Greed Is... God-Awful: Michael Moore's 'Capitalism: A Love Story'

Michael Moore is back and this time around, the subject of his latest documentary is almost impossible to disagree with...especially since we are living with its consequences every single day.

Capitalism: A Love Story

Director: Michael Moore
Cast: Michael Moore
Rated: R
Studio: Starz / Anchor Bay
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-03-09 (General release)
UK date: 2010-03-09 (General release)

America is currently up shit creek, and leave it to Michael Moore to figure out where and when we dropped our collective paddles. Of course, his conclusions are bound to piss people off -- the documentarian hasn't made a more polarizing film since he suggested that Cuba, Canada, and part of Europe offer better health care to your average US SiCKo. In Capitalism: A Love Story (new to DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate), Moore calls out the current corporate mindset, and it's one helluva criticism. You'd be angry as well if you were considered a money-grubbing amoral jackass readily taking advantage of the working poor and vanishing middle class of this once great country.

As with his previous films, it's not a question of taking sides. Moore may not have all the facts straight or 100 percent accurate, but his points are so cogent, so clearly logical and readily rational that to argue them seems futile. As a leading member of the nu-media, he is part of the solution and the problem. He's eager to expose wrongdoing, but can't help but get overly involved in the pronouncements. Truthfully, such hysterics can't be helped. After all, how exactly do you calmly explain a bank that bets on the deaths of its employees with secret life insurance policies or raiders who demand government bailouts only to use said cash for whatever their avarice-laced hearts desire?

The aforementioned acts are just two of the gnawing, jaw constantly on the floor examples given in Moore's latest sermon on the motion picture mount. Focusing on the recent economic fiasco that has left millions out of work, dispossessed, and more or less lost for a next step, the Oscar-winning pundit takes on the title philosophy, debating its relationship to the needs of 95 percent of the populace. As with all such dissections, Moore begins by arguing that one percent of our country controls more wealth and fiscal power than the other nine-tenths of us combined. He then puts on his shoulder shrug façade, wads up his workingman resolve, and wanders the bleakest of all wasted landscapes -- the Midwest -- to follow the sickening stories of foreclosure, corporate criminality, and slick Republican partisans who agreed that such a set-up was the peachiest of deregulatory ideals.

Don't be mistaken -- Moore is definitely out to get the Grand Old Party this time. What he couldn't accomplish with Fahrenheit 9/11 he hopes to achieve here. From the days when Ronald Reagan applied his 'trickle down" economics to a country desperate for more proactive answers to a Enron-based business model that functioned like Las Vegas on shareholder steroids, he uses the old White Male Caucasian Majority as a manipulate-able means to a financially frightening ends. Some of it is grandstanding, gilding a lily that's already wearing a troubling patina. But when you dig down beneath the sensationalized surface, you come away with a sickening feeling that no amount of universal health care can cure.

Moore definitely paints a compelling picture. Then again, he always does. This is someone who knows that you don't win over REM-sleep mainstream audiences with in-depth discussions about Wall Street speculation or pronouncements from Harvard educated economists about hard to define 'derivatives'. Instead, he finds the stories that matter, that make the greatest impact, and then links them back to his main thesis. In Moore's mind, capitalism is a self-supporting swindle aided by decades of deliberate propaganda. It was the bill of goods sold by the people in power post World War II. It was the conceit that, when balanced with a sense of the public welfare, promoted the US into the superpower stratosphere.

But when a former Hollywood actor came to power and ushered in his free market 'Morning in America', Moore contends that the need for economic equilibrium was tossed aside in favor of the profit margin, the bottom line, and Gordon Gecko's personal mantra -- GREED! Nearly three decades later, these rotten roots have produced some incredibly sour and downright poisonous fruit and yet we continue to eat it like ravenous cultists. All throughout the film, Moore focuses on the aftermath of the '80s, treating it like a hangover from which we have yet to find a cure, a daydream without awakening, illustration after illustration arguing against our previous path toward international economic irrelevance.

As Capitalism: A Love Story argues again and again, it's all the government's fault. Congress and the White House is controlled by special interests -- in this case, most of the board members from major trading firms have been or currently are heading up important federal agencies and cabinet posts - and their goal remains to screw the little guy for the sake of those with mansions. Anything they could do to earn a buck off the back of the worker was seen as part of the cutthroat American dream. But Moore illustrates that said strategy did little except overfeed the fat cats. As CEO wages and bonuses skyrocketed, workers income and union influence were static, or strangled into submission.

Because they offer extremes in order to prove their points, Moore's movies are often chastised by those who wish to undermine his impact. But Capitalism: A Love Story, provides some of his most profound mind-blowers yet, situations and set ups that should cause even the most loyal lover of all things supply and demand to sit up in shock. Amid all the 'Death Peasant' insurance policies (Wal-Mart used to take them out on their "associates"), underpaid airplane pilots (pulling down a whopping $16K to $20K a year), and proud property vultures (realtors and agents who 'swoop' in and buy up homes for pennies on the dollar) there are stories that both disgust and depress.

One of the best involves a private juvenile detention center in Pennsylvania that saw two judges accept kickbacks from the company based on the number of teens they placed in their facility. That's right -- men sworn to uphold the law were treating 15-year-olds who were caught smoked pot, fighting, or using their right of Free Speech to sentences of several months -- all so that the tax payers could foot the highly overpriced bill and they could get paid.

Another undeniable affront revolves around the connection between those subprime mortgages we've been hearing about for the last 12 months, the corrupt companies that conned people into buying into these usurious contractual time bombs, and the Senators, Congressman, and high ranking Washington officials who benefited by turning a blind eye to such con artistry. A whistleblower type who used to work for Countrywide produces a list of FOA - Friends of Angelo - meant to signify important VIPs who got sweetheart loans from the company, all because they were pals (or political pawns) of CEO Angelo Mozilo.

As the who's who of DC despots is read, Moore draws a damning conclusion -- this is no longer the representative democracy the Constitution once crafted. The post-modern America is a wholly owned subsidiary of dozens of power drunk multinationals who don't care if people are employed. As long as someone, somewhere is slaving away at the inventory that will make them mega-millionaires, jobless rates (and any moral concern over same) are moot.

The DVD really drives this point home. The bonus features are made up almost exclusively of abnormally long-labeled segments ("The Bank Kicks Them Out, Max Kicks Them Back In" being a prime example) which add some important context to what Moore is saying. Chris Hedges, New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, examines the "killing machine" known as capitalism, while Fr. Dick Preston takes on religion and unnatural wealth in the rather self-explanatory "The Rich Don't Go to Heaven (There's a Special Place Reserved for Them)". Both men make it very clear that our current economic make-up, forged out of tradition and false faith, is destined to destroy us. Elsewhere, neo-communist conceits like a "people's savings and loan" ("The Socialist Bank of…North Dakota?") and unionized cabbies ("Commie Taxi Drivers -- 'You Talkin' to Me?' -- in Wisconsin") argue for a better way of doing things.

Where Moore really stretches credibility, however, is with the near canonization of former President Jimmy Carter. Seen as the lone enlightened politico eager to stare down Reagan and his renegade anti-regulation posse, there's almost 18 minutes dedicated to the infamous peanut farmer turned leader of the Free World. As far as liberal apologists go, Billy's brother is really left of center. His entire mantra appears poised as a curiously educated riff on "I told you so", and Moore buys right into it. In fact, it's easy to see why most of this material was excised. With films that are often seen as crimes against the State, not just strategic cinematic screeds, this hot button director must walk a very fine line between objectivity and preaching to the converted. Moore usually manages both, though Capitalism: A Love Story is far more "fair" than some of his other films.

That's because the subject matter is hard to defend. As stock footage of high living finds the proper level of outrage, as court cases uncover the callous and wholly unnecessary means by which companies cater to the quarterly accounting, Moore simply sits back and smiles, satisfied. Unlike other topic areas which require a little more exploitation, the failure of capitalism doesn't need to be sensationalized. We are living with it every day and watching as partisan politics pushes us deeper and deeper into a debt-ridden abyss we will probably never recover from (or so say some of the talking head experts here).

Since it's so wildly entertaining, because Moore is basically a clever carnival barker at heart ("Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up and see a bunch of Chicago factories workers fight the Bank of America Man…and WIN!"), Capitalism: A Love Story becomes a fabulous financial freak show. Around every corner is another accounting oddity, from bonuses based on bailout money to the Bush Administrations complicity in calling for such an emergency cash flow measure a few weeks before the 2008 election. One Congresswoman, a feisty female spitfire from Ohio named Marcy Kaptur, agrees with Moore's assessment that such an act was tantamount to an economic coup d'etat. At some point, voters no longer mattered and campaign contributions and lobbyists did.

While Moore's suggestion that wholesale democracy would be a better form of free enterprise, his examples don't quite drive home his point. It's hard to see how, even within such a equalized strategy, a kind of Darwinian "survival of the fiscally fittest" would apply. Still, you'd imagine that after 20 years or so we'd have figured it out. In Roger & Me, a then unknown documentarian warned us that the rest of the country was headed toward the same fate as his hometown of Flint, Michigan. With Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore is finally proven right -- and it's not a very pretty or fitting conclusion.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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