Documentary filmmakers often rely on self-reflexivity to give their arguments more potency by acknowledging that their presentation is the product of a person, making it a subjective expression rather than an objective one. This is done with the hope of providing a more truthful account. Specifically, the documentarian acknowledges that he or she is the one holding the camera, splicing the film, forming the argument, and very often brings a moral, ethical, or ideological point of view to the evidence. In my experience as a film critic and novice scholar of documentary, I’ve found that this strategy can bring mixed results. In some cases, it’s all smoke and mirrors, a misdirection by the documentarian that, while it may be truthful to a degree, is more self-indulgent than revealing. In other cases, it’s brutally honest and can serve as a stepping-stone in the evaluation of a source for the sake of gaining knowledge or insight. Watching Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), and pondering the review I would have to write, I thought the best plan of attack would involve my own blend of self-reflexivity.
First off, I am a Cinema and Media Studies Ph.D. student at the University of California-Los Angeles. This should imply two pieces of information right off the bat. First, despite my career in the academy, my knowledge of capitalism as an economic and social system is slim at best. Sure, I’ve read excerpts of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx’s Capital, but I read them a long time ago and I’d be hard pressed to describe the intricacies of both theories if asked. Secondly, as a student of the humanities and an educator, I tend to value education, knowledge, and helping others. Thus, like most people who share my background and views towards life, I find myself swaying safely to the left. While I wouldn’t categorize myself as one, I’m pretty sure Fox News would call me a socialist, a communist, or a red. Despite these two pieces of information, it may surprise you to hear that I am not Michael Moore’s biggest fan. I know that may sound paradoxical. After all, those two pieces of information would make it seem as if I were a member of Moore’s ideal audience. Yet, while I can’t articulate why I find myself uncomfortable with his films with regard to economic theory, I can describe it in terms of documentary theory. Yet, this is not as simple as being the tale of how I’m uncomfortable with Michael Moore but how this discomfort was, for the most part, not elevated by Capitalism: A Love Story.
First, and this criticism goes back to Moore’s first film Roger & Me (1989), I sometimes find myself distrustful of Moore’s persona and his editorial hand. Specifically, in Roger & Me, Moore rigged his rhetorical deck of cards. As Pauline Kael noted in her review of the film, Moore depicted events out of chronological order, creating a new chain of cause and effect with the hope of producing an emotional response from an event that never actually occurred (specifically Roger Smith’s speech is linked to a family being evicted). I find myself distrustful of these techniques and that they ultimately hamper an argument’s sway with me. Perhaps this is a matter of personal preference, but I find Moore’s arguments best articulated by others beside himself or in evidence that does not directly involve him. In his case, self-reflexivity strikes me as a means of creating a persona. Hence my distaste for a scene in Capitalism in which Moore rents out an armored car and drives up to AIG, calling up to the CEO’s office on a bull horn, demanding a citizen’s arrest and that federal bailout money be returned to the U.S. Treasury. While I can acknowledge the humor inherent in the situation, I often feel that these antics are the cinematic equivalent to trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.
Thankfully, Capitalism, unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) or Sicko (2007), contains few of those moments. Moore, for the most part, allows each individual interviewee’s story sell his argument. That overall argument is that the form of capitalism embraced by America is a flawed system that really lacks any logical sense for its perpetuation. For instance, from the point of view of the Christianity, with whom the Republican Party (the party sympathetic to “private” or “free” enterprise) often aligns itself, capitalism is an evil that promotes greed and an inversion of priority. Individual welfare is now held with greater regard than the general welfare. In addition, despite the fact that America is a touted as a democracy, capitalism is often practiced via a monarchical system of rule (management). Through Moore’s choice of interview subjects, he creates a compelling argument against the evils of capitalism. After all, here’s a system which has become so distorted that blue chip corporations take out life insurance policies on even their youngest staff members, hoping to turn a profit in case of an untimely death. To Moore, the economic recession has only helped underline America’s version of capitalism has its problems. So why does it stick around?
Moore’s hypothesis on capitalism’s longevity should come as no surprise. In the end, the pure amount of currency in the system and the influence that currency brings keeps any alternative off the table. Moore’s prime example comes from the events of autumn 2008, as we watched as the media, former President Bush, and former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson (former head of banking giant Goldman Sachs) tried to pass a bail out through the House of Representatives over the course of a weekend. The initial bill failed, thanks to frightened and angry phone calls from the general electorate. Yet, the bill, for better and for worse, made its way through shortly thereafter thanks to the efforts of lobbyists and a number of scared politicians facing re-election. Moore then posits that there are two routes that have been taken historically to rectify economic unbalance. For the first and more frightening option, Moore looks at post-WWII Europe and Japan, who were capable of re-building their socioeconomic structure courtesy of post-war environment dominated by ruin. The second and less-frightening option Moore posits is organized grass roots activism.
This second option brings me to the final characteristic of Moore’s work that I’ve found myself feeling conflicted about: his mode of address. Much like Bill O’Reilly on Fox News or Keith Obermann on MSNBC, Moore produces an echo effect for the spectator. In other words, the people watching O’Reilly or Moore tend to agree with the viewpoint expressed and all the text does is re-enforce that opinion while providing talking points. Like his previous efforts, Capitalism does not offer a significant step away from this mode of address. It’s directed at liberals, who made up the audience I viewed the film with, even going as far as pressing them to cheer when presented with a mocking representation of George W. Bush giving a speech to drum up the fear of an economic recession. Did I support George W. Bush and his policies? Absolutely not, but I could not help but ask myself what real social change Moore’s films offer. Personally, I would tend to shoot more for the independents and those in the middle of the political spectrum. Odds are that those are audience members who can be appealed to and have not yet become hard-wired into their voting preferences.
I asked myself this question repeatedly throughout Capitalism, but I concluded that it might be too late for Michael Moore to learn new tricks. Unlike the saying, it’s not that Michael Moore is too old to change his methods; it simply wouldn’t help. After all, here’s a documentarian who has already been so thoroughly branded “LIBERAL” (Michael Moore Hates America made its debut in 2004) that to change his mode of address probably wouldn’t help appeal to an unsympathetic viewer. I think Moore realizes this bind and the conclusion to the film pushed me to view it admirably overall, despite my initial misgivings. At the end of the film, Moore seems to realize that despite his use of rhetoric and evidence, he will not be able to convert the non-believer. Yet, that is not to say his causes or his films lack the power to affect social change. Moore pleas at the end of the film for those sympathetic to his views to take to the streets and begin a working class revolution with the objective of shifting political and economic power back to the bottom 99 percent of American society. In the end, we can only save ourselves, propel social change, and hope to enlighten those who disagree with us by our own political actions.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.