current and former corporate insiders, not merely from sideline commentators or anti-corporate activists. Former Goodyear Tire CEO Sam Gibara explains how frustrating it was to run a major corporation and discover that his urge to change the way Goodyear did business was at odds with his mandate to serve shareholder interests above all else. Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, the avuncular head of Royal Dutch Shell, meets a party of Earth First! protesters at his English country house with tea and lunch. Even Milton Friedman, the Reagan-era guru of free-market economics, agrees that corporations cannot be relied upon to be socially responsible without government regulation.

"It was very important to portray corporate insiders in their complexity and diversity," says Abbott. "That was the strategy we used so that corporate insiders wouldn't say, 'No, I'm not engaging with these issues, I'm not seeing this film.' So many corporate insiders have seen the film and really loved the film. Not all, but those that have this thing inside them where they know something is wrong."

Most striking is Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, the world's largest manufacturer of commercial carpeting. A buttoned-down Southerner with a velvet-toned Jimmy Carter accent and the manner of a small-town Presbyterian minister, Anderson has become one of the corporate world's leading apostates. He dares to suggest that if people like him cannot make their businesses environmentally sustainable, they ought not to be in business. He becomes the movie's implausible, almost Christ-like hero, addressing a convention of North Carolina business leaders as "my fellow plunderers" and gently suggesting that at some point in the future executives who have created as much pollution as he has will be sent to prison.

Anderson proves to be an irresistible centerpiece for the film, but Bakan remains privately skeptical about the long-term viability of his vision. "Ray Anderson has made money by being sustainable," Bakan says. "He's a very smart man, a very driven man, a very committed man. He's using recycling now. Rather than selling carpet and saying, 'That's it,' he effectively leases the product and then recycles it. He saves a lot of money on raw materials -- he doesn't have to buy them anymore -- and on waste disposal. He's actually become more profitable by becoming more sustainable. Now the question of how far he can go with that, or how far that can be a model in general, is a real question."

When Bakan asked Goodyear's Gibara if he could imagine a similar model in the tire business -- taking responsibility for a potentially toxic product from manufacture to disposal -- the former exec just laughed at him.

"I take my hat off to the Ray Andersons of the world," Bakan goes on, "people who are embedded within the corporate structure and trying to push the envelope. But it's important to remember that there's always an envelope. Mark Moody-Stuart [of Shell] can't get up at an annual meeting and say, 'You know, I'm an environmentalist. So we're going to stop drilling in Nigeria even though we're reaping huge profits. And I'm going to take money out of the shareholders' pockets in order to serve my environmental vision.' It would be illegal. He'd get his ass sued. That's what the best-interests principle of the corporation is all about. He does not have authority to act in a way that does not benefit the shareholders. Personally, he could be a member of Earth First!, you know? It doesn't matter."

As preposterous as Bakan's psychopath diagnosis may sound, the central point of "The Corporation" is difficult to argue with. Corporations have been designed to be avaricious and self-serving; why should we be surprised if, when we leave them in charge of the world, they loot the place? "The fundamental diagnostic idea of a psychopath," Bakan says, "is a person who's incapable of being concerned about others. In the corporation, we have created an institution that is deliberately programmed, legally, to be incapable of being concerned about others. That's a fact. Any corporate attorney will tell you that: Yes, of course, corporations have to serve their own self-interest even if it means exploiting or harming others. I challenge anybody to tell me why the metaphor is inaccurate."

From the Philippines with love: "Imelda"
Former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos has been pursuing filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz through the courts, trying to halt screenings of Diaz's hilarious and tragic documentary "Imelda" (which has been playing to packed houses at New York's Film Forum and should reach you soon). Imelda -- she of the 6,000 or 200 pairs of shoes, depending on whom you believe -- shouldn't bother. Many Filipinos may never forgive her for her role in the corrupt and rapacious regime of her late husband, Ferdinand, nor should they. But filmgoers may well see Imelda, in her self-appointed quest to bring love and beauty to the world, as a self-deluded heroine in the mode of Blanche DuBois. Alternately pathetic, charismatic, strikingly intelligent, hard as tempered steel and (seemingly) diagnosably insane, she's certainly a figure you can't take your eyes off.

In fact, it's hard to imagine what Marcos objects to -- she granted Diaz extraordinary access to herself, her family and what remains of her once-grand retinue. The film is remarkably evenhanded in its treatment of Imelda's notorious excesses, and grants her ample time to expound on her increasingly dotty theories of cosmology, cosmetology and modern romance. (I cannot possibly summarize Imelda's grand spiritual theory; suffice it to say that the tree in the primordial Garden is related to the zeroes and ones of digital code, and the serpent's apple is -- yes! -- an Apple.)

In Imelda's mind, at least, her marriage as a teen beauty queen to an up-and-coming politician was a love match, not a merger of two influential families that created a dynasty in the newly independent postwar Philippines. Furthermore, it was her beauty and charm, her basic humility and goodness, that made her the confidante and dance partner of Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qaddafi and Henry Kissinger, or drew Hollywood celebs by the planeload to her yacht parties. (Watch this movie and you will see George Hamilton, in a navy blazer and white slacks, crooning, "I can't give you anything but love/ Imelda"!) It wasn't, say, her behind-the-throne position of power in a nation uniquely poised between West and East, between Asia and America.

The thing is, as with so many people completely convinced of their own specialness, Imelda may be partly right. Don't misunderstand me here. Consciously or not, Imelda Marcos played a key role in a dictatorship that committed unpardonable crimes, and she appears to lie to herself about that fact to this day. Sure, some of the Filipino public still worships her, but then, Hitler and Stalin (and, more to the point, Eva Perón) still have followers who weep over their graves too. But the great service Diaz has done for posterity is to create a portrait of Imelda that captures her undeniable appeal -- her confidence, her clarity of purpose, her relentless conviction that tomorrow will be a sunny day -- as well as her repugnant qualities. No study of despotism, anybody's despotism, is complete without both.

"Father and Son": I dream of Russia
Even amid the onslaught of documentaries, we still need impenetrable art movies to remind us of the pain of existence, yes? Yes, absolutely. But do they have to be this impenetrable?

I thoroughly enjoyed "Father and Son," the new film from "Russian Ark" director Alexander Sokurov. I have no idea, however, whether I liked it for the right reasons, or whether anyone else is likely to agree. It's a stunningly beautiful set of semi-mythic tableaux, set partly on a rooftop soundstage that looks like a schoolboy's fantasy landscape, partly in the real city of Lisbon, Portugal, and partly in a set of never-explained dream sequences. These elements appear to add up to a meditation on the quality of a father's love for his son and vice versa, but I'm really only guessing. One thing is for sure: This is the most homoerotic film I've ever seen that didn't have any overt homosexuality in it (although Sokurov, apparently, has angrily rejected this interpretation).

A sequel of sorts to Sokurov's 1997 "Mother and Son" (which I haven't seen), this film begins with a fuzzy, golden-lit close-up of two entangled male bodies, with the perspective of the shot so tight we can't tell who's who or what is going on. It sure looks like sex, but in fact the stonily handsome Father (Andrei Shchetinin) is comforting his teenage Son (Alexei Nejmyshev) after what appears to be a bad dream. These two drift through the rest of the film like a couple of hunky cologne models, exchanging intimacies whose significance we can't grasp, bemoaning the absent women in their lives, harassing the friends who show up and inevitably begin the process of pulling them apart.

This entire movie -- blessedly, it's pretty short -- is like the languorous coda to a longer film by somebody like Tarkovsky or Bergman, or for that matter like the last scene of one of Chekhov's plays. The great drama has occurred, love has arisen and been dashed, the dreams of youth have been partly and incompletely replaced by the wisdom of age. Now comes the period when we can't quite sleep, when we stay up late drinking, when we exchange confidences that would make no sense in any other context. That isn't much of a story, and by normal standards it ain't much of a movie either. But it sure makes for a mood, and some devastatingly pretty pictures. Sometimes, maybe, that's all we need.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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