Jonathan Swift Meets Abbie Hoffman
Andrew Bichlbaum and Michael Bonanno were late; they thought for sure there was only one time zone in all of Europe. Realizing their mistake the two men piled into the stall of a nearby toilet to prepare for a textiles conference in Tampere, Finland. Moments later they found themselves in a sparsely filled auditorium to make a presentation "on behalf of" the World Trade Organization.
After a rousing primer on slavery, the Civil War (it interfered with the natural arc of the slave trade which surely would've evolved given time), and the "problem" of the intransigent sweat shop work force, Bichlbaum explained that while the executive of today needs to keep an eye on those volatile third-world employees he or she still wants flexibility, leisure...freedom. With that intro, Bonanno literally ripped the three-piece suit from Andy's body revealing a skin-tight gold lamé "Executive Leisure Suit."
It gets better.
Andy pulls a strap activating a three-foot phallus, on the end of which sits a video screen. Cameras in distant factories allow the "on-the-go" executive to monitor employees while wires woven into the suit's fabric enable our foot-loose and fancy-free manager to administer gentle electrical shocks to employees. And they don't even have to leave the ninth green to do it. Some nervously looked around, some giggled audibly, but nobody questioned the ethics, authenticity or plausibility of the presentation.
Ridiculous? Not after you've seen, with your own eyes, the antics of a couple of WTO-crashing performance artists calling themselves the Yes Men. The film, appropriately titled The Yes Men, follows the exploits of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, (think Jonathan Swift meets Abbie Hoffman), and opened this weekend in select theaters. Armed with a proliferation of outrageous ideas (and the imprimatur of the WTO), the two provocateurs, try as they might, raise no eyebrows whether proposing to reinstitute slavery, recycle food, or sell the votes of disaffected Americans to the highest bidder.
The story boils down to this: Two veteran activists who seem to identify with Groucho Marx as strongly as they do, say, Noam Chomsky, were introduced shortly before the watershed protest of 1999 in Seattle. Bichlbaum's resumé included reprogramming one of "The Sims" video games to include dozens of Speedo-clad hunks kissing in the background. Bonanno was a key player in the Barbie Liberation Organization, whose marquee action saw them exchange the voice-boxes of talking Barbies and G.I. Joes, sending them on their way to the shelves of America's toy stores, to be sold to vulnerable American preteens.
The meeting of these two deeply disturbed and hysterically funny minds immediately led to a parody of the official WTO website at GATT.org (clearly this was in the days before corporations and organizations bought every iteration of a URL that resembles their name to prevent situations just like this one). Currently, for example, the front page of the site features this quote on the Iraq War: "In a free market, companies like Halliburton and Exxon should be funding their own market expansion projects instead of depending on their government for help." Yet, despite this satirical take on world trade, the site proved such a convincing simulacrum they began receiving invitations to represent the WTO at conferences across the globe.
Because they rely on shock (both the shock of their increasingly bizarre presentations and the fact that none of these players in the world of international trade seem the least bit moved) I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, apart from the scene above, another even more astonishing prank features Andy on CNBC's Marketwrap as "WTO representative – Granwyth Hulatberi." On live TV he debates Barry Coates, Director of the anti-WTO, World Development Movement, arguing WTO policies are justifiable because powerful nations are, well, powerful enough to implement them and that privatized schools would produce more Milton Friedmans and fewer Abbie Hoffmans.
It becomes clear early on that anyone in the right clothing with credentials from the right institution will be taken seriously. But what's truly incredible about their exploits is that no matter how morally bankrupt the proposal, no matter how little it adheres to common decency, any leap of faith will be gleefully made by the free-trade fundamentalists in the WTO's demented solar system. This conclusion is confirmed by a presentation they later make to a college economics class. Without this crucial episode, the viewer might conclude that anyone is liable to be fooled by a laser pointer and a Pierre Cardin suit.
Before the college presentation the Yes Men pass out McDonald's burgers. They proceed to demonstrate – with 3-D graphics! – how world poverty could be lifted – and McDonalds' bottom line with it – by simply reusing the waste matter from our "inefficient" bodies up to 10 times. Yes, as one student pointed out later, it's selling people's "shit" right back to them. Of course you would have the opportunity to choose, based on your means, just how far along the "recycled" scale you'd care to go. After overcoming the natural reluctance to confront those in power, students began to comment, telling their presenters just how repulsive, immoral, and disgusting the idea was. But it can't be emphasized enough: Outside of this classroom, nobody registered so much as disbelief, let alone disgust, at any Yes Men proposal.
The film itself, from the team that brought you American Movie, takes you on a fairly intimate journey with the proudly middle-class duo as they forage thrift stores for appropriate attire, groom each other ("you have crap on your face"), and reconnoiter for a pint of beer after impersonating representatives of the largest experiment in worldwide commerce in history. You get the feeling they've included this "throwaway" material for a purpose. Whether to emphasize the idiosyncratic over the beaureacratic or simply because the Yes Men are charismatic and fun, it's difficult to tell. The film is sure to face criticism for this oddity but it actually winds up emphasizing one of the Yes Men's greater points: that it's up to ordinary people to change the world – or at least that having fun while you try is "better than sitting on our asses waiting for the world to change on its own." Indeed, in stark contrast to the film's poster, which presents them as larger than life characters perched atop the world, Andy and Mike are constantly downplaying their individual talents and significance: "We're really ordinary guys. There's nothing special about us...just a coupla nebbishes..."
But they are special, and the fact of the film itself makes an important point that all progressive activists should pay heed to: The Yes Men may not immediately spark a mass mainstream uprising against the destructive policies of the WTO, but they have proved that when dissent is creative and entertaining enough, regardless of its place on the mythic political spectrum, it can go mainstream. In fact, the corporate media are seldom "for" or "against" anything except their own bottom line. The trick, as the Yes Men revealed in a top secret phone conversation: "We're only afraid of things that have already happened."
This season has featured so many political documentaries (good) that such a late and seemingly frivolous arrival may run the risk of being ignored (bad). But while many have been important and occasionally artful, they all tend to be the cinematic equivalent of broccoli – good for you, sure, but not a whole lotta fun. If you've been a dutiful doc watcher this season then The Yes Men is your cinematic s'more; a little messy, but oh so much fun.
The Yes Men shamelessly beg you to fill theaters on opening weekend so the film can make it to the red states where their humor is so desperately needed. Go here to find out whether it's playing in a theater near you.