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When Yes Means No

Michael Atkinson

The worst of times, the best of times: Sure, our nation is in the hands of a federal cabal to which nothing — lives, rights, nature, language, science, sovereignty — is sacred. Except profit. But as a result the popular culture is rousing from its inoculated slumber like it hasn’t in 35 years. 

The symptoms of mass awakening are everywhere, but note, please, the astonishing surge of nonfiction film occupying even corporate-chain theaters, bellowing radical truisms. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 may be as historic as the war it critiques (and might turn out to be the most effective piece of political cinema since Leni Riefenstahl), but 2004 also has seen, so far, The Corporation (a wickedly eloquent exposé of business power), The Hunting of the President (in which Ken Starr gets hung out to dry, finally), the anti-McD’s hit Super Size Me, the desegregation history With All Deliberate Speed, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (which left Western culpability implicit, but still) and the popular Al-Jazeera chronicle Control Room. Coming soon is the Howard Zinn profile You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, and, if we’re lucky, the thus-far-undistributed Orwell Rolls in His Grave (on the new Newspeak) and Fernando Solanas’ Memoria del Saqueo, a furious history of federal Argentine skullduggery and IMF devastation.

Into this thick tide strolls The Yes Men, a chronicle of scathing dissent in a plague year. Assembled by the team responsible for the Kopple-esque American Job (1995) and the decidedly less so American Movie (1999), the new film traces the trajectory of the loose-knit titular conspiracy, as it’s led by two seasoned yet irreverent activists (a story arc, by the way, that constitutes most of the film’s hilarious narrative, and so readers may wish to avoid spoilers here). Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno already were huge in the stunningly huge corporate-sabotage underground movement exemplified by ®™ark​.com (see it to believe it). As a gaming software worker, Bichlbaum reprogrammed the SimCity video game so that its background characters would become gay bodybuilders on certain dates. Bonanno, as a member of the highly publicized Barbie Liberation Army, participated in the campaign to switch hundreds of Barbie and G.I. Joe voice boxes and then return the toys to store shelves. (This intervention created an uproarious storm of amused press and was more thoroughly recounted in Craig Baldwin’s 1995 quasi-doc Sonic Outlaws.)

Together, the boys simply set up a Web site parody of the WTO, dryly cheerleading the institution’s economic cut-and-burn tactics, at a surprisingly unclaimed domain name: GATT​.org. Neither of the merry pranksters seemed too surprised when people began responding to the site as if it were genuine. But then they were invited to speak in person—on CNBC and at economic conferences — as representatives of the WTO. Men of their word, they bought secondhand suits, got on planes and did it.

As affable as its protagonists are, The Yes Men, in the end, is somewhat slight: Bonanno and Bichlbaum’s opportunities to enter the public eye as honest” WTO execs were occasional, often small-time and sometimes scarcely attended. Too much of the film is spent watching them travel, shop and worry about scheduling. But the upside is wondrous, particularly Bichlbaum’s CNBC appearance as a WTO spokesman (his ridiculous noms de incartade have a W.C. Fields-ian panache), straightfacedly spouting capitalist gibberish, and his lecture in Finland to an audience of European economists, which espoused the return of slavery and climaxed with the introduction of a gold manager’s suit,” complete with 3-foot inflatable phallus.

In our media-balkanized slipstream, The Yes Men can have the effect of a nurturing salve, merely by virtue of its heroes’ eloquent anti-corporate ideas. Yet if The Yes Men seems to, in the end, only half-fulfill its own outrageous ambitions, then maybe that’s because it feels like the first chapter — the initial salvo — of a far broader, far angrier and far more newsworthy protest process. It could be, perhaps, a weekly cable program — but of course the irony remains that the more famous the Yes Men might become, the less effective they’d be as surreptitious agents of public mockery. But perhaps not: theyes​men​.org is an ongoing concern, enlisting thousands of new Yes Men to act on their consciences and do it with Voltairean flair. If you want more, sign up today.

Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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