Friday, August 31, 2012

Abuses of Power

In Craig Zobel’s terrifically executed new film Compliance, Sandra, the manager at an Ohio fast food outlet, gets a call from a police officer, accusing one of her employees, Becky, of theft, apparently corroborated by surveillance footage. With his arrival delayed by other demands, he asks Sandra to detain the employee, to interrogate her, to search her. Sandra’s hesitant, but since the officer confirms he’s already cleared the approach higher up the corporate chain, and since his command of the situation is self-evident, she goes along, and since Becky’s just a scared young woman who needs her job, she submits. It’s a busy Friday night, and the staff is stretched, so as the detention stretches on, and the officer’s arrival is further delayed, Sandra is forced to involve other employees, and then even her fiancee. But the film shows us early on that the officer isn’t who he claims – it’s a prank, a sick manipulation, an exploitation of human gullibility and submissiveness.

Walking out

The film has been somewhat controversial, with reports of people shouting at the screen or walking out – indeed, when I saw it at the Lightbox, I think four people left (a lot, in percentage terms). The issue seems to be that the exploitation of Becky exceeds what a viewer should be expected to submit to, although analyzed as a censor would do, by exposed private parts and what you see them doing, Zobel seems correct in saying “You have the impression that you're seeing more nudity than you actually do.” Anyway, this tells you the movie works well enough as an effectively creepy thriller, fully exploiting the easy identifiability of the premise, and one can easily imagine how someone like Brian de Palma might have pumped up the eroticism and displaced voyuerism, to make something more overtly “Hitchcockian” out of it.

Zobel has something different in mind though, and positions the film more as a social phenomenon (one based closely on documented real-life cases), with almost limitless metaphorical potential. In broad terms, the way Sandra and others so easily submit to the caller’s claim of authority seems to speak to a broader capitulation in America culture. In its first section, setting up the characters and the location, Zobel evokes the fast food joint with great finesse, establishing the economic needs of the characters, and the generational differences that separate Sandra from her employees and later assist in driving a wedge between them. He doesn’t hammer the point – this isn’t a sequel to Fast Food Nation – but he doesn’t need to: no matter how they might tweak their images, such chains embody better than any other commercial enterprise the sickness at the heart of the West, perpetuating countless interlocking cycles of low wages and high profits, ill-health and spiritual deadening, and ultimately a kind of quiet terror, which increasingly reveals itself as Compliance progresses.

Middle America

I found myself thinking for instance of how Barack Obama was hammered four years ago for talking about small towns where “the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them” and going on: “and it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Although it certainly sounds elitist, and perhaps doesn’t display much sensitivity to variations in culture and tradition, the basic point seems incontrovertible to me – that people place too much importance on things that ought to be tangential to them and (to extend Obama’s point) that this confused value system makes them ripe for being persistently duped by their rulers, into acting and voting calamitously against their own self-interests.

I should acknowledge that Zobel wouldn’t necessarily endorse that analysis: in the interviews I’ve seen, he seems to cast the film as an examination of human nature – of how, “in order to have a pleasant life, you have to be able to trust that people are who they say they are” – rather than a political statement. Quoting someone who saw the film as a portrayal of “Middle America,” he says “I think that's an inherently distancing and, honestly, condescending, way to look at it.” As such, the film starts to remind you of one of the old-time Hollywood creations which support endless reverie and analysis, regardless of whether their directors would have endorsed any of it (as a viewing experience though, with its intense focus on faces and interactions and its careful evocation of place and texture, it’s more reminiscent of the 70’s, reminding you – not that a reminder was needed - of how frothy and tiresome much of cinema seems now).

Disquiet of doubt

A recent New York Times column by Frank Bruni demonstrates further the film’s metaphorical reach, roping in additional touchpoints of American malaise: “People also routinely elect trust over skepticism because it’s easier, more convenient. Saddam Hussein is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction; the climate isn’t changing; Barack Obama’s birth certificate is forged; Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. To varying degrees, all of these were or are articles of faith, unverifiable or eventually knocked down. People nonetheless accepted them because the alternative meant confronting outright mendacity from otherwise respected authorities, trading the calm of certainty for the disquiet of doubt.”

Is there any silver lining in all this? Only perhaps that the character that finally brings it all to a halt is the film’s most obvious archetype, whose grizzled reaction of intuitive revulsion and refusal embodies the way Americans like to picture themselves, regardless that it’s increasingly a marginalized stereotype. But Zobel allows no sense of triumph, muddying the waters further in an intriguing series of final scenes, which allow some traditional narrative closure while cementing the sense of unbridgeable gulfs and shortfalls.

Even the title carries a bit of extra resonance, if you’ve worked in the financial industry as I have – for example, the Ontario Securities Commission has a “director of compliance and registrant regulation,” and there’s a prominent publication and website called “Compliance Week.” But of course, compliance – in the sense of obeying a bunch of rules – isn’t necessarily the same as (and may sometimes even be a smokescreen for having failed at) building an ethical culture. In the same way, the film’s portrayal early on of the prevailing rules for closing the freezer door, maintaining the food assembly line and so on tells us nothing about the quality or virtue of the food or of the organization; they’re rituals, of the sort that clog up our lives – and if they leave any element of our lives that’s not clogged up, then the media companies happily do all they can to clog up the rest.

Compliance isn’t a perfect film – if anything, I’d argue it should make its viewers even more uncomfortable in parts – but when a picture is this provocative, and so mentally bracing and useful, you’re more than happy to take it as it is.

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