Sunday, November 1, 2009

If I Were A Pitch Man

In today's world of media whores fighting media wars, it's all about whose messaging gets heard by the public. In an era of political agendas, limited shelf space, and disappearing print media pitted against 24-hour news cycles, the ability to shape the public's perspective on any given topic has become a battleground for pundits, politicians, and pitch men.

Once upon a time (and not so very long ago) dissemination of news items was carefully controlled. Meticulously crafted press releases went straight from "official sources" to the revered and respected mainstream media. As recently as 1997, when Barry Levinson's political farce, Wag The Dog, showed how a Washington spin doctor could create a media distraction in the form of a fake war by working with a Hollywood producer, the tools of video production were still prohibitively expensive.

Today, we have adolescents sexting each other pictures of their private parts on their cell phones. Any teenager with decent computer skills can put together a surprisingly effective video and post it on YouTube.

In the early 1970s, members of New York's Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) gained media attention by performing political zaps. Beginning with 1989's Roger & Me, filmmaker Michael Moore became notorious for his simply executed but highly effective zaps of businessmen and politicians. Here is Moore confronting former actor turned President of the National Rifle Association, Charlton Heston, in a clip from his 2002 documentary Bowling For Columbine:

Inspired by Moore and other filmmakers, political zaps have developed into carefully planned pieces of guerrilla theatre which, because they can so easily be captured on cell phones and digital cameras, have an excellent chance of going viral. The current level of sophistication is perfectly captured in the following video (which quickly went viral on the Internet and was recently shown on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart).

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As corporate communications have become more effective at hiding gross acts of corporate malfeasance from the public, the best way to fight back is often with the exact same tools and techniques used by powerful corporations. Nobody does this better than The Yes Men, two brilliant media pranksters -- Andy Bichlbaum (a/k/a/ Jacques Servin) and Mike Bonanno (a/k/a Igor Vamos) -- who have pulled off some breathtaking acts of political derring-do.

Andy Bichlbaum (Jacques Servin) and Mike Bonanno (Igor Vamos)

As Ray Thomas, Servin is the co-founder of ®TMark, an activist collective which, as a registered corporation "brings together activists who plan projects with donors who fund them. It thus operates outside the laws governing human individuals and benefits from the much looser laws governing corporations." With Servin's help, the collective's long history of accomplishments has consisted of media zaps aimed to "subvert the corporate shield which protects U.S. corporations."

Through Fiction Collective Two, Servin has published two books of short stories: Mermaids for Attila (1991) and Aviary Slag ((1996). Early in his career as a code monkey he became famous for getting fired from his job at Maxis after surreptitiously adding some subversive code to a popular video game. As he explains:
"In charge of creating the people in SimCopter, I added some boys in swim trunks and had them kiss under certain conditions: on my birthday, my boyfriend's birthday, and on Friday the 13th (for some reason). What I did was not just about gay pride -- I mean really, I suppose video games should have gay characters, but this issue was never very important to me. I did it only partly because I thought it was a good idea and a funny thing that would amuse a lot of people.

The bigger reason I did it was anger at being worked so hard with no relief. The attitude of my manager, who has since been dismissed, was really arrogant. He assumed it was okay to work me 60 hours a week with no immediate reward, no apologies, no sympathy for my particular situation. I think it's probably illegal to demand that workers put in more than 40 hours a week, but it's quite routine, and not only in software.

If it hadn't been for that, I would have been a lot more interested in keeping my job and might not have put in the kissing boys. Exploitation is bad business, at least when the exploited workers are in control of the product and can easily find new jobs."
While enrolled as a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Igor Vamos helped to create the Guerilla Theater of the Absurd. According to Wikipedia:
"They performed and documented culture jamming acts of protest, including Reverse Peristalsis Painters, where 24 people in suits stood outside the downtown venue of Dan Quayle's fundraiser for Oregon senator Bob Packwood and drank ipecac, forcing themselves to vomit the red, white and blue remains of the mashed potatoes and food coloring they had consumed earlier. Following their middle of the night contribution to the debate over re-naming Portland's Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, the city awoke to find that all of the street signs and freeway exits for another major boulevard had been changed to read 'Malcolm X Street.'

Another successful early project was the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO), where Vamos and his cohorts purchased three hundred Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, exchanged their electronic voice boxes, and then returned them to the stores. The soldiers ended up saying things like 'Let's go shopping!' while the Barbies exclaimed 'Vengeance is mine!' It was a small-scale project and few people actually found themselves in possession of the switched dolls, but the stunt nevertheless attracted national media attention."

Since then, Bichlbaum and Bonnano (who consider themselves to be serious anti-globalization gonzo activists) have scaled increasingly greater heights of anti-corporate comedic terrorism. Their latest film, The Yes Men Fix The World, gives new meaning to old-fashioned terms like chutzpah and audacity.

Posing as corporate spokesmen for such multinational corporations as Exxon, Halliburton, or even the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Yes Men strike with the fierce accuracy of a laser. One of their media hoaxes caused the price of Dow Chemical Company stock to plummet. Printing and distributing fake editions of The New York Times to show what the news should be saying is one of their more brilliant coups.

Andy Bichlbaum with a fake edition of The New York Times

Over the years, the Yes Men have perfected a technique of posing as top executives of corporations they hate. Armed with little more than cheap business suits, the duo skillfully manage to lie their way into business conferences where they zap their corporate targets in jaw-dropping, provocative stunts. Their ultimate goal? To alert the masses to the danger of letting corporate greed run and ruin the world.

Whether demonstrating a new survival suit (supposedly designed by Halliburton) or informing a banquet hall filled with corporate types that the lovely souvenir candles on their luncheon tables were made from a newly-discovered renewable source of energy (dead people), the Yes Men merrily, proudly -- and quite rudely -- continue to prove who really has the higher moral ground.

Even when it seems as if their brilliant hoaxes on corporations might have a negative impact on the people they are trying to champion (victims of 2005's Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or or Union Carbide Corporation's 1984 catastrophe in Bhopal, India -- which has come to be known as the worst industrial accident in history), they discover that the powerless are actually quite grateful that someone has finally made a genuine effort to shine a spotlight on the sad truths of their unfortunate circumstances.

As for their day jobs? Jacques Servin's Wikipedia page claims that he us an assistant professor in subversion at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. The RPI faculty page for Vamos states that:
"Igor Vamos is a media artist and culture jammer living and working in New York. Vamos is well-known for his collaborative public art projects such as the Barbie Liberation Organization and the Center For Land Use Interpretation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the increase and dissemination of knowledge about the nature of human interaction with the Earth. Currently, Vamos is teaching at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute."
More fun than Robin Hood and his Merry Men (who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor),
The Yes Men Fix The World is a brilliant exercise in political activism and media payback. Not to be missed, you'll finding yourself gasping at the bravado of the Yes Men and silently cheering them on as you watch their latest film. Here's the trailer:

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By contrast, David Mamet's stage farce, November, mocks what could easily be happening behind the scenes at one of the world's most powerful news sources: The White House. Mamet (who co-wrote Wag The Dog) knows the political turf of Washington as well as he understands the kind of ruthless deal making one finds in Hollywood (Speed The Plow).

While much of the media buzz surrounding the January 2008 Broadway premiere of November focused on the potent triumvirate of its star (Nathan Lane), playwright (David Mamet), and director (Joe Mantello) -- as well as the failed Presidency of George W. Bush -- the inspiration for the play actually came from Mamet's disgust with the absurd ritual of having the President of the United States pardon a turkey shortly prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Now receiving its West Coast premiere from American Conservatory Theatre, Mamet's play proves to be an extremely economical comedy that requires only one set and five actors. While some insist the play will become irrelevant as George W. Bush fades into the background, I disagree. There are corrupt politicians everywhere. Mamet's President Charles H. P. Smith (Andrew Polk) is only one in a long line of political jackasses.

Andrew Polk as President Charles H. P. Smith (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Mamet sets the stage with clinical precision, using only a handful of characters:
  • President Charles H. P. Smith (Andrew Polk) is an incompetent, clueless, and sleazy chief executive whose greed is only exceeded by his innate stupidity. A firm believer in the power of quid pro quo politics, a rare flash of intelligence has convinced him that he's not getting paid enough to pardon the official Thanksgiving turkey (especially now that he's expected to pardon two turkeys for the price of one). A smarmy politician whose ratings have fallen "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol level," he is seriously considering pardoning all of the turkeys in America just one week before the national election that could deprive him of a second term. Universally loathed for his lack of ethics, Smith is desperate to find an issue that could help him get re-elected. Meanwhile, his blabbermouth wife refuses to understand that, even if she did have the couch refurbished, they can't take it home when they leave the White House because the work was paid for with taxpayers' money. And, oops, she just leaked something to the media about a possible war with Iran.
  • Archer Brown (Anthony Fusco) is the President's beleagured Chief of Staff who most field opposing phone calls, juggle appointments, and try to cope with the President's nonstop inanity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • A Representative of the National Association of Turkey and Turkey By-products Manufacturers (Manoel Feliciano) is a smug, self-righteous and extremely homophobic conservative lobbyist with a grand sense of entitlement.
  • Clarice Bernstein (René Augesen) is the President's chief speechwriter who has just returned from China with a baby she is adopting with her lesbian lover. A frustrated Jewish dyke who has been laid low by a horrible cold and is exhausted from jet lag, she has nevertheless been dragged into work by her dimwitted boss -- who has promised Clarice anything she wants if she will just do one big favor for him. Of course she will, providing he allows Clarice and her girlfriend to be married in public.
Andrew Polk and René Augesen (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Dwight Grackle (Steven Anthony Jones) is the irate chief of the MicMac Indian tribe who is aching to build a 4,000-room hotel and casino complex on Nantucket Island. Following an extremely rude phone conversation with the President (during which Smith expressed his sincere hope that the chief's second wife is eaten by a walrus), he has arrived in the Oval Office ready to avenge the insult to his wife's honor.
Stephen Anthony Jones and Andrew Polk (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Put these people in the same room and you get a whole lot more than Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo. The joy to be found in Mamet's play lies not just in the sheer silliness of the situation, but also in the fierce pace with which language is thrown about. As directed by Ron Lagomarsino, the performance essentially becomes a ballet with carefully crafted political zingers wrapped in an unending volley of Mamet's signature expletive: "Fuck you!"

Erik Flatmo's unit set for the Oval Office keeps the playing field wide open. The one glaring anachronism is the fact that the President's speechwriter works on a portable manual typewriter (a reflection of Mamet's personal refusal to learn how to use a computer). It does, however, provide an easy excuse to litter the stage with crumpled pieces of paper.

As much as I enjoyed Andrew Polk's portrayal of President Smith, I found myself wanting someone much sleazier in the role -- perhaps an actor like Jon Lovitz. Anthony Fusco's Chief of Staff bore a startling resemblance to Saturday Night Live's amiable Will Forte while René Augesen's Clarice bore the brunt of Smith's idiocy. Kudos to Manoel Felciano and Steven Anthony Jones for their robust characterizations of the hypocritical lobbyist and the angry Indian chief.

If November does receive any future productions, I suspect they will be from university theater departments or regional theatre companies located on the East and West Coasts. The people who would benefit the most from a performance of November are the staunch conservatives who populate America's fly-over country -- the "real Americans" whose delicate sensitivities and superficial morality could never survive an evening at the theatre chock full of Mamet's venomous expletives.

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