Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Yes Men (Independent, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Yes Men is a 2004 documentary about a couple of pranksters, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, who got into the business by chance when they were offered an Internet domain name, “,” in 1999 just as George W. Bush was gearing up his run for the Presidency. (The real Bush Web site was They decided to use the site as an avenue for anti-Bush commentary — including posting the accusations that the young Bush had used cocaine during his party-hearty days before he sobered up and found Jesus, or maybe the reverse — provoking a comment from Bush himself that “there ought to be limits on freedom” (!) when he was asked about it during a press conference. (That explains a lot about how we’ve been governed over the last eight years!) Flush (so to speak) with that success, they then launched a phony Web site for the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade — the predecessor to the World Trade Organization — and found that they were getting invitations to speak from people who thought they were part of the real World Trade Organization and wanted WTO representatives to address various conferences on the economic future of the world.

The movie doesn’t come right out and say whether or not Bonanno and Bichlbaum are Gay, or a couple (though it does begin with an intriguing scene of Bonanno helping Bichlbaum to undress in a men’s room — Bichlbaum arrived late for a demonstration and had to put on his costume in a rush — and the film drops a big hint when it mentions that before they got into political actions they worked for a video-game company and sneaked male-on-male kisses into a popular game), but in their stunts they come across as a real-life performance-art version of the Marx Brothers, especially the Marx Brothers in their two most audacious authority-defying films, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. Like Groucho Marx as a college president in Horse Feathers and a dictator in Duck Soup, the Yes Men in character (Bichlbaum was usually their public spokesperson, under a variety of aliases, while Bonanno worked behind the scenes, helping brainstorm the actions and recruiting the other people they needed to make them possible) would appear utterly seriously before various corporate and political elite audiences, say the most outrageous things, and find the audiences agreeing with them — or at least hearing them out politely — when they called for things like the re-enslavement of the African workforce (“full private stewardry of labor,” they called it, showing an excellent command of WTO Newspeak) or the recycling of human waste into food for Third World countries (“ReBurger,” they called it, advancing it as a public-private partnership between the WTO and McDonald’s).

What’s most grimly amusing about The Yes Men is that they went into these meetings hoping to awaken a moral sense among the corporados who were the attendees — that by ramping up the corporations über alles assumptions of the WTO to the point of absurdity à la Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (a precedent frequently cited in the reviews of this film) they were hoping to get the people at these conferences to rebel, to chew them out, say how disgusting they thought these ideas were and walk out. Instead, the people in the audience sat calmly and took notes on all this garbage (much like the courtiers in Horse Feathers and Duck Soup trying to make sense of all Groucho’s nonsense and maintain the expected attitude of total obsequiousness to him). This forced them to ramp up the absurdity of their stunts to the point where at one conference they had Andy dress in a breakaway suit under which he was wearing a gold lamé superhero costume with a giant (four-foot long) inflatable phallus which, he explained, contained a TV receiver by which an executive on his “leisure” hours in a First World country could nonetheless observe and directly supervise workers in a Third World country via the transmitters surgically implanted in them as a means of remote control.

The only people in the movie who reacted the way Mike and Andy originally wanted them to and hoped they would were the college students at a university in Plattsburgh, New York to whom they gave the “ReBurger” presentation (adding an additional knife-twist by supplying the whole room hamburgers, actually perfectly normal ones from McDonald’s, and then leaving them to wonder whether they were really eating Shitburgers); one student walked out and others challenged them during the Q&A, saying that they seemed to be arguing that poor people deserve to eat shit simply because they’re poor. During the last sequence they get invited to a speech in Australia (their travel, interestingly, was funded by Herb Alpert’s foundation!) and, instead of repeating the “ReBurger” presentation as originally planned, they decided to announce a mea culpa statement by the World Trade Organization that effective in mid-2002 they would shut down all their operations and re-invent themselves as an organization actually devoted to ending global poverty instead of enriching corporations and elites in First World countries.

One man in the audience last night was upset by this last — and some later stunts the Yes Men have similarly pulled, emerging in places like Bhopal and post-Katrina New Orleans that have been especially hard-hit by corporate-driven depradations and promising them relief that in fact never arrives — saying that events like this give hard-hit people the hope that they’re going to be helped when they’re really not. (He also cited their very latest action — passing out a million copies of a mock edition of the New York Times, dated July 4, 2009, announcing as “news” every item on the progressive wish list for the Obama administration along with such other mock stories as Condoleeza Rice apologizing for helping the Bush administration lie us into the war in Iraq — as another example of them raising false hopes among the victims of corporate rule that reality will soon dash.) I could see his point; certainly the Yes Men themselves seem far more effective in their “negative” actions targeting the elites they’re ridiculing — and perhaps the two most poignant scenes showed Bichlbaum in character debating a real anti-globalization activist on the British version of CNBC (needless to say, the American version would never dare put on someone who didn’t think globalization and the WTO were the greatest inventions since fire!) and the real anti-globalization activist getting more and more flummoxed by the nonsense he was hearing and being asked to respond to; and a later sequence in which the Yes Men sought out the same activist for help on a subsequent project and had a hard time convincing him — even with Andy in the flesh leaning his head against the image of Andy on the TV screen showing their taped interview — that Andy was the person he had debated on CNBC.