The anti-globalist performance guys who call themselves the Yes Men are masters of forging corporate rhetoric and media protocols. The most recent prank perpetrated by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not their real names) involved an eco-warning simulacrum of the New York Post (headline: “WE’RE SCREWED”), pegged to last month’s U.N. summits; their forte, however, is the phony website and the fraudulent PowerPoint presentation.
A sequel to their first film, The Yes Men (2004), The Yes Men Fix the World continues the saga with the heroes’ greatest stunt—one going live on BBC World in the guise of a Dow Chemical spokesman with the Pynchonian handle of “Jude Finisterra” to announce that Dow would mark the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster with a $12 billion aid plan for the victims. Stock dropped faster than the interviewer’s jaw.
The BBC, which had taken the bait of a faux-website, blamed the Yes Men for fooling the poor people of Bhopal into thinking they would get justice. But Fix the World asks that the spectator decide which hoax was crueler—the Yes Men’s, which at least directed attention back to Bhopal, or Dow’s. As hinted by their affirmative name, the Yes Men enact scenarios, however fleeting, of social justice. In a similar stunt, the duo impersonate a HUD representative and his flack, dropping in on a New Orleans event attended by the ever-jive Mayor Nagin, with the surprise news that HUD is reopening the Ninth Ward public housing projects shut down (and later destroyed) in Katrina’s wake.
These political tricksters have an additional agenda: identifying the late market über alles economist Milton Friedman as the enemy. (Their deadpan interviews with Friedman’s true believers are the most effectively informative aspect of the movie.) But mainly, Fix the World is about the beauty of the riff. The Yes Men are funniest when addressing a straight audience, making outlandish claims in favor of the free market and the benefits of unregulated catastrophe—the Black Plague gave us capitalism! What’s fascinating is spectator reaction (or lack of same). Some people laugh or register disgust; others find their ideas “refreshing.”Although the Yes Men’s presentation on Exxon’s plan to recycle unproductive corpses as a fuel called Vivoleum—which included passing out (smelly) candles as a sample—largely bombs, an equally ludicrous demonstration of an inflatable, extremely expensive survival suit is hailed as “very cool.” As one Yes Man explains, “Instead of freaking out, they just took our business cards.” People want to believe.
The Yes Men Fix the World ends on a utopian note with last November’s distribution of a fake, post-dated New York Times (among the thrilling headlines, “IRAQ WAR ENDS” and “Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy”). Random New Yorkers are amazed to find good news—strategically timed to celebrate the equally impossible election of Barack Obama. The Yes Men have pulled off another coup, although my own pleasure, watching Fix the World, was mitigated by the brief appearance in the film of one of ACORN’s founders—an unintentional reminder that left-wing tactics, whether community organizing or guerrilla theater, can be appropriated by the right.
Writing on the ACORN gotcha tapes in last week’s Nation, Chris Hayes referred to the Borat Effect—”human beings’ intense socialization to be helpful and not rock the boat, even when confronted with someone doing something objectionable, outrageous, or preposterous.” Although the Yes Men also draw on this syndrome, they almost never draw blood. They’re good guys who operate in the realm of materialized fantasy. Typically targeting some corporate Goliath, their performance pieces offer a taste of what utopia might feel like if authority told the truth. In this, Bichlbaum and Bonanno are essentially entertainers who strut and fret their hour on the media stage, delighting sympathetic audiences with the possibility of change.
The Yes Men’s virtuoso naturalism is essentially an exercise in pleasurable illusion. The real realists are the college clowns who pranked ACORN—the rich and privileged laughing at the poor and disenfranchised. What’s more, as made for YouTube, amplified by the Fox News megaphone, and set to the news cycle drumbeat, their crude stunt had actual repercussions.
The eponymous protagonist of the British film Bronson is another sort of hoax-perpetrating performance artist—but, upending a script he was handed, director Nicolas Winding Refn punches across his real-life story with such demented gusto that it’s difficult to ascertain the precise nature of Bronson’s act.
The inmate who renamed himself after a Hollywood action star has been incarcerated for all but a few months of the past 34 years—30 of them spent in solitary—having strategically attacked a succession of guards, attendants, and fellow inmates to parlay his initial seven-year sentence for armed robbery into a lifelong role as “Britain’s most violent prisoner.” The first thing Bronson tells us, in direct address, is that “all my life, I wanted to be famous.” Cut to the mad dog wannabe (played with insane brio by Tom Hardy) in his cell battling half a dozen screws.
With his shaved head, handlebar mustache, and mighty physique frequently stripped down for action, Hardy’s Bronson resembles a sideshow strongman—he also serves as the ringmaster and chief clown in the brawling three-ring circus that is Refn’s movie. Despite the naturalistic mayhem Refn deployed in his widely praised Pusher trilogy (violent, drug-dealer demimonde in darkest Denmark) and for all the bellowing fisticuffs here, Bronson is essentially a faux-operatic, music hall turn—a larky, lumpen version of Lola Montès. Bronson goes from prison to mental hospital to a few weeks of freedom, until another botched robbery lands him back in the slammer. There, he abruptly reveals a talent for drawing goofy cartoons. (The real Bronson makes art, writes poetry, and has published 11 books.) But pugnacity remains the source of his celebrity. He repeatedly traps unwary guards so as to ensure that he’ll get the shit kicked out of him once more.
Well received in the U.K., Bronson was bracketed with Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a more seriously visceral tale of an incorrigible, self-promoting prisoner. Bronson is lighter fare, but harder to watch—its over-bright palette and pop-eyed perkiness are assaultive in the manner of Australian comedies like Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding. The kernel of an idea—brutish antihero as irrepressible life force—is trampled into dust by the showy Sturm und Drang of Refn’s filmmaking.