Just a quick note to clarify one of the arguments I made in passing in my initial review of Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story. In the review, I suggested that Moore was, in part, reflecting on the ability of advocacy documentary to help instigate social change, a concern that comes up explicitly at the end of the film when Moore observes that he has been making documentaries for two decades and that little seems to have changed. He then places responsibility for further change in the audience, asserting that it is “up to you” to act for a more democratic society. Although I argued that Moore leaves that version of radical democracy undefined, this final sequence seems to be consistent with Moore’s broader attempts to shape the reception of his film.
In some of my recent research, I’ve been working through the concept of the “networked documentary” (although I think “transmedia documentary” may be a better term), and it’s important to contextualize Capitalism within Moore’s larger promotional practices, including an open letter sent to subscribers and posted on his website characterizing the film as “the #1 or #2 top-grossing movie there for the evening,” and imploring readers to attend the film on its opening weekend to send a message to CEOs and others. Moore goes on to suggest that the box office for Capitalism is essentially a “referendum” on the film’s economic critique. It’s tempting to read Moore’s letter as a transparent attempt to drive up box office and to line his pockets with more money, but as Rachel T observes on Twitter, a more generous reading might be that Moore is trying to “measure audience activism,” and that box office is one way (though not the only way) of doing so.
The letter also invites fans to submit cellphone pictures and video of crowds attending the film, at least in part as an attempt to represent the reception of the film (and its potential for inspiring activism). Significantly, Moore has expressed disillusionment about the documentary format in interviews. In an AP interview Moore comments that he may stop making documentaries because their social impact isn’t clear:
I’ve done this for 20 years…I started out by warning people about General Motors, and my whole career has been trying to say the emperor has no clothes here, and we better do something about it…Two years ago, I tried to get the health care debate going, and it did eventually, and now where are we? We may not even have it. What am I supposed to do at a certain point?
In a sense, I’m still not fully convinced that Moore takes us past the diagnosis of the problem of capitalism’s harmful effects, so it’s not clear how Moore will be able to measure the kind of change that he is promoting, and in fact, popular desire for change may, in fact, be channeled back into the system when that change isn’t clearly defined. No matter what, I think it’s important to read Capitalism not merely as an isolated text but as a transmedia event, one that is seeking to theorize and mobilize audience activism.