Yes Men, The

Having seen most if not all of this year’s bumper crop of political movies, each putting the left-wing case against George W. Bush, the Republicans or corporate America more stridently than the last, I think The Yes Men by Chris Smith, Dan Ollman and Sarah Price ought to get some sort of award as the most perfect specimen of its kind. This is because it makes explicit what is implicit and hidden in the other ones. Not only does it exclude any point of view other than the authors’ own, but it brings onto the stage a couple of “performance artists” calling themselves the Yes Men who deliberately and openly burlesque the opposition’s views. Like Michael Moore, that is, these guys have discovered that it’s a lot easier to satirize and make fun of somebody if you get to put stupid and nonsensical words in his mouth. There’s nothing like inventing the views of your opposition for making them easier to refute — indeed, self-discrediting.

But while Moore, who could have learned this trick from Garry Trudeau, fabricates absurdity on behalf of the opposition with clever editing and fanciful conjecture, all the while pretending to allow his targets to speak for themselves, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, the Yes Men, discard even so much pretense of fairness. Instead, they dress up in funny costumes, write themselves absurd scripts, and then impersonate the people they oppose. In the movie these are mainly the good folks of the World Trade Organization, though the Yes Men have also taken on Bush and the Republicans, most recently at the Republican convention as a means of publicizing their movie. They delight in their ability to fool people, as they suppose, into thinking that they really represent the views of those they so dislike.

In the most elaborate of the film’s pranks, for instance, they go to a WTO-sponsored conference in Finland and Bichlbaum, impersonating someone he calls Hank Hardy Unruh, gives a lecture celebrating the “remote labor” employed by Western corporations with factories in the Third World as a natural development out of slavery. Then, at a certain point in the lecture, his accomplice tears away his respectable business suit to reveal a skin-tight gold lamé outfit with a gigantic inflatable penis into the head of which has been fitted a TV monitor. This is supposed to be a Big Brother-type telescreen for watching the peons at work — yet another of the season’s hijackings of Orwell — which he calls an “employee visualization appendage.” We are meant to suppose that the appreciative audience believed it all.

Like Moore’s ambush interviews, this kind of thing could be funny if the Yes Men and their movie-biographers weren’t so earnest and self-righteous about it. Nowhere do they show any capacity for self-irony or even any awareness that, though they obviously believe themselves to be politically serious, there is not a single political argument in their movie. This is because, allowing only parody arguments from the right, they have no need at all for any of their own and simply assume the agreement of their audience. In this they are probably justified, but they seem not to notice what a lot their audience’s good-will is actually being asked to swallow.

Neither Bichlbaum and Bonanno nor the film-makers, for example, seem to consider for a moment the possibility that those whom they believe themselves to have fooled actually think them idiots — as of course they are pretending to be idiots — and are only too polite to say so. This embarrassed politeness is then taken to betoken the supposed dupes’ agreement with the silliness and absurdity being promulgated in their name. “We give them what we think they want, which is the opinions of the WTO as accurately as we can represent them,” they say with astonishing disingenuousness of such proposals as banning the siesta in Spain and Italy and the buying and selling of votes at democratic elections — not to mention the employee visualization appendage. Then, crows one of them, “people didn’t even notice that what I said was so absurd.” Can he really believe this? If so, it is a staggering act of self-deception.

But I think he doesn’t really believe that he has duped any of those whose views he so blatantly caricatures and falsifies into believing that he agrees with them. And if not, then he must also be aware at some level that the real dupes are those in the cinema audience who allow themselves to believe that these people whom they oppose politically must all be be either knaves or fools. There is an interesting illustration of such left-wing credulity at another point in the film when our heroes are pretending to be spokesmen for McDonald’s and are addressing a business class at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. McDonald’s, they tell the students, is instituting a new, more efficient sort of hamburger — one which is to be made out of human excrement. The teenagers in the room mostly look at each other or at the floor in embarrassment, but a few are obviously taken in. One of them stands up and says angrily: “I can’t believe that the corporate world is run by you guys!”

Once again, the film-makers appear to be unaware of any irony. Of course that’s just what the poor sap can believe — and what the Yes Men’s admirers, every bit as dunderheaded as he, are supposed to believe too, on their say-so. Can those whom the Yes Men imagine they have bamboozled be as credulous as that? It’s pretty hard to believe. To adapt an old saying, if you allow yourself to believe that those who are politically opposed to you are just suckers, then you’re the sucker.

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