Human evil and stupidity: Compliance and The Impostor.

10Sep12

Compliance is not out in England yet, but when it arrives I urge you to see it. Catching it in the States last week offered the most jarring moment I can recall ever experiencing. Having spent the day strolling through Philly’s Historic District – with Independence Hall and Liberty Bell making it practically a paean to the ideal of America, all things constitutional and an ethos of civic republicanism – rights were naturally very much on my mind. Americans know their rights. The constitution, and thus individual rights, are invoked in the media on a daily basis. Right?

If so, it hasn’t infected all citizens. Compliance is based on the true story of a series of hoaxes that went on for several years as a man phoned fast food restaurants pretending to be a policeman, ordering senior staff to strip-search their female cashiers on the grounds that they’ve been accused of stealing money. Yes, the staff comply. But so does the girl herself, with few if any questions asked.

But what’s most horrifying is that you implicitly assume and grant a dramatic licence to the filmmaker, in which the hoax caller’s demands are amplified in their absurdity for cinematic effect. It’s only later that we discover the oral sex the cashier is instructed to perform upon a male staff member really did somehow transpire. Nobody is critical enough to ask questions. When they nod, we want to at minimum yell out, at worst jump up and punch the screen.

The Milgram Experiment, of course, was infamous for its discovery that putting people under a person of authority who asks them to administer what they thought to be fatal electric shocks would, more often than not, yield blind obedience. The same happens here on a micro-scale on film, but the difference is that it had a substantively awful outcome. The courts had trouble nailing the hoaxer precisely because the nature of his crime was so elusive: he didn’t coerce anyone, unless all polite requests are now to face the wrath of the law. Sure, he claimed to be the law and acted wrongly in doing so. But most of the suffering here only stems from the sheer stupidity of so many people in making his sick desires materialise. How firm are your intuitions that the oral sex constitutes rape?

Americans, take note: no cop can ask you to bend down butt-naked so your co-workers can check you don’t have dollar-notes stuffed in your crack. How did I ever just write that line?

The Impostor, in a sense, plays on similar themes, but has a much slicker sense of humour. Once more based on a true story, this time about a serial French identity fraudster who pretended to be a missing American kid on the off-chance that he could trick the grief-stricken family into offering him a new life. It didn’t matter that he was about eight years older, with the wrong eye colour and a bad accent. He got granted an American passport and soon hopped on a plane. And you thought Compliance was weird.

This one is filmed as a kind of noir-documentary, and part of its fun comes from having to guess whether the interviews are re-enactments or with the real people involved. Various twists send our minds in each direction, with new knowledge shedding light on which is most likely. We go from feeling disgusted to howling at the hoaxer’s retelling of his tricks. We feel sad for, whilst also awkwardly sniggering at, the moronic blindness of the family that takes him in. But then we’re made to toy with the idea that their motives are on the sinister side, and the joke instead threatens to be on us.

I’ll leave things that vague. Intrigue is healthy. But if you’re heading to the silver screen soon, either of these pieces will beat Bourne and Ted.

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