When Compliance debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, and during its press screenings, some people walked out not far into the story. One viewer is reported to have yelled while exiting, “Oh, give me a [bleeping] break!” I, too, was ready to abandon the film because it seemed exploitative and contrived. But, I happened to recall the screen-filling opening message that said, “Based on true events.” As films with that message have become common over the past decade, such messages may have lost their punch, which might explain the walkouts. But do take heed of that notice, for knowing beforehand that the events really happened might help temper the incredulity the film evokes. Or, it might work to heighten our disbelief, for if you avoid walking out, you are still likely to squirm. “How could they have done this?” we will undoubtedly ask.
The true events on which the film is based — and depicted almost to the point of re-enactment — occurred between 1995 and 2004 in no fewer than 70 similar worksites in 30 different U.S. states, from Maine to Oregon and North Dakota to Florida. Because you might be unfamiliar with the events, I will only give a very brief account lest I ruin the film: these events involved workers whose job requires taking orders over the telephone. Almost all of the seventy establishments were fast-food eateries based on the model used by McDonald’s, and included Burger King, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Blockbuster Video as well as inside the golden arches, which made up the bulk of the cases. The film takes place almost entirely in the fictitious Chick-Wich restaurant in Ohio, but a Kentucky-based McDonald’s was the site on which the film and many news accounts are based. Given the great amount of raw and graphic material of this particular case, such as the surveillance video tape, we might wonder why the film’s writer and director, Craig Zobel, decided not to use the documentary format. Perhaps owing to the actors’ performances, we might not squirm so much if he did.
Zobel stated that he was inspired to make the film from reading the early 1960s work of Yale-based social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, the researcher well known for his studies of obedience. Milgram found that we comply even when it results in harming fellow human beings, but it was not due to a sadistic personality type, and it was not, as a New Yorker Magazine reviewer of the film put it, “something cold and lewd in the human heart.” It was instead rooted in social conditions, a finding that lacks the excitement and sexiness of the “cold, lewd heart” view. In interviews, experiment subjects and the actual workers involved commonly say, “You had to be in my situation; you weren’t there,” when asked to explain their actions.
So, perhaps a consideration of the conditions of fast-food work, largely non-union, would offer some insight. I suspect that many here tonight have worked in such a workplace, and they might testify to the research of those like Robin Leidner and George Ritzer. These sociologists identify close supervision and the standardization of tasks and products in these worksites. The rules try to specify exactly how these workers look, and their scripted communication tries to specify exactly what to say — there are even official alternative scripts for workers who wish to veer from the original official lines. The employers try to specify workers’ demeanor, their gestures, their moods, even their thoughts. Might these conditions of intense routinization nurture the type of obedience we will see tonight? Leidner, for instance argues that employers intervene into areas of workers’ lives usually considered to be the prerogative of individual decision making, and alter the workers’ understandings of what is acceptable conduct toward others.
These working conditions are something worth considering, especially since, as we see in the first few minutes, the main characters’ behaviors are so different outside of the workplace proper. And you will have the opportunity to consider that and more after the show in an informal discussion period. Those so interested may come down to the front rows after the movie.
Finally, there is a Rochester connection to this film. Officer Daniels is played by Pat Healy, the brother of former Eastman House film programmer Jim Healy.
This introduction was presented on 29 September 2012.