Tom Jennings suspects that lack of political imagination explains the patronising undertones of two purportedly ‘alternative’ cinema documentaries
Star-Crossed Haters. Film review – Tom Jennings
Chris Atkins got the idea for Starsuckers – bemoaning the effects of ‘celebrity culture’ on contemporary society – when potential backers of previous effort Taking Liberties (about New Labour’s erosion of civil rights; reviewed in Freedom, 19th January 2008) were only interested in which high-profile airheads featured. So what does it mean if value can only be ascribed in association with simplistic soundbites and iconic images of the rich and famous? The answer, it seems, is the hopeless trivialisation of all important questions of reality and truth, such that ‘we’ are suckered by a highly profitable conspiracy among media conglomerates and corporate advertising – encouraged by politicians conveniently deflecting attention from their impotence – keeping us all in thrall to the acquisition of visible status. Then, since most have neither the levels of blind narcissism nor material wherewithal required to achieve it, a morbid obsession with those who do has to suffice.
Atkins fleshes out his thesis, such as it is, with fly-on-the-wall reportage, interviews, undercover investigations and publicity stunts stitched together with found-footage and naff animations presided over by a hectoring transatlantic voiceover embodying the evil puppetmasters of this mediated manufacture of consent. Probably the biggest blunder of this occasionally insightful documentary is focussing on extreme examples of sad fools forcing their kids into talent show/reality TV careers who, by implication, stand in for the entire public duped into collusion – at a stroke ignoring the vast majority who take it much less seriously. Subsequent ‘expert’ witnesses testify to the social-psychological underpinnings and implications of fascination with instant fame, especially for today’s youngsters exposed to a media barrage insisting that nothing else matters. Unfortunately, such potentially interesting themes are spoiled by overblown hypotheses masquerading as science ranging from questionable to blatantly daft – especially the just-so story of genetic dispositions rendering all consideration of cultural, social or political history superfluous.
Instead of inviting viewers to sneer at eternally vulgar masses, similarly populist treatments would have been useful of a century’s-worth of philosophical speculation on the saturation of visual spectacle supplanting direct human relations (e.g. Walter Benjamin, Situationism, Baudrillard, etc). Then the concrete case studies of the lazy, dishonest media packaging of celebrity, and its increasing penetration of politics via the erosion of serious journalism, may have amounted to more than a random conservative rant about declines in standards inviting moral rearmament. As it is, Nick Davies retreading his Flat Earth News expose of newspaper PR parroting, Atkins’ faked tabloid scoops contextualised with a covertly-filmed Max Clifford admitting the tricks of his dirty trade, and the international dimension glossed in Lithuania’s parliamentary takeover by soap stars, present an overall picture far less cogent even than Chomsky’s famous formulations about the manipulation of information to mystify and disempower the majority. Plus, Starsuckers’ most substantive claim – that Geldof’s 2005 Live8 concert not only distracted attention from the Make Poverty History actions, but also betrayed its stated charitable purpose – might not seem such an anti-climactic ‘duh’ moment.
Michael Moore also goes for the jugular of ‘big issues’ in cinema entertainments too bolshy to pass muster (and legal advice) on the telly. However, rather than claiming intellectual high ground, his melodramatic strategy identifies tear-jerkily with decent blue-collar ordinary folks bludgeoned by big power and big money. So Capitalism: A Love Story specifies the immediate human consequences of the financial crisis, recapitulating his previous soap-box antics in Roger & Me’s lament to deindustrialisation, through Fahrenheit 9/11’s military-industrial skulduggery (see reviews in the libcom library), to Sicko’s disgust at the planned exacerbation of healthcare misery (review in Freedom, 2nd February 2008). Now US corporate excess and its government supporters finish the cycle of neoliberal downsizing begun under Reagan, throwing millions more out of homes and jobs with scant remaining safety nets while still enriching the ruling class whose welfare the political establishment assiduously nourishes. Even better, you’d think, is naming and shaming the system of modern capitalism itself as villain of the piece, manifested in stunts and hands-on jeremiads against the cynical greed of Wall Street mandarins or property speculators, detailing disgusting company practices beyond cutting wages and benefits to the bone, profiting from the early death of employees, or corruptly detaining juveniles in private prisons.
Moore consistently and explicitly appeals to the downhome decency of his working-class viewers and interviewees, invoking bonds of community, solidarity and altruism rooted in the family but capable in principle of infiinite extension – counterposed to uncaring elites concerned only with feathering their own nests. Here the capacity of mutualism to resist the cold blight of the market is hinted in visits to thriving workers co-ops as well as rearguard occupations of bankrupt firms. But the preoccupation with respectable conduct, even when translated into good-natured collective unruliness in the face of injustice, works against the effectiveness of his stunts – wrapping crime scene tape around Wall Street or demanding the people’s billions back from Goldman-Sachs – which come across as so much self-defeating grandstanding in the absence of rather more than moral force.
Likewise, this film’s stab at momentous historical resonance couples metaphors of capitalism as ancient Roman slavery, Mafia barbarism and casino economics with a devout exposition of its irreconcilable contradiction to Christianity. This faith in the historic compromises of the downtrodden yields a comprehensive aversion to robust political direct action to effect change, thus crippling his vision – confirmed when Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposed Second Bill of Rights (to jobs, home, health, etc) is paraded as the limit-point of democratic aspiration rather than the bulwark of bourgeois rule it was. Like Chris Atkins, Moore won’t follow through the implications of his criticisms of the present order to envisage any real mechanism for the transformation of the future outside of the parameters laid down by liberalism. At one point, Moore murmurs that he can’t keep on making these films; wishing that viewers would “hurry up” and join him in action. What for? Liberation theology watered Right down to Obamahope for a nice New Deal? No thanks.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 5, March 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: