October 1, 2009

Taking It Home: Capitalism: A Love Story

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

 A method even less effective at inspiring change than Michael Moore's films...

Next time I get the opportunity to ask Michael Moore a question, I hope it will be part of an actual conversation instead of a Q & A where he has the microphone and I'm buried in the audience. That way he won't be able to sneak out of answering my challenge so easily. Yes, in a fit of frustration following a recent screening of Capitalism: A Love Story, I worked up the nerve to ask American's most notorious documentarian how he made a 126-minute film about money and capitalism without so much as mentioning personal financial responsibility. More on that later - including a video of Moore "answering" my question.

I have a tortured history with Moore, alternately considering him a genius, even a role model, before inevitably changing my mind and viewing his work as purely propagandic, sensational, and even counterproductive. Incidentally, I'm surprised that I have yet to discuss his films in any detail on Getafilm, I suppose a result of Sicko arriving a month or so before I started writing here (though you can see I came down pretty hard on it come Oscar time anyway). 

In any event, somewhere between Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 I realized Moore was  abandoning true documentary filmmaking - what I conservatively prefer to view as non-fiction storytelling - for something resembling schizophrenic scrapbooking. His arguments (never mind that documentarians shouldn't really make any) are an amalgamation of liberal talking points and moral sermonizing, but the resulting films are so disjointed they inhibit any in-depth thought or discussion about the issues at hand. He doesn't quite dilute the messages in his films so much as he drowns them out with his own voice, sometimes figuratively but always literally. Thanks to Michael Moore, a Michael Moore film is never allowed to speak for itself.

So what to think of Capitalism: A Love Story, which Moore claims is a culmination of all of his films since Roger & Me? Three things: 1.) this is not only one of Moore's longest films, but also his most deliberately emotional one; 2.) possibly by design but probably by accident, Capitalism: A Love Story ends up making a much stronger case for universal health care than Sicko did; and 3.) Moore is ultimately still more interested in inciting audiences than inspiring them, which is a tragedy considering the global reach and box-office success of his films.

I don't think any Michael Moore movie has ever made me emotional to the point of crying, but Capitalism: A Love Story came pretty close. The worst part is that I knew I was being manipulated and I couldn't do anything about it - some of his examples of capitalism's "evil" effect on individuals are really are moving. But they're obscure, even removed, from the average person's experience. For example, my nonprofit organization doesn't have a "dead peasant" insurance policy out on me (the practice was essentially banned for the purposes Moore claims, which he fails to point out until the closing credits of the film). This doesn't make it any less tragic to hear about the families who have been exploited by corporations, but knowing that this isn't really happening anymore kind of defeats the purpose of getting people fired up about it.

On the other hand, Moore's frequent attacks on the recent federal bailouts are very convincing. One of the best stories he's documented in any of his movies is about the sit-in of workers who refused to leave their Chicago window and door factory when it was closed down in the midst of the financial crisis last year. By sheer will power and a sympathetic media spotlight, the workers forced Bank of America to pay them (with bailout money) the wages they were owed by their company before it closed its doors. It's a thrilling example of people standing up for their rights - and getting what they justly deserve. Most importantly, the workers aren't burdened with a problem that wasn't their fault. After all, complains one of the workers, "We don't make the financial decisions. We make windows and doors."

Were Moore to apply reasonable, real-world examples like this in Sicko, he might have been able to truly drive a universal health care agenda. But alas, have you heard that film mentioned even once in this national debate on the issue? No, because Moore was busy bouncing around Europe and Guantanamo, giving viewers little to relate to in terms of their own lives. Capitalism turns the lens on the U.S., and in attacking American greed and the corporate roots of our government he actually makes a very moving argument for universal health care, nailing it home with some reverent archival footage of FDR claiming health care as a "right".

I am under no illusion that we Americans will learn anything from this recession; from my observations everybody is just waiting for the groupthink green light to start spending like crazy again. But the health care issue has a lot of traction at the moment, and if any of Moore's films have the potential to nail a social issue at the right time, this may be the one.

But that's a big "if", as I'm not sure people will mobilize after seeing this in the same way they did after An Inconvenient Truth. The problem is that Moore is sending mixed messages. He wants people to get out the "pitchforks and torches" (see the end of the video below), and even threatens to stop making films unless we start "doing something". What exactly, he can't say - just something, something about democracy and our ideals. It's all too broad and too big and frankly too overwhelming, particularly when so many questions are left unanswered.

He sure can make people laugh and shake their heads and fists, though, can't he? There are some terrific scenes in Capitalism: A Love Story that almost make you wish Moore would make a flat-out comedy one of these days (word has it his next project is a play set in the SuperMax penitentiary). His profile on Ronald Reagan and his search for an explanation of stock derivatives had me laughing out loud, while his big reveal about Goldman Sachs and the U.S. Treasury (and about CEO treatment in general) made me want to march down to Wall Street or the White House myself.

But I'm not going to do that because I have responsibilities, and like most people (hopefully), I don't ignore those responsibilities. I pay my bills on time. I use my credit card sparingly. I consolidated my school loans and I've never missed a payment. I don't buy things I can't afford and I don't borrow what I know I can't pay back. And believe it or not I get along just fine.

So when I asked Michael Moore about what role he thought personal responsibility played into this mess, I wasn't talking about people cheating bankers and bankers cheating people. I was talking about people who run up thousands of dollars of credit card debt in order to buy toys and clothes and things they "just have to have". I was talking about people who buy the house with the three extra bedrooms "just in case", and those who open up lines of credit at every department store that offers them a 10% discount on a one-time purchase. I was talking about people who live not on next month's paycheck, but next year's paycheck. I was talking about people whose irresponsible use of their credit caused Bank of America to cut my credit limit in half, even though I've never even carried a balance.

Moore gets a kick out of putting crime scene tape around financial buildings on Wall Street, but he just as soon could have put it around John Q. Public's wallet, because there is blame to share here. As you can see by Moore's petulant response to me (especially after the first minute) he obviously doesn't agree. You tried, Michael, and as always I appreciate the boldness and deceptive humility with which you address really urgent issues. But "we the people" are in love with capitalism as much as our government and banks are, and in blaming only them for this fiasco you missed an opportunity to make people really sit back and reflect on their own financial decisions. Capitalism may be a love story, but the romance of consumerism makes people swoon even more.

What did you take home?

(P.S. I didn't shoot this video - it was taken by Moore's staff at a screening a few weeks ago and posted on his YouTube channel. You don't hear me asking the question because the video starts about 1/3 into his answer. The Q & A session was about a half hour long and ultimately revealed Moore to be at a pivotal point in his career. The man truly seems tired of fighting these fights.)


  1. Daniel, this is an inspired analysis of this film. I haven't seen the film, but I certainly understand the topics - and I still found your review fascinating.

    I've seen Bowling and Fahrenheit, and I feel the same way that you do about his manipulative filmmaking. (Although I despise the NRA, I've always loved Heston as an actor, and I can't forgive Moore his cruelty toward Heston in the scene in which the man is obviously suffering from Alzheimer's.) Your question to him was brilliant; it is also a pet peeve I share. "Capitalism may be a love story, but the romance of consumerism makes people swoon even more." Wow! Well said!

    When I teach my 8th grade history class about the Stock Market Crash - I define consumerism by saying, "Go to the mall. Go to Best Buy. Sit on the bench outside the doors. Watch the people coming out with all those huge boxes. That's consumerism." Then we talk about cash flow - and that's a whole different concept.

    Once again, I really enjoyed this review.

  2. All well said Daniel. Very poignant thoughts and mementos, and although I haven't seen Capitalism, I am more than familiar with his humble posturing and overt manipulations - which reached an infuriating tipping point for me in Fahrenheit 9/11. It's like the man is shooting at a target and he is not even aiming. What is most frustrating is that I want him to hit the target, but outside of Roger and Me, never has.

  3. Thanks, Hokahey and Kathie, and thanks for not pointing out that my thoughts are about as scattered as Moore's in any of his films. ;-P

    Hokahey, it is important to talk about cash flow because there is nothing inherently wrong with people walking out of Best Buy (a capitalistic corporation headquartered here, thank you very much) with boxes of stuff. The problem is when they haven't paid for those boxes of stuff, and I don't mean stealing. Retailers (and mortgage companies and banks and so on) are SO good at getting us to take things on credit. Set up a payment plan, no interest down! Put it on a layaway! Enter the rewards program and get 5% off today!

    Most people can handle all of this just fine, but a fair percentage of people can't, and then all kinds of problems start. Best Buy is a small example but it speaks to the irresponsibility with which people make even bigger decisions, like house and car and education payments. And the fact that the national savings rate was recently at 0%. People are literally spending 100% of their income when most of the time they could comfortably live on 80 or 90% percent.

    I don't know, the whole industry of debt collection (aside from medical bills and natural disasters and unemployment) baffles me. It's not like you needed to do well in calculus to understand that the $2 in your wallet doesn't equal the $200 price tag on a particular item.

    Anyway, while I agree with both of you that Moore really sometimes plays to his and the audience's worst senses, I kind of like the fact that there is a filmmaker like him stirring up trouble around a lot of issues. I think he's becoming less political, actually (the bashing in Capitalism is bipartisan), which is what he needs to do if he really wants to push a national conversation forward. You have to reach people at a level below the partisan loyalties that we grip so tightly.

  4. (clapping) Amen, Daniel. Clearly and cogently articulated. I'm really glad you asked the question. I suspect Moore anticipates getting praise from people who agree with his politics and antagonism from conservatives, and doesn't get a lot of tough questions from people who may agree with the ideas but not the execution. I haven't seen the film yet. For the exact same reasons I share your unease with Moore's filmaking, even as I agree with his politics. He's not a documentarian any more, if he ever was. The right is sadly right about that.

    I'm sure you've written about the docs I.O.U. and Maxed Out, but of course I'm too lazy to look up what you said. So what did you think? Do you think they address the personal responsibility more compellingly and thoroughly? I saw Maxed Out, not yet I.O.U.

    Also: Can I borrow $50? Got some late credit card payments to post. ;)

  5. Haha, let me see how my stock derivatives do today, Jennybee. If the market is down then I'll take out a cash advance from my credit card and then split the interest with you, or else take out a second mortgage or dip into a home equity loan. Whatever it takes to get that $50 - short of not spending it, of course.

    Believe or not I did not write about Maxed Out and inexcusably did not even see I.O.U.S.A. Funny, Maxed Out actually profiles a debt collection agency that a friend of mine worked for here in MN. I didn't get a whole lot from it and I'm actually surprised it got a wide enough release for people to know about it. But the issue of personal debt in general really should be studied. Maybe IOUSA does it well - I should track that down.

    One other question about Moore that I forgot to mention is his assignment of fault. As you hear him in the video, he gives the example of burglars breaking into someone's home and says, "It's not my fault that I forgot to lock the door."

    Hmm, really? Of course there is no justification for criminal activity, and a person shouldn't be blamed that someone randomly violated them. BUT, there is SOME aspect of personal responsibility or common sense to that equation that can't be just thrown out the window entirely, as Moore says, "I don't wanna know, I don't really care." I also think he equates it to rape too easily. Obviously someone who is raped is a victim no matter what. Someone who defaulted on a loan they took out pay the credit card debt they built up for that $4,000 bathroom remodeling project or flatscreen TV is not, in my opinion, a "victim".

    It's a kind of relativism that Moore and Errol Morris (in Standard Operating Procedure, where the victims were the abusive U.S. soldiers) seem to apply to personal responsibility too easily for my taste.

  6. Fabulous analysis, Daniel, but your assertion that documentarians shouldn't make a point seems a tad idealistic. I've never seen one that doesn't, myself. The ones mentioned by Jennybee certainly do ... they don't make it with the flair that Moore does, but few have his talent. I don't know why he infuriates people who agree with him ... does anybody really believe going into them that his documentaries are "fair and balanced?" He's never claimed that they were, so if you don't like being manipulated (and really, what film doesn't?) then stay away.

    As far as personal responsibility goes, consumerism is fueled by a huge corporate media megalith that both creates need and satisfies it. Our children are bathed in it in their infancy, courtesy of TV's early light. Watch any morning show to see how that works: there are segments on the newest fashions, gadgets, and etc. interspersed with commercials that sell cars and Apple computers and credit-card debt relief. Then a "consumer advocate" -- employed by the networks who are in the business of selling you these things -- comes on to tell you how to manage your money, that the show has just did its best to part you with.

    It used to be, before the advent of pervasive media, that it was a common virtue to manage your money soundly. It ain't any more, and saying you can resist (congratulations, btw) doesn't of course apply to anyone but you. I truly believe that the way our children are brought up makes it very difficult if not impossible for them to resist being mired in consumerism. What they say in the ad biz is very revealing: we CREATE need.

  7. Speaking of manipulation, are we really to believe that this "Daniel" asked this supposed "question" to "Michael Moore" at this "screening?" It could have been anyone asking that question, from George Bush to Nancy Pelosi to the Tooth Fairy (coming to a theater near you soon!). Or perhaps no one asked this question and Moore was simply talking to himself...


    I just saw it last night and I agree; it's too scattershot, his targets too widespread. I mentioned personal fiscal responsibility myself - injustices have surely been done, but is no one to blame for getting adjustable rate mortgages? In his answer in the video, he talks about garnishing wages for those that can't/don't pay, and if they don't have wages...well, tough shit, banks, but you can't take those homes from people. Really? Why not? You'd do the same if someone owed you money, regardless of how long they held their property. The bigger question for me was, if this property has been in your family for 40 friggin' years, why the hell isn't it paid off?

  8. Even though we're in the same ballpark on Michael Moore Daniel (I'm hesitant to see Capitalism because my ambivalence about the guy), I'm a little softer on Sicko. It was deeply flawed, but I carry its central point into today's arguments about healthcare reform: the lives and health of Americans should not be a for-profit enterprise. It's a simple thought, but it was clearly and repeatedly made and it stuck with me.

    I also take issue with Moore's inability to offer solutions to the problems he raises, but maybe it's enough that he tries to get the conversation going. He's like that guy at the ballgame trying to start the wave and most people just ignore him, but damnit he's trying and eventually he gets it going. He doesn't go all the way around the stadium himself, but someone has to start it.

    Hmmm...Maybe I just talked myself into seeing Capitalism after all.

  9. Terrific post Daniel. One of your all-time best! I saw CAPITALISM over the weekend and thought it fine, but again am always intrigued by the idea of a capitalist ripping into capitalism, and even enlisting the support of the clergy, who Moore sees as people to use when they support his agenda. Of course they will say that capitalism is evil, it goes back to the time of Moses. And yes Mr. Kennedy is right. The man never offers solutions, he just makes his charges. I did like the section of the film about FDR's social programs (and the funeral segment, unexpected was poignant)and the focus on the farm families whose homes went into foreclosure, and the whole bit about some people being worth more dead than alive. Moore brought his own father in too for some work routine memories.
    The usual satiric touches, the expected castigation of Congress for initial supporting the Wall Street brokers (and a funny segment on a Park bench with a broker who is impossible to understand) and that final yellow tape crime scene episode all are rather funny. But this is the usual Moore shtick, for good or for bad, and for me did not stand out on a weekend where I saw A SERIOUS MAN and ZOMBIELAND.

  10. Yikes, I fall behind and you all give me way too much to think about again.

    Rick, I do admit fewer and fewer documentaries these days are remaining objective, but they still exist (Surfwise was one of my favorites from last year). I think I almost could excuse Moore's argumentative style if he simply did it more effectively. In this case, that would have been by including some personally irresponsible people to confess, "You know what, the system didn't wrong me - I screwed up my finances on my own. But it's really challenging to recover the way things are set up, and I think it's worth looking at our collective lifestyle while we're protesting outside Wall St. firms." Basically everything you nailed in your comment. If Moore would have featured an interview with you as part of this, well that would have made for a much more inspiring film.

    Fletch, until someone else takes credit for that question, it's mine (though note that he talks about moving in Minneapolis, like a crazy person). But seriously, I'm glad you mentioned the garnishing wages argument because it's completely empty. If they are deliberately not paying their mortgage, and you can't garnish their wages (assuming they are working), what's left? He quickly moves on because he knows there isn't an alternative. That doesn't justify the eviction of the people shown in Capitalism, but it doesn't provide anything resembling a solution, either. It's the central problem with Moore's arguments: "Something is wrong, but instead of coming up with solutions, let's all just get really mad."

    Which leads to Craig's point, that somebody has to realize that something is wrong in the first place. But then, hasn't Moore been flapping his arms for 20 years trying to start the wave? His admission that this may be his last film is in one proof of the futility of his methods. I can't take anything away from the message you took from Sicko, and credit should be given to Moore in picking up on it early as a hot-button issue. But then look at where we all are now, a bunch of people shaking their fists but nobody really knowledgeable about alternative health care solutions. But maybe I should reserve my judgment until the bill is voted on...

    Thanks very much, Sam, and I loved that broker/derivative scene as well. Maybe that should have been the documentary's focus - the average person's complete and total inability to understand financial markets. I could have been a perfect interviewee for that one. Anyway, yes, this is typical Moore, and though he goes a little longer and gets a little more personal and claims that it's a little more urgent, the truth is that he's still missing that special something that will engage the public in real change. That he lost this weekend at the box-office does not bode well for this film's longevity, and thus for its ultimate presence in the national conversation. It's too bad, really, considering how much we've been discussing it already here...!

  11. Yes Daniel, at a certain point arm-flapping becomes futile. It's probably not Moore's fault that little has changed in the 20 years he's been stirring the pot, but do I really need to see him keep doing it? That's a question that has thus far kept me from seeing his latest.

  12. In as much as it still makes you think about some big issues (as has been obvious in the comments) I still recommend seeing it. Your expectations are in the right place, so maybe look at it for entertainment value alone - at the very least it delivers in that way.


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