Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Compliance: Milgram Telephone


Back in my last year of high school, we read a couple of german novels (I went to a german school). The first one, Theodor Fontane's 'Effi Briest' is XIX century novel about adultery (not unlike Anna Karenina or Modame Bovary). The second is holocaust drama 'The Reader' written by Bernhard Schlink and adapted into the 2008 film directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Kate Winslet. Both novels have guilt as an important thematic element and we spent a lot of time trying to examine the way the characters were or weren't guilty in both stories.

Of course, no matter how long we argued about it, there wasn't an easy answer to those questions. I remember my teacher asking things such as: Where does the list of guilty people end in a situation as the holocaust? Is the guy who closed the doors of the trains carrying concentration camp prisoners guilty? Was he just doing what he was told to do? Or is he guilty for taking a job he knew would help eliminate people at a massive rate? He then, of course, referred to the experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram that were obviously intended to answer these questions in some shape or form. The experiment tested obedience to authority figures in regular people and the results showed more than half of the subjects would have electrocuted a person if asked to by an authority figure.

Which brings me to 'Compliance', the independent film written and directed by Craig Zobel. It is based on a series of prank calls made to fast food restaurants in which a man pretended to be a police officer and made the store manager strip search a female employee under the assumption that she had committed a crime. The film stars Ann Dowd as store manager Sandra, Dreama Walker as employee Becky and Pat Healey as the prank-caller.

As the movie begins we are reminded, in big bold letters, that it is based on true events. The supposed officer's demands go to such extremes that many people have complained it's unbelievable that such things could have happened. I, for one, am not one of those people. I went in expecting to feel one of two ways and I am glad I didn't.

I didn't say to myself "how could these stupid people not have noticed this was a prank call?" because the "based on true events" sign did alert me that I should not discard the movie as unbelievable right away, the director is certainly trying to do some version of Milgram's experiment to understand the situation, therefore, I was invested in the details of the situation he set up for his characters. An early scene, for example, has Sandra (Ann Dowd) being shut down by a delivery man for trying to handle restaurant business on her own instead of going through he proper channels. The movie doesn't asume that's the only reason why she later did everything the alleged policeman said, but tries to put every character in a certain mindset by filling their day with details.

That's why I didn't say to myself "In Sandra's position, I would have done the same". The complexity and routine character of the situation make us try to understand the characters even if we can't. It might be the screenplay, but also the great performances that sell us on these characters as people more than characters. Dreama Walker, shows many sides of Becky as she tragically resignes to her situation, while Ann Dowd injects Sandra with an unfitting sense of naturalism that makes you immediately recognize her as a real person. You want to believe you wouldn't do these things if you were in this position, but a part of you thinks you actually might. To what extend should we blindly listen to our superiors? What could we do about it? When did we stop listening to each other? There is a lot to think about after watching the movie and for that I'm glad.

Even wondering about why he did this is rather fascinating. He was miles away from the situation, he wasn't there to see what was happening, neither was he pleasing himself while calling. Was this the behavior of just a jerky person? The abusive of anonymity (especially in the internet) is also a topic for today's public.

The movie is certainly a hard sit. There have been walk-outs going on since it debuted at Sundance (none at my screening, though) and some people have commented angrily about its subject. I think it's a well-crafted film, with great performances (especially Dowd as Sandra) and one that is worth watching, at least, for the conversation you could later have with whomever you saw it with.

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