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On Movies: 'Capitalism' looks back in sadness

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 1, 2009 - In movies like "Bowling for Columbine" and "Sicko," Michael Moore created dark farce out of hot-button issues like gun control and health care. The films had serious and angry moments, but the overall feeling was comic -- Moore the shambling, unstoppable leftist clown confronts the powerful and turns the tables on them by making them look like the real clowns.

Moore's latest film, "Capitalism, a Love Story," is more serious in tone than his earlier films, and it has an emotional depth that goes beyond Moore's usual anger and ridicule. It has fewer moments that can make a viewer cringe - such as the scene in "Roger and Me" that seemed to be making fun of a poor woman who sold rabbits for food, or Moore's confrontation in "Bowling for Columbine" with an ailing and mentally aging Charlton Heston. This may be Moore's best movie, although it is probably the one with the fewest laughs.

"Capitalism, a Love Story" is pervaded with sadness, a nostalgia for better times in the past, when the rich weren't so rich, the poor were fewer in number, and the middle class was growing and had room for Moore's father, an autoworker for more than 30 years in Flint, Mich. The movie has a number of poignant moments, but the most affecting comes when Moore and his ancient father wander the wasteland that once was the complex of factories where Moore's father worked.

(Moore doesn't really go into the fact that it was capitalism that created the American auto industry that moved his family into the middle class, but he does stress the importance of strong unions and bemoans the near demise of the labor movement. In one shocking segment, he notes that regional airlines, freed from union contracts, pay some pilots less than $20,000 a year and the pilots often must take second jobs. "I want my pilot to be well-paid," Moore notes. And well-rested, I would add.)

Another powerful scene comes late in the film. It signals clearly that Moore sees his attack on capitalism -- or rather on the unfettered and socially destructive celebration of greed that American capitalism has become - as having its roots deep in American soil. Moore shows us Franklin D. Roosevelt in his final year as president delivering his once-famous speech calling for "a new Bill of Rights." The new rights would include housing, food and medical care, rights that, as Moore points out, the country still does not have well more than half a century later. At the screening I attended, much of the audience applauded Roosevelt's speech.

Michael Moore was raised a Catholic and, not surprisingly, once wanted to be a priest, inspired, he tells us, by priests who participated in civil rights demonstrations and freedom rides in the South. He interviews several priests who say, in effect, that Jesus would be enraged by the current excesses of the American financial system.

Perhaps the most outrageous example of this excess in the movie is the juvenile court judge in Pennsylvania who accepted more than a million dollars in bribes for making sure a privately owned detention center stayed full of teenagers, many of whom served long sentences for trivial violations.

Moore suggests that such abuse is built into any system that privatizes what should be taken care of by the state. Not that he doesn't take plenty of shots at government, particularly at Capitol Hill, noting that many powerful senators and representatives of both parties were and are beholden to powerful financial institutions. Moore shows a deep populist cynicism about the $700 billion bailout of financial institutions, and blames both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations for appointing to positions of economic power (like secretary of the Treasury) the very men who, Moore says, were responsible for the recent financial crisis in the first place.

Two stories running through the movie are the battle of a couple of hundred workers at the Republic storm door company in Chicago to keep their plant open and get paid for work they had already done, and the angry frustration of an Illinois family whose home, on what used to be the family farm, has been foreclosed. Moore asks why some of the bailout money could not be diverted to help these people, particularly when institutions that are foreclosing received bailout funds.

At the end of the movie, Moore says he is tired, and doesn't know if he can "keep doing this" -- making politically charged movies - without some help. He wants citizens to rise up and fight the economic system that is grinding them down. Perhaps he should consider getting in touch with the Tea Party people - the rank-and-file, not the fat-cat funders -- and sharing his views on what is really to blame for their current malaise.

Opens Oct. 2

"No Impact Man"

Bossy Colin Beavan, searching for a book topic, decides that he, his wife Michelle, who works at a publishing house and loves to shop, and their 2-year-old daughter will try to live in a condo in New York's West Village for a year without making a significant impact on the environment. This means no car, no new clothes, no disposable diapers, no toilet paper, no food not grown within 125 miles of New York and eventually no electricity.

Filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein recorded at least some of the results, and you get the idea that, off camera, the Beavans cheated a lot. Beavan is an obsessive pain in the neck - you might quietly cheer when maggots infiltrate his indoor compost box - but his wife, after some completely understandable complaining, gets into the project and emerges as something of a heroine. After a while you wonder, Why did she marry this idiot?

Opens Oct. 2

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.