Saturday, October 27, 2012

Screening Responsibility: On Compliance

If you have heard about Compliance, you have probably heard one or more of three things about it, that it is based on a true story, that it covers the same issues of authority and obedience that were explored in the famous Milgram experiments, and that the film provoked people to walk out of its Sundance premiere. These three facts triangulate in particular ways, and some might argue that the first two explain, or ameliorate, the third. This is especially true of the claim “Based on True Events," which flashes in bold letters during the opening credits. Veracity functions as an alibi. Horrible things can be shown because they are true. 

However, what struck me as I watched the film, and listened to a Q/A with the directory is that the factual basis had the opposite effect, the audience demanded that every shot, every choice of narrative or plot be justified. This is in part due to how uncomfortable the film makes the audience feels as it draws the viewer into a narrative that is at once voyeuristic and sadistic. In case you have not heard about it, or did not click the link above, the story of Compliance is basically as follows: a fast food restaurant in rural Ohio (in the film) receives a call from a man claiming to be a police officer, he claims that an employee, a young woman, stole money from a customer and wants the manager to detain and search the employee until the police can arrive. From there it gets worse, much worse.

I do not think that it would be incorrect to classify the film as horror, and, like horror, the audience is forced to constantly gauge the distance between the characters on the screen and their own actions. In a standard horror movie we watch people split up, investigate strange noises, and explore haunted places, telling ourselves (and sometimes the screen) that we would not do the same. The horrors of Compliance  are not the kind that get you killed, but the horrors of our complicity in the subjection of others. This I think is the film's greatest challenge. Most people leave a horror film feeling that they would not make the same choices, that they would be the sole survivor. Horror crosses over into a survivalist fantasy, as the zombie film attests. Compliance's point, the point that Milgram tried to demonstrate with his experiments, is that when it comes to the daily horrors of our obedience we cannot be so sure. I remember watching the Milgram experiments in a college psychology class and being struck by the fact that some of the most willing executioners, those that turned the knob all the way up, administering shocks almost to the point of death, assured themselves that they were on the verge of stopping, that there conscience was just about to kick in. This is the standard reaction the horrors of obedience.

It seems to me that Compliance can be judged by how well it pushes viewers past the point of comfortable distance, or even past the point of a discomfort that can be pinned on a director that could be labeled misogynist, cruel, or whatever the case might be. On this matter, on the matter of an uncomfortable identification, the assertion "Based on True Events" is no help. It is one thing to know that something happened, to believe it is possible, and to believe that it could, as the old commercial goes, "happen to you."

I think that different viewers will have different reactions to this, and I imagine that gender will have a lot to do with the way people respond to the film. Even on this point things are not easy to divide and demarcate. The caller is male, but the manager is female. The voyeuristic intention of the caller is relayed and realized by the frustrations of the manager. The film spends most of the time with the manager, detailing the indignities of being a middle manager for a fast food establishment, caught between an inflexible corporate structure and employees who can neither recognize nor respect her authority. The film opens with her coping with an open walk freezer that has destroyed fifteen hundred dollars of bacon and pickles. The loss of bacon positions the manager between frustrated customers and an irate corporate management. The life of a service worker, even a manager, is to be servile to everyone, from an angry customer who could be a "secret shopper" to corporate headquarters. Her response to the call, and to the increasingly strange requests of the caller, is to treat as simply one more thing to deal with, one more indignity in a world of indignities, one more rule in a world of rules. This seems to me the films strength, or at least its aspiration, to bring the horrors of complicity, of "just following orders," away from the Nazi's or the laboratory experiment, and into the mundane world of the franchise restaurant. Franchises like much of the modern corporate structure, such as outsourcing, are a huge machines for displacing responsibility, the source of rules and decisions are always elsewhere. However, the films attentiveness to this locale, the long shots of deep fryers and walk-in freezers, only serve to distance the films art house crowd from its setting. Obedience is always elsewhere.

Much more could be said about this film, but I wanted to say one last thing about its presentation of surveillance. The entire franchise where the film is set is subject to surveillance, but this is not something that is shown or even mentioned until very late in the film. This in part reflects a ubiquity of surveillance that has become so present that it is not noticed. This is true to the case in question. However, what is striking about the presentation of surveillance in the film is that it appears as a salvation. The camera follows the eyes of Becky, the young woman stripped, abused, and humiliated, as she spots the monitor showing that everything has been recorded. At this point in the film the surveillance camera appears as salvation, rescuing both Becky and the audience. Humanity has proven to be too docile, too cruel: only surveillance can save us.

Thus despite the film's faults or maybe because of them, it is this combination of generalized obedience and diffuse surveillance, and not just the "ripped from today's headlines" story, that makes it relevant. 

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