Monday, December 13, 2010

Disclosure as a Metaphor for Psychological Warfare

As a metaphor for the new age of combat between the sexes, the movie Disclosure [1994] opens several novel spheres for consideration. Directed by Barry Levinson, whose other off-beat efforts included Rain Man [1988], The Natural [1984], and Good Morning, Vietman [1987], it posits a new corporate landscape at the dawn of the computer age, one in which the trade between the sexes, as well as the in-fighting and careerist ambitions of the upscale upper middle class are redefined and re-conceptualized.

Set in Seattle, a mid-level hardware and software engineering design manager Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas), working for a relatively new computer start-up, discovers, just as the company is about to be merged with a larger, more lucrative firm, that his future with it is suddenly being threatened by the arrival of a former flame (Meredith Johnson), played by Demi Moore. Almost immediately he is drawn into a scandal as the unwitting victim of a sexual harassment charge by Moore, who attempts to seduce him at an after hours meeting in her new office.

A generation earlier, putting a woman in Johnson/Moore's position (in a movie plot) would have been unthinkable, which is a measure of how far corporate America has come, baby, since the days of the pliable secretary and the rigid glass ceiling. The CEO, Bob Garvin (played masterfully by Donald Sutherland), and his first lieutenant Philip Blackburn (played equally well by Dylan Baker), attempt to maneuver Tom out of his position and transfer him to a remote outpost, effectively killing his career. Tom, publicly humiliated by the sexual harassment charge, both within the company, and with his wife (played by Caroline Goodall), seeks the help of crusading defense attorney Catherine Alvarez (Roma Maffia). Plots and counterplots interweave, as the company tries to keep the scandal under wraps until the fragile planned merger can be concluded.

The company (named Digicom)'s primary product in deveopment is a virtual reality program which simulates physical inhabitation in virtual three dimensional projection space. As a piece of science fiction, this concept is intriguing. The user stands on a platform, and wears a head piece with sound and eye sets. Once "inside" the space, navigation is simulated and choices and spaces open up for investigation. As a toy, it's decades ahead of its time, even now. As a demonstration model, the company is test-marketing an application which doubles as repository of its own corporate files.

When the company closes off Tom's privileges on the company computer system, the only way he can gain access to vital information needed to outwit the scheming Meredith--who has undermined his project development by short-circuiting his production schedules--is to surreptitiously play the company reality program, thereby gaining access to the files he needs to prove his case against her.

The irony of Tom's use of an hyperspace identity game to conduct his search of the company files is not lost on the audience, as we begin to see how insidious the corporate monster is. Moving about "inside" the beast, Tom encounters Meredith's projected surrogate identity, busily deleting the relevant incriminating company files. The dramatic moment of the plot thus takes place inside virtual space, as the warring participants contend in a virtual world of data manipulation and electronic storage files.

On a more traditional level, the plot turns the old sex exploitation trope on its head, as Meredith Johnson (Moore) is finally revealed as the sexual predator that she is. Meredith, hiding behind the new feminine liberation role, both uses her athletic sex appeal to gain leverage over men, while simultaneously wielding her legal weaker sex vulnerability. This puts Douglas in the unenviable, ironic position of having to act out the "weak" side of the triad between Meredith and his wife Susan; so his triumph over Meredith carries an additional ambiguity: Can we accept a male as victim in a sexual harassment case? Tom's lawyer Catherine Alvarez certainly thinks so: "It isn't about sex, Tom. It's about power: She has it, and you don't."

The games people play in the weird world of corporate greed and competition are a little like the virtual computer games world. Is life a computer game? Are the smack'em bang'em virtual combat games, so popular among the juvenile set these days, really a preparation for the take-no-prisoners combat of the adult world of corporate competition? Is this the real message being conveyed? I don't know if Disclosure is an underrated film, or not, but I do find it a fascinating commentary on the implications of our increasing involvement in, and use of, virtual space. With all the new technics of computer animation and manipulation of cinematic media, it's a wonder we haven't seen more of this kind of story.

The more likely comparison, of course, would be between computer games and movies, which are beginning more and more to become indistinguishable.

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