Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: "Collapse" (2009)

This time last year, moviegoers were treated to a triad of Christmas-season apocalypse movies; the bubbly Earth-buster 2012, the dramatically less bubbly The Road, and the much, much, much less bubbly documentary Collapse. This last movie - Chris Smith's look at one lone, persuasive doomsayer - served mostly to make The Road seem palatable as an entertainment choice. I myself only made it through 2012. Who wants to pay $18 (with drinks and popcorn) to sit through a non-exploding apocalypse? Why would I pay any dollars to see a movie that plausibly makes the case that civilization is dying? But Collapse eventually wound up on cable, and I grudgingly scooped it into my DVR. Unlike many distasteful fictional films, it seemed irresponsible to not give this documentary a respectful viewing.

Collapse's Cassandra is an unassuming ex-cop named Michael Ruppert. Ruppert ran the From The Wilderness newsletter (no mention is made if the initials are deliberate), and the film follows his dire predictions, from spring '09, through onscreen interviews and narration over stock footage. This version of doomsday stems from petroleum scarcity - nuclear weapons and global warming are distant afterthoughts - although its oracle doesn't limit the scarcity to just oil. Our era, he tells us, is "peak everything", pegged to an unsustainable "infinite growth paradigm". How many dates were ruined by this movie?

Being a film about the immediate future of civilization, Collapse elicits defensiveness. I found myself seeking cracks in Ruppert's persona, willing wrongness upon his premise. The film starts with stills from his newsletter that look vaguely Larouchian; I kept waiting (hoping?) for him to mumble something nasty about Jews. It was distressing to realize that I lacked the capacity to approach the subject matter objectively, my frightened brain automatically trying to discredit the messenger.

Ruppert obliges my skepticism. Several times, he does that annoying conspiracy theorist thing of pausing with a tiny smile after saying something provocative. Once, faced with a startlingly relevant question ("what about human ingenuity"?), he answers with a non sequitur about "the MSM", then defiantly waits for the interviewer's reaction. There is a distinct lack of self-reflection in Ruppert's pronouncements, a stubborn reluctance to utter the words, "I know this sounds crazy, but consider...". At one point he advocates buying gold, that staple of Glenn Beckonomics, as a means of avoiding fiat currencies. Isn't gold the ultimate fiat currency?

Ruppert's sales pitch is based on defensive logic. He's been right before, the thinking goes, therefore he must be right now. Only; was he so right? He drapes himself in the doomsday mantle of Nouriel Roubini without totally delivering the predictive goods. "My economic predictions," he says, pausing for a bit of pursey-lipped certainty, "we had it so right." His pre-crash lectures on mortgage-backed securities were uncannily accurate, but the big picture seems off. In this telling, 2008 was a crash "nothing like we have ever seen before," and the Greek debt crisis "a revolution". It's not quite Nostradamus.

Illustration courtesy of Joe Preston

Throughout his dialogue, Ruppert toggles between two extremes. Are his dire predictions in the vein of Al Gore (a warning) or Fred Phelps (a verdict)? He comes across as the enemy of hyperbole, then equates a global economic meltdown with the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs. There's an unfortunate bit about restoring "balance" to civilization, as if every problem he discusses - greed, disorganization, short sightedness - wasn't an innate, timeless function of human nature. I was reminded of Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book, an arms race parable that - like Collapse - discounts progressive crosscurrents in human nature. What about all the people across the globe who agree with Ruppert? Where does Ruppert's own dissent factor into the fate of western civilization?

After an hour of colluding with its subject via grim music and grainy footage of oil wells, Collapse abruptly switches gears when Ruppert starts weeping onscreen. Tellingly, the tears come not from the direness of his predictions - the millions, if not billions, who will die if his scenario comes to pass - but from the isolation and frustration of being a full-time doomsayer. The film then becomes a study of a lonely man, and then the study of the duplicitous filmmaker who subtly betrays this lonely man. It's impressively meta.

Collapse didn't scare me nearly as much as I'd thought it would, although I'm still glad I avoided it in theaters (certainly there were no scenes as delightful as 2012's cosmic whoopee cushion smackdown of Los Angeles). Pondering the film afterwards, I was left with a strange appreciation for the world as it is now. Something terrible is surely coming for all of us this century. But it's not here yet. Ruppert's somber narration imparted me with a deep appreciation for antibiotics, freeways, libraries, Pandora, statins, Turner Classic Movies. And I registered a gratitude for those even more impressive, and entirely invisible, triumphs of human organization: alternating current, bar codes, packet switching, sewage treatment. That people have made it even this far is impressive.

Also, watching the blobby, JPEGgy title cards brought an even more urgent realization: I need to pony up for HD.