Michael Moore and his Capitalism, A Love Story were snubbed this year by the Oscars, without a single nomination, let alone win. Perhaps this is payback for being such a provocateur. Moore’s 2003 Bowling for Columbine Oscar acceptance speech as the Iraq War began, boldly proclaiming: “Shame on you, Mr. Bush!” In 2008, when Sicko — which was shot in part on location in Cuba and praised Cuban healthcare — was also up for Oscar gold, Moore joked the Motion Picture Academy should invite Fidel Castro to the ceremony to boost ratings. Maybe Capitalism, A Love Story did not get any requited love from the Academy in 2010 because of Moore’s outspoken critique of the not-so-free enterprise system, credit card debt, maximizing debt, democracy, the coming uprising and puts Pres. Obama on notice.
Nevertheless, Michael Moore is the foremost nonfiction filmmaker of our times. Moore appeared at a September 16, 2009 private screening of his new documentary Capitalism, A Love Story in Westwood, near the UCLA campus, where Huffington Post publisher Arianna Huffington, who is from Greece, likened Moore to the ancient Greeks’ teller of unpopular truths, calling him “our Cassandra, with a baseball cap.” (That night his red cap bore the word “Rutgers.”)
Moore is to 21st century America what the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, the director of the Kino Pravda (Film Truth) series, was to the Russian Revolution: the man with the movie camera, who sees and chronicles social rights and wrongs, interpreting reality through a roving, relentless, restless, rabblerousing camera lens, determined to tell all to the masses out there in movie-land.
The release of a new Moore doc is a major media event. Indeed, shortly before his latest work was released, the Oscar and Cannes winner appeared on Jay Leno’s revamped NBC-TV program and on September23 (the day it opened in L.A. and New York) was a guest on Larry King’s CNN gabfest. By the end of the week he visited Amy Goodman on Pacifica’s Democracy Now, Bill Maher’s Real Time HBO show and other outlets. What other nonfiction cineaste can say that and has such ballyhoo heft?
The good news is that Capitalism, A Love Story is another Michael Moore instant classic, and in his considerable, 20-year-long oeuvre – which spurred revitalization of the documentary as an art form, as well as an entertainment medium — is second in quality and power only to his 2004 masterpiece, Fahrenheit 9/11.
Premiering almost exactly a year after the financial meltdown, Capitalism, A Love Story has all of the usual suspects and ingredients of that film formula which makes Moore’s movie magic. There’s plenty of the tongue and cheeky characteristic that has spread to TV parodies of news exemplified by the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert brand of topical comedy. Capitalism opens with security camera footage of real bank robberies – what better metaphor for bank bailouts with taxpayer money? (As well as a playful rumination on the nature of cinema verite by a practitioner of the documentary art form.) Then there are clips from other films – one on ancient Rome, another from an instructional piece on private enterprise, and hilarious “what would Jesus do?” bits.
Capitalism features some insider exposes and incisive investigative reporting – another hallmark of Moore’s filmmaking technique — which in Sicko exposed healthcare insurance scams, and in Fahrenheit revealed the battlefield costs of the so-called “cakewalk” in Iraq, where the mission wasn’t quite as accomplished as Moore’s nemesis, George W. Bush, had falsely claimed. In Capitalism, Moore exposes a scandalous life insurance practice for “Dead Peasants,” and more mind boggling practices.
The quintessential ingredient in Moore’s motion picture recipe has been his own proletarian persona, which works because like so many movie fat men, he’s funny, but unlike many U.S. leftists, he is literally a son of the industrial proletariat. There’s lots about his boyhood at Flint, Michigan, where both his father and uncle worked on GM assembly lines, mass producing cars in some bygone autotopia, once upon a time before America was de-industrialized, downsized, outsourced and union busted.
At the Westwood screening, Moore reminisced about this simpler, less greedy age: “Remember when… maybe mom had a J.C. Penney department store card, or something like that? But that was it – there was no credit card debt. The beast started [thinking] how it could get more money out of people: ‘We need more money. So let’s get them all charging things. Then let’s get their kids, when they go to college, into these 20 year loans.’ You know, when we were college age we didn’t go to a private bank to get a student loan. There was a thing on the college campus called the financial aid office [that provided] one or two percent loans… Around when Ronald Reagan became president, the concept of putting your pension into the stock market [began], which wasn’t going to be a guaranteed pension from the moment you started to do that,” said the 55 year-old, lamenting “the slow creep of… the takeover” by capital.
Of course, Capitalism has the de rigeur Moore merry prankster stunts – 20 years after Roger and Me, GM throws the prodigal proletarian son out of their HQ yet again. (When will they ever learn?) But correct me if I’m wrong: Moore’s current Wall Street shenanigans seem like replays of the escapades on his 1990s’ TV Nation and The Awful Truth television series, when he and Crackers, the corporate crime fighting chicken, confronted white collar criminals. While droll, Capitalism’s tomfoolery never rises to Sicko’s audacious, inventive level of Moore trying to bring a boatload of ailing Ground Zero survivors to the one place under U.S. jurisdiction that guarantees universal medical care: Guantanamo Bay, where suspected terrorists are imprisoned. (Denied entry at Guantanamo he instead transports the suffering 9/11 emergency responders and victims to Castro’s Cuba, where socialism provides free healthcare to all.) Nor does Moore’s return to the scene of the crime in the Financial District in Capitalism match the sheer panache of his dispatching actors clad as Salem witch-hunters to the home of President Bill Clinton’s grand inquisitor, Kenneth Starr (now ensconced, god help us, at Pepperdine University!) during the multi-million dollar probe of the Monica Lewd-insky scandal and impeachment imbroglio.
Capitalism, A Love Story has its share of talking head notables – social critic Wally Shawn (of My Dinner With Andre fame), Catholic clergymen who denounce the capitalist system for its sinfulness and wickedness, etc. But, more importantly and at the core of Moore’s movie method, is his putting the so-called “forgotten man” (and woman) front and center, giving them a prominent platform to tell their heartbreaking, gut wrenching stories of an America where uncontrolled greed has run amok, laying waste to the common people. Just as Roger and Me presented out-of-work autoworkers, including down on their luck Flint residents reduced to catching, skinning, eating and selling rabbits to survive in the wake of the economic cataclysm that destroyed their once thriving city, Capitalism gives voice to Americans being evicted, including a family farmer close to snapping. As one victim of the capitalist system says onscreen: “There’s gotta be a rebellion between the people who have it all and people who have nothing.”
Moore defines capitalism as “legalized greed,” and after the Westwood screening noted: “Our laws demand that corporations have the fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders to maximize profits. So they are legally required to make as much money as possible, any way possible…. Health insurance companies – it’s not their fault that they deny claims or take you off the rolls… The laws demand this because they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to make as much money as possible. And you’re not going to make as much money as possible if you start doling out checks to people when they get sick. So they work night and day trying not to hand out any money to the doctors or hospitals or any of the people who need help. That is a sick system,” which Moore likens to one person at a table taking nine slices of pie and leaving the last slice for the other nine people.
Compassion and a strong sense of social justice are the heart and soul of Moore’s movies, and indeed, of the man who dared denounce Pres. Bush as the Iraq War started on live TV during his Oscar acceptance speech for 2002’s Bowling at Columbine. In Capitalism Moore raises serious points about the free market, pondering why a so-called democracy allows so many dictatorial practices in the workplace. (Jean-Luc Godard once asked why one boss has more power than 100 workers?) Moore also rails against America’s disparity in wealth, wondering what’s democratic – and Christian – about 1% of the population owning as much as the “bottom” 95% of the population? He includes scenes of workers rebelling against inequality and injustice, from archival footage of the 1930s sit-down strike at the Flint auto factories, to news clips of contemporary workers successfully occupying the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago and demonstrators at Wall Street.
In his critique of the not-so-free enterprise system Moore spares no one, Republican or Democrat – including the current president, whose candidacy Moore had supported. He likens Barack Obama’s economic team, especially U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, former CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of N.Y., and adviser Larry Summers, to the bank robbers hired by bankers to explain to them how banks are robbed.
Following the Westwood screening Moore told the enthusiastic audience, “I put the scene in about Obama receiving all that money… out of these Wall Street firms and banks [and] the thing about Goldman Sachs being his number one private contributor. The thought was: I’m really not doing this for the general audience. I’m doing it for Obama to see it. I’m doing this scene for an audience of one. Because I want him to know that we know, and I want him to know that I’m telling everyone else. As much as I love and admire the guy, I want to put him on notice that if he doesn’t do what’s in our best interest, and sides with this organized crime family, banks and investment firms – really, seriously, they’re just a legalized form – you talk about Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme, that’s exactly what they do everyday. They con the system. They hold out this carrot to everybody, you can be on the top if you just sell enough Amway. But actually, at the top are only a very, very few people who have most of the wealth. If [Obama] doesn’t side with us, and if he sides with them, then the next film will make the stuff I did about Bush look like a Disney movie,” Moore declared as the crowd applauded and laughed.
Moore hopes that his documentary will be a rallying cry that will trigger some sort of mass movement. He believes capitalism is an “evil” that’s “going to collapse and be done away with, regardless of what the people with money want. Because the people are being screwed… There’s a foreclosure filing in this country once every seven and a half seconds. If you do this to that many millions of people, the man from Peoria with the guns who wants to blow up the bank – there’s a tipping point. You can choose to deal with this now nonviolently… because eventually people won’t take it anymore,” the baseball capped Cassandra warned.
While the movie calls for an end to capitalism, it stops short of advocating revolution. Moore does not claim to have an economic blueprint to save us from unbridled greed and economic collapse, but he said: “I want democracy. I want you and I to control this economy. I want a say in what the decisions are that are made. And if you’re not going to give you and me a say, quit calling this country a ‘democracy.’” Moore also predicted that future archaeologists would unearth evidence that we called ourselves a democracy but allowed one percent of the population to call all the shots, causing tomorrow’s anthropologists to laugh at us the same way we now laugh at people who believe bloodsucking leeches would cure patients.
More than any other popular artist and entertainer Moore is asking the questions that need to be asked. He is a bellwether – Fahrenheit preceded public disenchantment with Bush’s ill-fated war, while Sicko anticipated the healthcare debate we’re now having. Who knows where, a few years after his brilliant, must-see Capitalism, the public debate will be at. Meanwhile, it’s interesting and amusing to note that the name of Godard’s next movie is Socialisme.
Capitalism, A Love Story may not have been Oscar-nominated this year, but, in a tie with Amreeka and Sunshine Cleaning, it won a Progie Award – bestowed by the James Agee Cinema Circle, an international group of left-leaning critics – for Most Positive and Inspiring Working Class Screen Image.
Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Rampell is a L.A.-based film critic/historian and author. Michael Moore is on the cover of Rampell’s book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.