Thursday, October 01, 2009

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY. I've said my piece about Michael Moore before. He's first a polemicist -- at his worst, a propagandist -- and secondarily an artist. I prefer art to propaganda, and even to polemics, so even when I agree with him I often have problems with what he does.

The same applies to his new movie. He definitely works the gimp string a lot. But there's a line -- sometimes fine, sometimes thick -- between gimping and epiphany. In at least one instance Moore goes memorably the right way, and maybe the rest of the film was needed to get us there.

We get by the usual means discreet pieces of information about the sick, sad system that has led us to our new class hyper-divisions -- a synopsis of the Reagan scam that gave more power to the banks and the politicians who serve them (the beating Chris Dodd takes here is rich, and richly deserved); the crazy legalisms -- such as "dead peasant" policies employers use to earn money off employee deaths -- that our overlords avail to soak us further; and the feudal indignities visited on defaulting, former-middle-class citizens, like the extra money an evicted couple is given to clean out their own foreclosed home.

This is all very interesting, and more within the purview of news (or what would be news if our journalism weren't so rotten) than of classic documentary film. But Moore has some surprises, chief among them the way he uses the Obama victory. He rightly ascribes it to disgust with the late Bush-era bailouts -- and, also rightly, suggests that the persistent influence of big money may yet defeat it.

Most interesting is the way he positions black citizens in the Obama theme. An interview is interrupted by the news that the election is won, and we see black folk leap and cheer -- a common image during that news cycle, but (as I mentioned about the portrayal of Republicans tumbling out of the closet in Republican Gomorrah) newly piquant in a narrative context: The most traditionally despised and debased people in the country suddenly filled with optimism. The payoff comes near the end, when Moore reproduces FDR's 1944 call for a new Bill of Rights-- a late New Deal legacy that presaged Moore's own hopes for the nation. We may be aware without reminding that Roosevelt's vision -- including that of "every family to a decent home.. to adequate medical care... to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age and sickness and accident" -- went unrealized after his death.

Next we see the crowds weeping at FDR's funeral procession -- many of them African-American. Then Moore avails a stealth-shock cut -- it takes a few moments to realize that the helicopters we are next shown are hovering over the flooded homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and that the terrified citizens begging for rescue are black.

I'm a terrible cynic, but the sorrow and anger at injustice I felt at what I saw, I am convinced, were not drawn by a gimp-string, nor by a clever concatenation of my own prejudices, but by the craft of a real filmmaker turning bare facts and images into art. It's political, certainly. But sometimes, if rarely, a political gesture is sufficiently inspired to cross the line.

UPDATE. Michael Moore interview here.

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