Celluloid Bolshies

Actor Charles Grodin, in his book “I Like It Better When You're Funny,” recalls a particularly devastating put-down from a critic: “If you want to feel what it is like to die sitting upright in your seat, go see this movie.”  I thought about this line while watching The Corporation.  To my knowledge, no one has died while watching this dull and tendentious anti-corporate screed.  The friend who accompanied me to the film, however, went comatose halfway through this plodding two-and-a-half-hour-long Canadian production.  If all you want is a near-death experience, than The Corporation is for you. <?xml:namespace prefix = u1 /><?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


The Corporation is yet another entry in this year's large crop of independently produced, agenda-driven “documentary” movies, along with Michael Moore's anti-Bush sermon Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me, an attack on McDonald's.


Publicity materials describe the movie's premise as follows:


“One hundred and fifty years ago, the corporation was a relatively insignificant entity.  Today, it is a vivid, dramatic, and pervasive presence in all our lives.  Like the Church, the Monarchy and the Communist Party in other times and places, the corporation is today's dominant institution.  But history humbles dominant institutions.  All have been crushed, belittled, or absorbed into some new order.  The corporation is unlikely to be the first to defy history.”


As the above suggests, the producers and directors of this film believe that “history”—an implacable, impersonal force that the above-mentioned Communist Party once believed was on its side—will do away with corporate capitalism.  And to divine this allegedly preordained future, they take a selective view of the past.


The movie documents the legal and historical origins of the artificial legal constructs we know as corporations.  It then provides descriptions of various instances of alleged corporate excess, including efforts to silence whistleblowers.  It also explores what it calls the “mindset” of people who work at corporations, and moves to look at how corporations use advertising to supposedly cloud the minds of consumers.


From a purely technical standpoint, a budding young documentary producer could learn a lot from studying The Corporation—mainly to avoid its mistakes.  The movie is too herky-jerky and incoherent in the way it tries to present its subject.  It is way too ambitious—it could use some judicious editing of its 150 minutes down to something more manageable.  And the relentless way the movie demonizes corporations makes it feel more like a predictable and dull harangue rather than a documentary.


There's little here that is new—the tone and content of the movie is little different than what one would find while perusing a typical issue of The Nation, Mother Jones or Utne Reader.


To lend their film some additional credibility, the creators of The Corporation could have acknowledged in greater detail the positive economic aspects of the limited-liability private corporation.  They could have explored how the emergence of corporations as vehicles of commerce stimulated the rise of large-scale entrepreneurship, for example.  They might at least have tipped their hat to the idea that corporations create economies of scale and provide many useful products to consumers at affordable prices.  They could have still elaborated on their theories about “corporate power” even while acknowledging all this—thereby providing a more even-handed, objective look at their subjects.  I don't quibble with the creators' right to hate corporations—I only want to point out that they glossed over some important points.


Throughout the movie, various far-left luminaries such as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Rifkin, Michael Moore, and Richard Grossman provide commentary to support of the movie's thesis, providing, on occasion, unwittingly hilarious monologues. These pundits describe corporations using expressions including: “killing machines;” “monsters;” “doom machines;” “psychopathic;” “extractive, wasteful, abusive;” and—my favorite—”unaccountable tyranny” (Is there such a thing as accountable tyranny?)


The unlikely comedic duo of Chomsky and Moore provide the movie's two funniest moments.  Chomsky attacks corporations' obsession with “profits.”  He claims that many of the things done by private, for-profit corporations could be instead performed by publicly owned corporations, which can be run for the public good at “a loss,” he says, instead of having to produce a profit for greedy shareholders and rapacious managers.  Right.  As one fellow moviegoer observed, the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Soviet Union was run on exactly those lines for some seven decades—not exactly a success story.


But the single funniest line belongs to Michael Moore.  In the closing moments of the film, the man who brought Roger & Me to movie fans muses about the paradoxical decision of large corporations to distribute his anti-corporate films and TV shows.  He paraphrases the (possibly apocryphal) saying attributed to V.I. Lenin about how “the capitalists are so hungry for profits that they will sell us the rope to hang them with.”  The implication is that corporations want to make money off Moore's creations, even if distributing those creations may inspire hostility to capitalism.  Moore then looks into the camera and says, “I'm the rope.”


I'd like to think Moore was joking—perhaps a taking a sly, self-deprecating dig at the fame his previous films have earned him.  Unfortunately, he gives us no sign that he is joking—no sudden grin, no cue from his eyes, nothing indicating he's being ironic.  All I can do in response is to raise the old Bolshevik banner of “WWLS?”—”What would Lenin say?”


My advice: Skip The Corporation.  That's eight bucks less the celluloid Bolshies will have to buy rope with.