After watching Chris Smith’s latest documentary, Collapse, there is no going back: once seen its nearly impossible to forget.
Despite its focus on the now commonplace concerns for modern society’s unsustainable growth, the film ignites the imagination in a way so few talking head documentaries ever achieve. At its core is Michael C Ruppert, CIA whistleblower and activist reporter, who, like a modern day Morpheus, pulls back the veil of reality to show in a stark light the underpinning make-believe that sustains our hope in a sustainable status quo. According to him, any perception of stability at present exists solely because those in power see no political advantage to alert the public of how dire the situation has become. Not even Obama can get you out of this one, he warns; this collapse runs deep and is inevitable, and it is happening right now. The effect is assaultive, in rapid-fire succession Ruppert unloads his thesis on the audience who are left to recoil as the gravity of the situation deepens. Lacking any familiarity with the issues of ‘peak oil’ prior to seeing this film, my alarm watching the movie was at an optimal high.
In lieu of the director’s previous work, the comedic turns of American Movie and The Yes Men, Collapse, at least tonally, was an unexpected shift towards gravely sober realities (though I suspect his fictional movie, The Pool, may have softened the transition for me had I seen it). Instead of an amusing case study in left-wing conspiracy theory, the film plays it straight, calmly reasoning the inevitable breakdown of society as we know it. In a deliberate attempt to convey a first person interrogation with its subject, the film lingers in endless takes of Ruppert smoking (a very real Cancer Man of X-Files lore) as he bunkers enigmatically in a meat locker to tell his tale. Smith, to his credit, attempts to flesh out the character in his questioning, and at times we witness a less abrasive, more vulnerable portrait, but by and large the film exists to promulgate his message.
Evident by at least one of the Q&A responses afterwards, there is a kneejerk reaction to write off everything Ruppert says as ‘batshit crazy’, as the ramblings of a paranoid, self-inflated whistleblower who has taken upon himself a messianic mission to show how the end times shall pass. His plea about ‘peak oil’ and claims of political cover-ups which surround them stoke the partisan fires and make those already entrenched in politics all the more aggressively opposed to what he has to say. Putting aside the gravity and far-reaching implications of his findings (which lets be clear: is the titular collapse of modern civilization), what separates Ruppert’s ideas from this punitive charge is that they, unlike the ravings of a lunatic, hinge upon a very persuasive piece of rhetoric that allies itself with fundamental laws of nature, using sourced numbers and elementary mathematics to illustrate an imbalance between spiking population growth and patterns of consumption with the limited and diminishing hydrocarbon resources required to sustain them. Its quite beautiful in its elegance, and as much as the factual ammunition of his argument warrants consideration, equally important is how succinct and crystalline his logic appears to be as edited together in Smith’s movie. To make a deserving comparison, Collapse combines the fact-check zeal of An Inconvenient Truth with the aesthetic aspirations of Fog of War.
The ‘collapse’ at stake in the film goes beyond politics to include the personal defeat Ruppert has experienced in the wake of his activism, the price of being a crusader for a cause no one wants to accept. These asides give a sense of the person at the center of this controversy, the lighter and more emotional aspects of his personality, but I fear too they give a safe out for people who are eager to find a fallible agent at work in his message. In matters of critical urgency, the merits of an idea should not be influenced by how you feel about the person stating it, nor how deeply it may conflict with your established sense of right and wrong, but rather how well it holds up under scrutiny. Collapse, though in part a character study, is more largely a persuasive argument that deserves exposure and healthy debate as perhaps the single most pressing issue any of us are going to face in our lifetimes.
For me, it is easily the scariest film of 2009 and the high mark of my festival experience thus far.