Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore may have a big mouth, but is it large enough to chew off capitalism? In his new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, he remarks about how difficult the concept is to define; but if we can’t even define the problem, how can we solve it? I think Moore is ambivalent not about the term’s meaning, but rather about how broadly he’s willing to extend it. Like the Democrats now in power, who are criticized for making compromises even before bartering has begun, Moore probably wants a revolution, but doesn’t want to stake his credibility with moderates on what he may see as a true love story: the romance of Marx and Engels. Moore flails about like a shark in a fishing net; he’s trapped inside the system he detests, and he knows it. He follows an impossible logic: to take down capitalism, he must sell an alternative.

I say this with all due sympathy to Moore. His methods can be specious, but I don’t want to follow the line of thought that unfairly discredits him as a hypocrite. Capitalism should dispel the myth of Moore’s “liberal élitism,” which is typically leveled at him by those whose own senses of superiority are hidden safely away in gated communities. This movie attacks élitism head-on, in the guise of Wall Street players who treat their billions like heavenly ambrosia—a divine right that they can gobble up without leaving leftovers for the peasants. In fact, one of Moore’s most salient proofs includes a “dead peasant” insurance clause that corporate employers take out on their employees in a legally dubious manner; the other is a memo from a prominent bank, which anoints its highest-tier shareholders members of the plutonomy—the supreme stratum of wealth, with a political dominance that can only be threatened by those pesky masses, who, for some reason, were vested with voting power.

One should not come to conclusions merely by following the dots, as so often happens in the formulation of conspiracy theories, but Moore can pave a path of ellipses that’s as solid as a paper trail that didn’t make it to the shredder. Can we really doubt charges of foul play, for example, when we see so many Goldman Sachs alumni chomp down on their firm’s competitors under the aegis of the federal government? Can we doubt that there’s something wrongly impersonal in the fact that airline pilots need to supplement their wages by moonlighting as waiters, or that some plane crashes may be due not to bad pilots, but overburdened ones—corners being cut that were already too tight? These certainly have something to do with someone’s definition of capitalism, and Moore effectively riles the viewer up. But, at points, Moore just can’t help himself, and he reverts to that old carnival huckster, shouting so loudly and eccentrically that you can’t quite tell what you’re buying from him.

For instance, the movie opens with home-video footage of a North Carolina family barricading itself against invasion by the sheriff’s office. Why? I suppose their home is being foreclosed, but we’re never told for sure. And even if it was foreclosed, was it because of corporate malfeasance or perhaps because the homeowner was a renegade for reasons other than empty pockets? We don’t know. When Moore says that America’s best and brightest don’t go into science anymore (where, he assumes, they’ll work exclusively for the commonweal), but rather are recruited by the financial institutions that college loans have indebted them to, he may be right, but we aren’t given anything like statistics. And Moore loves to make abstract concepts like “America” his punching bags; hasn’t he learned that this is what pisses skeptics off? At times, I found myself taking no stock in Capitalism’s sophistry, just as I had felt ready to knock down a few of Moore’s pins after his Americans-have-been-cowards-throughout-history bit in Bowling for Columbine. This rhetoric certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.

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Where the Wild Things Are

A few months ago, a conservative politician callously derided a liberal bill, claiming that its “empathy” was just a slippery slope to partisanship. One does not need to be partisan—or even political—to realize that empathy is the last bastion of civilized thought. If empathy becomes a “partisan” issue, rather than something generally recognized for its social utility, then we’ll all be riding that slippery slope down the garbage chute. Fostering empathy may be one of art’s richest and most important faculties, but, as with life, empathy is but one ingredient in artistry’s stew. Empathy without rationality can make hearts bleed like burst pipes, and it’s not impossible to drown in that briny, bleary mess.

But, allow me to dismount my high horse of metaphorical grandiosity, and explain how my sermon relates to Where the Wild Things Are. Before lapsing into my own belletrism, I was prepared to quote the French film critic André Bazin, who said that “To explain [Italian neorealist filmmaker Vittorio] De Sica, we must go back to the source of his art, namely to his tenderness, his love … [T]he affection De Sica feels for his creatures is no threat to them … There is no admixture of pity in it … because pity does violence to the dignity of the man who is its object”—because I think the same could be said of director Spike Jonze’s treatment of the characters in Wild Things. But one should also consult American critic James Agee, who, three months after publishing a florid rave of De Sica’s Shoeshine (1947), retracted his evaluation. He ascribed his enthusiasm to the fact that the movie was “made from the heart, and so touched the heart”; its intimacy had allowed him to overlook what he later perceived as flaws.

I’m leery of overloading Wild Things, because it’s a film for which the anticipation has become wilder than the final cut. At best, the movie will become a beloved black sheep among kids’ classics. By his own admission, the director “didn’t set out to make a children’s film … [but] to represent, as honestly as possible, what it feels like to be a person trying to understand the world when you’re that age”; yet what he’s come up with isn’t really a children’s film, or a children’s movie for adults, or an adult movie for children. A wave of controversy has splashed against the protean nature of Wild Things—its lack of conventional narrative, plot goals, and even rainbow-bright sheen has kept financiers on edge. You almost feel you’re on the side of corrupt, literal-minded, dishonest, pedantic adulthood if sugar, spice and everything nice don’t gestate in your heart while the tale unfolds onscreen. (Some have argued that the filmmakers’ playful abstention from structure is like the work of John Cassavetes. What kid doesn’t clamor to see A Woman Under the Influence?) If you don’t react to the movie, you fear you’ve become an apostate poo-pooer on the concept of the inviolable artist—even if these particular artists cost their studio-patron something in the vicinity of $100 million. Well, I may be corrupt, but I’m hardly an adult; I feel affectionate toward Wild Things, but this is a movie to hug, not to make love to.

Of course not, you say; that’s cinematic pedophilia! Sure, sure—but I still think Wild Things falls short of greatness, and not because it’s a “children’s film.” Wonder and confusion and melancholy are indeed elements of youth, but so are excitement and silliness and an absence of limitations. Jonze’s venerated ability to merge “the realistic and the banal … with the fantastic and the extreme” is a touch too close to banal here; his deadpan was key in his Charlie Kaufman collaborations (in his other two features, he rejoiced in Being John Malkovich and the throes of Adaptation), but Wild Things is too understated. The movie failed to excite my senses; it lacked the tonic qualities of art which made Jonze’s other films so fun, and a select few kiddie pics scintillating. The Fall—directed by Tarsem, another music-video maker—was also made with love and empathy, and even a dollop of sentimentality; but Tarsem let the wild things loose, and embraced the sort of indulgences that captivated us as kids, and still captivate us as “adults.” This summer’s Ponyo was as squishily innocent as Wild Things, yet it had pep and spunk bursting from its gills; you felt its goofballs come at you like curve balls. Wild Things is heartfelt but tentative. The scriptwriters (Jonze co-wrote the film with novelist Dave Eggers) seem to have reverted too far into childhood; emotionally, the movie is about as outgoing as a reserved little tyke of the glasses-braces-pimples variety—charming, but turbid, too.

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Taking Woodstock

Woodstock is as long ago to us as the Stock Market Crash was to the concert—and Taking Woodstock makes 1969 feel like the ancient past. But maybe that’s because, somehow, it manages to make the peace-love-and-rock’n’roll orgasm of the century boring. One character says of the concert’s promoter, Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff)—a becalmed flower-child smoothie with a cherubic grin—that he’s “real,” as long as the money people backing him are real. And that’s about as real as Taking Woodstock. The movie pats hippies on their furry heads for being polite, but then says, in effect, “Party’s over. Cut your hair and get a job.” The scriptwriter (James Schamus) and director (Ang Lee) of the leaden-souled Brokeback Mountain have reunited to put us on the side of a dry character (the real-life dude who brought the concert to his Upstate New York farming town, and wrote a book about it) with his own generic, apolitical hangups, and threw in the carnivalesque as a slideshow—a memory book for the film’s wistful, middle-aged audience. The filmmakers seem completely uninterested in how it feels to be young and free, though they flirt with current attitudes by giving the picture a pro-gay slant, and casting Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, and Paul Dano with hipster credibility in mind. But it’s to no avail; like the more “artistic” Across the Universe, this ain’t about the forever young—it’s about milking the sentimental old. Shamelessly, the film goes straight for the udders.

Michael says, at the end, that the concert producers have given what they promised: three days of music, love and peace. Now that it’s over, they’ll sue each other for every last dime that dropped in the muck. Even worse, he invites the hero out West, where Michael’s planning another profitable peace binge: Altamont. Real funny. Are the filmmakers so very cynical that this is all they think the ’60s were about? “The Man” fleeced the hippies when they were young, and now He’s at it again. For the aging counterculture, struggling against the nostalgia-peddlers’ muck, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to gain.

Cold Souls

Cold Souls is a diaphanous nocturne—a little metaphysical flower lilting in the gray autumnal light. Paul Giamatti plays himself or, rather, the person we might infer Paul Giamatti to be, given the schlub-everyman he incarnated in American Splendor and Sideways. He’s playing in Chekhov on Broadway, but can’t get out of his own head and into Uncle Vanya’s. So, under his unseen agent’s advisement, he undergoes radical soul-removal surgery that leaves him literally spiritless. (I wonder if Steven Soderbergh opted for that procedure to make The Informant!.)

Cold Souls is cheekily prefaced by René Descartes’s assertion that the soul is a physical property, and, in the movie’s comic view, disembodied souls look like chickpeas and spitballs—Gobstoppers Everlasting. But they might as well be hearts; once his animus is extracted, Paul’s truly soulless as an actor and a human being. After some wickedly coy rehearsals, and a contretemps in which he advises a woman with a terminally ill relative, he switches over to the weepy soul of a Russian poet. (The test-drive spirits come from the Slavic black market, for which Nina—Dina Korzun—is a mule.) But when the inevitable time comes that Paul wants his own soul back, he discovers it’s been misplaced—transplanted into the noodle of sexy soap-opera starlet Svelta (Katheryn Winnick) under the pretense that she was embodying Al Pacino. Paul goes to St. Petersburg to literally find himself.

One friend said he could not reconcile the movie’s indie realism with its fantasy elements, but I don’t think there are any other ways to treat the material without betraying what it essentially is—a simple homily about appreciating the soul you own, and empathizing with those of others. If it were plopped down in, say, a Minority Report setting, the concept of soul-swapping would lose its obliqueness; the study of souls is such a queasy “science” that it’s better off left to the realm of complete fiction. The writer-director, Sophie Barthes, knows we can’t buy soul trafficking as a current trade, as popularized by a piece in The New Yorker; by placing this in the world of the familiar, she’s given us the distance we need to appreciate her metaphor. Her method is an index to her good humor, not her seriousness. (Similar concepts turn up as pseudoscience in The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s new page-turner, and I laugh each time they come up; these kind of conceits only work as pulp or poetry, and Dan Brown is no poet.) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a similar case; it can be summed up as “It’s better to have loved and lost…” But Charlie Kaufman has more of a Philip K. Dick temperament than Barthes; he’s dyspeptic, all right, but when he waxes poetic, it’s with a tricky tachycardia. Jumpy directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry match his pulse. In Synecdoche, New York, however, writer-director Kaufman was victimized by his own volubility, and his ideas went kaboom. That’s the opposite of Barthes’s problem here. Her message echoes the sound, but tired, wisdom of everybody’s doting mother: “Just be yourself.” Cold Souls is a sweet, sincere little labor of love, but like most morality tales, it’s frail—a dream that fades when you rub your eyes, advice you shrug off before watching Sorority Row.

Barthes, a young Frenchwoman, has never directed a feature before, and her sophisticated sensitivity permeates the frames as a character all its own. But the movie is rather shapeless. If this were a more conventional film, for instance, there would be something tangible at stake if Paul didn’t retrieve his soul; there isn’t even a chance that he’ll lose his girlfriend, Claire (Emily Watson), despite vague intimations of a Paul-Nina relationship that culminate in a proto-Jungian blur. Further, Giamatti playing himself seems no more than a stunt, and just a little bit of a cheat. We see very little of Paul with his own soul intact, and none of normal Paul’s interactions with Claire—the assumption being, I assume, that we’re already familiar with Giamatti’s oeuvre. It cheats Giamatti more than anyone else because it forbids him from showing the sort of range a role like this promises. Perhaps the most lamentable omission is the wonderful payoff of seeing Winnick’s ravishing form nest the consciousness of a balding, neurotic everyman. Who doesn’t want to see a long-legged knockout Harvey Pekar?

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The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! may be an ingenious filmic experiment—a cinematic trompe l’oeil. It’s a modern retooling of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), with the schizoid circus-freak somnambulist wearing a white collar and a Middle American cornfed grin. Caligari, which explained away its zig-zagging Expressionism by putting the camera behind the eyes of a wacko, was a trick. The Informant! is also a joke. We can sit back in retrospect and laugh at being duped, but it’s not funny enough while you watch it to be worth the cheat.

The story is based on Kurt Eichenwald’s reportage about Mark Whitacre, a division president at the agricultural giant Arthur Daniels Midland. Scared that he may become a scapegoat, he tattled on the international price-fixing ring that he and the other executives habitually partook in; inadvertently, however, he blew the whistle on his own spate of fraudulent behavior. To the F.B.I., he presented himself as a down-home American hero—a scientist in the corrupting sphere of big-time corn-syrup malfeasance—and now he’s being embodied in a big-time movie by a big-time star, Matt Damon. But Damon has 30 extra pounds swishing between his hips, and his girth is accompanied by equally unflattering glasses, a hot-mess toupee, and a porn-star mustache that seems vintage 1973 (though the story is set between 1992 and 2006). He isn’t fat, but he’s squat, and Damon stays proficiently in character, showing off his inner nebbish with a ducky gait, nervous toothiness, and some Midwestern twang in his voice. Damon does well; he’s always been a likable actor because his pretty-boy face betrays an innate self-effacement. I don’t think he’s trying for condescension here, but his self-deprecation leaves little else left beneath the mannerisms. It’s as if Whitacre’s self-deception had depleted his own soul, reduced him to instinctual nervousness. Damon is probably up against the same thing that Christian Bale was in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, in which he flailed about portraying an essentially soulless character—also based on a real person.

Some artists, wisely, rely on intuition, and let their feelings develop as they work through a project. I think Soderbergh, and the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns (who wrote a very divergent part for Damon in the Bourne movies), are trying to be nonjudgmental. But forced objectivity can become like a condom that reins in artistry; Soderbergh has pulled the wool over our eyes, but his seem wrapped in sheepskin, too. And he doesn’t have the gift that Terry Gilliam (or Rian Johnson) has for discomfiting us and then making us laugh at our confusion. Brazil was about a functionary confronted by an insuperable bureaucracy, as shown from the individual’s point of view; in The Informant!, we see a nutty individual befuddle multiple bureaucracies. We look at Whitacer’s foibles and ask ourselves, “Is he serious?” But the consequences are shown to us as paperwork. The filmmakers’ objectivity is conceptual: It serves the big payoff. But they loose sight of the details—the little jokes that make the payoff worthwhile. We get too many revelations in dry staff meetings, where talented comedians are stuck speaking in jargon, and seem shackled to prim business suits.

Having the likes of Patton Oswalt, Candy Clark, Tony Hale, and even the Smothers brothers (who embody the era that the psychedelic production design misleadingly invokes) play it straight is indeed a joke; but after our initial recognition of these misplaced luminaries, we stop laughing. Melanie Lynskey gives us the cream filling of a candy-coated American wife with tender shades of melancholy; Scott Bakula, as an F.B.I. agent, seems immanently loose and sympathetic (with a droopy, Bush-like visage that indicates incompetence); and it’s fun to see Joel McHale (of The Soup on E!) use his smarminess to evoke an Arrow-collar G-man of the J. Edgar Hoover years (which, again, do not encompass those in which the movie is set). But this is Damon’s show—from Whitacre’s eyes. (Does he need Visine? Maybe that’s why everything’s so dry…) Burns’s most ingenious contribution is the voiceover—a free-association scat which Damon yammers off hilariously. But the only other sources of humor are a few mildly timed espionage slip-ups, the escalating circumstances, and the way we foolishly, instinctively trust the whistleblower every time, only to have him let us down yet again. The Informant! is less a black comedy than a sunny-skies downer. The jokes are all in the filmmakers’ heads.

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