Thursday 30 September 2010

House of cards: "Collapse"

We're fucked. In Chris Smith's new documentary Collapse, a greying, middle-aged man - a former LAPD beat cop (from which post he retains the 'tache and paunch), sometime CIA operative and investigative journalist; no obvious Cassandra, in other words - sits down in a basement, lights himself a cigarette and, with the cameras rolling, tells us, very calmly and very persuasively, that we're fucked. The man in question is Michael Ruppert (above), who's taken it upon himself to debunk the capitalist myth of "infinite growth"; Smith went to interview him for work on a film he was planning on drug trafficking within the CIA, but ended up hearing a very different, far gloomier story.

For the past few decades, Ruppert's field of expertise has been the world's energy reserves, and to what extent they've now been eaten up. His thesis is that scouting around Alaska or the Gulf or the Alberta Tar Sands for oil is as scraping the bottom of the barrel, not that our governments - keen to mainstain stock prices, not to mention some semblance of order - are likely to admit as much. Alternative fuel options are, in Ruppert's eyes, a joke: ethanol requires more energy to produce than it gives off, clean coal a plain contradiction in terms. And no, you can't have an electric car, either, because you still need oil to make the tyres and fixtures. With no fuel, you have no currency (which similarly requires oil as part of the production process), with no currency, no government; with no government - and it's hardly as if we're suffering under a surfeit of leadership right now, is it? - you have no essential services, and when no essential services are provided, anarchy or the law of the jungle will prevail. Who cares which Miliband you choose? We're fucked.

Smith has smartened up in the ten years since his amiably shambling American Movie followed an amiably shambling amateur filmmaker - like Ruppert, a visionary of sorts. Collapse's framing - a mix of archive footage and head-on interrogation of the subject - and its Philip Glass-like score clearly invites comparison to Errol Morris, even as it allows for the possibility Ruppert may be either an overlooked prophet or a paranoid crank. Certainly, there's much to question in his backstory: a rather sketchy account of how he came to leave the CIA (something to do with "a woman who betrayed [him]"), a self-published newsletter ("From the Wilderness") in which he first sent forth his grand unifying theory of global collapse - tying together the energy crisis with population growth and our present financial woes - in a method more commonly ascribed to a bright schizophrenic personality.

Ruppert proves an undeniably tough interviewee, venturing off-question to mutter hardline survivalist dogmas, and frequently puncturing his sceptical rhetoric with flickers of arrogance. When Smith films him saying "We have been waiting so long for someone to listen to us", we understand that "we" to mean I, and that "to us" to mean to him, the fired operative who's since distanced himself from mainstream society and may or may not have a colossal axe to grind accordingly. (In this reading, the collapse would leave Ruppert with a consolatory level playing field.) Then again, he could just be onto something: he did, after all, predict the financial meltdown several years before it happened, and he has credible-sounding theories on why Cuba and North Korea are best placed to survive the gathering storm, and what the reverse-migration of Polish labourers from the UK tells us.

Certainly, Ruppert was convincing enough to make me wonder whether the current round of state-sanctioned cuts wasn't just an attempt to make an inevitability look like an active choice on the British government's part; whether, in fact, the latter's hands are tied because the money's already gone for good. If the subject matter of Collapse is bleak, there's nonetheless something thrilling and provocative in how this worst-case scenario - "major bankruptcies, starvation, dislocation" - is conveyed, and finally something hopeful in Ruppert's vision of "a new age of evolution" in which we all shuck off our remaining material possessions, cherish our family and friends ("our tribe"), take the dog for a walk, and count how many smiles we receive from passing strangers. It's a clever Rorschach test of a film, designed to weed out the Pollyannas from the eternal Eeyores among us, and I don't hesitate to betray my own allegiances in stating the following: if even 10% of what Ruppert forecasts comes true, we are all still, very much, fucked.

Collapse opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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