Collapse hits you like few films do. This documentary from Chris Smith was on my top ten list from 2009 and it comes out on DVD (MPI Media Group) today. Smith has made some of the most interesting docs over the last several years, and Collapse is a capstone to his unique vision. The movie comes from the theories of Michael Ruppert, former LAPD officer turned investigative reporter. Ruppert has such a grasp on current economic events that his every word produced open mouth wonder.
Smith may be remembered most for the doc American Movie, a film about some guys making a horror movie titled Coven. But stand-alone films, each demanding special attention, distinguish his entire body of work.
American Job shows the daily life of a minimum wage worker; American Movie goes behind the scenes on an ultra-low budget movie; Home Movie chronicles some of the coolest dwellings in the world. Previous to Collapse, Smith made the first Yes Men movie and a narrative film, The Pool, shot in India.
Speaking to Free Press Houston by phone Smith recalled shooting The Pool. Like another American director, Wes Anderson who made Darjeeling Express in India, Smith felt an attraction to the Asian country. Smith saw the story of The Pool, a short story by collaborator Randy Russell, as universal. “The script was a universal link to lives of low wage people,” Smith remarked. Unlike Darjeeling, Smith shot The Pool on location in the Hindi language using interpreters. Financially Smith could find budget cuts, like seven-dollar hotel rooms for the crew, which made the film possible. “I found a place with the bustling gritty city on the edge of hills with rich homes, and knew it was the place for the story,” adds Smith.
Smith seems surprised that I saw American Job, as it never got a real release, only playing at film festivals. Likewise I am surprised when he tells me American Job is narrative fiction. “There are reverse reaction shots just like in the movies,” Smith notes. American Job certainly doesn’t play like a typical entry from the sub-genre of mockumentaries, a category that include Fellini’s Roma and This Is Spinal Tap, yet it merges techniques of documentary and fiction to a satisfying whole.
On the heels of The Pool, Smith wanted to make another fiction film, this one based on CIA conspiracies and drug smuggling in the ‘80s. Smith interviewed Ruppert who had done a series of articles on the CIA bringing drugs into L.A. ghettos. In Collapse we see footage of Ruppert confronting the then CIA director about those events, as broadcast on CSPAN-2. After just one meeting with Ruppert, Smith realized he had the seeds for an incredible true story.
Collapse spins a tale of economic decline based on the contemporary financial infrastructure of the world. “There’s six gallons of oil in every car tire,” is one of the film’s bullet points, highlights that include the 100th Monkey theory, the Bell Curve, and the teachings of Elisabeth Kubler Ross. Everything we use contains oil – plastics, rubber, gas – and as such there’s no simple escape from the current energy conundrum. Collapse says things we’ve all heard before but somehow the experience comes across as concise and informative as anything you’ve ever witnessed.
“We tapped into something that’s happening now,” admits Smith. The film unwinds in a look reminiscent of Fog of War, a film Smith and his cinematographer took to heart. Also the score emphasizes the heroic and quiet moments that play inside our head. “I wanted an interrogation feeling, like in Syriana.” Indeed, Ruppert is surrounded by darkness in most of his feature length monologue.
“People tell me my film has caused them to look at news differently,” Smith muses. “It’s created a world wide response. People comment on the film’s Facebook page about indignities going on in their local communities.”
– Michael Bergeron