We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation. —Joe Bageant
The subject of industrial and civilizational collapse has wandered in and out of the front of my brain for years now; it’s never far from my attention. I’ve blogged about it numerous times, but I almost always retreat immediately afterward from the anticipated horror. As knowledge of our shared dilemma (now unavoidable fate) diffuses through the population, I am vaguely heartened to see that some few others really do get it and are sounding the alarm and sharing their ideas, analyses, and preparations for the future. So it’s no surprise when I become newly aware of someone who has essentially spent a lifetime piecing together the puzzle and in the process become fairly well known as an activist, educator, writer, or simply a whistle blower on the subject of collapse. Michael Ruppert, the subject of the 2009 documentary film Collapse, is my most recent such discovery.
Recounting the arguments Ruppert makes in the film in favor of understanding what is happening in and to the world at this particular junction in history is frankly unnecessary. As Ruppert says in the film, there is no longer any point to those debates. Either you are aware and convinced or you are unaware and/or in denial. Further debate solves nothing. What interests me more is the way the issue is framed by the filmmakers and how film critics have responded in print.
When Al Gore appeared in An Inconvenient Truth, it was revealed that he had been shaping his presentation on anthropogenic global warming over a period of decades and that the film was the fruition of years of effort that had matured and ripened in terms of the message, the underlying science, and the readiness of the public to listen (but not yet to act). So a good portion of the film was about Al Gore getting out the message, which is typical of politicians whose eyes always stray to the campaign angle of whatever cause they are pushing. The irony was that Al Gore’s political career was already over, yet he couldn’t resist being a central part of the story. “Look mom, no hands!”
In Collapse, Michael Ruppert is revealed to have been on a similar lifelong quest to discover the truth and get out the message. Accordingly, he occupies the center of the story not just as the lone talking head in a stark yet dramatically lit room (reminiscent of a criminal interrogation room) but as the impassioned, charismatic voice of Cassandra doomed to be ignored for his dark, unsavory prophecy — except that he’s not quite being ignored. (He points several times to power players in government and industry acting on his conclusions but refusing to be honest or validate his message.) The collapse of global civilization may not be the biggest story in the history of mankind, but if not, it’s certainly the most immediately relevant. Appallingly, the film is framed predominantly as a human story: the story of Michael Ruppert. Maybe this can be excused as synecdoche — the story of Ruppert is the story of all of us — but I suspect instead that the filmmakers find Ruppert’s story more engaging and entertaining as a documentary subject than the ongoing collapse, which is dragged onto stage mostly by Ruppert.
This myopic view also accounts in part for the inability of film critics to engage with and evaluate the content of the film beyond Ruppert himself as a quirky subject. I haven’t read all of the reviews, but those I have read follow the template of repeating some of Ruppert’s assertions for context to support adjectival blurbs such as mesmerizing, compelling, terrifying, ominous, riveting, chilling, horrifying, etc., which are probably also applicable to Ruppert himself, yet the reviewers can’t seem to overcome the myth of journalistic objectivity to say, “well duh, this stuff is so convincing and obvious it absolutely demands we add our voices to his and warn of what’s to come.” Instead, one reviewer after the next hedges behind words like possible, plausible, seemingly persuasive, etc. “Golly, I’m just a dumb film critic, hardly even a real journalist. I can’t understand anything if not filtered through a celluloid lens.” The filmmakers, too, reveal some of this same bullshit report-the-controversy attitude when an off-screen voice asks Ruppert something to the effect “Who are you to be stating such dark conclusions? What makes you qualified to offer an opinion?” Earlier in the film, Ruppert described himself as unusually adept at critical thinking. That’s the answer he might have given. But in the heat of confrontation, his actual answer was disappointing. I wish he had replied, “What qualifications do you think I need to describe reality accurately?”
This, of course, is the crux of the documentary. Not being a movie critic, I didn’t know that the filmmakers tend to take as their subjects people who are regarded as kooks, freaks, weirdos, eccentrics, and obsessives. So from its inception, the film is another in a serious of profiles of strange folk who need not be taken any too seriously. This perspective is reinforced by imposing the question of credentials on the subject, and in turn, the movie critics all fall in line and agree that they, too, are unqualified to evaluate Ruppert’s statements but can only review the film for its entertainment value. Never mind that the arguments and underlying science take only modest intellectual wherewithal to recognize as truth. No, this truth, since we lack the courage to confront it with any integrity, is now being served up as spectacle: lookie at the funny tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist going on about doom. How wonderfully charming he is for our fun and enjoyment! As it happens, Ruppert escapes being humiliated or shamed despite being lured into self-exposure and made the subtle object of derision. Withholding judgment as the cowardly critics do does not change the fact that Ruppert was set up for failure.
This is one reason among many why we have earned our fate.