By David Templeton
In his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation, David Templeton takes a meeting with renowned Fortune columnist, corporate insider and novelist Stanley Bing to discuss Michael Moore's entertaining new business-bashing documentary The Big One.
When Stanley Bing sat down last week to watch The Big One--Michael Moore's fascinating new comedy-documentary about corporate greed in America--his initial response--as he explains it this morning--was somewhat, um, multi-leveled.
"I had a complicated reaction to it," Bing admits, with a quick, matter-of-fact nod of his head. "I agreed with the politics of it, but I find Michael Moore himself to be somewhat problematic. I like his combination of extremely passionate, heartfelt, focused, and intelligent politics about corporate America, with which I agree 100 percent. What I find hard to take is the cult of personality that Michael Moore surrounds himself with. The movie is all about him, Michael Moore, and his goodness-in-the-face-of-evil.
"As much as I agree with what he says in the movie, I do find him to be a bit obnoxious," he adds, then pauses an instant, as a tiptoeing technician-- preparing for a radio interview Bing will give shortly-- lays down cable beside us. After a moment of thought, Bing's eyebrows raise and he says, "I really didn't mean that to sound as harsh as it came out."
In spite of it's flaws, The Big One stands as among the most entertaining, provocative, and downright funny movies of the year so far. Kind of an "author/activist's travelogue," the film follows Moore--who previously brought us the groundbreaking Roger & Me--as he embarks on a cross-country book tour to promote his book popular Downsize This. Along the way, Moore alternates between playing working-class stand-up before throngs of faithful fans, and doing what he does best: invading corporate lobbies in an attempt to ask the CEO some difficult questions, mainly, "Why are you laying workers off at a time when you are enjoying record profits?"
"A very important question," Bing agrees. "The thing that makes him so important as a social critic is that very few people are asking those questions right now. Most people are asking, 'How can I get 15 percent on my investment instead of 12 percent?" He bursts into laughter, adding, "That's the pervailing cultural question right now. And so Moore goes and makes an end run around the whole fatuous debate about investments and what's a smart investment and all this other stuff, and he's saying, 'We're destroying the fabric of American life so that we can keep this spiral of ever increasing profitability going. Maybe it's time to ask if there isn't perhaps a saner paradigm.'
"There is a wonderful, powerful naiveté underneath his work, because he expects better of capitalism. While a less idealistic person would say, 'Well, this is America. We chew people up and spit them out. That's what we do here.'"
Bing, in his long-running Big Biz humor column in Esquire and Fortune magazines, and now in his terrific new novel Lloyd: What Happened--A Novel of Business (Crown, 1998), deftly tackles many of the same issues that Moore does, though with a far lighter touch and a much different perspective.
The pseudonymous Stanley Bing is, in fact, Gil Schwartz, a senior V.P. of communications working within the belly of the beast at corporate giant CBS. In his new novel, best described as a board-room screwball comedy, Bing/Schwartz gives us Lloyd, a nice-enough mid-level executive saddled with the horrifying task of implementing his company's downsizing, all in service of an impending merger affectionately known as "Moby Deal." Lloyd's comic attempts to retain some shred of his rapidly peeling morality--illustrated by delightfully off-the-wall, full color graphs and charts--is the heart of Bing's loosely plotted but fast-paced, sharp and biting satire.
Like Moore, Bing takes offense at the way employees are treated by the very companies that benefit so greatly from their hard work and dedication.
"In this movie," continues Bing, "I'm most fascinated and most interested by the view of the people of America that Moore shows, the visceral feeling you get of what it means to a person to have just lost their job--which is incredibly powerful and beautifully done. The points that he makes are trenchant and incredibly important, because I don't believe that anyone else is really making them the way that he's making them. When you see the actual faces of people--that woman that came up to him in the book store, and said that she'd just been laid off that day--corporations don't see that.
"When they downsize, they don't really think about that person."
"How can they not?" I can't help but ask . "How can a corporation not realize that the payroll checks are being cashed by real humans with real lives?"
"They know, but they don't think about it," Bing states. "There are a lot of rationalizations that businesses make. You may lay off thousands, but look! There are 80 thousand that you are safeguarding! They remind themselves that this is business, that you are doing it for the shareholders, whatever rationalization allows them to sleep at night. And they do sleep at night. Very well, in fact.
"I don't think that it's written in stone, though, that you have to do terrible things in order to serve your stockholders," he laughs. "Doubling your profits every year, though, you probably have to do some pretty nasty things."
Which brings us back to Lloyd.
"In an almost obverse way, a different way than Moore is looking at things, Lloyd is going at some of the same points," Bing observes. "As Lloyd becomes more successful, it is necessary for him to become a worse person. And the actions that he is forced to take-- both by his company but also by his desire to support his family and to be successful and to, you know, to live his life--these actions bounce back eternally and undermine whatever native goodness he might have. He's tormented about the things he has to do.
"But not to the point where he would ever not do them."
"He does come around ... somewhat," I point out, referring to Lloyd's plan to harpoon Moby Deal in order to save his friends jobs. "And though he may be only fictional, I find his actions hopeful."
"Lloyd finds a higher ethic, yes," the author smiles. "The higher ethic that Lloyd decides to practice at that point is friendship. For Lloyd, friendship transcends greed. That's about as good as it's going to get at that level. In the end, though I wouldn't say Lloyd suddenly 'gets religion,' but he does suddenly decide to do the right thing."
Not that Michael Moore would ever see Lloyd as a hero, I suspect.
"I don't know about that," Bing retorts, happily. "I would hope that Michael Moore would see my picture of corporate America, and recognize it, and find the truth in it--and find my moral outrage to be equal to his." With a final chuckle, he adds, "It's just that he uses a bludgeon to express himself and I use a scalpel and a very fine tweezer."
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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.