WE ARE IN A DIRE SITUATION. We are at a crossroads. We are living in an unprecedented era. We must do something now.
If you believe all the pronouncements, proselytizing and punditry (and the requisite media hype), then we are undergoing an extraordinary shift in the way in which Americans will live their lives, as well as a renewal of faith in our politicians to do something about it—which means it’s a perfect opportunity for agitprop and activism to take hold yet again. At least that seems to be the argument from a recent upsurge in politically minded documentaries that seek to rouse a lazy populace once content to shop away all fears—both foreign and domestic.
Take for instance the New York premiere of Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. It was meant to be an event. Everyone looked (or felt) important—B-list celebrities, media rabble, tight-faced benefactors—as they crowded into the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall that Monday night. But for a filmmaker with ideas intended to rock the establishment, it also wreaked of something far more dangerous: predictability.
The fat man with the camera once seemed radical. By braying his outrage outside corporate headquarters with a mix of humor and pathos, Moore created liberal propaganda that influenced a generation of documentarians.We now live in an age, however, when any man or woman with a camera can make a statement and reach an audience. And young people seem exhausted of Moore’s decades of strident whistle blowing, dismissing it as just another attempt to build up one man’s ego.
The same month that Moore’s latest plea to the masses is about to open in thousands of theaters nationwide, we have another film, The Yes Men Fix the World, set to open on a smaller scale (at Film Forum, here in New York, beginning Oct. 7) but with similar lofty ambitions of changing consciousness. Rather than simply fighting against the system from the outside, this duo don the guises of the rich and powerful to infiltrate and subvert from within. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno received worldwide attention when Bichlbaum successfully impersonated a Dow Chemical spokesperson on a BBC news program in 2004, announcing the company would clean up the Bhopal catastrophe.The film (which originally premiered at Sundance and also aired on HBO this past summer) begins there and feels like a subversive primer for a new generation of activists who are tired of laughing at awkward news clips along with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and want to figure out a way they can get involved after participating in the sort of grassroots political efforts that got President Obama elected.
But when I mentioned Moore’s latest film to many young, ostensibly progressive people, they immediately rejected it.They scoffed. They rolled their eyes.They told me how much they couldn’t stand the fat man. It’s easy to feel he’s preaching to the converted, providing a release valve for indignant liberals who felt like they had no voice over the past couple of decades. After Fahrenheit 9/11 made millions for a studio—and seemingly failed to affect the 2004 election—Moore somehow became part of the capitalist enterprise, one reason why his latest film seems less than sincere. Then there’s the disappointing news that Goldman Sachs is “financing” the film in a roundabout way.
Moore’s Capitalism attempts to capture the common man’s confusion with the economic system that appears to have hijacked our country and, with it, the workingman’s basic freedoms as they are guaranteed in the United States Constitution. His frustration toward greed, power and injustice would seem to appeal to anyone with progressive ideals. But consistently, everyone I spoke to under the age of 30 refused to suffer the fat man for anything more than a blowhard.
After the credits finished at the film’s premiere, Moore took the stage alongside smug and blond Tina Brown, the editrix who embodies many of the inequities of the system vilified in the film we had all just watched. How civilized we all were: Instead of raising our proverbial pitchforks and storming the corporate headquarters just blocks away, we all sat politely to applaud and listen to the highly educated Brit—who runs a website financed by a super-wealthy capitalist—softball questions to the proud, high-school-educated prole who dares to openly mock the economic system that allows us all to comfortably sit in this room together.Was I the only one a bit rattled by how the film ended?
Despite its many deficiencies—most notably trying to condense the complexity of late capitalism to a
fourth-grade level in under two hours—the movie’s scope felt different.
Rather than simply being stale propaganda masquerading as
entertainment, it broadcast a call to arms. Had I heard Moore’s final
voiceover correctly? “I can’t do this anymore,” he stated, then pleaded
with the audience to join him in the fight against the wrongdoers.Was
he calling for a revolution? Or, as those disaffected twentysomethings
would claim, was he just doing it for further rhetorical flourish?
fact, I felt the biggest mistake was seeing the film in New York City
with a hyper-educated, prosperous crowd who may have sympathy for the
poor, ignorant victims of the credit and mortgage crisis, but
ultimately felt superior to them. Perhaps there were people in the
room—dressed in their fancy frocks and casual-yet-cool attire—who had
fretted over a dent in their investments, but clearly no one was
suffering like the subjects of the film.What about the Hacker Family,
who sat in the balcony watching the film for the first time? They not
only had their home “stolen” by the bank but had been hired on the
cheap to trash and burn their belongings—on film. Later, they’d just be
ridiculed as slobs at the afterparty—which took place at a luxury
penthouse, no less—and forgotten by us city folk.
this seemed more like a film for my parents and siblings who live in a
semi-rural area of the Deep South. My father’s a plumber and my younger
brother and sister have both worked with him as plumbers. Another
sister works as a manager at a home improvement chainstore. A movie
like this may shake their middle-class aspirations a bit and inspire
them to demand justice. Or at least maybe they’ll vote for politicians
who will fight for greater government regulation, who promise to
sponsor legislation to offer more equitable health care and tax laws.
(Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, one of the few “heroes” featured in
the film, did receive a standing ovation by those in attendance for her
own valiant speeches against the corporate culprits.)
With this film, Moore shows his hand: He’s
nostalgic for FDR, for a safer, more humane form of capitalism.
Although he assigns capitalism evil powers (when it’s actually amoral)
and discusses his own Catholic faith openly for the first time, it’s
only further justification why he wants a system that creates jobs by
making things and that can be regulated and, more transparently, can be
fought.The reason why Capitalism must have been a difficult
film to create and is even more difficult to defend is that street
theater is almost impossible to produce and direct when the thing you
are fighting is invisible. It’s why he has to resort to a “citizen’s
arrest” on Wall Street, and it looks scripted, forced and pointless.
also why The Yes Men are more successful in their own way for a younger
audience.When I spoke with Bichlbaum (actually a Parsons professor
whose real name is Jacques Servin) about his own motives, he didn’t
seem to have aspirations of overthrowing the system. Instead, he wants
to incrementally undermine it. He likes to call himself a Professor of
Subversion, one who is corrupting students so they don’t blindly join
the corporate pack. He organizes them and others into producing actions
such as the fake Post that was handed out on the city’s streets
last week with “We’re Screwed” as the headline and that contained
true-and-frightening details about climate change. It was as
soul-stirring as the New York Times spoof they produced last
year after Obama was elected that declared the Iraq War over. Bichlbaum
was arrested last week while he and a group of volunteers wore the
comical, tick-like Survivaballs (a faux Halliburton solution to protect
the rich and scared) and pretended to storm the United Nations building
via the East River. They’ve also teamed up with Reverend Billy, who just
so happens to be using his own anti-consumerist pulpit to run his
mayoral campaign against Bloomberg. It’s political theater at its
finest, and we wish him luck.
these activists are all enthusiastic that there’s a cultural climate in
which a progressive president is in office. Now they have the freedom
to use all the tools and techniques—both silly and shrill—available to
exploit the moment for change. It wasn’t so long ago that we all had
hope for something better. And these filmmakers and activists don’t
want you to forget it.