There are moments, many of them, in Chris Smith's new documentary Collapse when Michael Ruppert says something that causes an immediate, reflexive reaction in my head: That guy's crazy. I had that response more than once during the film, particularly in the section when he gives his tips for surviving our societal collapse (don't hoard food--hoard seeds). But there are also moments, as when he explains our current economy in plain English and summarizes it as "the whole economy is a pyramid scheme," when I found myself nodding my head and thinking, That guy makes a lot of sense. It's that kind of movie.
Smith could scarcely have selected a more intriguing subject for his film. Ruppert was a shining star on the LAPD, but his claims in the late 1970s that he was recruited by the CIA to run drugs brought that career to an end (he says that his fiancé disappeared and "people started shooting at me"). In the subsequent years, he became a fierce crusader and investigative journalist (he did vital early reporting on the Pat Tillman story), as well as an author and lecturer; most relevant to this film, he predicted our current economic crisis clear back in 2005 (and there's videotape to prove it).
The film is something of a hybrid of biography, film essay, and free-floating discourse. The structure is a touch convoluted in the opening scenes--Smith organizes Ruppert's topics with bold chapter headlines ("OIL" "FOOD" "TRANSPORTATION" "ELECTRICITY"), but we're not sure what it's all adding up to. Are we getting a point by point list of everything that's failing?
Some of Ruppert's claims reek of outright paranoia (he says the FBI was attempting to sabotage him by burglarizing and vandalizing the offices of his investigative newsletter), but he is riveting to listen to--smart, theatrical (one wonders if he smokes simply for dramatic effect), and frequently quotable. Time after time, he'll make some salient points, and then he'll bust out something else that's just batshit crazy. He may be frustrating, but he sure as hell isn't boring.
Director Smith, whose previous films include American Movie and Home Movie, hasn't ever been much of a stylist, an issue he attempts to rectify here. The trouble is, it's not his own technique; not to put too fine a point on it, but Collapse is the best Errol Morris movie that Morris never made. From top to bottom (the straight-on interview with an unknown but fascinating subject, the use of educational and archival footage as illustrative B-roll, the Philip Glass-style music, the editing strategy of using sound bites cutting in and out of a black screen), it feels like a lost episode of Morris' First Person. It's a good, workable style, and Smith seems to revel in it (he enjoys the pleasure of a skillfully placed cut, a delicious piece of found footage, an interruption of the interview when Ruppert has "a wave of emotion" that he describes as "some serious fucking shit"). But it does feel like he's using someone else's distinctive playbook.
There are moments where we have to wonder how seriously Smith is taking this guy. Though he flashes on some criticisms, and occasionally asks a tough question, for the most part, he's content to let Ruppert speak for himself--although he shies away from the most controversial element of Ruppert's public persona, which is that he is a 9/11 "truther." Smith dances us right up to that cliff (in Ruppert's early discussions of "peak oil," which ties in to his theory of why Cheney and a shadow government had foreknowledge and complicity in the attacks), but significantly, he won't jump over. (I'm not making a judgment, one way or the other, about Ruppert's views regarding 9/11, so calm down. I just find it very telling that Smith basically acts as though this portion of Ruppert's personality doesn't exist.) The film also doesn't mention his recent troubles with a sexual harassment complaint from a former employee, which have presumably contributed to the financial difficulties mentioned in the final crawl.
But as it stands, Collapse is fascinating, troubling, and memorable (if somewhat derivative). Whatever his faults, Ruppert cuts quite a figure on screen; some of what he says is just implausible, and some of it is perhaps too plausible. To discount his words wholesale would be easy. And comforting.
"Collapse" hits DVD on Tuesday, June 15th.