CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORYProduced, Written and Directed by Michael Moore
COLLAPSE Directed by Chris Smith Based on a book by Michael Ruppert
Reviewed by Bonny Finberg
Reality TV implicitly claims to showcase unregulated relationships. But in truth, people are manipulated and provoked, their miseries exploited for entertainment under the guise of teaching us all a lesson in how to live better. On the other hand, C-Span’s broadcasts of the daily disputes and workings of our elected representatives only suggest an editorial point of view by where the camera is pointed, by its choices of when to use close ups, long shots and various angles. In the former, reality and truth are at odds. In the latter, reality is trusted to tell it’s own story truthfully. Documentary filmmaking ranges between these two approaches. In the middle some balance may be struck between truth and propaganda. Though, in a sense, all documentary is propaganda, as all art is a kind of propaganda for the artist’s vision.
Robert Flaherty, the first full-length feature documentarian, was accused of setting up sequences in “Nanook of the North” (shot in 1920.) He claimed this was sometimes necessary to extract essential truths that were impossible to film because of equipment and environmental limitations. At the other end of the spectrum is Fred Wiseman (“Titticut Follies,” “Welfare,” “Meat”) who foregoes narration, trusting the camera’s eyes and ears to represent life as it is with minimal interference.
With regard to the two films discussed here, the directors’ differing approaches fall somewhere between Springer and C-Span, Flaherty and Wiseman. Michael Moore delivers his POV with a heavy-hand. Chris Smith relies on the obsessional POV of his subject, allowing it to unfold before the camera, trusting the viewer to either believe and be horrified or to take pity on the ravings of a paranoid on a downward spiral.
American life has taken on the organized, regulated character of corporate culture. Thanks to advances in electronic communication, we are sold the idea, or delude ourselves, that since we are no longer required to be physically present in any particular place in order to conduct business—the confines of an office or shared geographic location, we must be free. But we’re never less free than when we’re completely available to others 24/7. Think about it. Your own self-expectations are bad enough. But add to that the choice of either complying with, or fending off the expectations of increasingly diverse universes whose personal worlds geometrically progress with each breath, the expectation that we respond instantaneously across time and space. With built in obsolescence this all takes place within a creation/extinction cycle that is spinning out of control. Work, as in labor, is always at hand, eye and ear. We’ve been inhabited by something like The Pod People of Wall Street—Our minds swept clean and reconfigured for cross-platform use and multi-functional operation by multi-sensorial personal conduits. Who we are, at least the she or he who we identify with as I, has become defined in relation to an augmented auxiliary reality always a step behind private, solitary selfhood. Who owns the franchise on this reality is not the entire question. How it’s sold and why we buy it is. These two films attempt to address these questions.
This question while present, is not the major thrust of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.” He doesn’t seem as interested in enlightening us as much as entertaining us with what we already know. He’s good at elucidating the specifics from what are mostly overwhelming generalities. We are willing to pay for the pleasure of sharing an inside joke, so sad, so infuriating and absurd that we beg for comic relief. Moore provides this. His talent and genius is for taking what we already know and making us feel smart and included in his knowledge by explaining it in terms that any fifth grader can grasp. He openly and shamelessly stakes his claim on reality as the truth. It’s not really funny, but we can laugh about it anyway, pat ourselves on the back for seeing it his way and maybe, if we find time between blogging, reading blogs and texting to our Twitter page, do something to improve upon this all encompassing injustice and looming inevitability.
To his credit Moore, in his customary, simple way, does give us a brief history lesson on post-WWII Capitalism vs. the Capitalism of the last thirty years that we have come to know and despise. This is important for a generation that has known no other form of Capitalism than the present one which is not dissimilar to that of the mid-19th century, inspiring Marx to write “Das Kapital.”
There are surprising moments in this film. A gun-toting farmer, strong supporter of the second amendment, calls for revolution. He describes the crisis of the moment as the difference between “…those with nothing and those that have it all.” Then along comes a firm called “Condo Vultures.” Yes, I’m not making it up, there’s actually a company by this name that swoops in on foreclosed homes and sells them to the “bottom feeder,” as the CEO of the company called his clients. This same CEO quipped, “People ask: ‘What’s the difference between you and a real vulture?’ Simple—I don’t vomit on myself.” (laughs.)
Switching between predator and prey, Moore then focuses on the intrepid workers in Michigan. When Republic Windows and Doors closed their business and fired them they fought back. They stage a siege of the plant for several days. Community members show up with food and water. In the end, the protestors ostensibly win when Bank of America awards them six thousand dollars each after refusing to lend the company enough money to meet payroll. But this is not the whole story. Though it was in the mainstream press, no one in the film speaks of the CEO who ran off with the equipment, then tried (and ultimately failed) to reopen in another state with a cheaper overhead. Nor does anyone question the Gulliver-like proportions of Bank of America’s Lilliputian offering in comparison to its bailout financed resources. We are left with this as a victory for The People when it is actually further proof for Moore’s own claim that “Capitalism trumps Democracy.”
Each of the sequences in this film has enough investigative potential to be expanded into a full-length documentary. But Michael Moore is painting with a broader brush and for this he can be forgiven for having left out important facts and questions. He has done much research. But it often seems that he, and his research team, spend a lot of time on line and watching the Daily Show.
Statistics are the gore of this political horror film and Moore is good at personalizing a problem by translating statistics into individuals—just as the idea of Death is never more effective than the sight of someone being brutally murdered in Technicolor. The pervasiveness of how duped we Americans are, how ripped off, seduced, exploited, abused and sodomized, is presented in varied scenarios which challenge the idea that we live in a free country. Starting with the imprisonment of adolescents for minor offenses, some not even worthy of prosecution, for profit, we are then apprised of the astoundingly low salaries paid to commercial airplane pilots and, most incredible, the demonic practice of corporations taking out life insurance policies on their employees without their knowledge, naming themselves as beneficiary so that loyal workers are worth more to their bosses dead than alive. None of the money goes to surviving family members. To underscore how sordid this practice is, we’re told it’s referred to by the medieval term: “Dead Peasant’s Insurance.” Surviving family members are asked what they think of this.
Some of the interview material, though done with apparent sensitivity, borders on exploitive. Asking a widower, along with his entire brood of children and in-laws, what they think of the fact that WalMart engaged in this practice with their dearly departed—wife, daughter and mother—we see their tearful agony on camera, stretching the boundary of what is appropriate even in the name of Art or Truth. This is where propaganda begins to raise its garish head. Perhaps these were willing participants. After all, many of these people probably watch Oprah and Jerry Springer. I’m sure they’ve been told that by exposing their pain on camera they’ll be helping others. And maybe they will. But I couldn’t help but wonder if all that exposure was necessary. The facts themselves were horrific enough merely in the telling.
An interesting sequence was a series of interviews with men of the cloth. Without fail, from parish priest to bishop, all agreed that capitalism is immoral, obscene and radically evil. Of course, there were no evangelists or fundamentalist Christians interviewed in this film.
Most inspiring of all is Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, Democrat from Ohio. Using C-Span footage of her powerful speeches to congress during the debates on the bailouts and the unprecedented foreclosure crisis, we are treated to a kind of call for revolt. “Stay put,” she insists with great fervor. “Stay in your home!” I suggest you go to C-Span’s site to see the full videos of her speeches. She has even written a second bill of rights to rival Roosevelt’s a year before his death—neither of which succeeded in going to a vote.
Documentaries edit these moments into 90 minute or 2 hour lengths. But as you might copy a quote in a book from an author, intending to look it up in more detail later, you might want to follow up on Marcy Kaptur. Standing in front of the White House Moore asks her whether she thinks there’s been a coup in America, a “financial coup,” he adds. She hesitates for a moment and then answers without qualification, “Yes.” This, for me, was the high point in the film. It made me hungry for more of this kind of raw truth coming from the mouths of our elected officials.
Included in Moore’s film is a brief map of how short-term profits became the name of the capitalist game in the 1980s. He follows the trajectory of Ronald Regan rising from B Movie actor, to corporate spokesman, to President of the United States, and his appointment of Donald Regan, ex-chairman of Merrill Lynch at the time, to Treasury Secretary and, eventually, Chief of Staff. We’re shown a clip of the Commander in Chief speaking at a news conference with hesitation and not in full command of his faculties. Don Regan, standing beside him, mumbles audibly in his direction. “Speed it up,” he says, as if impatient to get to the work at hand—constructing the biggest Ponzi scheme ever invented. It’s in Moore’s film, but Michael Ruppert is a step ahead, claiming that the entire U.S. economy is one big Ponzi scheme.
“Collapse,” a film by the director of “Yes Men Fix the World” and “American Movie,” has investigative journalist, Michael Ruppert, sometimes called a “conspiracy theorist,” sitting in a chair with the static pose of an interrogee. Only the camera moves, often pointed at the back of his head. Often there are graphics to illustrate his points and predictions. Sometimes we are shown film footage of lectures in which he predicts all the major crises of the last year and a half—from financial collapse, the course of two wars, and the serious state of peak oil.
Ruppert is highly quotable: “We are collectively responsible for what may be the greatest preventable holocaust in the history of Planet Earth.” “If a bear attacks (a campground) you don’t have to be faster than the bear. You only have to be faster than the slowest camper.” “The challenge being faced by the human race now is either ‘Evolve or perish, grow up or die.’ ” The soundtrack, a large presence in this film, enhances the drama to the point of overkill, at times. Smith has chickened out and chosen music to drive home information and ideas that are already dramatic, whether or not your are a believer.
Where Moore is going for indignation and a sense of superiority, Smith, through Ruppert, tries to invoke viewers’ horror, guilt and sense of personal responsibility.
As if grasping for some redemption, Ruppert says, emphatically, “You have to believe. Not hope, not pray, that there’s a way out and you’re going to find it.” But belief can be self-delusion and this last statement, a weak reprieve from the relentless predictions of doom presented throughout the film, felt false. I wanted this brilliant synthesizer to map out a solution that we could each take part in. “Belief” seemed too passive a stance and too much like blind faith. The “Jaws”–like music increased, detracting from the clarity of his reasoning, but a minor flaw in the film’s powerful message.