It’s easy to hate Michael Moore. Whiny, nasty and often exploitative, waddling around his films like the précis of the know-it-all liberal elite, Moore is as broad and obvious a target for derision as Dubya or Cheney. A lot of the times the argument turns to Moore himself, and the apparent irony of a well-to-do aesthete speaking up for the silently suffering America working class (cf: David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke’s Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man). This is pretty silly. If we can learn anything from Roman Polanski’s recent resurgence in the headlines, it may be that art (or essayistic commerce parading as art) is most productively considered apart from its artist.
Such a project is difficult with a filmmaker whose bottom-line clout with the Weinsteins means that he hangs over most aspects of his films, from his voiceover narration to his personal anecdotes of life in Flint, Michigan to promotional material. Moore is, quite literally, his own poster boy. Nowhere else is the more evident than his latest, sarcastically titled essay-doc Capitalism: A Love Story. Considering his expressed interest in moving away from documentary and back into narrative cinema, Capitalism is something of a swan song for Moore. His most sprawling and unfocused film yet, Capitalism employs all of his hallmarks—cutesy stock footage, bleeding-heart portraits of the American working class, a staunchly contrarian outlook and a clever use of music—in its expansive two-hour trek across capitalism’s apparent failure in the United States.
His examples range from the evident to the esoteric, from examining the subprime mortgage scam to speculating that maybe planes crash in Buffalo because commercial pilots are underpaid. He casts his net wide, looking to privatized juvenile detention centres in Pennsylvania, the Senate banking committee and, of course, his beloved Flint, for examples of capitalism’s floundering. He even enlists the opinion of a bunch of Catholic priests, who happily conjecture that Christ himself was no capitalist. Something like the rebuttal to Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in 2007’s There Will Be Blood, Moore looks out over America’s endless plain of opportunity and sees only exploitation.
As filmmaker and polemicist, however, Moore is too cautious to take his ideas to the conclusion that they seem naturally impelled toward. The result? Another frustrating piece of pop radicalism that will likely pass as the real deal. As in his other documentaries, Moore seems to think that stockpiling flow charts, internal memos and kitschy stock footage necessarily amounts to some sailable conclusion. But what exactly is this conclusion? That America has a love affair with capitalism? That America’s love affair with capitalism is cooling? There are far too many loose ends here. For example, Moore connects the financial crisis to the events of September 11thin a scene which could easily be amended as a footnote to his own Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). According to Moore, after the 9/11 attacks, the FBI reshuffled manpower and resources such that attention being given to white collar crime and corporate fraud was reduced in order to focus on taking down terrorist networks at home and abroad. But Moore merely tosses off this interesting tidbit, perhaps wary of his reputation in some circles as a lunatic fringe shit-disturber, perhaps careful that his trademark ball cap not be mistaken for a tin foil hat.
Much of Capitalism’s focus, such as it is, is the mismanaging of the American economy at the hands of private and federal bank regulators such as Alan Greenspan and Timothy Geithner that led to our present financial crisis, the implementation of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, et cetera. But again, Capitalism is content to criticize the broadest, wealthiest targets, despite the opportunity to more seriously engage its subject matter.
Why bother lambasting the big wig bank owners and catchphrase-spinning Greenspan types, already the fat cat foils for anyone not in the top 1%? The more solemn portrait of capitalism’s dicey ethics are the middle-income labourers foreclosing Miami homes and the security guards keeping Moore at bay as he attempts to perform citizen’s arrests on Wall Street. Though by no means super-rich, these seem capitalism’s (and Capitalism’s) subjects who are most beholden to the tenets of free enterprise and self-determination, who will sell out their fellow American to their face in order to preserve their own job security.
Likewise, in the film’s conclusion, when Moore demands that the evil of capitalism—and to be sure, by this point his has diagnosed it as being indisputably EVIL, thanks to the testimony of Catholic bishops well versed on the subject—be overthrown by democracy, he is cheating himself and his audience. Having already suggested that economic systems are not equal to, or necessarily compatible with, political ones, Moore should at least muster the chutzpah to suggest socialism as an alternative. Instead, he merely relies on the same sort of Founding Father flag-waving that he always does, preferring to restate Jeffersonian ideals of a government of the people instead of radically redefining them in a way that now seems necessary.
One of Capitalism’s more forceful propositions is that if capitalism is indeed failing—not in terms of housing collapses or nose-diving stocks, but in terms of base investment in it as an ideology—it is because its operations are now fundamentally different. Indeed, capital’s Baby Boom siren song of colour televisions, garden parties and middle-class security hinged on its ability to supply the products consumers demanded. This is no longer the case. Capitalism, Moore astutely argues, is no longer some jolly Saint Nick, but a corpulent Taftian figure. It no longer works for the common people but for the interests of the banks. The consumer promise of a wide array of petroleum-based goods has given way as much to a comfortable professional-managerial class as it has to Wal-Mart, ballooning credit debt and the subprime mortgage crisis.
Even this, however, seems flawed. While Moore is happy to interview underpaid airline pilots who have run up a tidy $10K in credit debt buying groceries and other “essentials,” the consumer desire for LCD TVs and Visa-subsidized Caribbean vacations seems as “essential” to comprehensively understanding the nature of the present financial crisis. And this isn’t to pass the buck onto the working class who wants to watch the Bills game in glorious HD. It may be a case of blaming the junkie versus blaming the peddler, yes, but it’s by no means a vexing chicken-egg game. Rather, it’s a matter of understanding why working class and middle-income Americans retain a slavish adherence to capitalist ideology, despite being precisely the ones most disabused by it. (This is an argument that Gregory Greene undertakes in part in his 2004 analysis of the connection between the comforts of the suburban lifestyle and the present peak oil crisis in his much more focused documentary The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and Collapse of the American Dream.)
If the recent Tea Party riots have taught us anything (besides that a portion of the American public now regards the Joker as an unfeeling deviant mastermind on par with Hitler), it’s that the S-word and the C-word are in themselves horrifying to a not unremarkable percentage of the American public. It’s no surprise that much of the coverage of these so-called “tax revolts” coming from the Left has relied on snide Stewart/Colbert-style winking, on sampling video of people flummoxed to define what a Tsar is and then shrugging at the camera as if to say to the audience “get a load of these idiots!”
Idiotic, perhaps. But also endemic. Sure it’s easy to regard these people—organizing under Culpeper flags to protest liberal yahoos like Moore—as dummies who are for some reason angry over a tax hike to make healthcare more accessible, but to do so ignores the centuries of self-delusion that has draped America’s view of itself. It’s like chastising a six year old for still believing in Santa Claus despite having never been told otherwise.
This is the sort of thing that demands dismantling more than the fine print of refinancing advertisements or the symbolic consequence of a handful of sit-ins strikes. Instead of tackling the boogeyman of Socialism (to say literally nothing of Communism), Moore retreats to safely pledging allegiance to the abstraction of capital-d Democracy. And as usual, Moore himself indulges all kinds of ground-level action that is singularly symbolic—like driving an armoured truck up to Citibank HQ and attempting to liberate the money of the American people while gawking tourists snap photos, or trying again to storm the General Motors in HQ on the 20th anniversary of Roger & Me.
Sure it’s cute, but it’s the sort of shtick that will always define Moore as little more than an agitator, as Tom Green with an agenda. He knows these gags will superficially enliven his docs, but they end up defining them. His deliberate research and good intentions will always be undercut by his counterfeit showmanship, by wanting to open up a bank account to get a free rifle like he’s the snide schoolchild who calls out teacher for making a spelling mistake, relishing in the applause lauded on him by his less observant peers.
And as someone who's disliked Moore’s films since every brain-dead liberal I know (mostly high school teachers) lapped up 2002’s Bowling For Columbine like it was some Gospel According to the People, I know how this sort of criticism of Moore is generally taken by the Left. “Yeah well, at least he’s trying,” or “Give him credit for trying to get people to think” or whatever. My response remains the same. Michael Moore and his films may try, but they do not try hard enough. Moreover, he’s as bad as Fox News or Alan Greenspan in that he’s not so much trying to get people to think as he’s telling them what to think.
Worst, what he wants us to think is the same staid, faux-radical party line: that America’s not about banks or bailouts or politicians kept safely in pocket. That’s is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thats it's about I have a dream, four-score and seven, ich bin ein Berliner and all that. But that’s not good enough. Especially when Capitalism has its central character eyeball-to-eyeball with its archenemy and alternative. But just like the Tea Party tax rebels, Moore is too afraid to speak its name too loudly. Instead of more confidently endorsing the Ideology-What-Must-Not-Be-Named, Moore drops a few scant rations in the form of sparse profiles of worker-owned factories that have managed to increase profits in the face of the economic turndown.
If Michael Moore was half the radical people take him as, he’d drop all the camera-mugging hucksterism and put America’s money where his mouth is. The first step? Lose the sneering ironic title card and call the film what it should be called—Socialism: A Hate Story. On second thought, maybe it doesn’t have the same ring to it. Well, he could at least meet halfway. Maybe, Capitalism: What Is It Good For? Something like that.