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Saturday, October 03, 2009

We saw Capitalism: A Love Story last night and had some heated discussion in the car afterward. While all the parties involved operate from a shared position that "Yes, capitalism is very bad," I found myself significantly disappointed in Moore's take on the problem. This is a topic that needs to be approached systematically, from a structural perspective, or you wind up doing more harm than good; it doesn't really lend itself to the anecdotal style of more reform-minded documentaries like Roger & Me and Sicko. In short Moore bit off much more than he could chew.

Politically I found the film both ahistorical and largely incoherent. To begin, the film opens with completely uncritical nostalgia for the 1950s before pretending that the economic collapses of the 1970s never happened, blaming Reagan alone for both post-Fordism and the financialization of capital. (Reagan and Reaganonomics certainly did a lot of harm to the country, and accelerated the crisis dramatically, but the dismantling of the country's manufacturing base and the explosion in private debt began about a decade before he took office.) Likewise, aside from a few scenes late in the film, Clinton is essentially let off the hook entirely, while Obama's participation in the ongoing transfer of wealth to Wall Street is also barely acknowledged. Neither the Global South nor generational American poverty nor systemic racism nor ecological crisis warrant any mention; in short the film is wrapped up so entirely in nostalgia for a particular version of middle-class American life that, despite its name, it's barely about "capitalism" at all.

Moore also weirdly conflates left and right populism in a way that, I think, is extremely pernicious. To take the example he focuses his climax on: most of the opposition to bailouts as such last year was coming from the right, and was located less in long-held principle than in a rhetorical attempt to regain control of the electoral debate—but Moore pretends that populism, like all populism, was somehow of the left. In fact, the progressive critique of the bailout was generally about its size—Krugman, remember, wanted it to be bigger—and the sorts of strings that should be attached to the funds—not whether or not it should happen at all.

Obama's election is likewise recast as the culmination of a "people's revolt" that somehow began with the bailouts, a revisionist history of the last year which just doesn't make any sense. The two things, in fact, had little to do with one another, and to the extent that they were related it was Obama's strong support for the bailouts that drove his poll numbers upward against McCain's. Indeed, that Obama supported the bailouts, and McCain quasi-opposed them, is never explicitly acknowledged by the film at all.

And don't get me started on the repeated reference to the Catholic Church as Moore's (sole) exemplar for anti-capitalist morality. There are a lot of things that might be said about the Church, and undoubtedly a lot of good people working through it, but its corporate structure and massive financial holdings don't exactly map for us a vision of a world beyond capital.

Moore's argumentive style in Capitalism, more so than even his other films, is almost always emotive and anecdotal. A long section on so-called "dead peasant insurance"—the practice of companies taking out insurance policies on rank-and-file workers—never connects the practice to larger injustices, and tragedies like Hurricane Katrina or the death of a young mother are evoked for cheap pathos that stands in for actual critique. Small, isolated victories against boilerplate villains like foreclosing banks are taken as exemplary of a mass movement that, I'm sorry to report, doesn't seem to actually exist. And as is increasingly the case with Moore, the film's primary mode is unrepentant self-congratulation, incoherently casting failures as victories in much the same way as Slacker Uprising; Moore figures more and more in his films as the hero of a revolution that never came, that only happened in his dreams.

Even the visual style of the film is significantly inferior to recent offerings like Bowling, Fahrenheit, and Sicko; the film feels thrown together, even phoned in.

It should be said that Jaimee, Tim, Alex, and Julie all seemed to like the film rather more than I did, and their replies to these arguments generally fell along two lines:

1) It's a Michael Moore movie. What did you expect?
2) Okay, but [Sequence X] was actually quite good.

Taking these in reverse order: it's true that the film does have some rather nice individual sequences. One that springs to mind is an investigation into corruption surrounding a privatized juvenile-detention prison in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in which two judges were recently indicted on racketeering charges for funneling children into the prison in exchange for kickbacks. But as terrible as this story is, like most of the film's examples this is still local and anecdotal, suggestive of reform and "bad apples" and not total system failure. It is too rarely that the film rises above the level of mere anecdote to the level of system, though it does here and there, as in its discussion of an unexpectedly forthright internal Citibank memo that declares America a "plutonomy" (for my money the film's best sequence).

(EDIT: Just a quick after-the-post interjection that while talking to Jaimee I was reminded about the striking footage of FDR and his proposed "Second Bill of Rights," which is actually the film's best sequence, as well as an approach to reform/revolution that could have structured a better version of this film.)

And yes, it's just a Michael Moore film and not Capital, and yes, rigor must sometimes be compromised in exchange for mass appeal. But we shouldn't mistake spectacle for revolution, either; Paramount's release of this film is much less the capitalist selling you a rope with which to hang him than the capitalist selling you a picture of a rope. At times the film can barely keep up the pretense of being about anything more than fluffing Michael Moore's ego, with scene after scene of him shouting impotently in front of buildings in precisely the same way he has for the last 20 years. (The film depicts these moments not as futile but as, of course, heroic, including impotently-shouting-outside-buildings footage from Roger & Me without any apparent sense of irony.) The film ends with Michael Moore threatening not to make any more movies for us at all unless we get off our asses and revolt—but the film, primarily a love song to his own career, provides absolutely no roadmap for collective action. Even An Inconvenient Truth, flawed as its call for action was, at least told us to change our lightbulbs; beyond a visit to Moore has no apparent thoughts whatsoever as to how a successful anti-capitalist political coalition might be forged in America today.

I'll go out on a limb and bet it doesn't begin with a film like Capitalism. If I'm wrong, I owe Michael Moore a Coke.