More Money, More Problems
By Drew Morton | Film | September 23, 2009 | Comments ()
By Drew Morton | Film | September 23, 2009 |
Documentary filmmakers often rely on self-reflexivity to give their arguments more potency by acknowledging that their presentation is the product of a person, making it a subjective expression rather than an objective one. This is done with the hope of providing a more truthful account. Specifically, the documentarian acknowledges that he or she is the one holding the camera, splicing the film, forming the argument, and very often brings a moral, ethical, or ideological point of view to the evidence. In my experience as a film critic and novice scholar of documentary, I've found that this strategy can bring mixed results. In some cases, it's all smoke and mirrors, a misdirection by the documentarian that, while it may be truthful to a degree, is more self-indulgent than revealing. In other cases, it's brutally honest and can serve as a stepping-stone in the evaluation of a source for the sake of gaining knowledge or insight. Watching Michael Moore's latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), and pondering the review I would have to write, I thought the best plan of attack would involve my own blend of self-reflexivity.
First off, I am a Cinema and Media Studies Ph.D. student at the University of California-Los Angeles. This should imply two pieces of information right off the bat. First, despite my career in the academy, my knowledge of capitalism as an economic and social system is slim at best. Sure, I've read excerpts of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx's Capital, but I read them a long time ago and I'd be hard pressed to describe the intricacies of both theories if asked. Secondly, as a student of the humanities and an educator, I tend to value education, knowledge, and helping others. Thus, like most people who share my background and views towards life, I find myself swaying safely to the left. While I wouldn't categorize myself as one, I'm pretty sure Fox News would call me a socialist, a communist, or a red. Despite these two pieces of information, it may surprise you to hear that I am not Michael Moore's biggest fan. I know that may sound paradoxical. After all, those two pieces of information would make it seem as if I were a member of Moore's ideal audience. Yet, while I can't articulate why I find myself uncomfortable with his films with regard to economic theory, I can describe it in terms of documentary theory. Yet, this is not as simple as being the tale of how I'm uncomfortable with Michael Moore but how this discomfort was, for the most part, not elevated by Capitalism: A Love Story.
First, and this criticism goes back to Moore's first film Roger & Me (1989), I sometimes find myself distrustful of Moore's persona and his editorial hand. Specifically, in Roger & Me, Moore rigged his rhetorical deck of cards. As Pauline Kael noted in her review of the film, Moore depicted events out of chronological order, creating a new chain of cause and effect with the hope of producing an emotional response from an event that never actually occurred (specifically Roger Smith's speech is linked to a family being evicted). I find myself distrustful of these techniques and that they ultimately hamper an argument's sway with me. Perhaps this is a matter of personal preference, but I find Moore's arguments best articulated by others beside himself or in evidence that does not directly involve him. In his case, self-reflexivity strikes me as a means of creating a persona. Hence my distaste for a scene in Capitalism in which Moore rents out an armored car and drives up to AIG, calling up to the CEO's office on a bull horn, demanding a citizen's arrest and that federal bailout money be returned to the U.S. Treasury. While I can acknowledge the humor inherent in the situation, I often feel that these antics are the cinematic equivalent to trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.
Thankfully, Capitalism, unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) or Sicko (2007), contains few of those moments. Moore, for the most part, allows each individual interviewee's story sell his argument. That overall argument is that the form of capitalism embraced by America is a flawed system that really lacks any logical sense for its perpetuation. For instance, from the point of view of the Christianity, with whom the Republican Party (the party sympathetic to "private" or "free" enterprise) often aligns itself, capitalism is an evil that promotes greed and an inversion of priority. Individual welfare is now held with greater regard than the general welfare. In addition, despite the fact that America is a touted as a democracy, capitalism is often practiced via a monarchical system of rule (management). Through Moore's choice of interview subjects, he creates a compelling argument against the evils of capitalism. After all, here's a system which has become so distorted that blue chip corporations take out life insurance policies on even their youngest staff members, hoping to turn a profit in case of an untimely death. To Moore, the economic recession has only helped underline America's version of capitalism has its problems. So why does it stick around?
Moore's hypothesis on capitalism's longevity should come as no surprise. In the end, the pure amount of currency in the system and the influence that currency brings keeps any alternative off the table. Moore's prime example comes from the events of autumn 2008, as we watched as the media, former President Bush, and former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson (former head of banking giant Goldman Sachs) tried to pass a bail out through the House of Representatives over the course of a weekend. The initial bill failed, thanks to frightened and angry phone calls from the general electorate. Yet, the bill, for better and for worse, made its way through shortly thereafter thanks to the efforts of lobbyists and a number of scared politicians facing re-election. Moore then posits that there are two routes that have been taken historically to rectify economic unbalance. For the first and more frightening option, Moore looks at post-WWII Europe and Japan, who were capable of re-building their socioeconomic structure courtesy of post-war environment dominated by ruin. The second and less-frightening option Moore posits is organized grass roots activism.
This second option brings me to the final characteristic of Moore's work that I've found myself feeling conflicted about: his mode of address. Much like Bill O'Reilly on Fox News or Keith Obermann on MSNBC, Moore produces an echo effect for the spectator. In other words, the people watching O'Reilly or Moore tend to agree with the viewpoint expressed and all the text does is re-enforce that opinion while providing talking points. Like his previous efforts, Capitalism does not offer a significant step away from this mode of address. It's directed at liberals, who made up the audience I viewed the film with, even going as far as pressing them to cheer when presented with a mocking representation of George W. Bush giving a speech to drum up the fear of an economic recession. Did I support George W. Bush and his policies? Absolutely not, but I could not help but ask myself what real social change Moore's films offer. Personally, I would tend to shoot more for the independents and those in the middle of the political spectrum. Odds are that those are audience members who can be appealed to and have not yet become hard-wired into their voting preferences.
I asked myself this question repeatedly throughout Capitalism, but I concluded that it might be too late for Michael Moore to learn new tricks. Unlike the saying, it's not that Michael Moore is too old to change his methods; it simply wouldn't help. After all, here's a documentarian who has already been so thoroughly branded "LIBERAL" (Michael Moore Hates America made its debut in 2004) that to change his mode of address probably wouldn't help appeal to an unsympathetic viewer. I think Moore realizes this bind and the conclusion to the film pushed me to view it admirably overall, despite my initial misgivings. At the end of the film, Moore seems to realize that despite his use of rhetoric and evidence, he will not be able to convert the non-believer. Yet, that is not to say his causes or his films lack the power to affect social change. Moore pleas at the end of the film for those sympathetic to his views to take to the streets and begin a working class revolution with the objective of shifting political and economic power back to the bottom 99 percent of American society. In the end, we can only save ourselves, propel social change, and hope to enlighten those who disagree with us by our own political actions.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.
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Capitalism: A Love Story examines the impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans (and by default, the rest of the world). The film moves from Middle America, to the halls of power in Washington, to the global financial epicenter in Manhattan. With both humor and outrage, the film explores the question: What is the price that America pays for its love of capitalism? Families pay the price with their jobs, their homes and their savings. Moore goes into the homes of ordinary people whose lives have been turned upside down; and he goes looking for explanations in Washington, DC and elsewhere. What he finds are the all-too-familiar symptoms of a love affair gone astray: lies, abuse, betrayal...and 14,000 jobs being lost every day. Capitalism: A Love Story also presents what a more hopeful future could look like. Who are we and why do we behave the way that we do?
Film-maker Michael Moore begins this revealing documentary with the Roman Empire, and the beginning of greed. He takes the viewer to an era of American well-being without any competition from post-war Germany and Japan; prosperity; end of slavery, and the introduction of the Second Bill of Rights by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But before this inclusion Roosevelt passes away, and the nation spins into anarchy, with indolent, right-winged, self-seeking politicians forming an unhealthy nexus with Corporations, and Wall Street, leaving the vulnerable without employment and health insurance, while putting billions at the disposal of banks and insurance companies - leaving them free to distribute this wealth amongst their executives without any conditions and audits, as well as portraying Barrack Obama as a Socialist. In this regressive era employers exploit their employees by paying them the minimum, but insuring them for large amounts, naming the organization as the beneficiary, demonstrating that they are more valuable after their demise. Middle-classed Katrina & foreclosure-ravaged Americans now must consider adapting to the new Bible (Wall Street Journal) and a new place of worship - Wall Street.
Most Americans believe that capitalism is a system of the production and distribution of preferred goods and services in return for what consumers are willing to pay for them, and that this system is the bedrock on which the United States is built and upon which the country should function. This system may have functioned well in the United States in the post World War II era when there was little global competition and which truly established the middle class. However capitalism as seen in the United States today, which truly took hold in the Reagan era, is more about the want of the wealthy to get wealthier at the expense of all others. The country at that time started to be run more like a business than like a traditional government. Since, there has been a manipulation by the power brokers on Wall Street of government for their benefit, often at the expense of the the dwindling middle class and working class, and often without that production of a good or service demanded by society. The system continues to operate as most Americans strive to be among the wealthy and see capitalism as a system where becoming wealthy is at least possible. Capitalism is often associated with the ideals of Christianity and the concurrent American ideal of democracy, the latter which is increasingly not the case, where economic power is held in the hands of the few. Corporate America's biggest fear is democracy where in a one person/one vote system, a wealthy person has as much power as a poor person. With the poor increasingly outnumbering the wealthy, the poor banding together may show capitalism for what it is, at least in today's global system.
An examination of the social costs of corporate interests pursuing profits at the expense of the public good.
The synopsis below may give away important plot points.
- The film alternates between a fierce critique of the status quo, personal portraits of the suffering caused by the recent economic crisis, and comical social satire. The film begins a series of security footages of bank robberies (one of the robbers was even on a crutch) accompanied by the song "Louie, Louie". Moore then uses an Encyclopedia Britannica archive video to compare the modern-day America with the Roman Empire. The film then depicts home videos of families being evicted from their homes, as well as the "Condo Vultures", a Florida real estate agent whose business flourished with the increasing number of foreclosures.
The film then cuts back to the past "golden days" of American capitalism following World War II. The film then shows part of a July 15, 1979 speech by President Jimmy Carter (known today as the "Malaise" speech) about America's "crisis of confidence" and warning Americans of the dangers of "self-indulgence and consumption" (which almost no one wanted to listen to).
In the following Reagan years of the 1980s, where the policies of Don Regan "turned the bull loose" for free enterprises, corporations gained more political power, unions were weakened, and socioeconomic gaps were widened. The film then cuts to the Luzerne County court scandal, Captain Sullenberger's congressional testimony regarding airline pilots' poor treatment, and the expose of "dead peasant insurance" policies that have companies profiting from the deaths of their employees.
Moore then interviews several Catholic priests, including Bishop Thomas Gumbleton (Archdiocese of Detroit), all of whom consider capitalism contrary to the teachings of Christianity. The film then presents a mockery of what would happen if Jesus was a capitalist who wanted to "maximize profits", to "deregulate the banking industry" and wanted the sick to "pay out of pocket" for their "pre-existing condition", in contrast with several news pundits who proclaim the success of various capitalist enterprises as being a "blessing from God."
The film then features a leaked internal Citigroup memo happily declaring the United States a "plutonomy" (a society "where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few"), with the top 1% of the population controlling more financial wealth than the bottom 95% combined. The same report also raises the concern of "societies demanding a more 'equitable' share of wealth". Moore then interviews Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore (no relation), who believes "capitalism is a lot more important than democracy". The film then cuts to co-determination worker cooperatives like Wisconsin's Isthmus Engineering and California's Alvarado Street Bakery, which are owned and run democratically by their employees, as alternative models to the current capitalist system.
After referring to Dr. Jonas Salk, who selflessly gave away the patent of the polio vaccine for the public good ("Would you patent the sun?"), Moore wonders about how the brightest of America's young generation are attracted into finance instead of science. Moore then goes to Wall Street seeking technical explanation about derivatives and credit default swaps, only to be advised "don't make any more movies". Eventually Marcus Haupt, a former VP of Lehman Brothers, agrees to help but fails at clearly explaining these terms. Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff similarly fails ("Sorry... I apologize... These are pretty exotic"). Moore eventually concludes that the complex system and terminology are merely there to confuse and "get away with murder", and Wall Street is just "an insane casino".
Moore then explores the role of Alan Greenspan and the U.S. Treasury in leading up to the United States housing bubble that devastated the American middle class. Moore also interviews a former employee at Countrywide Financial responsible for their VIP program for "FOAs" and details how many members of Congress and political figures received favorable mortgage rates under the program. Moore then discusses with William Black, who analogizes the situation to the build-up of the collapse of a dam. The film then shows the series of events leading up to the passing of 2008 bailout proposed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (also the former CEO of Goldman Sachs). Moore then speaks with several Members of Congress, with Ohio congresswoman Marcy Kaptur supporting Moore's comment that the passing of the bailout is a "financial coup d'état".
Moore interviews Elizabeth Warren, the head of the US Congressional Oversight Committee, the government agency serving as a watchdog for Congress' wrong-doing and investigating Congressional "oversights" (mistakes). He asks her, "Where's our money?", referring to the $700 billion bailout money which Congress gave to the big banks and Wall Street investment companies. There is a dramatic pause and Warren replies, "I don't know." Advised by Warren to contact Paulson's office for answer, Moore's call is promptly disconnected upon recognition of his identity. He then goes to Wall Street demanding to "get the money back for the American people", but is denied entry into every office building of the major banks.
The film then shows the events leading up to the 2008 U.S. election, where branding of capitalism and socialism occurs as part of the scare campaign, and Moore expresses hope that the election of Barack Obama might turn things into the right track. The film then contrasts the present economic reality in America with the policy of US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who supported the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1936. Moore also includes a long-lost archival footage of FDR calling for a Second Bill of Rights that would guarantee all Americans "a useful job, a decent home, adequate health care, and a good education."
Moore discusses his own spiritual beliefs as a Catholic, and questions whether Jesus would belong to a hedge fund or sell short. His conclusion, which he elaborated on in more detail after the film's release, is that "you can't call yourself a capitalist and a Christian, because you cannot love your money and love your neighbor."
The documentary features a number of positive portrayals, which include bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans, who put forth a moratorium on home evictions, and Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur, who on the floor of the US Congress encouraged Americans to be "squatters" in their own homes, and refuse to vacate.
The film closes with Moore placing police lines around numerous banks, and lastly, Wall Street itself. Moore's closing remarks are the following: capitalism is an evil which can only be eliminated, in its place, a better system is that of democracy - rule by the people, not by money, and asks all those who support his beliefs to "speed it up", mimicking the famous phrase said by Don Regan to Ronald Reagan during one of the latter's speeches.