In the closing minutes of this epic, sobering documentary from Canada, left-wing celebrity Michael Moore articulates the challenge that filmmakers Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott face.
Will they manage to make a serious, political movie that can send people out of the cinema with a compulsion to take some action in the social sphere? Or will their effort simply be consumed like any other cultural commodity, quickly forgotten or merely sequestered away as an intellectual experience?
Even the audience applause which greeted the session I attended is ambiguous in this regard.
Thirty to forty years ago, at the height of militant cinema in many countries, that dilemma was put slightly differently. Activist filmmaker-theorists like Edouard de Laurot (Black Liberation, 1967) explored ways in which to leave a movie open enough for the spectator to want to finish it – in reality rather than on the screen.
The trap, as it was perceived back then, was to make a political movie too entertaining and spectacular, and so self-enclosed that its message – whether rousing or tragic – simply left the viewer depleted, disconnected from reality.
The Corporation hits its audience like a sledgehammer. It has a lot of harsh, troubling news to impart about the state of the world, and it does so concisely and sharply, with cumulative force over its two and a half hours. Is it indeed too powerful to wield its desired, galvanising effect?
Achbar and Abbott are acutely aware that their central thesis, adapted from Joel Bakan's book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, tends towards an inevitably pessimistic conclusion. Modern corporations have developed without significant legal restrictions or an ethical conscience. Their appalling industrial practices have laid waste to the Third World, while their insidious marketing campaigns have penetrated the mind of the smallest child.
The Corporation finally puts its faith in some recent manifestations of people power – with heavyweight celebrities including Moore, Noam Chomsky (subject of Achbar's previous Manufacturing Consent ) and Naomi Klein stoking this optimistic analysis. But, in this film-essay where governments seems so insignificant that they are hardly mentioned, it seems like the most momentous change will only come from the rare moments of authentic corporate self-criticism, such as that launched by Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface – who emerges as one of the most memorable and remarkable figures in this documentary.
Conceptually, this film strays all over the map. Economic analyses of corporate power do not always interlock seamlessly with the Kleinian evocation of a logo-branded world, or psycho-semiotic theories of how mass media influence us to consume. Yet this mixed-mode of investigation tends to work well over the long haul of the piece.
The form of modern documentary is increasingly tending towards a careful mimicry of both computer technology and DVD presentation. Hence the constant interruption of a mock menu in The Corporation, suggesting dozens of other related case studies that could be perused as files or options. (Menu-tricks in necessarily un-navigatable big screen experiences tend, unfortunately, to come over like boorish, pedantic lesson plans – as in Thom Anderson and Noël Burch's otherwise invaluable Red Hollywood .)
The Corporation employs a slick, rapid style that is becoming de rigueur in contemporary American documentaries. Extensive use is made of clips from television, film and especially the wondrous promotional and educational shorts (courtesy of the Prelinger Archives) made by the corporations themselves.
There is a note of facile humour and opportunistic satire involved in the recycling of such old, scratchy promotional material: of course, the cheery smiles, neat haircuts and smart suits of yesteryear look ridiculous now, and the calm recitation of numbers, facts and statistics today seem sinisterly prophetic. But does this really constitute a cultural or political analysis?
It's the same when, in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) or its ilk, any politician unwise enough to fondly remember in public a childhood viewing of Daniel Boone or John Wayne is rewarded, for his trouble, by immediate juxtaposition with some audiovisual sample of idiot-grinning, Hollywoodised pioneer-Americana optimism.
The Corporation mercifully stops short of the all-out, satirical comedy that Michael Moore constructs from the montage of news footage, old movie clips and sardonic voice-over commentary. Nor does it attempt the sort of one-on-one, feral interrogation of people familiar from the political documentaries of Errol Morris or Claude Lanzmann.
Instead, Achbar and Abbott replay a disquieting 'distancing effect' from classic militant cinema. In a scene showing pleasant footage of innocent children singing at a party, they remove the song "Happy Birthday" from the soundtrack – because even that daily pleasure now comes with a whopping great corporate price tag.
© Adrian Martin September 2004