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Corporate culture on the couch

A radical documentary characterizes modern companies as having all the qualities of a psychopath.

July 09, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

In case you hadn't noticed, corporations have a pervasive presence in modern life. "The Corporation," a cool yet scathing documentary, has definitely noticed, seeing its subject as today's dominant institution, on a par with the church or the monarchy of centuries past. It's also an institution that has the ability, courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court, to consider itself a legal person.

But if it's a person, exactly what kind of person is it?

It's the central conceit of this brainy Canadian film to analyze the personality of the corporation as if it were a being of flesh and blood, to submit it to a standardized personality diagnostic checklist. The conclusion, backed up by Robert Hare, an FBI consultant and expert in the field, is that the corporation "has all the characteristics of a prototypical psychopath."

Welcome to the world of "The Corporation," a wide-ranging documentary with a radical point of view from a trio of creators: a left-wing filmmaker (co-director Mark Achbar, who also did "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media"), a social activist law professor (writer Joel Bakan) and an editor (co-director Jennifer Abbott). It takes issue with the standard view of corporations as inevitable and indispensable for progress and the good life.

Instead it wants us to examine what we may not have looked at before, to take a second look at the history and traits of corporations, to understand what it means for our world that they are as powerful as they are. And the film has done all this in such an entertaining way that it has won audience awards at Sundance as well as at festivals in Amsterdam and in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, Canada.

As a means to this end, "The Corporation" has gone out and interviewed upwards of 40 subjects, from heads of major corporations to pillars of the economic establishment such as Milton Friedman and Peter Drucker to counterculture gadflies like Michael Moore (yes, that Michael Moore), Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

This may sound dry, but "The Corporation" takes great and successful pains to be as visually diverse and clever as it is intellectually provocative. Editor Abbott mixes in smart graphics and a wild collection of footage that includes a series of shots of early aircraft crashing and burning. Not exactly standard economic fare.

As recently as 150 years ago, we're told, the corporation was insignificant. But after the Supreme Court agreed with corporate lawyers that the 14th Amendment, passed to protect the rights of recently freed slaves, gave protection to corporations as well, growth was boundless.

Legally obligated to put the bottom line first, corporations have become so powerful that several of the CEOs questioned confess to feeling helpless to change direction. "There's no question of malevolence," someone says. "It's like a shark, doing that for which it was designed."

It's no wonder, then, with characteristics like "inability to maintain enduring relationships," "reckless disregard for the rights of others" and "inability to experience guilt," this film insists the corporation fits the psychopathic pattern.

"The Corporation" gives a lot of space to examples of what it considers antisocial corporate behavior, from an attempt to privatize all the water, including rainwater, in a city in Bolivia, to the commissioning of a study whose aim was giving children better tools to nag their parents to buy products. Really.

Given all this, it's a relief to spend time with Ray Anderson, chief executive of Interface, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer, someone who's done a turnaround in thinking and made ecological sustainability a core value for his company. If corporations really are "doom machines created in our search for wealth and property," maybe it's not too late to tinker with the engine.


`The Corporation'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter

Released by Zeitgeist Films. Directors Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott. Producers Mark Achbar, Bart Simpson. Executive producer Mark Achbar. Screenplay Joel Bakan. Editor Jennifer Abbott. Music Leonard J. Paul. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

At the Nuart Theater, Santa Monica Boulevard at the San Diego Freeway, West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

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