Saturday, October 3, 2009

Michael Moore's Capitalism: More Agit-Prop Than Love Story

But is that really so bad? In an age where corporations and governments have become their own slick propaganda machines, maybe Moore's project - being a carnivalist entertainer for the common man - is what those who study leftist art would call purposeful propaganda, art in service of a populist political message. It strikes me that having a propaganda machine like Moore fighting back for the workers is only...well, to use one of Moore's own overtly latent terms..."fair."

After refining his approach for over two decades: telling sob stories of workers crushed under the wheels of cruel corporations and government, while mugging and embarrassing the lugs who run them, all the while mixing in a Raffenstahllish montage of found footage and Dada-ist deconstruction intending to highlight the contradictions and absurdities of the enemy, Moore has become a master of the style...a style, at this point, ripe for a Saturday Night Live parody. But that's another story.

In Capitalism: A Love Story Moore, in a way, decides to go for broke - instead of simply tackling a particular leftist issue (such as failed intelligence of Fahrenheit 9/11 or the medical system in Sicko), he's decided to set his sights on the whole shebang, basically indicting the entire American "Capitalist" way of life.

What Moore spends most of his time on here is a heart-wrenching deconstruction of the mortgage-cum-banking-cum-bailout crisis of the past year; and when Moore sticks to his subject - such as interviewing a farm family loosing their house, following fired workers as they sit-in for the pay still owed them, or following neighborhood activists as they battle local police from evicting families, he's got his teeth into a subject that surely resonates with the times. His point that maybe this time, Americans who usually vote against their interests will get mad enough to do something about it, starts to feel like a movement in the making. And by tying back the moments in the news with his own personal family story of growing up in Flint, Michigan, Moore succeeds in making himself not just a strident spokesman, but another one of the families who've ended up on the losing side of the Republican revolution: and thus a voice we're more inclined to follow.

But in going for broke, Moore overreaches - throwing in unrelated stories about the corporate practice of taking out life insurance on young workers (known as "dead peasant" insurance); charting the Congressional vote for the bailout without examining the alternatives, and basically letting everyone off the hook for our fiscal mess - including not only those homeowners who bought into the refi-mania of the 'naughts, or who abandoned their homes when the payments got tough, thus fanning the flames of the crisis, but also favorite Democrats like Clinton and Obama - who don't neatly fit into his "us versus them" meme. This time, Moore wants to disparage the entire Capitalist system as, in his words, "evil" - to be replaced by...well, that word Socialism seems to be the alternative on offer, though Moore does little to explain it (and seems to intentionally avoid uttering the word). I grant you, it's not a far leap from our current fiscal mess to concluding that this whole Capitalist project is a dud. Yet Socialism is hardly a rejection of capitalism (Moore seems to buy into the Republican line, here), so what is it that he's really arguing for? Moore clearly cares little about such niceties as making sense - which makes his point here a bit of a mess. Moore, as we know, doesn't want to convince: he wants to break your heart, then hit you over the head with his assertions. But it's not just that the realities are more complicated than Moore would wish them to be, it's that this time, by aiming at an entire economic system, instead of just a particular crisis or two, his buckshot rarely hits the intended targets, and instead of the righteous anger he's going for all we emerge with is a sad shaking of the head, not just at the misery caused by the banking crisis but at the deep, deep misunderstanding of it that even lucid commentators like Michael Moore seem to have.

So my complaint about Moore's movie this time isn't that he's gone and done it again - rather, it's that he's missed an opportunity. There is plenty of blame to throw around in this mortgage/bailout mess - Moore bags a politician or two (Chris Dodd comes out looking less than pretty); and he nails the Goldman Sachs/Government conspiracy previously written about by Matt Tiabi. And it's worth being reminded that there are real lives being destroyed by this debacle. But what Moore leaves out is even more telling: little mention that Obama's cabinet is, surprise surprise, more of the same, or that it was Clinton who signed the bank deregulation bill, or - even more complicating - that the anti-AIG anger has now morphed into the anti-Obama, anti-government Tea Party movement, who has concluded just the opposite point: that it's not Capitalists who are evil, but Socialists. Perhaps these oversights are all part of Moore's strategic plan to get labor-leaning pols into higher office (Roosevelt is practically canonized at the end of the film). But the long passage on Reagan's war against the unions in the Eighties really feels like a stretch, and starts to betray Moore's real passion in this film: organized labor, and its ability to fight for worker's interests.

That's a worthy goal, and perhaps one worth fighting for, but really, it's tangential to the mortgage meltdown and the financial bailout. Then again, what Moore wants to do is achieve his dreamed-for worker's revolution, and in his mind, the bailout/meltdown is merely the spark he hopes will get the Peasants to rise. That's perhaps why it's more important for him to show angry AIG protesters and clear-cut enemies like Hank Paulson, than to really reveal the nuances of what just happened.

It's too bad, because I think a political propagandist like Moore, if he really focused in on the financial mess, could have helped do for banking reform and regulation what a movie like "Sicko" has apparently done for the health care reform initiative. This time, Moore takes aim at the entire capitalist edifice, trotting out his most strident and vague Troskyist anthems, and instead of launching a roar that has the potential to create a movement, all he gives us is a cris de cour: the yelp of a dog who's had his tail caught, and plaintive though he may be, seems to have lost his bite.

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