[21 September 2009]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
TORONTO — At the end of the Depression-era Clifford Odets play “Waiting for Lefty” a character exhorts the audience to join in a rallying cry of “Strike! Strike! Strike!”
In a more doleful key, the new Michael Moore documentary “Capitalism: A Love Story” ends with a similar provocation. It’s basically: We need another -ism! We need another -ism!
This -ism hasn’t worked out, asserts Moore in every frame of his latest project, which opens commercially (that is to say, capitalistically) Oct. 2.
Already, “Capitalism: A Love Story” has attracted attention on the international festival circuit. Premiering earlier this month in Venice, it received an 8-minute standing ovation. The film went on to a North American bow last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, North America’s pre-eminent film gathering. Moore and I spoke after the initial press and industry screening in a sleek, aggressively air-conditioned hotel room in the Yorkville neighborhood.
The Venice rapture was, he tells me, “more gratifying than what I’d gotten for any of my other films because I didn’t know how this one would be received.
“To make a movie about an economic theory? How are you going to make that something people would actually want to see on a Friday night?” he says.
“Capitalism: A Love Story” finds Moore at his most bluntly polemical, while attacking his largest, most daunting canvas with his preferred primary colors. In part it’s a response to the market meltdown and last year’s federal bailouts: At one point the man from Flint, Mich., wraps crime-scene tape across the entrance to the New York Stock Exchange building.
The most compelling evidence Moore presents in “Capitalism” takes corporatespeak and socioeconomic heartlessness to task. There are the so-called “dead peasants” insurance policies taken out on employees, allowing employers to cash in big-time if their workers die ahead of actuarial schedule. We meet a gleeful Florida real estate maven who goes by the handle “The Condo Vulture,” taking swift advantage of foreclosures and a lousy housing market.
Most alarmingly, an internal Citibank report, which Moore’s people found floating around the Internet and which Moore initially (and wrongly) assumed was a fake, frames contemporary America as a “plutonomy” — the top 1 percent controlling 95 percent of the wealth, essentially wiping out the middle class in a flurry of bullet points.
Much in the film will be familiar, tactically speaking, from the sound of Moore’s singsong, ironically tinged voice-over commentary to the tear-stained close-ups of the havenots, the recently downsized, the strapped and wrathful. What’s new this time, the director believes, are statements he felt emboldened to make because he had no follow-up project in the wings.
“At the end,” Moore says, “to come out and say that I believe capitalism is evil, and that you can’t regulate evil ... that’s putting it out there. People know my politics, and it’s important to let the audience think some of this out for themselves, come to some of their own conclusions. But I just thought: If I had to say one thing only — if all my films from this point on are going to be fiction films, or whatever — what would I say? And that’s what I wanted to say.
“I’ll get criticized for saying it, I’m sure, because people are OK with me criticizing the system, but to say the system has to be eliminated — that makes people scared.”
So what’s next for Moore? He doesn’t know. “I made this one as if I wasn’t going to make another documentary after this. So I didn’t hold back.” Not that his earlier screeds were the works of someone accustomed to holding back.
“Actually,” he says, the interview wrapping up, “I got one idea talking to you in Traverse City.” Uh-oh, I think. I knew that July trip to Moore’s film festival in upper Michigan would come to no good.
Moore asks me if I remember how he started our interview back in July. I do, I say. You started by asserting the death of the American newspaper.
The day after our interview in Toronto, Moore revisits this prediction at the “Capitalism” press conference. He suggests that the imperiled state of the modern U.S. newspaper might make a good documentary. He planned initially to include a section on the subject in “Capitalism,” but he couldn’t make it fit.
So maybe Moore has his next subject after all. And maybe his return to fictional narrative filmmaking — Moore wrote and directed the1995 comedy “Canadian Bacon,” about the U.S. waging war on its neighbor to the north — will have to wait.