Thursday, September 24, 2009

Michael Moore Steps Into The Ring (One Last Time?)

This piece will run in the September 30th edition of The Envoy.

Michael Moore is at it again. His latest foray into the depths of Americana, Capitalism: A Love Story, is an ever-more shrewd attempt to transcend the single-issue banality of his more recent efforts (Bowling For Columbine, 2002; Fahrenheit 911, 2004; and Sicko, 2007) in favor of a return to something closer to the innocent appeal to humanity of his break-out documentary, Roger & Me (1989).

The trouble is, Capitalism is just not as good a film as Roger & Me. Which is a let-down of Flint, Michigan proportions--especially considering recent suggestions by Moore himself that it could constitute a magnum opus, a culmination of his 20-year streak as America’s most headline-grabbing documentarian. In a September 16th New York Times article by Bruce Headlam, and in his own voiceover narration at the end of the film, Moore alludes to the possibility of “this” being his final documentary. Time (and box office receipts) will tell.

Let me qualify the forthcoming barrage of critiques with the following: the persistent presence and high profile of someone like Moore, with his undeniable every-man charisma and ability to draw formidable audiences and controversy, spells good things for vigorous debate about issues that matter in an age of O’Rielly’s, Beck’s and Hannity’s. He’s a polarizing figure. And his films sometimes manage to pour cinematic salt on the too-quick-to-heal wounds of a well-organized right-wing movement that seems locked in bitter combat with the truth.

Capitalism (the film… but, come to think of it, the system, too) bites off more than it can chew. Maybe that’s because Moore is so used to tackling one relatively easy-to-sum-up societal dilemma, that he can’t come up with a very compelling way to explore the underlying system that gives rise to all the other ills we’ve heard him rail about.

Or maybe it’s because he’s not really against capitalism. A wistful harking back to the blue-skied days of his youth in Michigan is the only time we hear Moore mention the affect of American free enterprise on the rest of the world. Working people had healthcare and owned their own homes back in the 1950s, we hear the ubiquitous voiceover tell us, partly because there was basically no industrial competition from World War II-ravaged Europe or Japan. Bingo! A global system has an affect on the whole rest of the world. It’s a simple idea, but it’s one that’s basically dodged wholesale in this movie. And that’s part of what makes it flop as an examination of exploitation in today’s world. If the objective is to show the worthlessness of something as broad as greed in a compelling, true-to-life way, Roger & Me, or Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) do it far better, and without the risk of choking.

Moore lazily recycles the narrative template used in his more recent films (interludes of personal stories; semi-staged scenes confronting adversaries; voiceover narration by Moore laced with sarcastic ruminations; plenty of largely irrelevant archival footage; a deliberately overwrought plot aiming for an ultimately impossible resolution). For the most part, it’s all visually engaging and at least somewhat intellectually satisfying; issues are touched upon and real people who confront them are introduced, both in the present era and in past ones. But that’s part of what gives this film a feel more akin to a sloppy collage than a masterwork of big-budget political documentary storytelling. Like a mid-September day of trading at the New York Stock Exchange, it may hold your attention with its wild spectacle, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make much sense of it.

Capitalism shows both a potent visual sense and a keen propagandist’s eye at those moments when its screaming artifice is at its least intense. There is a scene in which a man who has lost his home has to throw his furniture into a bonfire. There’s another that reveals an army of volunteers tossing bags of donated food toward striking workers. These images say a lot. But their rhetorical power is weakened, not strengthened, by cheap attempts to tug at our collective heartstrings with long-held close-ups of crying victims we’ve barely been introduced to, or glimpses into the empty eyes of unapologetic and un-dynamic real-world villains. We don’t need that stuff to get the point, and I’m not sure why a filmmaker as smart as Moore seems to think we do.

What we’re left with by the end of 120 minutes is a rather exhausting jaunt that bounces manically between recent times and various historical junctures spread out over 80-some-odd years of dog-eat-dog American capitalism, with particular (and somewhat out-of-place) focus on the rise to power of Barak Obama. If that sentence took a lot of work to follow, don’t expect the film to be much easier. As per usual, what Moore lacks in coherency and finesse, he (almost) makes up for with witty mockery of his greedy foes and a fearless speak-truth-to-power zeal. In this new post-Bush context, I’m already staking out my ringside seat for the political heavyweight match that promises to ensnare Moore once his new film bursts all the way onto the scene. Despite the trouble I have with his style and some of his conclusions, rest assured: I’ll be rooting for him.

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