USA, 2009, 82 min.
Meet Michael Ruppert, a former Los Angeles police officer turned independent reporter. During an interview with director Chris Smith, he recounts his career as a radical thinker while spelling out the crises he sees ahead that will spell the end for civilization. While other experts debate these issues in measured tones, Ruppert doesn’t hold back at sounding an alarm, or portraying an apocalyptic future.
Around the the hundredth cigarette lit by investigative journalist Michael Ruppert in Chris Smith’s latest documentary Collapse, it may occur to the viewer that Ruppert will indeed be all alone when the end finally comes. And that’s the saddest truth about Ruppert: he remains solitary in his world and his theories about the ‘inevitable’ collapse of industrial society – meaning, among other calamities, no more oil, food, cars, planes, police or postal service.
The entirety of the Collapse narrative is a defeatist bombast that hopelessly debunks alternatives to saving economic civilization. So we’re left with what feels like one drawn-out interview with LADP cop-turned-investigative journalist Michael Ruppert, who rains his prophecies of economic cataclysm into Smith’s camera for over 80 minutes. Many might agree with Ruppert about peak oil. Others can’t dispute the fact that he predicted the economic recession/depression with cunning accuracy. But after almost an hour and a half of watching Ruppert rip through topics like oil, food, water – under sharp, type-written chapter titles – one might feel rather too overloaded and underwhelmed to jump into activism mode. Therein lies the fundamental problem with Collapse – it’s just too much. Too much banter, too much of Ruppert’s gruff, self-righteousness articulation, too many portrait shots, and far too many cigarettes.
Considering the surge of apocalyptic fever that’s been infecting movie screens as the Mayan doomsday approaches – from Hollywood fodder to the handfuls of intellectual horrorshow-docs that dissect the drained cornucopia of world resources (The Shock Doctrine, Food Inc., An Inconvenient Truth, I.O.U.S.A., The End of Suburbia, among them) – Collapse does little to convince its audiences that global crisis is indeed upon us.
The information is enticing and may have an outcome that supports the argument. But the fact that we’re still driving cars, using plastic products and consuming foreign foods doesn’t account for sleepless nights, underground bunkers and seed reproduction.
The film also suffers from Ruppert’s inescapable Americanism when using America as his case study. With impassioned eruptions of speech, Ruppert tends to substitute America’s economic ‘pyramid scheme’ as the world’s fiscal focal point. There may indeed be an element of truth to be found in Ruppert’s rant, but Smith’s decision to make a doc composed of one man’s disgruntled soliloquy makes the subject matter less penetrable than it could be. Is Smith trying a new tactic, whereby his subject literally barks his dreary vision into the camera in an I’m not-fucking-kidding tone, instead of attempting to sculpt a consensus from the unified minds of experts? In the end, it just comes across as a myopic American prediction that, at moments, is almost embarrassing to watch.
Perhaps Collapse would have been more digestible in serial form – small snippets at a time – instead of the relentless Errol Morrisangled interviews over dramatic Philip Glass-esque compositions that Chris Smith has employed here. And it doesn’t help the cliché that the entire film is shot in an industrial-looking bunker with interrogation-style lighting, dolly moves that rotate around the subject, and topics that cut on cue to Ruppert’s next cigarette. Archival footage is thankfully, though not so artfully, used as segues to compensate for the fact that there’s nothing to film. But even this feels redundant and over-used.
Smith’s previous documentaries, The Yes Men and American Movie among them, follow individuals as they provoke their target niches, politically or culturally. But Collapse is missing that kind of provocation, or basic plot. It’s not that Michael Ruppert is doing nothing for his cause in reality, but rather that he’s doing nothing in this film. Collapse’s finest moment is when Chris Smith makes his presence known. He is never seen, but rather heard off-camera, challenging Ruppert on his credentials as a series of newspaper clippings with words like ‘bat-shit crazy’, ‘genius or lunatic’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ follow Ruppert’s name. By simply injecting his own film with skepticism, Chris Smith saves it. Smith is well aware that after listening to Ruppert’s alarming hypotheses we’re likely to question whether at least a portion of it is paranoid or deluded, unsure of how to consider the extremism of Ruppert’s claims. Collapse is rare in its position, as the director is not necessarily endorsing its point of view; he’s merely probing its validity by letting his subject talk it out. Which is all one can do with a subject like Michael Ruppert because what if he’s right? And that’s the essential question of Collapse.
Michael Ruppert raised eyebrows in 1996 when he so boldly and heroically blew the top off the CIA’s involvement in drug trafficking. But for over thirty years, Ruppert claims he’s been outing scandals, issuing warnings, and scrutinizing all the signals that indicate global meltdown, fervently distributing them through newsletters, blogs and lecture tours. Like a stone waiting to be overturned, Smith put Ruppert in the spotlight after doing research for a war-on-drugs doc. Smith quickly realized, as he explains in a title card, that Ruppert had “other things on his mind.”
With the energy of a ticking time bomb, Ruppert reminds us of the consequences of our careless actions. He pleads with us to believe there’s a way out of the crisis, in the face of what he considers the challenge to human race: evolve and perish or grow up and die.
When asked how he deals with his personal happiness on a day-today basis, Ruppert confesses that he takes simple pleasure in walking his dog and trying to make strangers smile. Through bouts of on-camera tears, smiles and sweaty rhetoric, Michael Ruppert is trying to make us wake up to his ideas, despite fierce opposition. The least we can do is listen.