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Evil Debt

Michael Moore decries the economic system in his latest agit-doc

michael moore consults security.

Capitalism: A Love Story

Director:Michael Moore
Cast:Michael Moore
Release Date:2009

Opens Oct. 2

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/30/2009

Michael Moore ends Capitalism: A Love Story with one of his now infamous displays of irreverent street theater. He pulls an armored truck up to the New York-based corporate headquarters of financial magnates such as Goldman Sachs, American International Group, etc., to make a citizen's arrest and ask for the banking-bailout money back on behalf of the tax-paying citizens of the United States. He also wraps crime-scene tape around these blue-chip firms and such Wall Street icons as Arturo Di Modica's bronze statue. It's the sort of theatrical action that ties Moore to the social activists of the 1960s, but by this moment in the movie, humor is hard to come by. You've seen people paid by the company repossessing their home to clean it out for the next buyer. You've seen children trying to talk about Wal-Mart making money off a "Dead Peasant" insurance policy filed on their mother, who passed away. You've seen commercial airline pilots joke about being told not to go apply for food stamps in their uniforms because they're making less than $20,000 per year. You've seen teenagers talk about being locked up for months in a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., privatized juvenile justice center. You've heard why Moore claims that the banking industry staged a financial coup d'etat last fall. Moore even says "Capitalism is evil" in his out-loud voice and calls for viewers to join him in working to replace it with something called "democracy." By now, this movie might as well be called Class War: Bring It On.

The thing is, what Moore does isn't that different from the argumentative edutainment of Glenn Beck. Both tap into a general frustration with the current state of affairs, both use televisual media to disseminate their ideas. Which one you think is a certifiable un-American wingnut probably depends on who you voted for last November.

That they're both using a rather Marxist/Brechtian strategy of historicization to argue their points is only slightly funny, but it distinctly locates where they make their case: in terms of accessible popular culture. Not in the pop culture documented by celebrity gossip blogs or Entertainment Weekly, but the one that Joshua Clover (in his upcoming 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About) outlines as "the great marketplace of the public imagination, and indeed the place where market and imagination struggle over consciousness, over what's thought and what's thinkable."

Moore is an articulate, visual storyteller of popular culture, able to convey his arguments and ideas in terms of the moving images. And in Capitalism, he twins two stories rather impressively: his own upbringing as a "fan" of capitalism due to his working-class, Catholic life in Michigan in post-WWII America with his idea for the reasons behind that era of posterity--you know, American automobile manufacturers' rise just happening to coincide with an era after which the Japanese and German auto industries had been reduced to rubble. During this period, Moore's life of comfort and the relative stability of the American economy go hand in hand. And everything appears to be going along swimmingly--save some speed bumps involving civil rights and that war in Southeast Asia--until President Jimmy Carter had to bum everybody out with his 1979 "Malaise" speech, and then we elected the Hollywood-groomed Corporate Sponsor in Chief in 1980.

That's the structural good/bad of Moore's movie: its sometimes awkward combination of rather poignant argument and glib opportunism. Yes, "Dead Peasant" insurance practices are heinous, and they remain heinous even if your camera doesn't hover on children remembering their mother's final days in the hospital. No, paralleling America under the Bush administration with a "Fall of the Roman Empire" educational movie isn't exactly subtle. OK, sure: Dubbing in "No, I cannot cure your pre-existing condition" over an old Jesus movie is pretty funny.

Moore's systemic examination of America's fiscal crisis is quite compelling, though, precisely because he does his usual thing: He focuses on people telling their stories and tries to expand to a bigger picture from that. It's incomplete by design, but it does suggest the idea that the current wave of financial malfeasance isn't just a manifestation of greed; for Moore, greed is a permissible byproduct of capitalism, not the cause of its human corruption. Capitalism the system is what's at fault, and Capitalism goes to great lengths, via archival footage, to argue that Americans have been misled to believe it is What Makes America Great. Moore goes to see the original U.S. Constitution to see where it talks about "capitalism" and "free markets."

It doesn't, of course, but it also doesn't mention a two-party system or political-action committees, either, and they play a slight role in our United States of America these days, too--which, once again, points out Capitalism's biggest flaw, and that of Moore's work in general. Your response to this movie is almost entirely predicated on how you already feel about the state of the country and the issues that it examines. That said, Capitalism as a contemporary screed against profits over people may have its shortcomings--it goes rather easy on Obama; it dubiously suggests that FDR was anti-Wall Street, etc.--but it's refreshing that Moore seems to value decency above all else.

Some good timing can't hurt, either: Is it accidental that Capitalism arrives in theaters almost 20 years to the month that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, an event often viewed as the triumphant for democracy and free-market capitalism? Perhaps. Regardless of how you view Capitalism, Moore is absolutely right about one thing. As Beck continues to prove, there is a grass-roots movement of people rallying around dissatisfaction with the Republican party. So if a change is gonna come, it's going to require organized action. It's going to take more than status-update solidarity to implement health-care reform.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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