I said in my first post from Toronto that you could feel the anxiety of the economic crisis in any number of the films here. Yet even as I wrote that, I could never have guessed I’d end up seeing a movie that would tap into those anxieties with the power and terror of Collapse. It’s one of the few true buzz films of the festival (by the time I got to it, I’d heard a dozen people talking it up), yet the movie, which is 82 minutes long, consists of nothing more than an on-camera interview with Michael Ruppert, a former Los Angeles police officer who became a rogue investigative reporter and author.
A bluntly unassuming and rather plain-looking man in his late fifties, Ruppert sits in what looks like a brick bunker and talks about where he thinks the United States is now headed. It is not a pretty picture, but it’s not a naive one, either. Ruppert has more than a perception — he has a welter of facts, a restless and skeptical intelligence, a grasp of history that is professorial in the best sense, and an ability to slice and dice the platitudes of mainstream media. He’s like Noam Chomsky as a gripping pundit of doom. The drama of the movie, and it’s intense, is that even if you want to argue with him (and you will, since he’s predicting very bad things), you can’t dismiss what he’s saying.
He starts out with a trump card of credibility. In 2006, Ruppert predicted the economic crisis — I mean, he really saw it coming. We’re shown clips of him from that year, and there’s nothing vague or abstract about his statements. He glimpsed the whole house of cards in prophetic detail: the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the inevitable breakdown of a system built, like a gold-leaf castle in the air, on leverage. His astonishingly acute foresight seizes your attention, and so you’d better believe that you’re sitting up and listening as he starts to talk about “peak oil,” the term that’s used to describe the fact that the majority of oil reserves on the planet have, in all likelihood, already been depleted, and that the remaining supply will now perpetually be in decline. (He cites reports that the Saudis have resorted to off-shore drilling — infinitely more costly than on-shore — as evidence that they’ve begun to see the bottom of their wells.)
Okay, so what does this mean? Ruppert explains how oil is entrenched in everything we have — how it doesn’t just run our automobiles but is the basis of our plastics, our food supply, our vast energy-devouring culture. Without it, he says, society will begin to stop functioning as it now does — that is, it will decay. You may want to fight him on that point, but he’s got arguments for everything — his decimation of what he calls the myth of alternative energy is particularly provocative, and ominous — and what his statements add up to is this: The way of life that America, and much of the rest of the world, has known is now ending. The “economic crisis” isn’t just a bad patch; it’s the finally visible — and inevitable — symptom of a much greater underlying instability. And what’s coming? A society, Ruppert says, that is going to have to fundamentally re-imagine how it lives if it intends to survive. He invokes the Titanic, his prognostication teetering between dire warning and doom.
Do I believe all of this? Will you? Collapse was directed by Chris Smith, the maverick documentarian (American Movie, The Yes Men) and fiction filmmaker (The Pool), who interviewed Ruppert for 14 hours over the course of two days. Smith, working in the talking-head-as-totem spirit of Errol Morris, has done a marvelous job of editing Ruppert’s words into a cohesive and dramatic cautionary monologue, and also of standing in for the audience by asking tough and challenging questions, evincing a healthy skepticism of his own. If you wanted to pigeonhole Michael Ruppert, reducing him to a genre of contemporary human begin, then it’s obvious what you’d call him. You’d say that he’s a conspiracy theorist who has thrived within the information-age quasi-underworld of the Internet. Yet the power of Collapse is that Ruppert, with his dazzling articulation and disarmingly low-key, just-the-facts-ma’am encylopedic-associational style, never sounds like a crackpot. You may want to dispute him, but more than that you’ll want to hear him, because what he says — right or wrong, prophecy or paranoia — takes up residence in your mind.