September 22, 2009

Love and Luchre: Michael Moore Follows the Money

Michael Moore is in love. It's an aching, make-you-do-crazy-things kind of love, including borrowing a Brinks truck and wrapping Wall Street in crime scene tape, attempting to make citizen's arrests of bankers, criss-crossing the country to woo his intended and even soliciting the advice of several priests and a bishop. He's got it bad.

This is all in an effort to convince the object of his desire that she's been misled and is shacking up with the wrong guy. Who is this muse who's stirred his soul and compelled him to make his latest movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, which opens today (September 23) in Los Angeles and New York, followed by a nationwide release October 2? "I love America," Moore declared, following a recent pre-release screening in Los Angeles.

It's clear from the movie that he's optimistic about his chances of courting the country and rescuing it from the clutches of the corporations and their bought-and-paid-for political spokesmodels and pundits. "The American people will do the right thing if given the information," he said.

Moore hopes his film will be a catalyst for the changes he thinks are necessary to get the country back on track. Not only does he want to get people into the theaters to see his film, he wants them to get involved "in this great country," he explained. "Democracy is not a spectator sport."

Some people might assume that this 127-minute motion picture journey is an anti-capitalism screed inspired by Karl Marx, but as usual, Moore draws heavily on that other Marx--Groucho--to drive home his points about the failings of our system. After commandeering a Brinks truck, he rolls into Wall Street to cordon off one of the temples of the moneychangers with yellow crime scene tape. He's there to make citizens' arrests and get the people's billions back from those we "rescued" with an unprecedented, ask-no-questions series of loans after they tanked the world's economies.

 

Michael Moore at the wheel of a Brinks truck. From his film Capitalism: A Love Story, which opens September 23 through Overture Films and Paramount Vantage. Courtesy of Overture Films

 

 

Moore talks to former Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who now chairs the Congressional Oversight Committee, which is charged with figuring out where that money went. "The Treasury Department still will not tell her what the banks are doing with our money, or what they've done with it; there's no accountability whatsoever," Moore told the LA audience.

Moore is incensed by the contrast between the way banks treat someone seeking a loan and how they've been protected and been allowed to blithely ignore the public's interest in keeping track of our money. "If you ever try to get a loan, there's all the paperwork you've got to fill out, every personal question they ask you and all this back-up proof of what you're going to do with that loan from the bank," he bemoaned. "The wringer they put the average person through to get a measly ten or 20 thousand dollars...If you're a bank and you want bailout money, it's a two-page form with mostly white space, and three questions."

Making the film, Moore discovered some unexpected glimmers of hope. Approached by a New York City cop while he was stringing the crime scene tape around Wall Street, the filmmaker muttered under his breath, just loud enough for the officer to hear, that he'd be gone in a few minutes and that this was just a stunt for his movie. Hoping this would buy him a few minutes to get the shot and avoid arrest, he was shocked to hear the cop say, "Take all the time you need." Apparently, the police pension fund was decimated by the collapse of the stock market.

 

From Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story. Courtesy of Overture Films

 

 

Once again, it's clear that Moore's brand of provocation is not about that dreaded "ism" we were schooled to abhor. It's about populism in the vein of such Depression Era luminaries as Will Rogers, Frank Capra and John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, as opposed to the John Wayne collaborations), with a dose of some Preston Sturges' screwball comedy touches.

This was the era of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is credited with rescuing capitalism by restoring the people's confidence and creating a bulwark of regulations that would keep the system from self-destructing. He also worked to create the safety net of programs that would offer citizens some assurance of a better life. But what most have forgotten is that FDR wanted to take this even further with a second Bill of Rights--an "economic bill of rights" that would guarantee:

"The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment;

The right to a good education."

Moore's archive researchers dug up a long lost piece of film showing an aging Roosevelt introducing this proclamation to the American people, which was tacked on to his final State of the Union address, which he delivered January 11, 1945. Roosevelt was ailing and too weak to make the trek to Capitol Hill, so he spoke to the people by radio, but had a film crew standing by to record the ending. The President was preparing the country for the opportunities of a post-war world, and he believed, "All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won, we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being. America's own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens."

Moore contrasts this noble, sweeping vision with the onslaught of the Reagan Revolution, which was hellbent on dismantling the hard-won strictures of the Roosevelt era. While many are unwilling to speak ill of the dead, especially an icon like Reagan, Moore traces his transformation from B-movie hero and spokesman for General Electric into a semi-mythic figure whose public persona of decent, middle-American values was in marked contrast to his policies, which systematically undermined the protections wrought by Roosevelt and put us on the collision course that led to the recent economic collapse.

Defined benefit pension plans became 401Ks with no guarantees. Students had to borrow from banks to go to college. Unions were denigrated and broken, and jobs went overseas.  Real wages stagnated, and we became addicted to credit in order to keep up.

Being an equal opportunity skewerer, Moore gives Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush a drubbing for their roles in continuing to unravel the economic system. He doesn't spare the current occupant of the White House, who has appointed people Moore believes are the architects of the debacle to positions where they are responsible for cleaning up the mess.

"It's so bothersome that Geithner, Summers and Rubin are in charge," said Moore.  "Obama probably didn't understand what a derivative was, either, and was told that, ‘Well, these are smart guys; let's bring them in. They know what to do.' It's disheartening to see these three men in charge of our economy now."

 

From Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story. Courtesy of Overture Films

 

 

To show us the human cost of these policies, Moore takes us inside the lives of people whose homes are being foreclosed. We see one family burning their furniture to earn a clean-up fee of $1,000 from the bank. It's heartbreaking, and you wonder where the mainstream media have been for the last couple of years. Instead of covering protests against health care reform, why aren't they embedded with those who are losing their homes because they've been crushed by a mountain of medical bills?

"Actually, the number one reason for people being foreclosed upon is because they don't have health insurance, and they've been paying medical bills and now they can't pay their mortgages," Moore maintained, citing a study authored by Elizabeth Warren when she was at Harvard. "Instead we hear, ‘This whole mess was caused by people who were living beyond their means and taking out these loans they shouldn't have been taking out and blah, blah, blah."

Moore is encouraged by the response he's received at screenings at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals and at venues across the country. He's also buoyed by the enthusiastic backing of Overture Films and Paramount Vantage, which are releasing Capitalism: A Love Story. "I'm going to have a larger opening than I've had for any film," said Moore.

Chris McGurk, CEO of Overture, has been a fan of Moore's ever since he saw Roger and Me 20 years ago. Several years later, while at MGM, he had the chance to buy Bowling for Columbine after seeing it at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. McGurk isn't afraid of the fact that Moore has a social agenda. "He's an incredibly bold filmmaker who asks the right questions, no matter what side of the issue you are on," McGurk said in a telephone conversation. Winning Academy Awards, garnering great reviews and selling a mountain of tickets and DVDs doesn't hurt either. 

According to McGurk, the secret to Moore's success is, "He tackles these documentaries in the way the best filmmakers tackle their non-documentaries--he's all about story and character. He latches on to people and ideas and weaves a story around them that is riveting." 

For Moore, success will be people getting involved in the political process after watching his film. "In these times now, we can't just be sitting back," Moore declared at the Los Angeles screening. But he's not starting a new organization. "There are already organizations that are fighting back, but they're small and they need mass support. Let's act like the majority. We have the power, right?"

If you do, you'll help Moore win back the love of his life--America. ;

Michael Rose is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker.

 

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