Thursday, July 1, 2010
One of the most ubiquitous types of modern documentary is the “everything you know is wrong” movie. These are films which shun any attempt at objectivity in favor of giving a very specific viewpoint, usually in the vein of explaining just how screwed we all really are. We’ve already had movies about how our government is corrupt (No End in Sight), our economy is broken (IOUSA), our food is toxic (Food, Inc.) and our lives are controlled by private interests (The Corporation), and that’s just to name a few. Now comes Collapse, the most recent documentary from the director Chris Smith (American Movie), which synthesizes all these arguments into one Grand Unified Theory of paranoia about just how severely our modern world is under attack from forces beyond our control. It’s definitely some heavy stuff, but it’s also endlessly fascinating. Not only does Smith give us a stunning primer on the major problems facing the 21st century, but he also provides us with an intimate portrait of a man on the edge, a modern day street preacher whose obsession with saving the world seems to constantly be at odds with his own wellbeing.
That man is Michael Ruppert, a former L.A. narcotics cop who’s well known in certain online circles for his work as an investigative reporter/conspiracy theorist (depending on who you ask). A chain-smoking everyman with a bad comb over and a few extra pounds on him, Ruppert has made his name thanks to an investigative newsletter and website he ran called From the Wilderness. From predicting the financial crash to breaking the story of the cover-ups surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, Ruppert has been on the cutting edge of the underground news cycle for several years—something he claims has made him public enemy number one of the powers that be. Considering Ruppert and the film’s basic hypothesis—that overpopulation combined with a looming energy crisis and the illusory nature of the financial system is likely to lead to large-scale societal collapse—this probably isn’t all that surprising.
Make no mistake—Collapse is Ruppert’s movie. The entirety of the film’s original footage consists of one long Errol Morris-style interview with him. As Ruppert expounds on his theories about peak oil, government corruption, and the looming collapse of the financial system, Smith uses stock footage and charts and graphs to articulate his points, along with black and white intertitles (“OIL,” “ELECTRICTY,” “COMPOUND INTEREST,”) to help organize the monologue. Ruppert’s theories are certainly provocative, but the majority of his argument shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s spent more than a few hours trawling the internet. What’s really compelling about Ruppert is the way he’s able to synthesize all of these issues (his take on the financial system, for example, is as succinct as it is devastating) and convincingly explain what their long term effects might be. Smith’s film doesn’t go out of its way to fact check anything he says, but it’s easy to see why Ruppert might intimidate those in power: he’s scary-articulate, well-read, and comes from a respectable family of former military/CIA workers. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to write off as a crank (and many people have), but he’s just so damned erudite, so rational even when presenting his most bizarre theories, that you can’t avoid letting at least some of his ideas seep into your subconscious.
It’s no surprise that Ruppert’s personal character helps dictate how you interpret his message, because at it its heart, Collapse is nothing if not an in-depth character study of a man who has dedicated his life to signaling the alarm about where he believes our planet is headed. It’s especially telling that Smith includes no other interviews outside of Ruppert. None of his critics are given the space to rebut him; none of his ideas are backed up by scientific testimony. It’s just Ruppert. And even though he’s a compelling interview, you can’t help but begin to think that Smith is giving him just enough rope to hang himself. Early in the film, Ruppert is unflappable, listing off bullet points and quoting scholars and scientific facts as though he’s reading them from a book. But as the film progresses he starts to loosen up a bit. His rant becomes more profanity-laced; he smokes more; he even cries on camera. Whether this was a natural progression or just a bit of clever editing on Smith’s part is hard to say, but it is incredibly revealing. We start to see just how personally invested Ruppert is in his quest. By this point we’ve already learned about the sacrifices he’s made in its service (he claims to have been shot at; his office has been burglarized; he’s been harassed; and we’re told he’s in financial trouble), but it’s when we begin to realize the psychic toll it’s taken on him that it becomes clear that Collapse is really more about the man than it is the message. Ruppert’s theories of societal collapse may or not prove to be true, the filmmakers seem to be saying, but there’s no denying that its effects are already far too apparent in his own life.