CINEMA: The End Is Near


COLLAPSE (2009, directed by Chris Smith, 82 minutes, U.S.)


Have you ever heard the 1970 LP Criswell Predicts? The narrator of Plan Nine From Outer Space and one-time Johnny Carson regular, Criswell predicts that the future will bring marijuana that can change your sex, nude funerals and a woman at the head of every nation. It’s a real hoot! Collapse, director Chris Smith’s latest film,  just out on DVD, features one-time LAPD investigator and independent reporter Michael Ruppert making lots of predictions as well.  It is not a hoot.  Ruppert makes his case that darn near everything in modern life depends on access to cheap petroleum, a finite substance that is in sharp decline. Over the film’s 82 minutes Ruppert is warning against more than long lines at the pumps, he’s predicting the end of plastics, electricity and especially our oil-intensive food system.  Shot in what looks like a lonely basement bunker, Smith  gives the chain-smoking Ruppert, mustachioed and looking like the slightly rattled ex-cop he is, a forum to spin his spooky tale of what the U.S. and the industrialized world would look like once the pumps go dry.

The tale he relates does not involve zombie lurching across the landscape but his scenario, built heavily on fact not conjecture, feels much akin to the sort of apocalyptic dramas appearing regularly in multiplexes: it’s loaded with death, starvation and chaos in the streets. “I’m just bringing the dots close enough together so that they can be connected,” he says, and although you might not buy every assumption he makes  the concept of a world without oil is a fascinating and not easily dismissed idea.

Chris Smith has been quietly compiling one of the most compelling and political filmographies of any U.S. indie filmmaker over the last fifteen years, including fictional films like his debut masterpiece American Job (one of the most insightful films about work ever made) and his Indian-shot The Pool, to documentaries like his breakthrough American Movie (chronicling sad sack filmmaker Mark “Coven” Borchardt) and his profile of anti-corporate pranksters The Yes Men..  Collapse is heavily indebted to the work of Errol Morris, with its intimate focus on a single talking head, its minimal score and the occasional stock footage to visually flesh out  its concepts. But any lack of originality is out-balanced by the fact that Smith has captured a live one, an intensely engaged subject delivering a sermon so paradigm-shaking that the gravity of his pronouncements seems to be weighing on his back like a rock. Ruppert is a natural storyteller, full of rich allusions and metaphors, delivering his story with just a touch of smug self-knowledge, like a student who is the first to solve the teacher’s puzzle.

Smith builds this material to an emotional climax as well.  As he reaches the heart of his message, Ruppert nearly loses his composure, the weight of his belief seeming almost crippling (a final scroll mentions that Ruppert is nearly broke and is late on his rent.)  As bleak as is Ruppert’s prognosis, I’ll admit I was pleased that his prescription is not to stock up on guns but to take responsibility for raising one’s own produce, not depending on food that is grown, harvested and shipped courtesy of fossil fuels. Could Ruppert be right, is industrial civilization standing at the edge of an oil-less precipice? Only Criswell knows for sure, but take or leave Ruppert’s argument, Collapse still feels valuable as an exercise in re-imagining the petroleum-fueled world we take for granted.

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