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A Needle in the Camel’s Eye

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY and THE INFORMANT! –

And again I say to you: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:24
________

When assuring your friend you aren’t lying say:
“Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye”

One of the common strategies of the contemporary “issue film” is to lull the audience into the comfortable state where it is assured it will not be hearing anything it does not already know. I tried to figure out why Mr. Moore sub-titled his movie “a love story” and my best guess is that he’s referring to this pleasure zone of agreement. His movie is ideological porn, where your righteously progressive opinions are massaged and amplified, and all you need to do is sit there and nod vigorously. In Moore’s Manichean universe there exist the evil rich perpetrators and the innocent poor victims, helpless and wronged–and Moore’s narration in case we don’t get it. He even enlists the aid of Catholic clerics he’s recruited to weigh in on the right side of good and evil (he finds two who condemn capitalism)…a welcome relief from the lurid tales of sex abuse with which OTHER documentaries have regaled us.moore_2

There are a number of interesting threads that start, then unravel. Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech a few brief months before his death on the need for a new Bill of Rights which would assure all citizens the right to health care, a decent home, and a good education. There is no follow through to this story. According to Moore’s fast, loose history, the Roosevelt era progressivism of America starts to decline with the advent of Reagan. The efforts to destroy Roosevelt policies started well before Reagan, but Moore evidently had a happy childhood and wasn’t aware of any problems in the late 50’s/early 60’s. His parents could afford vacations, as, he thinks, all working class people did. Yup.

Moore does a sort of historical hopscotch, a chart here, a graph there, Katrina, the foreclosure epidemic, the growing gap between rich and poor, the Great Bailout of 2008, where Moore shows just how there is indeed a sort of Illuminati that control this nation’s economy. (Ohio 9th District Rep. Marcy Kaptur does a star turn as one who balked at the strong arm tactics, heroine of an opposition that was pre-destined to be plowed under.)

It turns out many publicly traded companies buy life insurance policies on their employees, with themselves as beneficiaries. Check www.deadpeasants.biz. “Dead peasants”, a Gogolian concept which has been reinvented by corporate America, is perfectly legal, but ethically appaling. Moore tells the horror story of an ex-Wal-Mart employee who dies of an asthma attack, leaving her family destitute, while Wal-Mart collects a hefty sum in life insurance. This case was particularly shocking because the woman had not worked for a couple of years, and her family was dead broke, but this policy still paid out a hefty sum to Wal-Mart.

A critical mass of this sort of vignette would really make for a fascinating film, but there isn’t. Instead we get the familiar Michael Moore set pieces where he confronts security guards and is escorted from the premises. He rolls out a spool of crime scene tape around a bank building–embarrassing to us but not to him. This not an essay film, it is a screed: too much of the burbling Moore and too little about deregulation, deteriorating public education, lobbyists–and nothing about media consolidation–all essential plot points in any story about Late Capitalism.

Yet another essential plot point in any story of Late Capitalism is the endemic criminality and everyday deceit of our corporate institutions. Millions of people are employed by these megaliths like ADM, Citibank, Dupont, Proctor and Gamble, Xerox–companies that have their moral compass set the polar opposite of the ethics we learn in kindergarten or Sunday School. Compliantly their minions labor along, ignorant for the most part of what the masters of their little universe may be plotting… that is until reality snaps shut and the job disappears, the pension is stolen, the health insurance is withdrawn, fields can only grow corn if anything at all, and the mortgage is in foreclosure.

The InformantSteven Soderbergh’s skillful allegory, The Informant!, takes us inside the world of corporate masters, conducting an incisive exploration of the mind of one of non-fiction’s strangest characters, Mark Whitacre, the whistle blower of the 90’s who managed to put execs from Archer Daniels Midland behind bars for price fixing, but himself got busted for massive embezzlement. The man was a pathological liar, to use a psychiatric term completely alien to the spirit of the film. In the world Soderbergh weaves for us, Whitacre is uncannily like us, with his unceasing monkey mind and his facade of normality which lures everyone into the illusion that their lives are real.

The title role is played by Matt Damon, wearing a prosthetic nose and gut, melting entirely into the Whitacre character, a man who himself melted into corporate culture like margarine on Wonder Bread. The Informant is a story told in sideways fashion, incidentally, as an afterthought interspersed between hilarious and random internal monologue. Damon deadpans his absurdist voiceover patter: lines like “I read this thing about mustaches on the flight back from Zurich…What facial hair says about a man’s level of honesty. Some psychological theory ” or, “It’s not really lying when you’re doing it to serve some greater purpose…I think that’s what God would say “… “Porscha or Porsch–I’ve heard it both ways. Three years in Germany–I should know that”.

Before long you realize you have watched the incredible disintegration of a man’s life and, by the way, a corporate cover blown wide open, then sealing itself right back over. Whitacre’s disintegration reveals much about why our culture is degenerating, without ever saying anything. It lays cards on the table and then matter-of-factly wipes them back up again. Bloodlessly, it describes a most horrific horror, one that is easy and pleasant to watch and one that shows why everything happens as it does in the Moore film, but without need for explanation, only the post-Faulknerian patter of a moral imbecile, signifying literally nothing. Marvin Hamlisch’s score is brilliant, and Soderbergh positions the camera as beautifully as he conceals his rage.

Comments

  1. Nancy Cantwell says:

    I have seen both films now and agree that Moore presents a flim flam snake oil approach to the shake down of capitalism. His evicted farmers are so uneducated and yet he barely shows how that failure in education goes hand in hand with the exploitation.

    What Moore uncovers about these insurance policies is insidious, I mean the guy who dies at the beginning of the film is a clerk for Christ sake! What are they taking out insurance on him for? (He is not an executive nor partner where those kinds of policies are a normal part of business practice). The company uses these practices because they contribute to the profit line. The numbers work.

    So the scene where ex-Wal Mart employee who dies of asthma attack, instead of digging deeper in to the expose of the dead peasants policy, Moore turns it into some piece of day time soap opera melodrama. A cheap shot vs a well researched uncovering of cruel corporate strategy.

    It is what makes the Soderbergh piece more powerful. Even as a docudrama the film hits harder. I love the scene where the mother and father confirm that Mark Whitacre is not an orphan. That was a turning point for me!

  2. I just red Rita’s article on Moore. I must say that I find the qualification “ideological porn” absolutly adequate concerning Moore’s films. It is I think a manifestation to the last degree of the politically correct attitude.

  3. constance mallinson says:

    Aside from Moore’s tiresome schtick of trying to interview CEO’s and other power mongers, your mention of the lack of commentary on mainstream media complicity in “Capitalism, A Love Story” is probably the most glaring problem with this film. But perhaps, ironically, therein lies the strength of the film as well. Moore goes for a mass audience that dines exclusively on fast food media and is not exposed to any substantive discussion of the financial crisis, health care, politics,etc. This is an indie film with wide distribution, and, unlike a recent film detailing the military/industrial complex I viewed which was excellent but not in wide distribution, Moore has a solid viewership. He exposes the corruption and skullduggery of American financial systems in a way that massages NOT the liberal, but rather panders to more of a working class mind. He gives us cops breaking down doors, bad guys, emotional, sentimental and heartbreaking “reality” stories of everydaypeople–in other words, the stuff of nightly television shows. Moreover, Moore’s enlistment of the Catholic Church was a wise move to capture the working class audience’s minds (80% of Americans believe in God), despite your corrent asssertions about the obvious hypocracies of the Church. We who watch Bill Moyers every Friday night, read Naomi Klein and Paul Krugman feel more informed, but the vast majority of Americans work too hard/are too tired to follow the intricacies of corporate maneuvering. Is it artful, nuanced filmmaking? No. Entertaining and understandable for younger audiences and less sophisticated viewers? A resounding YES! to Michael Moore for making these facts accessible to all.

  4. The part of the movie about Dead Peasants Insurance is also misleading. Those big programs were designed so that the mortality result was neutral. The company didn’t benefit from employees’ deaths; future premiums were adjusted to make sure that the insurer and employer broke even on mortality. All the gain was from tax arbitrage – deductible loan interest vs. tax-free interest credits. The scheme only worked while the employees lived, so the incentives, if there were any, were tilted toward life, not death.

    “Dead Peasants” was, indeed, an allusion to Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” but the term did not refer to dead employees. It referred to former employees, who, like Gogol’s dead peasants, could serve as the basis for financial gain (the aforementioned tax arbitrage) even though they were no longer “around.” Thus, the “dead” in “dead peasants” was a metaphor for “formerly employed,” not an explicit reference to anyone actually dying.

    (I wrote the memo that people quote about this stuff, so I ought to know.)

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