Sunday, November 08, 2009

Chris Smith's 'Collapse': Finding the issues in the character you found in the issues

The American capitalist world is a highly specialized, systematic, profit-driven place. There's a structure, and we're expected to support it, along with all its assumptions and implications. Culture, religion, identity, history, innovation, and subversion are all accorded their roles, and there are cracks and bubbles for the outliers, where they can be confined without becoming dangerous enough to threaten anything essential.

Chris Smith is an emerging independent filmmaker, and he's taken an inadvertent interest in these outliers. His second feature documentary, Collapse, was just screened in New York, and it's moving around the country on a tour of a number of major cities. You should absolutely see it when it comes along. It's a an obsessively focused portrait of a man proposing a self-taught ideology that swims upstream against the status quo, and whether you read it as a document on pressing current issues, or a study of a man who lives more drama than most scripted characters, it's a compelling piece of film.

Smith was actually planning on making a fictional film about drug trafficking when he ran across Michael Ruppert, former police officer and self-described prophet of the collapsing capitalist paradigm. Ruppert sidetracked him, and he decided to capture two days worth of footage of Ruppert exposing the vast tapestry of political and economic interactions he had woven in his head. This mostly has to do with consumption, energy use, and natural resources as the dwindling substructure for a global economy of surplus. The footage, shot in the basement of an abandoned warehouse under bare interrogation-style light, makes up the substance of Collapse.

Collapse shares certain approaches with Smith's breakthrough 1999 feature. The film, entitled American Movie, is about Mark Borchardt, a Midwestern salt-of-the-earth filmmaker desperate to produce his first feature-length masterpiece. Boracht is another character right out of a script-writer's imagination... if Billy Bob Thornton and Wes Anderson had a love-child, it might look like Mark. However, Boracht's endearing commonness is the texture upon which his passion stands, and his honest, flawed humanness... worries about money, confusion about the opposite sex, managing relationships with his family and his best friend... is what makes it so incredible when he takes on the passionate filmmaker role that American Movie puts into relief.

Not so with Michael Ruppert. Ruppert always walks the line between prophet and crackpot, and our perspective on him consists almost entirely of his own face and words, the direct window into his obsessive beliefs. He never looks pedestrian... whether by Smith's effort or his own, he keeps an air of mystery and self-confidence throughout the portrayal. When Ruppert plucks his cigarette from his mouth, he becomes Chow Yun Fat in The Killer, a lingering adept who has made this warehouse cellar his domain.

I'd venture that this confidence... coming from a man who at times seems totally defeated and paranoid... is the result of years of hardening one's identity against ridicule and criticism. This is what comes about when your heart has dictated your direction, and no matter how difficult it's been, you can't be turned from that path by skeptics and nay-sayers. The confidence is also Ruppert's greatest asset... his ideas about the future of humanity are cataclysmic, and if they were given to me in a pamphlet, I'd make fun of it and then throw it out. However, from Ruppert's mouth, "the truth" takes on a certain gravity, and it compels people to listen.

According to Chris, the compulsion is strong enough that the vice-president of the Toronto film festival reversed the decision not to show the film, saying (in effect) I didn't like it at first, but I couldn't get the guy out of my head. This film acts on the principle that confidence can be convincing, entirely independent of its specific content.

Chris says that these outliers... idealists, unemployed ideologues, artistic and political dreamers... aren't a project for him. I'm excited to follow his vision, when he starts releasing narrative films, but I also wouldn't object to some more films that occupy this space, where the real American identity is at its fringes. I think he's a filmmaker to watch, and I think the subtle vision he's shown us in his films thus far is worth pursuing to the end of the earth and back.


joeclark said...

I assume you intended your title to be Chris Smith’s ‘Collapse’ (using the convention of single quotes for titles of works in newspaper heds, and keeping markup like CITE or I out of it to avoid entanglements with HTML). I assume further your intended title was not “Chris Smit’s collapse,” which is how it currently reads.

Jesse M said...

You're correct Joe. Fixed as per your very thoughtful correction. Let me know if you have any other thoughts on this or other posts.