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Hailing from the ravaged manufacturing city of Flint, Michigan, once the proud birthplace of General Motors, Michael Moore broke onto the scene with 1989’s Roger & Me, a broadside to the auto industry that forever changed the landscape for documentary filmmaking. With his patented mix of schlubby irreverence and liberal populism, Moore became an instant cult of personality and the film’s box-office success paved the way for documentaries—his documentaries, anyway—to be viable commercial enterprises. In the wake of Roger & Me’s success, Moore dabbled in television (with TV Nation) and narrative filmmaking (with Canadian Bacon), but he ultimately returned to the first-person essay style that put him on the map. Throwaway efforts like The Big One and Slacker Uprising (a.k.a. Captain Mike Across America) aside, his subsequent films have taken on some of the biggest issues of our time: violence and gun culture (Bowling For Columbine), the deceptions of the Bush Administration after 9/11 (Fahrenheit 9/11), and the woes of the health care system (Sicko).
Well-timed to respond to the current financial crisis, Moore’s latest documentary Capitalism: A Love Story is his most sweeping agitprop to date, a multi-pronged argument against a system that he contends is fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic. As ever, Moore supports his assertions through sarcastic narration and emotional appeals, threading interviews and information with small pieces of anecdotal evidence, like the corruption of a privately operated juvenile detention facility. Moore recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his new film, his desire to rebuild America’s economic system from the ground up, and his dual mission: to agitate and entertain.
The A.V. Club: Since Bowling for Columbine, your films have had an essay-like quality to them, with a lot of observations built around a central thesis. How do films like that develop, and what happened with Capitalism specifically?
Michael Moore: I’ve been thinking about this film for probably about 20 years. I mean, I think about this issue every time I make a film, because it always seems to come back to this. But I’ve never really just come out and said it, you know? I’ve kind of danced around it or hoped that other people would say, “Oh yeah, [Roger & Me is] not really a movie about Flint or GM. It’s a movie about an economic system that’s unfair and unjust, and it’s not democratic.” But I guess I was asking for too much, because I didn’t really read a whole lot of that. It’s just all the typical nonsense that I’ve come to expect, so I figured, “Well, I’m just going to come out and say it here. And I’m going to explore this thesis I have. And I may run across things that actually don’t support the thesis and I’ll put those in too. Or I’ll have things happen that I’m not expecting.” And that often happens, like with Bowling For Columbine: I set out to make a film thinking that what we needed was stronger gun-control laws, then I go to Canada, and while I’m there, I’m told that, “Well, actually, we have more guns per capita than you have in your homes.” “Huh. And you only kill 200 people a year out of 33 million? Okay. So it’s not the guns, then. What is it?” Then the film goes down a different road. I love when that happens.
AVC: So how did this one start then? You’d expect it to open with the collapse, but…
MM: I started the film before the collapse. It came out of Sicko. It came out of seeing that the problem we have with our healthcare system is purely and simply because of greed, and because of a system that requires the health insurance industry to make a profit. And I’m telling you, anthropologists, when they dig us up hundreds of years from now, they’re going to look at us, and go, “They actually were trying to profit off somebody who had cancer or a brain tumor or something.” We’re going to look either really stupid or really cruel.
AVC: The tentacles of the industry reach so deeply. There’s a poll in the Times today that suggests an enormous majority of people are in favor of a public option, yet it seems off the table.
MM: Yeah, so how can that be if this is a democracy? That’s my point. It’s not. Because in this economy, it’s not democratic. Those with the money call the shots. They lobby, they buy the Congress, and so even when two-thirds of the people want the public option, they can’t have it.
AVC: The structure of the Senate kind of makes things difficult, too. This whole idea that legislation can’t pass with a simple plurality, that you need 60 votes.
MM: That’s a new thing. That started under Bush because the Democrats were afraid to do anything once they actually got control, but Bush was still president. So they got into this thinking, “We’re not going to get anything passed unless we got 60 votes.” Okay, now we got a Democratic president, and they don’t need the 60 votes. Why do they need 60 votes? Filibuster? Can you see these guys trying to filibuster what the American people want? Can you see them going for 24 days reading from cookbooks? I’d like to see them try.
AVC: Just the threat of it is enough.
MM: Let them filibuster. Let’s see how long that lasts. Come on! Come on, what a bunch of fucking wimps, these Democrats.
AVC: You have scenes in this film and in Roger & Me that reflect nostalgically on the glory days of Flint and the manufacturing sector, and presumably on the system in general. If the system is broken as you contend, can it incrementally be fixed? And if not, what do you replace it with?
MM: I don’t think you can repair or reform the existing system, and I think it’s crazy to try it. I think that it’s the 21st century. Let’s create a new economic order that fits this century. We’re smart enough to do that. Why are we having this debate between a 16th-century economic philosophy and a 19th-century economic philosophy? Capitalism vs. socialism.
AVC: So what do you call it? What does it become?
MM: Let’s not worry about that right now. Why don’t we just try to construct something that’s run by democratic principles and has an ethical core to it?
AVC: This film comes out strongly against the bank bailouts. And there’s general agreement that it was pushed through Congress with far too few restrictions and far too little oversight. But do you really feel like the crisis itself was overblown?
MM: Oh no, there was a crisis. They lost our money. [Laughs.] Something had to be done.
AVC: Both Obama and McCain were in favor of the bailout.
MM: Because that was the only thing that the president was proposing. They’re out on the campaign trail. It wasn’t really upon them to try and figure out at that moment what to do with the economy with the election six weeks away, eight weeks away. What they should have done is what happened during the savings-and-loan scandal. They put them all [the banks] into receivership. They didn’t nationalize them. They just put them into receivership. They took some time and they sifted through. The weak ones were killed. The strong ones survived. And then they supported the strong ones, and they were returned back to their private or public ownership, and the government got all of its money back, plus some, out of that.
AVC: But you don’t feel like this was a larger scale issue? The phrase thrown around was “too big to fail.”
MM: If it’s too big to fail, it’s too big to exist.
AVC: Yeah, but these “too big to fail” companies are part of the foundation of our whole financial system.
MM: Yeah, and there goes everybody’s pension fund, and all of that. But why wasn’t the approach, “Okay, what we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to make sure the system doesn’t collapse, we’ve got to make sure people’s pension funds and the average everyday working people are protected here.” That wasn’t the presiding thought. It was, “Just write them a blank check and they’ll know what to do with it.” No questions asked.
AVC: If you’re sympathetic to its message, Capitalism is a film that’s likely to leave people angry over various injustices, but short of revolution, what can people do? What is the takeaway from the film?
MM: Well, the first thing is, they’re going to walk out of the theater knowing more than when they walked in. I’m going to show them things they haven’t seen, I’m going to tell them things they haven’t heard. I’m going to expose them to ideas that for some reason aren’t discussed on the cable shows or the op-ed pieces. Why is it in this whole year, I’m the only one saying a very simple and obvious thing? “Maybe the problem here is the very system itself.” Now, that doesn’t mean I’m right, but why in the discussion, why in the discourse, are certain viewpoints just completely shut out? I can’t be the only one to have thought that. But why haven’t I read that op-ed? Why isn’t the system itself part of the debate on the talk shows? I think it’s okay to ask that question. Maybe there was some shoddy contracting going on. Maybe the way we did this was wrong at the core, at the foundation.
AVC: Well, you do have plenty of people talking about specific things that need to be done to bring the system in line.
MM: Yeah, they’re just talking about it. They’ve been talking about it for a year. “Yeah, let’s get the regulations back, and now let’s get the rules back.” And here we are, a year later, not one regulation. Not one. They had no intention of it. Quit the bullshit, you know? I don’t want to hear any more Sunday talk shows where [panelists say], “This needs to be regulated.” Shut the fuck up. If that’s true, why aren’t we doing it? It’s not going to happen, because capitalism isn’t going to let it happen. Because the richest one percent aren’t going to let it happen, and their lobbyists have been working full time to make sure that they can continue to do the very things that brought about this collapse. And they’ll just move into other areas [than the housing market]. So now there are derivatives on, what, on life insurance policies?
AVC: Whether you want to call it Astroturf or not, it seems like populist anger these days is coming mainly from the right. What do you make of that?
MM: The right, as always, for the last 30 years, have been very good about organizing, turning out their people, being relentless, being angry. And they’ve gotten away a majority of the time. So hats off to them. Where are we? While those town hall meetings were going on in August, I thought, “What liberals do I know who would ever organize or do something in August?” [Laughs.]
AVC: Maybe it’s easier to rally in opposition of something. Elections are one thing, but with something like healthcare, people may not even be clear on what it is they’re supporting.
MM: Well, with healthcare, the problem there is that [Obama] essentially took a half measure, which is the public option. It’s hard to get the base excited about only going halfway. He started with the compromise position. He should have started with everything we wanted.
MM: Yeah. And then if you have to compromise, you have to compromise. But he didn’t start there. He started with the compromise. A car dealer doesn’t start with the absolute bottom line he’ll sell at, you know?
AVC: Does your position as a well-known and influential activist ever run counter to your instincts as a filmmaker? For example, would the Michael Moore of 1989 be more inclined to make a film about something small like, say, the effects of privatizing juvenile detention facilities than maybe the broader statement of capitalism?
MM: No. I thought I was making a statement about capitalism through the start of General Motors in Flint, Michigan. But it really didn’t engender that sort of discussion. The discussion was about bunny rabbits and Pauline Kael. But I learned.
AVC: But [Roger & Me] sparked a broader discussion than that, didn’t it?
MM: I’m not complaining. Yes, of course, it set a record. No documentary had been distributed by a major studio in shopping-mall cineplexes. It was a radical departure for documentary and a huge door opener for other documentary films, so I’m very proud of all of that. But I would have liked to have had this discussion before now.
AVC: So did the response to Roger & Me inspire you to go larger?
MM: Yeah. What I eventually did next, really, was television. That was my idea of going larger. I’ll reach a larger mass audience by doing TV Nation. And that fed a lot of political humor and things that came after TV Nation.
AVC: Do you see yourself returning to a format like that in the future? Is that something you’re interested in?
MM: It’s a lot of hard work to do a weekly TV show. It’s certainly not fun.
AVC: There’s a funny little bit in the film where you’re out on Wall Street and a suit responds to one of your questions by saying, “Stop making movies.”
MM: Yeah, “Don’t make any more movies.”
AVC: “Don’t make any movies.” What is it like to be at the target of that kind of confrontation and hostility?
MM: I deal with it on a daily basis. It just goes with the territory. I don’t appreciate it. I don’t enjoy it. A lot of it’s hateful, a lot of it is violent or involves the threat of violence. And then I go, “Well, what’s my choice?” I want to make these movies. I want to tell people what’s going on, or what I think is going on. Because I have an opinion, I have become public enemy number one to the Fox News Channel and the right wing. They’ve done a good job lying to people about me. That’s why, in this film, I decided to talk about my religion, things like that. Because I think a lot of these people who have been told to hate me, if they actually watched my movies, wouldn’t hate me at all. They wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything I’m saying, but they would know instantly that I love this country and that I have a heart. And that, you know, sometimes I’m funny. And even if you don’t agree with the politics, you’ll have a few laughs while you’re watching the movie, you know? I’m really out to make a great film, always. I’m asking you to come to the theater on a Friday night and spend 10 bucks. You worked hard all week, got a babysitter, you know? I’d feel bad if I had you come into a theater and you leave feeling ripped off. I want you leaving saying to your wife or to your date, “Wow. Now I haven’t seen that in a movie.” Or, “It’s been a long time since I walked out of the theater feeling this agitated, this good.” That’s what every filmmaker hopes for, I think.
AVC: Do you know what’s next for you?
MM: I said it in the film. Nothing. Nothing until I see what the people are willing to do. This is the first time in four films where I haven’t lined up the next film before I finished this one.
AVC: [Capitalism] is such a grand statement that it’s kind of hard to know what to do for an encore.
MM: I have no deal with any studio. I have nothing lined up. And I’m not going to, unless I sense that people get behind the president. He’s out there all alone, nobody’s got his back. You’re not going to agree with him on everything, but, man, this is the guy you want in your corner. The smart guy. The guy who’s from the working class, who grew up as an African-American in this country. Underline “this.” So I’m counting on him siding with us and doing what’s right, in spite of how much Wall Street has had to buy him off, tried to buy him off. But I don’t think that’s going to work. We’ll see.