Monday, April 4, 2011

Collapse Review

Collapse is a documentary filmed in the spring of 2009 that deals with the pending collapse of modern human civilization. It stars Michael Ruppert, a 60-year old ex-police officer currently living in Napa County, California. 'Stars' might be a misleading word actually. Collapse is essentially an 82-minute monologue by Ruppert, interspersed with archival footage and the occasional off-camera question from his interlocutor, director Chris Smith. It is, at turns, fascinating, terrifying, and cringe-worthy.

According to the film itself, Smith originally sought out Ruppert for a small interview regarding another documentary that Smith was preparing focused on the CIA and the LA drug-trade. However, Ruppert turned out to be such an articulate theorist that Smith decided to make a new documentary focused solely on Ruppert's ideas. Collapse was filmed over the course of 5 days in a warehouse and all of its original footage features Ruppert talking and smoking in some kind of 1930s private eye send-up. The dim-lighting and claustrophobic shots create an atmosphere of unease that at first reinforces Ruppert's ideas but eventually leaves the viewer feeling tense and a little violated. It is, in effect, something of a meta conspiracy movie: just as much about the corrosive effects of cynicism and distrust as it is about Ruppert's (mostly valid) concerns.

Collapse skirts a very fine line between supporting Ruppert's theories and mocking them. Much of what comes from Ruppert's skewed mustache, particularly toward the beginning of the movie, is factual and is delivered with a simple articulation quite the opposite of what one expects from a conspiracy theorist. His points on peak oil, electricity, and our global energy appetite are self-evident and not exactly earth-shattering. Indeed, at first Collapse feels like a neatly packaged summary of our environmental, geopolitical reality. Sort of An Inconvenient Truth for the foreign affairs set.

But there are tell-tale signs of a broken man even at the beginning. Despite his initial composure, when asked about details on various points, Ruppert shows signs of a haughty, if-you-don't-even-know-THAT mentality that separates him from the viewer. We slowly realize this is not an educational documentary charting the various threats faced by modern civilization, but rather a character study of a cynical man (who, it must be said, has every right to be cynical). When asked about ethanol, Ruppert snorts dismissively and the viewer recognizes him not as Collapse's Al Gore, patiently explaining the finer points of global warming, but as any one of the skeptics we each know in our daily lives. A member of an insular tribe, perpetually feeling attacked by the world at large and relishing the moments of superiority where he knows something we don't.

Our pied piper.
Collapse, ultimately, is about the folly of the cynic. When pressed about the aftermath of the collapse and what he would recommend we do to prepare, Ruppert breaks down talking about the need for community and society. He is a man isolated in his own cynicism and his loneliness is choking to watch. The phantom community of fellow conspiracists is clearly a meager substitute for the human connections most of us thrive on and, while many of the theories Ruppert discusses are valid threats, his palpable yearning for a post-civilization catharsis is clearly sprung more from loneliness than from logic. It is in these moments that his articulation is stripped away and we recognize him for the nut that he is. Not because his theories are wrong, but because the emotion from which they rise is corrupt. He is not an academic, despite his claims to the contrary. He is a lonely old man trapped my his own distrust.

Collapse closes with a 'where-is-he-now' caption describing Ruppert's money problems and imminent eviction. While, in 2011, it appears he is not so unfortunate as to be homeless, it is clear Ruppert will die an incomplete soul. Collapse presents us with many questions regarding cynicism but answers few. Probably the most difficult to face, however, is the problem of moral responsibility. We clearly should be distrustful of our government which has proven time and again to be untrustworthy. We should be concerned about our energy consumption, our population growth, and our ability to survive a disruptive crisis. Nothing presented in Collapse is truly a conspiracy (notwithstanding some stuff about oil tycoons wanting to melt the polar ice caps) by itself. But when told through the skewed lens of Ruppert, it leaves a bad taste in the viewer's mouth.

Collapse is a call to action but not the action Ruppert imagines. It is a call for the strength to overcome our cynicism in an increasingly cynical world, told through the cautionary tale of a man who let a government's lies get the better of him and his imagination. Interestingly, in framing these issues as such, it is also a call for complacency in the face of all the threats Ruppert outlines and, from a social perspective, is immensely irresponsible. Above all though, it is a fascinating thing to watch.

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