Sunday, October 4, 2009

Capitalism: Of the people, for the people, by the people

This weekend WB caught the new Michael Moore documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. A couple of days before going, we had a spirited discussion with a young college philosophy student about Moore's heavy reliance on emotional appeals in all of his films to make his case. Are emotional appeals effective means of persuasion, or just cheap gimmicks intended to clobber audiences over the head heart and prevent them from thinking through the issue's complexities?

Having seen each of Moore's films and owning them all in the WB DVD library, we can confidently say that the answer is: that's really not the question. Some emotional appeals are extremely effective, but no argument should be made exclusively of appeals to the heart. Rational appeals have to be in there, too, and this is why Moore will always include standard info-only scenes of bar graphs, timelines, pie charts, factual headlines, and all of the other "don't dwell on this too long or you'll lose the audience" statistical backups. And when it really comes down to it, even a bar graph is going to trigger a certain emotional response. Consider:

Now, if you're realizing that the little blue rectangle is you, and that the number 99 is much, much larger than the number 1, and that the bars are completely illogical given the sizes of the numbers, then you're not just thinking it, you're also feeling it. You have to, because the numbers and the bars are just wrong, in a moral sense — they carry not just illogicality (rational appeal) but also criminality and injustice (emotional appeal).

And what will the 1% tell you if you use the "i" word there? Why, that you've been deluded and hoodwinked by socialists, and that you, too, can become Bill Gates or Donald Trump if you just work hard enough. (Emotional appeal.) What they prefer you to whisk right past is the statistical (rational) evidence in that claim — that Gates and Trump, on a different bar graph where the colors are reversed, will be the little blue rectangle in a category of "Americans who have become wealthy" and you become the big black rectangle in a category of "Americans who never will."

That said, there are flaws in Moore's latest movie. But none of them has to do with the central argument, that capitalism willfully and intentionally destroys families and communities and cities and the nation itself. That argument is proven by an in-house memo from Citibank to its wealthiest clients, and by a three-page proposal, written by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, that was the basis for what Congress passed as "the $700 billion bailout" of U.S. banks. Both documents are factual, rational evidence, and the statements in them are outrageous and infuriating, thus triggering emotional responses. But they're not enough to carry the argument on their own. For that, Moore has to tug at heartstrings — especially since the people most damaged by capitalism are not the ones who have disposable income to spend on movie tickets. The audience members watching this film are the lucky ones, and so they need to feel the pain of the people below them who cannot attend.

Unfortunately, an opening scene, a home video showing something going on, doesn't make clear what that something is until far too much time has passed. Several minutes of audience members thinking what the hell am I looking at here isn't an effective way to start. In fact, the way the home video is presented, it's not even clear until much too late whether audiences should cheer the people in it or condemn them.

Likewise, a scene of a former Wal-mart employee and his family reading letters to a deceased wife and mother goes on too long. The outrage has already been established, factually and rationally, so a bereaved family's suffering over it is a totally unnecessary sledgehammer to an already battered viewer's brain. Ditto a scene with Moore taking his elderly father, a former GM worker in the 1950s, to tour the demolished site of his former factory. "I remember we would come and pick you up here," Michael tells his dad. "We would watch you coming down the ramp." To which his father replies, "Yup." Rationally dissected, this scene is pointless; we all know that industry in the U.S. was gutted during the Reagan 80s when corporate mergers and acquisitions and downsizing in the name of profits — and only profits — became the new American Way.

Luckily, Moore offsets this needless exchange with his aged dad by documenting a factory takeover by Chicago employees of a window and door manufacturer that has closed up shop. They don't want to save their jobs; they know those are gone forever. They just want to be paid for them, since their former employer's bank has announced that it won't disperse their last payroll. What transpires during the takeover, as community members, fellow union workers, and even the Catholic church come together to support the workers, is the real message that Moore wants to send with Capitalism. The damning facts about Wall Street greed and the illegal hocus-pocus of "derivatives" are being handled ably by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, in exposés published in March, July, and this week. Likewise, the New Yorker is on the case too, most recently in a huge article titled "Eight Days" that documents the minute-by-minute movements of the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, and Wall Street executives as they collaborated to create the $700 billion robbery of American citizens, all with no legal justification or precedent. Leaving the investigations to the investigators, then, Michael Moore is free to go in a different direction, and to show how the number 99 really is bigger than the number 1, and that the tiny number's hold on power will last only as long as the huge number allows it to. When the consent ends, the party's over.

Sadly, one figure who gets implicated in the sordid story, although never by name, is... Barack Obama. Moore uses footage of thrilling and emotional pre-election rallies, attended by millions, where the new kid promised sweeping change. Change. Hope. Yes We Can. That guy — who then went on to keep all of the key players of the 2008 Wall Street Swindle in their same positions of power, and to appoint previous players to new positions. Here, the message isn't that Obama's a crook, but that he's a powerless pawn to the real chessmasters of American politics: the bankers.

To offset that sad realization, one politician in the film roars with a loud and angry voice about the wrongness of it all. She is Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, and she shows what might someday be possible if truth and justice ever really do become the American way. WB has no idea if Rep. Kaptur has any Presidential aspirations, but we're seriously thinking about starting a "Draft Marcy" movement right now.

So, are there cheap emotional appeals in Capitalism: A Love Story? Yep, a couple of real screamers. How much damage do they do to the larger message? On a scale of 1-100, about a three. Capitalism is ultimately as far from a "Look at all the bad guys and see how it's all their fault" story as Michael Moore has ever told, and his message is wrapped in kindness, compassion, and even love for the people whom his films serve. The final scene is classic Moore comedy-with-teeth, but the one before that — news footage of a drowned New Orleans after Katrina — is exactly what's needed to illustrate Capitalism's bottom line message. Are we, the people, going to sit obediently by and wait to be rescued by the wealthy and powerful who would literally prefer that we drop dead so they can profit? Or will we get up and move?

"I can't do this anymore," Michael Moore says in the closing minute of the film. "I need you people in the theater to help me. And please, do it soon." As unemployment and homelessness rates climb higher and safety nets disappear, that "soon" is going to happen even sooner than he thinks.



Some Guy said...

Mike came to talk to my students back in the mid 90s. Of Roger & Me and the emotional appeals, he told them: "Is the movie unfair? Yes. Is it mean-spirited? Yes. And the worst part is that we had a hell of a lot of fun making it."

78rpm said...

Hmm - why would he think it was unfair? GM did just as the film showed it did: abandoned Flint. And Roger Smith wouldn't allow Moore to talk about it openly at the shareholder's meeting. Wonder why....