Mooresian filmic theory

Capitalism: A Love Story
A documentary by Michael Moore

Rating: Mooresian filmic trend line stays positive despite periods of cinematic decline.

The quintessential symbol of capitalism as an economic/political system is Wall Street. That is probably why Michael Moore chose to shoot much of his latest documentary there — a documentary that depicts the “evils” of capitalism according to Mr. Moore.

It therefore seems apropos to review his movie with one of the very measurements that capitalistic economic/political systems use to measure the health and vitality of that system: the stock market.

So, in keeping with the tone and tenor of the film, here is a review of the movie as it might look plotted on the Dow Jones Industrial Average — a stock market graphic index. And, since the stock market is measured based on time, this review will similarly review the film based on its running time.

The Capitalism review index (CRI) is depicted on the accompanying graph. The running time is along the “x” axis, and the elements of the film are rated as either positive or negative along the “y” axis. Since the stock market never starts at zero (nor does it ever get to zero; that would likely happen in the year 2012 — the coming apocalypse — but that’s another movie), the CRI does not start at zero. And, since I generally enjoy Moore’s films as entertainment, the CRI begins with plenty of good will (sort of like that for Nobel-Prize-winning President Obama), and thus starts above the line that separates “positive” from “negative” (the line along the middle of the graph).

Between time index 0:00:00 until about 0:08:24, the peaks and valleys represent the positive and negative reactions to the familiar Mooresian filmic techniques. On the positive side, Moore uses a stock technique of showing archival footage of a grade school educational film about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and compares it to today’s situation (amazingly similar). But then we are also subjected to other more tiresome Mooresian elements — that his “documentary” is one-sided and that it is mostly about him. (He narrates. He is filmed doing stuff. Home movies of him growing up in Flint, Michigan, are shown, etc.). As a result, the CRI during this period vacillates up and down — but not wildly; we have come to expect all of this.

These familiarities reach a saturation point when Moore resorts to using footage of his previous film, Roger & Me and mentions his other film, Sicko. Since this starts to feel like “been there, done that,” a period of “stagflation” sets in, and the CRI reaches its first major low point (labeled “A” on the CRI) at about time index 0:10:27.

But the CRI climbs out of this “stagflation” when it depicts the plight of workers at a window manufacturing plant who staged a sit-in when they were laid off, although the corporate executives were well-paid. This reaches a point of “prosperity” (labeled “B” on the CRI), as their situation is compelling. The CRI stays in this positive area as the film starts to discuss the prosperity of the 1950s — that is, how workers were provided livable wages and affordable health care, and the middle class was thriving.

Then the film begins to decline as it gets into typical Mooresian political bashing. He tries to describe why the middle class declined after the 1950s by evoking the Vietnam War and the “gloom and doom” speech by President Carter. This narrative thread reaches a “recession” (at point “C” on the CRI), when he suggests that the loss of the middle class and the decline of capitalism (turning from innovation and production toward greed and avarice) was the result of tax cuts and union busting during the Reagan era. It’s an interesting argument, but it’s rushed and not depicted with enough data and argument to really make the case.

But things start to rebound when the film looks at the dynamics of the current economic crisis. This is a long period of prosperous times for the CRI (depicted as points “D” and “E”) as Moore takes a look at derivatives (no one seems to be able to explain them; but, then again, he seeks an explanation from only a few people), the economic bailout that was rushed through Congress (members of Congress are interviewed about how this package was characterized as “do or die” for the world as we know it), and how the bailout was engineered by the wealthy elite of Goldman Sachs (many of whom are now working for the Obama administration). All of this is eye-opening and elicits the desired Mooresian indignation.

But then things get shaky as Mooresian theory works in depictions of people losing their homes and farms to foreclosure. Of course, this is unfortunate and outrageous. But, again, we have seen all this before, and I don’t know how we can do anything about a farmer who has to burn some of his family’s belongings in order to leave the property uncluttered for the bank, or watch a family shoot a home movie while the cops come pounding down their door to evict them. It’s all very heart-wrenching. But it’s also all too familiar and ultimately unhelpful. Even in good economic times, some people have tough breaks. So we are not sure what this all says about our present situation and how to fix it. This low is shown at point “F” on the CRI.

Things look up when we move away from the “depression” of the plight of individuals facing hard times with foreclosures. There are scenes of Moore reminiscing with his dad about what it was like to work at General Motors. Even though this is warm and engaging, it’s still all about Moore, so this dips again (shown as point “G” on the CRI).

The Mooresian world still stays positive though, and it reaches another high point (shown as point “H”) when Moore looks into something called “dead peasants insurance.” This is a little known but outrageous practice by companies taking out life insurance policies on employees so as to reap an economic windfall when the employee dies. Although this is an infuriating aspect and would normally cause the CRI to decline, the fact that Moore is bringing this to the public’s attention is a good thing, thus creating a CRI peak.

However, as Moore does not say what can be done about “dead peasants insurance,” the CRI starts to decline again. Moore then invokes one of his stock techniques of “guerilla theater.” That is, he uses a bullhorn to yell up at unopened skyscraper windows along Wall Street and demand a return of the “bailout” dollars. This reaches a major “depression” (shown at point “I” on the CRI) when he tries to enter the bank buildings along Wall Street to get meetings with the CEOs and demand the money back. We have seen this done so many times — the security guards putting their hands over the camera, ushering Moore to the sidewalk, calling for reinforcements, etc. It’s no longer novel, and a film that borrows from itself enters a period of bankrupt ideas and lapses into a depression.

And, yet, all is not hopeless. The CRI climbs precipitously from this nadir to its highest peak when it shows “lost” archival footage of a radio address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt allowed cameras to film him giving this speech where he outlined a “second bill of rights” that included such things as a living wage, the right to health care and education — the sorts of things that we are debating today. It’s both amazing and disheartening that these “rights and privileges” were recognized back then, and, yet, we still struggle to get them to this day. That mixture of emotion can be the sort of thing that prods action by those viewing the film, which is why it creates a peak at point “J” on the CRI.

Alas, the CRI trends back downward to point “K” at the end of the film as — typical of Mooresian films — there is little help with solutions. The Mooresian solution seems to be to wrap Wall Street banks in yellow police crime scene tape — another tired and lame attempt at “guerilla theater.”

Nevertheless, as the overall CRI trend shows, the film stays mostly in positive areas of the graph. Let’s hope our economy heads into the same area — even if Mooresian theory of “one-sided bashing” may not ultimately help much.

Doug Young is The Statesman’s award-winning film critic. He also works for Sen. Mark Udall as an environmental policy adviser.