Our Suspension of Disbelief

October 23rd, 2009 § 0 comments

Watching the new documentary made by and about The Yes Men forced me to remember that it is easy to confuse something’s popularity in nyc with its popularity throughout the country. For most people, The Yes Men Fix the World probably needs a lot more background explanation than most other documentaries. While nyc, especially after the New York Times prank of last winter, is full of enthusiastic supporters of their political pranks—film audiences here were lead off after certain screenings to perform late night, humor based vandalism—I usually find myself explaining the group to others elsewhere.

the yes men

The Yes Men, a group started by and consisting of Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, who are not really named Mike or Andy, are political pranksters who could also be considered identity activists. Their pranks revolve around what they call “identity correction,” as they impersonate various different companies that provide a variety of “services”—oil giants, housing contractors, financial institutions such as the WTO—at conventions and conferences. They offer their suspicious audiences extremes of good and evil the actually company would never go to itself. The film, predictably, features the exploits of The Yes Men, walking us through their thought process for pranking, and the inspiration for their grievances. The film, also predictably, is shot in that spoof-like, fake heist manner that seems so popular. I find myself missing the traditional talking head, dull historical documentaries I used to watch as a child.

the yes men 1

If the silly nature of the film doesn’t work, however, humor is the great strength of the group themselves. Their pranks are not particularly effective politically and they lack the persuasive propagandist qualities of Michael Moore, but they have a wonderful kind of self-reflective humor that grants believability to otherwise outrageously impossible ideas. The Yes Men’s sincerity, not of political purpose but to the projects they take on—creating candles made from the byproducts of a human body, designing high-tech inflatable costumes, recreating the New York Times—suspends our disbelief for much longer than it should. Watching the film I wondered how it was possible for people to take their impersonations seriously. Their presentations scream out taunts, and the ideas they present reek of political and ethical critique. I remembered myself, however, walking three blocks, two flights of stairs, four hallways, and spending about 10 minutes at my desk before I fully accepted the fakeness of the New York Times in my hand. It was not that I believed the war in Iraq was over, or that it was July 4th 2009, but I didn’t discard the possibility either. The Yes Men know how to present to their given audience with a utopian/dystopian idea engaging enough to make us at least consider the possibility of their idea, leaving us in a strange inbetween state of mind.

the yes men 2

Following the film Mike and Andy were asked how, considering the failure of their pranks to accomplish any real change other than bringing a small amount of attention to some commonly known abuses, they continued to find the enthusiasm to keep up with their “work.” They seemed confused at the prospect that they don’t enjoy their work, and I would venture to guess they enjoy all parts of their pranks: everything from finding a target, placing the bait, and finding the corrected disguise, to attending the convention, presenting their idea, and getting caught. Many people took the film title a little too seriously, and likewise were taking The Yes Men too seriously. Of course they are passionate about “fixing” the world, and obviously they care deeply about the rights of people, but they shouldn’t be mistaken for the kind of activists they are not. The audience seemed to miss that the pointlessness of their pranks is almost the point. Mike’s answer to the question of enthusiasm, other than their obvious enjoyment, was brilliantly honest. Sometimes, he said, when real activists need a boost in moral, they can revel in our jokes. The Yes Men are here to give everyone else the will to carry on.

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