Review: Collapse

Posted: October 20, 2010 in Cinema, Consumerism, Debate, Environment, Industrial Collapse, Media

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.

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Comments
  1. Jennie says:

    Now I’m going to have to see the documentary. :)

  2. halsmith says:

    I ordered it from Netflix. I liked this sentence particularly from your review:

    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.

    Good work, but I do wish you would say more about yourself. Are you some kind of invisible blob?

    • Brutus says:

      In the About Brutus link at top right, I say that I don’t really want to blog about myself or promote myself as a pundit or media type. I’m really more interested in ideas themselves and the discussion that a public forum offers.

  3. halsmith says:

    I see, an invisible talking head.

  4. Steve Barratt says:

    Interesting discussion/review(?).

    I think that in a world where bullshit mis-information springs from almost every media outlet, the film makers were correct to ask what this mans credentials were. If the response prompted doubt from some viewers then so be it. I was personally on the edge of my seat waiting for that question to be asked and was definately slightly disappointed at the depth of response. To believe someones statements at face value is naive, especially if they are radical. At many times in the film statements are expressed as plain facts without the kind of explanation I wanted. When I here something dramatic and ground breaking I want to know for sure as sure as I can be that it is true. I need an explanation that logically proves the statement as fact. A few of these kinds explanations are brushed over quickly in the film, almost as though ‘yeah that generally sounds right, and this guy seems to know what he’s talking about so… yeah that’s true’. I would have liked it to be presented/discussed in such a way as to let the facts shine through as indefatigable truth, with no reliance on us believing what Mr Ruppert has to say because we trust him personally.

    Obvioiusly people like to pigeon-hole the harbingers of bad news as alarmists and ‘conspiracy theorists’. Careful presentation of the qualified facts with a sceptical and incisive analysis of them along the journey must be the only way to avoid these kind of dismissals.

    Great film though – such important messages.

    • Brutus says:

      Yeah, I didn’t quite write a review in the narrow sense.

      You write as though you wish you were attending a college lecture rather than viewing a film. Al Gore’s film was closer in that respect. Collapse was presented as an extended interview, which is to say, an ambush. I wasn’t bothered by brushed-over science. Think about it, though: the film was basically a guy sitting on a chair in a bunker under an interrogation lamp defending his life’s work. He must have left his PowerPoint presentations at home. And further, there are by now so many credible scientific reports with detail supporting the central conclusion and so many people sounding the alarm that we’re suffused with truth if only we had the integrity to face it.

  5. Rob Bryniarski says:

    Steve, I don’t see why we should automatically be so much more wary and sceptical of marginal ideas then we are of mainstream ideas. It’s not like we go and check the scientific and logical facts behind everything we believe to be true.

    As a child, you atomatically accept that what your parents tell you is true, as do all your school mates. You could therefore imagine a scenario where the vast majority of kids in the playground believe that Father Christmas is real. The couple of kids who challenge this view with obvious statements like ‘I saw my mum deliver my presents’ are likely at first to be ridiculed by their peers, for holding a marginal view. Obviously it would only be a matter of time, and a few more Santa sightings before mass opinion swung the other way. When I was a kid, I believed in Father Christmas, and even though from quite early on (age 6?), I was aware that things didn’t really add up, I still held on to the belief for a while longer.

    My point (after much rambling) is that people really struggle to let go of one reality and adopt another new reality. This is because you’ve spent all of your adult life evolving in to your current reality, and your entire belief system is shaped by it. It certainly doesn’t mean that you’ve rigourously checked and double checked all the facts that have shaped it. If it was common knowledge and your parents, teachers, mates and media all said it, chances are you just accepted it.

    All I’m saying is that we should try not to be so automatically accepting of things that we think we already know, as well as approaching new/marginal ideas with a degree of sceptism.

    I think the idea that someone with all the scientific/academic/official credentials and absolute indefatigable provable facts is going to come along and explain exactly how it is going to be, where, when and why is naieve in itself. Do what man has always done to survive in times of hardship, look out for No. 1
    Go and buy a house in Scotland or something :)
    (good posts though!)

    • Steve Barratt says:

      It is not simply enough to say we are all going to run out of energy, food, water and that our economic, political and systems will fail. Along with knowing what will happen, we must also know why, how and what first etc. – the science here is incomplete in many areas. Action must be taken now, yes, but undertanding must be continually developed to direct that action. I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that we must still view everything we see in films like Collapse sceptically, especially regarding the ‘Why?’s. We are suffused with many, often slightly differing, truths. There are so many people sounding the alarms, but again, those alarms are often slightly differing also. The debate is not over.
      Why be sceptical? Take for example, the idea of bioethanol as a fuel, this was originally marketed as a great solution (no pun int.) to our energy crisis, but now we see where it truly lies in the scheme of things. It’s another sad example of profiteering from our impending scary future. Even Al Gore’s film has some big holes in it and questions have been raised as to his intentions. The carbon offsetting industry is Big Business and Al Gore’s film provides a lot of marketing for it. With that said, I support it still as even someone with questionable or unproven motives can convey a positive message.
      If I come across as negative towards the Collapse, it’s only beacuse I would have wished the central themes to come across louder. I felt, generally, the ‘attacking’ interviewing style lent credence Rupperts arguments and that only in the last scene do I agree he was really marginalised by the film-makers. Last night I finished watching the film and felt I believed in 60-70% of Rupperts message. I did notice strong points of scientific conclusion in the film mixed in with sprinklings of speculation. I accept that any documentary film must balance the value of entertainment (often boosted by pace or urgency with something like this) with the grinding nature of careful presentation of facts.
      The kind of uncomfortable truths presented in Collapse people will take any excuse to ignore. Be it doubts towards the character of the presenter, or doubts in the validity of their claims. I think we both have a problem with the way doubts such as these are slipped into Collapse.

      Hi Rob, We don’t go and check the scientific and logical facts behind everything we believe to be true – but what do we believe to be true at all? I think we should be sceptical of all we are told, regardless of the source, be it mainstream or marginal. I think it’s natural and sensible to be more sceptical of new ideas than old ones, to refute an idea that many have considered fact for a long time should demand good evidence. New ideas we can either believe, doubt, disbelieve or ignore. Starting at doubt and working in either direction from there is safest way to me, ignoring only the totally absurd.

      Rarely does anything in the world really change with the immediacy of a flipped coin. Almost all changes to the status quo are progressive, people follow patterns. I don’t think that people need to let go of a reality very often to accept another, but rather they expand their understanding of the world (current reality) around them, albeit sometimes in surprising directions. What I’m trying to get at is that ideas and knowledge and concepts are generally interlinked, even if in only small ways. Real and believable ideas almost always tie in some way into something that we already know.

      To assume to be presented with definite facts on exactly how the future will work out and to have those backed up with proof is obviously totally unrealistic, but it is an ideal. It is conceivable that someone could sit in the interview ‘cellar’ in Ruppert’s place and make many of the same statements whilst citing and quoting other studies, scientists and experts in the field in support of his theories. As I stated earlier Ruppert does this to some extent, but I did feel that in certain areas it is conspicuously lacking (or editted out?).

      I’m counting on living on your shed when we run out of oil by the way ;)

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