In Russell Brand’s most recent book, Revolution, the British comedian and author emphatically states that cultural tradition is a myth, major news networks are more interested in disguising facts than illuminating them, and economic change lies in the willpower of a nation’s citizens. But Brand, more interested in showmanship and theatrics than a thorough, multifaceted approach to argumentation has made a newfound career through poster-ready assertions like “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political, and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot,” feeding on public desires for living wages through rhetorical and roundabout assertions that are ultimately more about hyping the actor turned revolutionary’s status as a constituent for the people than locating the means for sustained economic transformation.
Michael Winterbottom gives Brand the floor in The Emperor’s New Clothes, an unofficial adaptation of Brand’s previous books, melding together Brand’s interest in politics, the people, and his status as a “brave” purveyor of truth, with scenes of the long-locked author speaking with exploited residents of Grays in Essex and trying to get a one on one with the CEOs of major banks like HSBC and Barclays about tax avoidance and rampant income inequality. The latter tract merely amounts to Brand being confronted by security, him shouting about his mission, and being asked to leave before he’s even gotten through the door. Winterbottom films the encounters from multiple angles, ensuring audiences have access to Brand’s purported defiance, but really the bloke is just parading around, using his celebrity to partially ingratiate himself with the staff, and confirming the worst stereotypes about wealthy activists who, at all times, make certain they’re the center of attention.
Brand’s last name is fitting, because throughout The Emperor’s New Clothes, as Winterbottom intercuts between Brand on the streets and talking directly into the camera while standing against a green screen, all that’s at stake is the actor’s profile as a newfound voice for reason amid cultural chaos. Several scenes, of Brand sitting with low-income or disabled individuals, are almost parodic given Brand’s numerous wardrobe changes from one interview to the next. Calling for a 90% income tax on the top 1% (which Brand acknowledges he belongs to), he quickly quips: “Eh, let’s hold off on that one for a bit.” In much the same way that Michael Moore seldom acknowledges his privilege or inherent condescension as a filmmaker, Brand wavers when it comes to reckoning with his own culpability.
Moreover, the film’s sneak-attack interviews and heavily edited segments recall the collaborations between Larry Charles and Sacha Baron Cohen (or Bill Maher, whose Religulous preyed on the beliefs of members of low-income areas in Southern states without asking whether comparable religious dogmatisms could be found in more populous cities), where the prankster’s antics always supersede any desired political effect. These kinds of inwardly focused documentaries recall the epigram used in Edward Said’s Orientalism, which says: “The East is a career.” Said meant that Western academics make a living by conceptualizing Asia and its surrounding territories as an ethnic other and are invested, even unconsciously, in maintaining those binary conceptions of difference. In a comparable manner, Brand and his brethren see dollar signs in politicizing their celebrity, a tendency of which The Emperor’s New Clothes is just the latest, tiresome edition.