Friday, October 2, 2009

Capitalism, a Love Story: Broken hearts

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) • View trailer for Capitalism: A Love Story
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, and quite stupidly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.2.09
Buy DVD: Capitalism: A Love Story• Buy Blu-Ray: Capitalism: A Love Story [Blu-ray]

I keep waiting for the outrage to kick in.

California's foolish experiment with deregulated power, which led to rolling blackouts in the summer of 2000, massive homeowner energy bills and the "surprising" revelation that the state's wholesale electricity marketplace had been gamed, didn't do it.
Filmmaker and agent provocateur Michael Moore tries one final time to obtain
an audience with the CEO of General Motors, but gets no farther than the glass
doors leading to the lobby. (The irony, in the wake of GM's eventual fate,
can't be missed.)

The big lies spun in the wake of 9/11, which allowed the Bush administration to strip away freedoms granted by the Bill of Rights, didn't do it ... not even more recently, as the breathtaking degree of prevarication has become more blatant.

The federal government's staggeringly inept response to Hurricane Katrina didn't do it.

Gasoline prices that crested above $4 per gallon in 2008 didn't do it.

The health care industry's disenfranchisement of an ever-expanding sector of the American population hasn't done it. Worse yet, shrilly hysterical right-wing blowhards have conned the easily swayed into defending the very industry that routinely denies them medical assistance.

I keep wondering: When will we, as a nation, finally come to our senses and recognize that the increasing corporate hammerlock under which we now serve, much like feudal serfs, has got to stop?

Filmmaker Michael Moore obviously wonders the same thing, and he's getting tired. The weary disbelief can be heard in his voice-over narration for Capitalism: A Love Story, as he rallies his team for one more round. The poor guy must feel like Sisyphus, forever rolling the boulder up the hillside, hoping each time that some of us will come along and shoulder part of the load.

Where is our modern Joseph Welch, who during the 1954 Army hearings quite famously deflated Sen. Joseph McCarthy by saying, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"

Surely Moore can't be the only person willing to ask that question of the Wall Street titans and corporate CEOs who orchestrated our current financial crisis  beginning quite craftily, as this documentary suggests, when Ronald Reagan was elected president  and capped their financial coup d'état by maneuvering massive bailout funds from U.S. taxpayers ... which were granted with absolutely no strings attached. No checks and balances.

Actually, my vote for Welch's modern-day successor would be U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a tough-talking spitfire with the gumption to expose this financial chicanery for what it is: outright theft. Kaptur is this film's shining star: the belle of a ball attended by far too few like-minded souls.

Moore's usual shtick is wearing a bit thin, and even he seems to realize this. Capitalism: A Love Story doesn't waste too much time on his favorite grand gesture, as when he attempts to gain entrance to the lobby at Manhattan's Goldman Sachs headquarters, so that he might make an on-camera citizen's arrest of the white-collar thieves no doubt chortling on the upper floors.

On the other hand, Moore's bewildered expression is priceless, as a Wall Street alpha dog attempts to explain precisely how "derivatives" work.

And we can't help grinning ruefully, as the film concludes, when Moore seals off an entire Manhattan city block with bright yellow crime scene tape. If only it were that simple...

Assuming you're still with me, you'll have recognized that this column is more editorial than standard film commentary, which is appropriate; Moore's film is more propaganda than documentary. One doesn't analyze a Michael Moore film by discussing how his cinematographer employs color palettes, or whether the various sequences are deftly edited.

No, this is a cinematic rant, and the only essential talking point is how well  or badly  Moore exploits (and sometimes massages) established fact in order to bolster his argument.

On that basis, Capitalism: A Love Story isn't nearly as well-structured as Fahrenheit 9/11 or Sicko, and therefore not quite as effective. Moore meanders too much, and at an eventually wearying 120 minutes, this film seems too self-indulgent. Capitalism could have benefited from tighter editing, which would have kept a brighter focus on Moore's central premise: the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans ... and, by extension, on the rest of the world.

It's a massive Ponzi scheme, pure and simple: a clandestine process by which funds are seduced or taken from a pool of unknowing suckers (that's us taxpayers) to prop up the obscene and ever-expanding salaries of the predators at the top of the pyramid.

For the record, I've never shared the opinion with which Moore enters this argument: that capitalism, by definition, is evil and should be abolished. Add an all-essential adjective, though  unregulated capitalism  and you've got me on the team.

In fairness, even Moore acknowledges this, and Capitalism devotes some eye-opening footage to alternative business models that are cooperatively owned by their employees: where the CEO's vote and financial share are neither larger nor more important than any blue-collar worker on the line. The Petaluma-based Alvarado Street Bakery is one such enterprise, and its owner looks right into Moore's camera and quite reasonably asks why any single human being would need  or could hope to justify  a nine-figure salary.

The film's other strong segment involves the eye-opening practice known as "dead peasant" insurance policies, secretly taken out by large companies on their own employees. The tax-free proceeds from such policies aren't given to the employee's family, who often desperately needs such assistance; the money instead goes to the company, where it could (for example) help fund retirement benefits and other perks for top executives.

Moore reveals that hundreds of companies  including titans such as Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart, Walt Disney and Winn-Dixie  have purchased this insurance on more than six million rank-and-file workers ... who, by definition, are worth more dead than alive.

I dunno about you, but this isn't just beyond the pale, morally speaking; it's flat-out scary. And reading up on the topic, as I did shortly after seeing this film, proved only that  for once  Moore had been guilty of understatement. This heinous practice is stunning in its scope.

And so, again, I ask: Where's the outrage? When will we gather the tar and feathers? Resurrect the public stocks, and hand out the moldy fruit and vegetables?

I understand the problem: Those of us still clinging to the remnants of financial security, perhaps no more than one paycheck or unexpected health crisis away from total insolvency, are unwilling to rock the boat. We don't want to risk losing that little bit we have left, no matter how unstable it may have become.

But as the middle class shrinks ever more  as we all slide into the swamp of the expanding lower class that was (for example) abandoned on rooftops when New Orleans flooded in the wake of Katrina  I'm reminded of the famous sentiment attributed to German Pastor Martin Niemšller, who (as the legend goes) commented on the unchecked rise of Nazi thuggery thusly:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist; then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist; then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist; then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Moore craftily gives Capitalism a happy ending: the saga involving laid-off workers at a bankrupt Chicago factory, Republic Windows and Doors, who staged a sit-in to protest having failed to receive their final paychecks ... even after creditors Bank of American and JP Morgan Chase received their share of the federal bailout funds.

The weight of this sequence  the generosity shown by the citizens who rallied to the workers' cause, the invaluable job done by media outlets that kept the story alive, and the sheer bulk of breathtaking chicanery by corporate thugs  more than compensate for Moore's frequently sloppy style.

Trouble is, Capitalism: A Love Story won't be seen by the people  and I'm looking hard at the nincompoops prodded into screaming the "socialized medicine" canard at town hall meetings  who most desperately need to digest its message. As he usually does, Moore preaches mostly to the choir.

Even though we aren't helping sing the tune.

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