Compliance: A reminder that we must rage against the machine, lest we be chewed up in it

Just caught the last Sundance Film Festival showing of a very powerful, very disturbing film called Compliance. Directed by Craig Zobel, it documents the strip search prank scam that hit over 70 fast food restaurants over 10 years and 30 states. This is why it's so damn disturbing. It was real. 

The Hollywood Reporter summarizes:

At a local franchise of the ChickWich chain located in a snowy Ohio town, middle-aged store manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) briefs her mostly young and disinterested staff on the key points of her stressful day: an employee oversight has spoiled the bacon so supplies are low and a secret shopper from headquarters could be dropping by at any time. Late as usual, cute, 19-year-old blonde Becky (Dreama Walker) gives Sandra some unwelcome attitude and proceeds to slack off when she’s not serving customers at the counter.

Sandra gets a phone call mid-shift from a male caller claiming to be police officer Daniels (Pat Healy), who explains that the cops have received a complaint that Becky stole some money from a customer’s purse earlier in the day. He insists that Sandra will need to question Becky about the theft, since he says he’s occupied with a search of Becky’s home as part of a larger investigation.

Hesitant at first, Sandra agrees to assist the officer and brings Becky into the back office, where the girl denies any involvement with the theft. With Daniels still on the phone directing the investigation, Sandra becomes his proxy, relaying his questions to Becky or handing the phone to her so he can question Becky directly. Daniels’ voice is calm, insistent and commanding, with an attitude that brooks no resistance.

Tensions escalate after Sandra’s search of Becky’s purse and pockets doesn’t turn up the missing money and Daniels directs her to strip-search her employee, saying the only alternative is for the cops to jail Becky while the investigation continues. After eliciting Becky’s compliance, Sandra agrees, calling in her assistant manager to be present while Becky strips and they search her clothes, with no result. In a chilling scene of dread and humiliation, Daniels demands that Becky strip completely naked to be certain there’s nothing hidden in her underclothes.

Daniels insists that Becky must remain naked, although a coworker gives her an apron to put on while he directs Sandra to put Becky’s clothes in her car and leave it unlocked so the police can collect the evidence. Sandra then insists on going back to work in the busy restaurant and Daniels directs her to have a male employee watch Becky “for security purposes.” Daniels then follows with a series of increasingly invasive search techniques and questions about Becky’s body, accompanied by reluctant cooperation on the part of several men that Sandra recruits for assistance, with appalling results.

Scene-by-scene, the film details the insidious rhetorical tricks the prank caller uses to get compliance from weak and powerless fast food restaurant workers. The workers aren't evil. They might be stupid. But it's clear that they think they're doing the right thing at each moment. 

The reaction at Sundance has been heavily polarized. Many walked out of early screenings, with the first showing even sparking fiery and angry shouts from the crowd at the Q&A session afterwards. The showing I went to was no different. Some in the audience were visibly agitated.  

It's no mistake that those most susceptible to this prank were fast food workers, whose entire industry is predicated on systematically cultivating dependable, compliant, unquestioning workers who can perform menial tasks with little deviation. The most shocking and/or intriguing part of the film was how those who had the power to stop it didn't. It was like watching a frog being slowly boiled alive. You could not have a more direct portrayal of the banality of evil -- that phrase coined by Hannah Arendt used to describe the Holocaust -- that such evil happens not at the hands of fanatics or sociopaths but people merely believing they are doing normal things. 

That evil can be perpetrated through the guise of authority is not surprising in and of itself. What is revolting and unacceptable to us is how it calls into question our very social contract. We are supposed to be kept safe, that the powers that be are benevolent and have our best interests at heart. But how can we trust that when there are situations in which we do not question authority at all? The whole system might be corrupt. 

Ultimately, the film serves as a powerful reminder of how much we have to continue to rage against the machine. We must challenge and question authority and the way things are. We must evaluate that which society has us do, no matter whether it asks or tells. To shirk this duty is to abdicate our basic responsibilities to ourselves and each other. 

Filmmaking advice writ large: Tarantino's advice at ComicCon applies to all creative endeavor

I love these kinds of questions posed towards filmmakers and media creators of all kinds. Like Ira Glass on creativity.

Great auteurs answer these questions about specific industries but they're broadly applicable to everything, including my favorite topic, creating Internet startups.

There's a certain auteur aspect to it that translates precisely. It's a business, no doubt about it. But you have to appeal to people, even change people's lives -- the way they think and act. You have to understand and communicate visually, spatially and emotionally with your audience.

There's a technical element, substitute filmmaking and editing and cinematography for software engineering, scaling, and tech architecture / ops.

How you start is the same. You create. You create until your fingers bleed, and then you create some more. Iterate and don't worry about creating crap, because at the end of it, you'll have made a movie. Or a site. Or a story. Whatever it is.

The final part spoke to me the most. Yes, it's harder than ever to become a filmmaker or an Internet entrepreneur, or an author-- a creator of any kind. There is so much competition. But that competition sucks so fucking bad, that it will be plain as day when you've created something good.

It can be done. Today. Now. Go.

Slumdog Millionaire: Must see movie of the year. Danny Boyle is pure genius.

Just saw this at Embarcadero Theater in SF tonight. It was a packed crowd even weeks after the opening weekend, and at the 10:05pm showing.

 City of God meets the slums of India. It will probably be the best film I see all year. It's an eye-opener -- one that transports you to another place and puts the petty problems of one's own everyday life in a radically new perspective.

Franklyn - Cool looking trailer for a long-awaited indie action/sci-fi film


Preest is a masked vigilante detective, searching for his nemesis on the streets of Meanwhile City, a monolithic fantasy metropolis ruthlessly governed by faith and religious fervor. Esser is a broken man, searching for his wayward son amongst the rough streets of London's homeless. Milo is a heartbroken thirty-something desperately trying to find a way back to the purity of first love. Emilia is a beautiful art student; her suicidal art projects are becoming increasingly more complex and deadly.

Filmed for $8.6 million, this UK film is still looking for a US distribution deal. But it's looking like my kind of movie, in the vein of Bladerunner, Dark City and The Matrix.  OK, How's this for cool -- the name of the city in the film is called Meanwhile City.

The trailer looks great. Hope it gets picked up in the States and we get to see it in theaters here.

Chungking Express -- a lush masterpiece and an HK film classic

Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin, Faye Wong and Tony Leung are masterful in this classic Wong Kar-wai movie.

Wong made the film during a two month break from the editing of his wuxia film Ashes of Time. He has said, "While I had nothing to do, I decided to make Chungking Express following my instincts."[1], and that "After the very heavy stuff, heavily emphasized in Ashes of Time, I wanted to make a very light, contemporary movie, but where the characters had the same problems." Originally, Wong envisioned the two stories as similar but with contrasting settings: "One would be located in Hong Kong [that is, Hong Kong Island] and the other in Kowloon; the action of the first would happen in daylight, the other at night. And despite the difference, they are the same stories."

-- Chungking Express via Wikipedia

Planet B-Boy - The modern documentary of the global b-boy phenomenon

The clip above is a great snippet called Run DMZ (a play on South Korea's DMZ and the eponymous rap group) from Planet B-Boy, fantastic documentary I just saw about break dancing around the world. Aside from the massively entertaining dancing, it's cool to see how a modern art has evolved and changed in the past 30 years. Must-see if you like hip hop.

Reminds me a lot of the Doug Pray documentary on DJing, Scratch.

Mongol: An international cinematic masterpiece. Genghis Khan kicks ass.

Mongol is an incredible, expansive, and epic film. Braveheart meets 300 meets Troy meets Genghis Khan.

It's an international film created for only $20 million by a relatively unknown team of filmmakers and an international crew from 40 different countries. It was nominated for Best Foreign Film last year, and to me it's a wonder how it didn't win.

The story revolves around Temudgin, the future leader who would go on to become Genghis Khan, one of the most powerful conquerors there ever was. Unlike Alexander, who was born to inherit his empire, Temudgin was the son of a lesser warlord who spent most of his childhood in abject poverty and persecution.

The plot itself is relatively simplistic, but the action/pacing is well done and it's a rare glimpse into a world and time long past. And luckily for us, it's just the first of a trilogy.

4.5 / 5 stars