Bluemark Films recently reached out to me to ask if I’d review their film, Collapse, which they say is the number two downloaded documentary on iTunes in the US (number one in Canada), and came out on DVD a few weeks ago. I said I would because in general, I wish documentaries would get more press, and because I’m a HUGE fan of American Movie, one of Collapse director Chis Smith’s earlier documentaries. So… here goes.
Collapse Review: My Dinner with Downer
Collapse tells the story of Michael Ruppert, a former LAPD officer turned “rogue reporter”, and his dire predictions about, basically, the end of modern civilization as we know it. Smith ran into Ruppert while doing research for a film about drug smuggling in the 80s, and found Ruppert to be such an engaging fountain of scary information about just about everything, he decided to build an entire film around him. Collapse is essentially an 80-minute conversation with Ruppert, a real-life version of the smoking man from X-Files or Deepthroat, filmed in what looks like an underground bunker and spiced up with stock footage.
The central actor in Ruppert’s doomsday scenario is the concept of Peak Oil, which says basically that the internal combustion engine and access to such a cheap energy source has been the main driver of worldwide civilization and prosperity for about 150 years, but we’ve now reached peak production, and we’re on an inevitable downward slide which will see all our modern institutions collapse, because they’re all connected, and were all, in one way or another, propped up by oil products. Scary sh*t to be sure, and though the scenario might not be as imminent as Ruppert says (there’s been a Peak Oil movement since the 70s) or the fall as precipitous, it’s indisputable that oil won’t be around forever. Probably the most haunting moment is when Ruppert brings out his human population graph, which shows population fairly stable throughout much of human history, until the mid 19th century, when it skyrockets straight up exponentially with no leveling in sight. Ruppert makes the point that it’s inconceivable that there not be an event that brings us back to a more “natural” level, and that seems logical. The scary part is imagining what that fall might entail.
I was a little hesitant to watch this movie because of what a downer I thought it’d be, and, well, I was mostly right. Being locked in a room with Ol’ Mr. Sunshine here is like being stuck in a conversation with a know-it-all guy telling you all the reasons why society is f*cked. “But what about alternative energy?” you ask hopefully, like a puppy licking a lollipop.
“Pff. Alternative energy, schmalschmernative schmenergy, you’re dreamin’,” Ruppert says, kicking your lollipop in the dirt and rushing through a littany of reasons why whatever you’ve just brought up is idiotic and naive.
The “rush” part is a big problem with the film, even beyond the more macro issue of it being a turd in the punch bowl. (And after all, if someone’s correctly telling you that you’re about to fall off a cliff unless you do something about it, it’s unfair, not to mention unwise, to simply write him off as a buzzkill).
The problem is, Ruppert’s reasons for why we’re all f*cked often seem rushed and simplistic.
“Nuclear energy? Pff. Nuclear power plants are really hard to build!”
“Tidal energy? The problem with tidal energy is that you have to get it from the coast, and salt water is incredibly corrosive.”
Really, dude? Is this from M. Night Shyamalan school of conspiracy theorism? I mean, I know that’s true, but it seems like there’s more to the story than that. Only instead of giving us the rest of that story, Ruppert will already be off and running on another topic. Ruppert will make a blanket generalization like:
The topsoil on which food is grown is nothing more than a sponge onto which we pour chemicals that we get from oil and natural gas, and without those chemicals, the soil has been turned into a junkie. The soil is worthless.
After saying something like that, I tend to think one owes a detailed breakdown, but we rarely get that here. I realize there’s a lot of ground to cover and I’m not disputing his facts, but when you rush through everything a mile wide and an inch deep, it tends to make you sound like a kook. Since he’s the sole authority for any of these facts, the film tries to address the subject of whether Ruppert is just some nut several times, but never really convincingly. On the subject of his qualifications, they run down his BA in Poli Sci with honors from UCLA (which means nothing), being valedictorian of his officer training school with the LAPD, his work with the DEA, the books he’s written, and his articles in mainstream press. Then Ruppert goes on to tell us how over the years he’s learned to read between the lines of mainstream media articles to find out “what’s really going on.” There may be truth to that, but it also screams “paranoid Googler.”
There’s a section on Ruppert correctly diagnosing some of the problems of the financial crisis, including video of him saying during a lecture in 2005 (correctly, before very many people had realized it) that mortgage-backed securities were essentially garbage, because they all consisted of garbage packaged in different ways. This is followed by his account (including crime scene photos) of a mysterious break-in in which his offices were ransacked and his computers smashed. Finding out details of who might have smashed up his office and why, and the larger implications of that incident to the larger financial problem, might have been fascinating and illuminating. Instead the filmmakers just sort of leave the thread hanging, lost in a larger rant on various conspiracies about Pat Tillman, and the CIA supposedly dealing drugs. There are interesting strands worthy of greater examination here, but the lack of editing or outside sources causes it to become a ramble. In a film like this, it’s important to choose, or else you just come off like a raving hobo. The fact is, in light of his predictions about peak oil and his mysterious relationship to the financial crisis, I don’t really give a sh*t about the CIA dealing drugs. Focus on one subject, dude, I have some pills that can help you if you need.
Moreover, Ruppert has some interesting and important things to say, but Collapse desperately needs some outside sources. You feel trapped with Ruppert, and he’s a little much to take in this large a dose. Also, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I’m inclined to think he genuinely believes everything he says. But many would say that a guy like Ruppert is just an alarmist plant to help drive up the price of gold. And when Ruppert explicitly urges us to buy gold, those people are going to smell a rat. I think it just speaks to poor editing, and some of the holes in Ruppert’s argument. He’d just finished section about how currency doesn’t have an inherent worth beyond the shared illusion of its worth (like, duh) — you can’t eat it, it’s not a useful tool in any way — so that when the institutions that back it collapse, it will be worthless. Okay, I’m with you so far. But then he urges us to buy gold. But wait, isn’t gold essentially the same thing? You can’t eat gold either. It’s just a rock.
My point is, while I think Ruppert has some important things to say about a lot of things, notably the need to transition to locally grown and sustainable food, the construction of the film is frustrating. I envision most of the things in Collapse that most need to be heard being ignored by the people who most need to hear them. The problem is that it never decides what it wants to be. If this is to be a persuasive issue piece about how society needs to start planning for a post-oil world, fine, but it needs more than just one guy saying so. If it’s supposed to be a profile of an interesting guy who’s dedicated his life to warning the world about these things, it needs to take a step back from him and actually examine this character, rather than just relying on his own words.
It’s not that you shouldn’t see Collapse, I think you should. It’s very good at stimulating discussion, and that’s a valuable thing. I just wish it was better.