The fast food industry might just be one of the great bastions of misinformation of the 20th century. An industry that has sustained itself upon a combination of advertising and marketing techniques that obscure the very real problem of where the food they serve is sourced, how it is prepared and how these problems impact our health and wellbeing. Until recent times fast food managed to evade these questions under the veil of convenience, affordability and variety and has risen to an industry of such economic power that misinformation has become part and parcel of the process.
In Craig Zobel’s feature film Compliance, he scrutinises this deceit, but indirectly. By assuming that the industry has become ingrained in our social psyche Zobel takes what is a real series of events (a sexual assault at a fast food restaurant) and looks at how such an insane and wildly unbelievable event could conceivably occur. Marketing has taught us that either everything is a lie or it has taught us nothing, and while we would like to believe that every individual is aware of the process and effects of advertising, Compliance (and the actual events) warns us that this is not the case. Where better to abuse power hierarchies and distort the truth than the fast food industry? And so goes Compliance, an incredibly infuriating and frustrating film for all the wrong reasons.
The film opens with images of such painful mediocrity that expertly denote where the film is going and how it will get there. Shots of the fast food restaurant’s car park slathered in sleet and snow give a strong resonance of the aura and experience of such a place. Similar to the sad sensation one has when strolling a shopping mall in the morning hours; a combination of retail bitterness and unnecessary consumerism that is piercingly depressing. The film essentially follows a day at this very restaurant (named “Chickwich”) in which the manager on duty Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a call from a police officer stating that one of her employees Becky (Dreama Walker) has stolen from a customer and that she needs to be strip searched and detained until an officer arrives. The night spirals completely out of control as the audience becomes witness to a truly obscene display of human frailty and stupidity. As more and more employees and outsiders become implicated in the event, our constant desire for a voice of reason amidst the calamity continuously fails to surface as we are forced to sit and grind our teeth.
There have been numerous psychological experiments conducted (under controlled environments of course), that observe human behaviour in the face of hierarchical power structures. The Stanford Prison experiment of the 1970s analysed what happens when ordinary individuals have power imbalanced when they assigned a number of people to act as prisoners and others as guards in a mock prison situation. What they found was that not only did people assume the roles fervently, taking on elements of each, but that institutional authority and abuse of power go hand in hand.
Chickwich serves as a microcosm of this phenomenon whereby institutional authority (a police officer) can imbue such fear and obedience as to askew morality and reason. Combined with a blind faith in technology as the bearer of truthful communication (the entire ordeal occurs over the telephone, never in person), the audience becomes witness to the ways in which misinformation can be projected and abused through institutional and hierarchical societal structures.
This doesn’t explain however why the staff members of Chickwich continue to commit to such an obvious immoral and dehumanising affair. That is unless we re-visit exactly why the fast food industry is so successful. The employees of the restaurant are content with mediocrity. From their phone covers decorated in plastic jewellery to the low-grade food they serve and ingest, these are people satisfied with a cultural banality. Industries such as fast food feed upon these traits and grow from them, and it would make sense that those employed within would adhere to such a mindset. Thus, their lack of comprehension of legal procedure and gullibility evolve naturally from all the factors that the industry in which they work sustains itself on.
Compliance therefore turns into a condemnation of the systems that allow for such an event to take place, which also ties into our frustrations of the experience. How can we let this happen? In the end it is the slacker who provides a voice of reason. The one who fails to fit into the role assigned to him in the social order. He who doesn’t blindly obey and questions authority is the strongest of will and the most humanist.Compliance is a rough ordeal, but it’s a necessary one, especially as it becomes harder and harder to recognise misinformation in our every day lives.