Tuesday, July 28, 2009

'Yes Men', Sacha Baron-Cohen, and 'Gotcha' Entertainment

I did some work-related traveling this week, and I caught a snippet of the "Yes Men" movie (or show?), which features two merry pranksters who set up dummy websites, false identities, etc. in order to play pranks on evil corporations.

I came away very unimpressed, and even a bit disgusted.

One of their major pranks involved one of the Yes Men posing as a Dow lawyer, and setting up an interview with the BBC during which he announced that Dow would be offering a $12 billion settlement to survivors and family members of the 1984 Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal, India. This announcement, and the follow-up from Dow that it was in fact a hoax, has been well-documented on the Internet.

And as you might imagine, it temporarily raised -- and then crushed -- the spirits of thousands of the poor people in Bhopal, India that the Yes Men claim to champion. Ditto for the spoof HUD announcement about the re-opening of a New Orleans housing project condemned after Hurricane Katrina.

Of course, the Yes Men spun that by saying they were really helping those people by pointing out world injustices...and then manipulated their own film by showing clips of people in Bhopal and New Orleans saying what a great thing the Yes Men had done.

Great for whom? Sounds like it was great for the Yes Men, but bad for HUD, bad for Dow, but more importantly, bad for the people of Bhopal and New Orleans.

A lot of this stuff seems to be going around. I haven't seen the new Sacha Baron-Cohen movie featuring "Bruno" (though I know I will at some point), but I did see enough of Borat to eventually get frustrated at the way Baron-Cohen continually sets up ridiculous situations in order to portray Americans as backwards, racist, ignorant pigs. It gets a bit tiresome, and I have no doubt that Baron-Cohen uses clever splicing to prove his *points* just as Michael Moore does in all of his films. (Most notably, and regrettably, when Moore *proves* that the U.S. news media portrays people of color as criminals by repeatedly looping in local news clips that refer to non-white suspects by race...does anyone not see right through that?)

In any event, I just want to come out and strongly show my opposition to any kind of "Gotcha" used for political purposes. It's underhanded, it's manipulative, and the people who do it would be the first to cry foul were the shoe on the other foot.

For the record, that's totally different from anonymous blog posts and comments, which has been a very hot topic lately in the local blogosphere. Being anonymous, with or without an identifiable handle, is a conscious choice that I respect (with the only caveat that anonymity could be easily compromised, even by someone meaning no harm). A 'Gotcha' would be something like one writer or commenter posing as another in order to prove some type of point --- it seems like that would scarily easy to do, as celebrities keep finding out via Twitter and Facebook impersonations and wild rumors that follow.


Jon and Kate said...

The thing that's so offensive about the "gotcha" brand of comedy is that no one in their daily life expects to be the subject of an artfully contrived prank.

Case in point: when Borat showed up at that woman's house holding a bag of sh*t. People around me were howling -- how could she let him stay? How could she not know this was all a set-up?

Well, first of all, GOOD FOR HER for trying to be as open-minded as possible. Second, if a man claiming to be from Kazhikstani television showed up at your house with a professional camera crew in tow and claimed to be making a documentary of America, why in the Lord's Name would you think it was a carefully orchestrated prank for a major motion picture?! So the audience laughs at this woman only because they have knowledge that she didn't. That's just smug and superior and not funny.

PS -- This also goes for the show Punk'd. I remember in college we watched Justin Timberlake get "punk'd" -- a bunch of repo guys showed up at his house claiming he had missed credit card payments. The thing is, if you're JT you have a business manager who oversees these things, so JT starts freaking out, near tears...and everyone I'm watching it with is like "JT is such an IDIOT. HAHAHA." But for Chrissakes, why would he ever in a million years think that this was all some elaborate set-up for an MTV show which had yet to air when the prank was pulled?

The New Englander said...


Thanks for adding. Your example about Borat reminds me of what Nick said after seeing the movie --even though it was clearly designed to show Americans, particularly southern ones, in a bad light, it actually just shows how open and welcoming the culture is.

Agree that it's way too easy to see everything afterwards when you know it's a show or movie..and your comment made me realize I should confess I actually love the show "Boiling Points." I must admit that BP relies heavily on a certain brand of "Gotcha" but it's just a clearer mix of comedy and sociology that's not trying to prove some political point.

Michael Moore, Yes Men, and other shows like it are different because they're using the "Gotcha" not just to make people laugh, or to show how many times Justin Timberlake can say "dog" in a five-minute spiel, but to try to make these supposedly deep points about gun control, or corporations, or the news media, or whatever..