Capitalism: A Love Story, Dir. Michael Moore, Now playing at Angelika Film Center
The Yes Men Fix The World, Dir. The Yes Men, Playing at Film Forum Oct. 7-20
Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, epitomizes all for which Moore is already notorious. In a sweeping indictment of the free-market capitalist system, Moore turns a hugely complex and exciting argument into a simple little lesson of Anne Coulter-level common sense. Moore remains driven to demonize rather than convert his opponents, leaving his left-leaning audience the difficult task of extracting any balanced political insight from the moral melodrama of his rhetoric.
Moore’s scenes consistently emphasize the sensational, and many talking points are only vaguely relevant to his larger thesis. For example, Moore’s examination of a corrupt juvenile detention center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, reveals the greed and malice of a few men but does little to emphasize the evils of capitalism altogether. And while Moore is quick to stick cameras in the faces of the men who board up houses of the evicted, he never examines the ethical platform of his own craft, opting instead to position his film-essay as an act of Thoreau-ean civil disobedience.
In the Thoreau-ean era of the 1960s—a time of racist, colonial ethnographies and fresh memories of fascist propaganda films—documentary filmmakers worked nobly to define a set of ethical boundaries that might permit documentary to become a process of expansive discovery rather than a forum for propagating the status quo. In an effort to approach documentary subject matter with integrity, directors like Frederick Wiseman adopted a deadpan depiction—refusing to comment and attempting only to observe. His well-known Titticut Follies (1967) and High School (1968) provide scathing indictments of American culture, while empowering his subjects to speak for themselves. Resulting from what is ultimately an ethical consideration, Wiseman’s films allow viewers to draw their own moral conclusions.
For Moore, filmmaker and subject are one. Of course he appears in all his films, which remain one-course arguments—take it or leave it—with nothing to question or interpret except Moore’s own ego. Today, Moore is a fixture in media punditry. But in 1989, when Moore’s Roger and Me began its $3 million box office run, critics expressed stark dismay for his disregard for the history of the documentary. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael described Moore as “a gonzo demagogue [who] made me feel cheap for laughing”. A review in The New York Times called Roger and Me “narrow, simplistic, wrong.”
Granted, Capitalism is annoyingly captivating and at moments really funny. Moore’s film shows some amazing moments of disenfranchised voices and includes fascinating archival newsreel footage. But while Capitalism suffices for compelling entertainment, it makes for manipulative argument as well as shoddy art. As Pauline Kael writes in her 1969 article on cinema trash: “If you could see the ‘artist’s intentions,’ you’d probably wish you couldn’t anyway. Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose. This is, indeed, almost a defining characteristic of the hack director, as distinguished from an artist.”
Moore’s stated goal is not art: it’s activism. And his impact is expansive, given that he directed three of the top six highest-grossing documentaries of all time. Arguably no other filmmaker can match Moore’s social impact. Therefore, why would his fans—a group that supports the political positions that Moore espouses—take issue with his films on artistic grounds?
Consider a competing activist documentary, the box-office underdog, The Yes Men Fix The World, directed/written/produced by The Yes Men, namely “anti-globalization” activists Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. Their film makes the case that Milton Friedman’s free market economic system has created an ethos of corporate greed that works against the benefit of humankind. Sound familiar?
Indeed, The Yes Men and Capitalism: A Love Story are similar in many regards. Both are educational films that take stock of the free-market system’s impact on our collective, social psychology. Both are full of goofy and somewhat nerdy stunts pulled off by the protagonists/filmmakers. In both cases comedy cushions the impact of an alarming call for change. Moore threads 1950s educational newsreel footage that promotes the virtues of capitalism; Bichlbaum and Bonanno insert cartoon illustrations of basic capitalist principles. Both films adopt a naïve narrative voice that responds to perceived evil with childlike confusion instead of anger. Both films are unabashedly sarcastic. However, while viewers of both films are offered a similar entertainment experience, The Yes Men offers its audience an opportunity to engage in (rather than merely accept or decline) its ideas.
The film follows Bichlbaum and Bonanno as they establish fake websites for companies like Exxon Mobil and Halliburton and wait for invitations to business conferences they then infiltrate. In one episode, Mr. Bichlbaum poses as a representative for Dow Chemical and announces on a live BBC broadcast that Dow planned to compensate the victims of the Union Carbide chemical explosion in Bhopal, India, twenty years ago. In turn, the world was able to briefly consider what it would be like if a corporation acted in the interest of humanity.
The Yes Men Fix The World is hardly cinematic art. The production value is basic; the narrative structure lacks innovation. In fact, no Director of Photography is even credited; instead over fifty names are listed as camera people. But Bichlbaum and Bonanno are not filmmakers. They are performance artists. They’re embracing film, however crudely, to widen the reach of a political argument they illustrate through performance.
Granted, the film is a heavy-handed moral argument. But in addition to argument, The Yes Men encourages discovery and interpretation from its audience. During the aftermath of the Dow Chemical stunt, Dow lost $2.5 billion in stock value in twenty-five minutes, demonstrating the financial infeasibility of a corporation acting responsibly. Likewise, the film explores the ethical criticism The Yes Men receive when, in an additional BBC interview after the prank was exposed, a news anchor suggests that giving false hope to the victims of Bhopal demonstrates a lack of humanity. This criticism sends The Yes Men to Bhopal to investigate.
Bichlbaum and Bonanno might not have Michael Moore’s scale of influence, but as their stunts shame greedy multinationals and infiltrate conglomerate media outlets, the film empowers its audience to interpret and analyze its political message. In fact, their political message doesn’t end with the credits of the movie. On September 23rd (the day before the recent UN conference on climate change), The Yes Men distributed a fake copy of The New York Post, filled with articles discussing the dangers of climate change. Thus, The Yes Men not only infiltrate media, they comment on it and even create it. They not only strive to change media communication, they—as an activist should—do it. Perhaps it’s a slight gesture compared to the excesses of Michael Moore, but it’s a lot nobler and a hell of a lot more inspiring.
Malcolm Wyer--in the name of literary theory--aims to push poetry to the brink of extinction.