|13/06/04||The Alienation Market By ROB WALKER|
In their 1944 work, ''Dialectic of Enlightenment,'' Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno advanced a theory on the far-reaching power of what they called ''the culture industry.'' This entity, encompassing all forms of mass culture, media and the businesses behind them, made up such a totalizing system that it was literally impossible to rebel against it. This complex not only anticipated the urge to revolt but would sell you something to satisfy it. (Che Guevara T-shirt, anyone?) It's a resoundingly depressing theory but an interesting one to recall, because anticorporate sentiment is lately prominent in pop culture.
The most intriguing example is a documentary called ''The Corporation,'' which opens in about 30 cities across the United States this summer. The film offers a fairly relentless (though at times clever and quite entertaining) two-and-a-half-hour assault on business power; it gives screen time to Noam Chomsky and the radical historian Howard Zinn, and it depicts the corporation not just as a callous and brutish institution but also as a ''psychopath.'' Produced in Canada, it has been playing in that country since January and has so far grossed about $1.1million, a record for a Canadian documentary; a companion book with the same name made it onto Canadian best-seller lists. It has been an audience hit at festivals from Toronto to Sundance, and the filmmakers say that thousands of people have signed up on the Web site to send e-mail and hand out fliers to promote the film. ''The Corporation'' has also picked up distribution in Great Britain, France, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea and Australia. This is not bd for a film that aims in part ''to alienate viewers from the normalcy of the dominant culture,'' in the words of one of its makers, Mark Achbar.
There's an audience for alienation at the moment. Probably the most talked-about American documentary of the year has been ''Super Size Me,'' the Upton Sinclair-meets-''Jackass'' film in which Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days and details the calamitous effects on his body and mind. Later this year, United Artists is slated to distribute ''The Yes Men,'' a documentary that mocks the World Trade Organization. Hovering in the background is the coming release of ''Fahrenheit 9/11,'' the latest offering from Michael Moore, who made his name by zinging big business in ''Roger and Me'' 15 years ago and has continued to do so in most of his work since then.
So what exactly is going on here? In Achbar's view, ''There's a real disenchantment with corporate culture.'' Many people see corporations as having governmentlike power with almost no accountability and don't see the standard media outlets dealing with that issue. ''So they've got to go to a movie theater to see their values reflected,'' he says.
Does that bring us back to Horkheimer and Adorno? Is the culture industry really threatened by these films? Maybe: Disney refused to let its Miramax unit distribute ''Fahrenheit 9/11.'' Or maybe not: the book version of ''The Corporation,'' written by Achbar's collaborator Joel Bakan, is published by The Free Press — owned by the sprawling media giant Viacom. And ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' may be controversial, but the Miramax honchos Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who bought the film rights themselves after the Disney fracas, promptly made a deal that will put the movie on 1,000 screens this summer.
But does the theatergoer simply express his or her outrage with the cathartic purchase of a movie ticket, and everything goes on just as before? Bakan, who teaches law and critical theory at the University of British Columbia, thinks not. Among those interviewed in ''The Corporation'' is Michael Moore himself, and toward the end of the film he argues that his own career is proof of a sort of greed loophole in the culture industry that allows dissenters to exploit the system to their own ends: the rich man will sell you the rope you will use to hang him if he thinks he can profit from it. (Provocative analysis, eh, Weinsteins?) Bakan says this is what's happening, and that it's happening because there is an authentic hunger to understand corporate power in a way that most media accounts don't. ''I think the market for our film and the book and the other critical stuff shows that people are actually really interested in engaging with critical ideas,'' he says. And if you're trying to figure out whether pop dissnt can truly affect the culture industry, it may be that the marketplace is the only place to look.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company