Saturday Night At The Movies

Let fiefdom ring

By Dennis Hartley

King Midas in reverse: Michael Moore calls out the bailed out

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and bone?

-Billy Bragg

So it’s not just me. A few months ago, in my review of Public Enemies, I wrote:

If you blink, you might miss the chance to revel in a delicious moment of schadenfreude in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that decidedly contemporizes this otherwise ol’skool “gangsters vs. G-men” opus. In the midst of conducting an armed robbery, the notoriously felonious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) notices that a bank employee has reflexively emptied his pockets of some crumpled bills and loose change onto his desk. “That’s your money, mister?” Dillinger asks. “Yes,” the frightened man replies. Dillinger gives him a bemused look and says, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.” I almost stood up and cheered…then I remembered that a) Dillinger was a murderous thug, and b) I would never even fantasize about participating in such a caper, so I thought better of it. Still, I couldn’t help but savor an opportunity for a little vicarious thrill at watching a bank getting hosed. I don’t know…it could’ve had something to with the fact that my bank recently doubled my credit card interest, even after they eagerly gobbled up the bailout money that was funded by my hard-earned tax dollars (ya think?). In fact, in the context of our current economic woes, one can watch Mann’s film and sort of grok how John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and other “public enemy” list alums gained folk hero cachet during the Great Depression.

For the opening credits of his latest sock-it-to-mentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore runs a montage of real-life bank robberies in progress. As you watch masked felons in slow-mo, strong-arming their way through bank lobbies, firing off warning salvos into the air like it’s the 4th of July and leaping over counters like Peking acrobats, it becomes an oddly balletic rendering of the ever-widening chasm between the Haves and the Have-nots in our country, writ large through the unblinking eye of a security camera and all choreographed to Iggy Pop’s growling rendition of Louie Louie:

The communist world is fallin apart
The capitalists are just breakin hearts
Money is the reason to be
It makes me just wanna sing louie louie

So how did we arrive to this sorry state of our Union, where the number of banks being robbed by desperate people is running neck and neck with the number of desperate banks ostensibly robbing We The People? What paved the way for the near-total collapse of our financial system and its subsequent government bailout, which Moore provocatively refers to as nothing less than a “financial coup d’etat”? The enabler, Moore suggests, may very well be our sacred capitalist system itself-and proceeds to build a case (in his inimitable fashion) that results in his most engaging and thought-provoking film since Roger & Me(and you can call me a big fat Commie for saying that…I don’t care).

In fact, this film is, in essence, the belated sequel to the aforementioned 1989 documentary; it would seem that, 20 years later, the rest of the country has “caught up” (in a matter of speaking) with Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. That film chronicled the economic collapse of the city following General Motors CEO Roger Smith’s decision to close down the plants that once employed 30,000 of its residents. Moore does take a few moments in the new film to bask in the “what goes around, comes around” irony of GM’s bankruptcy filing this past June-and you can’t really blame him. If you recall the heartbreaking scene in the former film of the family getting evicted on Christmas Eve by the sheriff, you will detect a bit of recycling in that department; although in 2009, it’s the bank foreclosing on the hapless residents. Same as it ever was.

This is not just a rehash of what happens when the capitalist dream dies, however, but an attempt to examine why it so often does. Moore digs deep into the dark underbelly of the beast in this outing; he gives us many eye-opening examples of truly soulless profiteering and unchecked vulture capitalism at its most egregious, including a very interesting business arrangement between a privately-run juvenile detention center and a hanging judge that will leave you slack-jawed with disbelief, and an animal glibly referred to by insurance company insiders as a “dead peasant policy” that will blow your fucking mind.

The film’s trailer has misled many people into assuming that they are just going to be seeing Moore doing another series of his patented grandstanding pranks. Although you do see him running around Wall Street armed with a megaphone, yellow crime scene tape and a rented Loomis truck, demanding a refund from bailed out financial institutions on behalf of the American taxpayers and generally being a pain-in-the-ass to hapless security guards, these types of shenanigans really only take up a relative fraction of screen time. Those moments of shtick aside, I think that the film represents the most cohesive and mature filmmaking Moore has done to date. Interestingly, from a purely polemical standpoint, it is also one of his least partisan, which I’m sure is going to make some of his usual knee-jerk critics develop a little twitch. Not that it really matters; his haters will continue to despise him no matter what kind of film he makes, and likely condemn it as anti-American, unpatriotic and full of lies (without bothering to actually see it, of course).

Okay, so he does close the film with a lounge-y version of “The Internationale” playing over the end credits (you just know he can’t help himself). Yet despite that rather obvious provocation (and the film’s title, of course), at the end of the day I didn’t really find his message to be so much “down with capitalism” as it is “up with people”. There is a streak of genuine and heartfelt humanism that runs through all his work, and it continues to be puzzlingly overlooked by many filmgoers (and most film critics). Isn’t that kind of what the founding fathers were all about? After all, I believe that little Declaration thingie reads that we all have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, not “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, even at the expense of someone else’s”. Or does it?

Previous posts with related themes:

The Yes Men Fix the World

Reds/The Internationale

There Will be Blood

The International

Part Deux

by digby

I had the opportunity to see the film at a screening here in LA with Moore present and it was kind of like being at a church revival (or a rock concert.) He is, after all, one of our most esteemed tribal leaders and here in the beating heart of librulizm, the man is pretty much a God. I attended the film with Howie Klein and John Amato, which was fun in itself. Harkening back to his own glory days as a rock star, Amato efficiently whisked us through the line muttering "we're with Michael" while Howie, punk rock icon that he is, yelled "Blue Dog Scum!" at the screen at the sight of Congressman Baron Hill. It was an adventure.

I haven't written about the film until now, because I am, unlike Dennis or virtually every other person I know, ambivalent about it. It is all the things Dennis says, wildly entertaining, full of great stories of capitalistic excess and poignant misfortune. Its narrative about the disappearance of the post war American dream is so true it hurts.

But I don't think it remotely gets to the big question of "why," and so it left me sort of unsatisfied. I know it's complicated but simply saying "capitalism is evil" because it enables greed, as he does throughout the film, just doesn't cut it for me. And even if I were to grant for the sake of argument that capitalism is evil (I don't actually impute any morality to it at all) his solution is "democracy" which isn't an economic system.

I understand that his larger point is that the country should operate for the good of all rather than the wealthy few, but I see what's happened as a failure of the political system rather than a failure of the economic system. Or, at least, it's a failure of both, which he clearly understands but conflates in an odd way. Indeed, he seems to be pulling his punches, which I found surprising. It seems to me that the answer he's looking for is democratic socialism, but he can't bring himself to say the words. (Calling capitalism evil seems to me to be at least as incendiary, at least to the average American prole, so I'm not sure there was any benefit in not using the "s" word.)

Having said all that, there is great, HUGE value in this movie as an emotional, populist polemic for the left, something I've been screaming about since the beginning of the financial crisis. It's extremely disheartening to see the administration and so many Democrats in congress completely ignore the political and policy ramifications of failing to engage in fundamental financial reform and fiery populist rhetoric at a time like this. This teabagger movement is happening in a vacuum created by a lack of interest in this topic by liberals who are so enamored of being members of the new "creative class" and the like that they aren't paying attention to the cynicism and anger that's reaching critical mass among average working stiffs out there. It's easy to dismiss it, but very, very foolish. The issues Moore raises in this film will be answered on the right with authoritarianism, militarism, immigrant bashing and violence. It's a recipe for disaster unless the left takes this on in direct, political terms.

Moore loves Obama and wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, so he soft pedals his lack of commitment to dealing with the Masters of the Universe. (He uses Chris Dodd as a proxy Democratic whipping boy instead, which is unfair especially considering the fact that the footage he uses of Dodd shows him excoriating the very corporations for whom he's supposedly whoring.) But from his comments before and after the screening --- and in interviews for the film --- it's clear that he's torn about the President and emotionally suffering a bit from the disappointment. I'm afraid the film also suffers a bit for it too, however.

But this movie, as Dennis notes, isn't really about saviors or criminals, although it features some of both. It's a call for citizens to focus their minds on what's actually gone wrong and take to the streets or man the barricades or do whatever defines political engagement in this day and age and demand that the people who brought us to this place are identified and that the system is reformed. Indeed, I would guess that if it didn't feature the stuff about capitalism being evil he could have shown this to audiences of all political stripes and most of the latent teabaggers would have given him a standing ovation.

If the film manages to focus the citizenry on the most important story of our time then it will be tremendously important. If it gets lost in a cacophony of commie bashing and primitive tribalism then it will probably not be recognized for what it is until sometime later. As with all of his films, he's ahead of the zeitgeist, so I am hopeful that this epic call to leftwing populist engagement is at the very least a hopeful sign of things to come.