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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

The Yes Men, Super Size Me, Orwell Rolls in His Grave, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, Uncovered: The War on Iraq, Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire, and Control Room (review)

The Activists Behind the Camera

Surely you’ve heard that aphorism, about how if you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you’ve got no heart, and if you’re not a conservative when you’re 40, you’ve got no brain? Well, I’m a lot closer to 40 than I am to 20, and I just keep getting angrier and more full of liberal-type outrage the older I get. I’ll probably turn into Billy Joel’s boring-as-hell angry not-so-young man soon, if I’m not there already.

But I’m clearly not alone. The year 2004 produced more than a handful of angry liberal documentaries — editorials, really, with far more partisan and obvious points of view than your typical newsy flick. Whether by accident or design, these films are countering the balance that has been one-sidedly weighed down by a supposedly liberal mainstream news media that is more interested in toeing the lines of their corporate masters and in catering to an audience it perceives as ignorant and willing to stay that way than in attempting to explain what’s really happening in the world. Much of what these films cover will be shocking to those who believe themselves well informed by watching network or cable news.
And speaking of things that really happened and few people seem to be aware of, have you heard how George W. Bush, president of the land of the free, said that “there ought to be limits to freedom”? Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are the guys who prompted him to say that, when they created the parody Web site gwbush.com. Inveterate pranksters, they’re also the minds behind the Barbie Liberation Organization, which, a few years back, bought up talking Barbies and G.I. Joes, switched their vocal computer chips, and snuck them back into toy shops in time to be purchased by moms and dads during Christmas rush. Kids and gender activists loved the joke; toy corps were not amused. Their subsequent adventures in yanking the corporate world’s chain is exposed here, in The Yes Men, from filmmakers Sarah Price and Chris Smith (Home Movie, American Movie).

“What can’t corporations get away with?” is the metaquestion these two were asking, in their months of impersonating representatives of the World Trade Organization, and the answer they came up with is, Not much. To my eyes, and perhaps to yours, their antics are clearly satirical: one of their “projects” calls for feeding the hungry third world human shit, though they call it “post-consumer byproducts”; in another, they propose a Big Bother-esque monitoring system — which looks, no kidding, like a giant strap-on dildo — for corporate masters to keep an eye on their wage slaves; often, Bichlbaum appears on television as WTO rep “Granwyth Hulatberi” to make bizarre pronouncements (which are just the WTO’s pro-corporate, anti-worker philosophy made plain). They never get caught; no one calls them on their outrageousness, though one group of college students comes close.

It’s terrifying, once you start noticing it, how invisible corporate abuse has become: That’s the Yes Men’s point, made forcefully in this invigorating film. These guys are just plain good for our collective soul — they’re my new heroes. [See their site for their latest pro-reality prank, in which they try to force Dow Chemical to take responsibility for its subsidiary’s 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal.]

Morgan Spurlock might be my second-ranked hero of the moment, another modern knight tilting at corporate windmills. Come on: there’s no way that any one man, no matter how crazy, could make even the tiniest dent in the juggernaut that is McDonald’s. But ya gotta admire the guy for trying, with Super Size Me, his brilliant, subversive documentary about a grand experiment on his own body: eating nothing for an entire month but the comestibles offered at the fast-food chain.

The results are by now well known: Spurlock gained a ton of weight and his body revolted: cholesterol and blood pressure way up, liver on its way to shutting down. His doctors, who were monitoring his experiment regularly, begged him to stop. He didn’t.

It has been argued that Spurlock’s is not a fair experiment: no one eats nothing but Mickey D’s all the time. But are the vast majority of people really cognizant of what — or how much — they’re eating, anyway? Spurlock’s adventure in not-so-fine dining may be extreme, but it makes its point in a shocking way: the food we are surrounded by, all the time, and are exhorted to eat, all the time, is crap. (And as Spurlock notes, whole, unprocessed, not-crap food simply is not marketed to us, not just not in that aggressively fun-lifestyle way that McDonald’s is, but not at all.) If you doubt that McDonald’s wouldn’t love for us all to eat more McDonald’s food, then you haven’t been watching enough TV.

Spurlock is asking us to think about the insidious ubiquitousness of McDonald’s, of the company’s advertising and its restaurants, and of its ability to brainwash us into wanting its product. He pukes up one of his early Mickey D meals, but he can still, in all seriousness, later say that he really does enjoy the taste of what he’s been eating for a month. Personal responsibility, yea: you’re either a dumbass or a documentary filmmaker if you eat nothing but McDonald’s all the time. But when there are other stronger, often almost imperceptible factors doing their wormy work on our brains — Spurlock’s detours into exploring how McDonald’s markets itself are pretty frightening — the responsibility we should all be taking for ourselves is being sneakily undermined.

I saw the news today, oh boy
“They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality… and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.” So wrote George Orwell of the manipulated people in the world of his novel 1984, and it bears a striking similarity to the current sorry state of civic clued-inness. Hence Orwell Rolls in His Grave, from filmmaker Robert Kane Pappas, about the rampant corruption in the mainstream American media, its complicity in decades of political abuse and fraud, and its stabbing in the back of the concept of independent journalism.

From the early 1980s New York Post whipping up panic over “gas shortages” to the stunning conviction, held by an enormous segment of the American public and fostered by a press that does little to refute it, that Saddam Hussein was complicit in 9/11, Pappas documents how corporate-owned media with “enormous conflicts of interest” turn lies into truth and generate huge private profits on the public airways they monopolize while simultaneously failing to serve the public interest. And they get away with it, partially, because those very same media outlets are in bed with the FCC, the agency that is supposed to be watchdogging them. How’s this for scary: FCC head Michael Powell is caught on a video clip here stating, “I have no idea what the public interest is.” Betcha didn’t see that on Eyewitness News.

Pappas, with breathtaking, take-no-prisoners precision also looks at the even more Orwellian rewriting of history that occurs before our very eyes, as with the shifting justifications for the invasion of Iraq invasion — from “it’s the WMDs” to “Saddam’s just a general, all-around bad guy” to “the Iraqi people want us to bring them democracy” — that go utterly uncommented upon by “journalists” who simply parrot White House press releases and let official spokespeople go unchallenged. For anyone who’s really been listening and has an attention span longer than that required to remember what happened on last week’s installment of Fox’s Bread-and-Circuses DeathBattle for Sex, Cash, and Fame, none of this is news. But seeing it laid out so bare — and seeing the shamelessness of the mainstream media in pimping it — is infuriating.

Even more infuriating, though, is the insidious conundrum that faces important films like Orwell Rolls in His Grave, that it must perforce preach to the choir. No one can legitimately claim that anyone is censoring Orwell, because no one is stopping anyone from catching the film at its few small screenings, or from buying a copy of the DVD. But someone who will go to the trouble of seeking out this film is by definition someone who already grasps the gist of it, someone who doesn’t necessarily need to be exposed to such powerful, vociferous criticism. Audiences who don’t know that something is rotten in the mainstream medium, who are satisfied to get their news from that compromised source, are unlikely to determine on their own that something is rotten. And they’re certainly not going to get that newsflash on the six o’clock news. It’s a vicious cycle that seems unbreakable — the best to hope for, it seems, is that a slow spreading of the word through alternative methods may reach a few of the unenlightened. So share a DVD of Orwell with someone who doesn’t know they’re not getting the whole truth.

Of all the egregious pseudo-journalism to be found on the television dial, the worst of it occurs on Fox News Channel — as has famously been discovered by pollsters, the more an American citizen watches Fox News, the more likely he or she is to erroneously connect Saddam Hussein with 9/11. Misleading viewers is what Fox is best at, as Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, effectively argues, and it would be comical — watch here how direct-from-TV examples of blatant, outrageous bias follow immediately on the heels of outright statements by Fox talking heads that No way is Fox biased — if it weren’t actually gnawing at the very foundations of the country.

Outfoxed is a home-run smackdown of the Australian mogul who dominates the American media scene and, Greenwald contends in such a way that it’s impossible to disagree, is dangerously undermining our democracy. Media analysts, former Fox reporters and producers — some of whom chose to remain anonymous, so afraid are they of retribution — and even the likes of Walter Cronkite set out in no uncertain terms how the powers that be at Fox News Channel massage and manage the “news,” spinning it to a strong conservative bias, never separating reportage from commentary and indulging in outright smear campaigns and attack politics.

It’s the rapid-fire collections of clips that are most telling: the cacophony of instances of the obnoxious Bill O’Reilly sniping at guest after guest on his show to “shut up,” and even going so far as to cut off the mike and turn out the lights on those he really won’t brook any reason from; the dramatic and unwarranted “Fox News Alerts” for breaking info on, say, Jennifer Lopez’s love life; the sinister use of “some people say” by Fox commentators to, in a word, lie. Fair and balanced is none of it, and Greenwald tilts the scales back in the other direction, for which he deserves a huge hurrah!

Greenwald uses the same straightforward tactics in the bracing Uncovered: The War on Iraq, bringing together a parade of military officers, intelligence analysts, scientists, diplomats, and Pentagon officials to summarily dissect the Bush Administration’s case for the war in Iraq… often using the very words of administration insiders to damn themselves. These experts are unequivocal: The American people were conned by our leaders. This is chilling stuff, worthy of the most cunning of fictional thrillers but all too horrifyingly real: stories of doctored or trumped-up intel, deliberate and malicious politicking, exploitation of the trauma of 9/11, and immoral and unethical behavior at the highest levels of government.

As an antidote to the ongoing revisionism the administration continues to engage in — shifting the rationale for war from a clear, imminent threat of attack with weapons of mass destruction, for instance, to, once WMDs went unfound, “weapons programs” — this is a film both encouraging, for it may help repair some of the damage done to truth in our culture, and dispiriting: Why did the traditional media ignore what is revealed here and was, apparently, no secret before the war? With Orwell fresh in one’s mind, it’s even more difficult to recognize anything of the ideal of an unfettered, robust, and independent media in the spin and the PR that passes for news today.

If Uncovered shows us the “how” of the conning of the American public, Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire, from filmmakers Jeremy Earp and Sut Jhally, shows us the “why.” Once again, there’s nothing here that will surprise the initiated, nor is there any new information uncovered that was not available before the Iraq invasion or indeed before 9/11. But, like an even more furious version of Fahrenheit 9/11, this devastating film pulls together the unspoken but obvious to formulate a highly disturbing portrait of a presidential administration bent on creating an aggressive new American empire.

“If the war is not about weapons of mass destruction,” ask narrator Julian Bond, as this film and Uncovered and common sense demonstrate is the case, “what is it really about?” The answer: “It’s about power, it’s about domination, it’s about control of dwindling resources,” says Mark Crispin Miller, author of The Bush Dyslexicon, here. If that sounds like nutball, tin-foil stuff, it’s only because some basic truths have not gotten the play in the mainstream media that they should have. Such as the simple and incontrovertible fact that members of a neoconservative thinktank called Project for the New American Century dominate in the upper reaches of the Bush administration: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, radical militarists who have been calling for the control of resources like Gulf Oil since the early 1990s, and who long before 9/11 realized they needed a “new Pearl Harbor” to implement their grandiose schemes.

In their own aggressive way, Earp and Jhally assemble a wide range of administration critics, from usual lefty suspects like Noam Chomsky to retired Air Force officer and Pentagon official Karen Kwiatkowski, as well as news clips and other material to show how a cabal that “doesn’t believe you have to tell the public the truth” has used fearmongering tools like colored-coded terror alerts and testosterone-fueled videogamelike war imagery of smart bombs and cool fighter jets to whip the American public into a state of frenzy in support of a “war on terror” that’s merely a masquerade for a hidden objective it knows nothing about.

Earp and Jhally give no quarter to these imperials: they are war lovers who deliberately dodged military service; Bush is a deserter who went AWOL and got away with it. They label as propagandistic the manipulation of Bush’s image as a “tough guy” — the rancher who wields axes and chainsaws, the fighter pilot who struts around on aircraft carriers — when nothing could be further from the truth, and they trot out the images of Bush we never see: the monied, privileged Ivy Leaguer and cousin to the Queen of England. All of these things are open secrets — PNAC’s web site is available for all to peruse, for instance. But in our toxic media environment that either ignores these issues or obfuscates them with smokescreens — that CBS and 60 Minutes got snowed with fake memos does not negate the substance of the Bush AWOL story, but you’d never guess that from the coverage of the story — Hijacking Catastrophe becomes even more vital for anyone who considers himself informed on current events.

No understanding of such particularly aggressive current events, however, would be complete without gaining some idea of how they look on the receiving end, so don’t miss Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room, a refreshingly calm and collected look at the “Arabic CNN,” Al-Jazeera. Though the film explodes the myth of objectivity — everyone is biased, and there’s little point in pretending otherwise — the earnestness and honesty of everyone on camera here, from Al-Jazeera employees to the American military press officer, leaves you with the very hopeful feeling that there’s a wide middle ground that has room for all perspectives.

Noujaim — an Arab American with a foot-in-both-world’s point of view — puts a down-to-earth human face on what has been dismissed as “Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece,” and does so smack in the middle of the second U.S. invasion of Iraq. We see a bustling, energetic workplace in the Al-Jazeera HQ, where the dress ranges from traditional robes to jeans and T-shirts (and where women are well represented in professional positions; and clearly, no one at Al-Jazeera had any problems dealing with the female Noujaim), where employees switch easily from Arabic to English in midsentence — probably not something you’d hear in the cafeteria at CNN, a pointed commentary on which news team has the broader outlook on the world and on the events they’re covering. We meet people like Samir Khader, a senior producer for Al-Jazeera, an infectiously enthusiastic journalist who wants to “wake up!” the Arab world to the possibilities of the West (he wants to send his own children to school in America) but who is quick to point out that the likes of Fox and CNN could well be termed the mouthpieces of Bush administration — the footage of American POWs and civilian casualties that Al-Jazeera has aired, and that American audiences will see here for the first time, is another cogent statement on how, ahem, differently informed the audiences of Al-Jazeera and, say, CNN are. The overall impression, though, is the Al-Jazeera is a progressive force in the Arab world, something anyone interested in modernizing the Arab world would be supporting, not condemning.

On the Western side, we meet CNN correspondent Tom Mintier, who pushes the military handlers of the journalists reporting on the war to acknowledge and communicate with Arab reporters more regularly, and press officer Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a fascinating, conflicted man, his clear patriotism measured out with a healthy dose of skepticism. As he notes, because he knows what’s happening on the ground, he can tell exactly what Al-Jazeera is including in their reportage, and what its leaving out… and he can make the same assessments about Fox and CNN, too. Highly intelligent, extremely thoughtful, an astute media critic, and strikingly self-aware of his own biases, he is everything we Americans should look for in our soldiers, particularly now that they operate on such a media-saturated battlefield, both literally and metaphorically. Naturally, in the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil culture we find ourselves in today, the Marines have all but disavowed Rushing because of his participation in this film, and he has resigned his commission. It’s enough to make you think the people in charge don’t want us citizens — their bosses — to know the truth.

The Yes Men
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language
official site | IMDB

Super Size Me
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
not rated
official site | IMDB

Orwell Rolls in His Grave
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

Uncovered: The War on Iraq
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated

Control Room
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
not rated
official site | IMDB

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