America has a bad case of the doomsday jitters. You don't have to be a Glenn Beck follower to know that whenever things go wrong in this country, you can always find all the anger, bitterness and fear-mongering bubbling up and over into our popular culture.
With Wall Street fat cats still cashing in while the rest of the country suffers from double-digit unemployment, with partisan bickering at an all-time high and a war in Afghanistan threatening to suck up 40,000 more troops, the country is in a sour mood, full of nasty, dark suspicions about the future. It's as good an explanation as any for why Beck is the hottest guy on TV right now, trumpeting his fears of one-world government, assailing corrupt politicians and worrying that Barack Obama, with "his deep-seated hatred for white people," could be angling to subvert our constitutional government.
It's telling that Hollywood also has a batch of scary, post-apocalyptic films coming our way. Roland Emmerich's "2012" takes off this weekend, promising a vivid, special-effects-filled look at the Earth's possible demise. There are more bad vibes in the air. John Hillcoat's brooding adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" opens this month, offering a bleak view of a father and son attempting to survive in an ash-covered America. Denzel Washington returns, "Road Warrior" style, in January, starring in "The Book of Eli," another stark, days-end vision of the future.
But what is surely the strangest film about our doomsday fantasies arrives Friday. Called "Collapse," it features a spellbindingly weird one-man monologue by Michael Ruppert, a former LAPD officer and investigative journalist who believes that we are about to run out of oil, an event sure to plunge the world into a state of collapse. If you ever thought it was impossible to top Beck's over-the-top fantasies, listen to Ruppert who says that "what I see now is the end of a paradigm that is as cataclysmic as the asteroid event that killed almost all the life on Earth, and certainly the dinosaurs."
The film is directed by Chris Smith, who has made a number of documentaries about oddball characters pursuing impossible dreams -- his 1999 film "American Movie" chronicled the story of a hapless slacker trying to make a $3,000 homemade horror film. But what makes "Collapse" so sneakily compelling is that we have no inkling of what Smith thinks of his subject. Filmed with one camera over the course of two days in the basement of an abandoned meatpacking plant in downtown L.A., "Collapse" is a hermetically sealed package, open to whatever interpretation we might bring to it. It allows us the same freedom we have in watching Beck's show -- we can take it as gospel, be appalled by its wild, undocumented claims or simply watch bemused.
"I think there is something quintessentially American about Michael," says Smith, who financed the film himself, using the money he's made as a successful commercial director. "He comes out of the culture of the moment, in the same way that we foster all these high-flying entrepreneurs and self-help gurus. When you look at his upbringing, to have gone from being a police officer to someone who questions authority, it fits into a storyline that could only happen in this country."
"Collapse" opens in theaters in New York and L.A. while also debuting this weekend on the Film Buff video-on-demand channel. Smith admits he has "very conflicted feelings" about Ruppert, who also happens to be the son of a CIA operative. "A lot of what he says is incredibly thought-provoking, with lots of historical support, but there are things that you'd probably get a lot of criticism for believing," he says.
I got hooked on "Collapse" for much the same reason that millions of viewers have fallen for Beck. Every time I'd start to think Ruppert was a deluded crackpot, he'd reel me back in, grabbing me by the throat with a burst of seemingly persuasive analysis. He poses his oil-collapse scenario in simple, hard-to-refute logic. "Saudi Arabia has 25% of the oil reserves on the planet," he explains in a soothing, almost hypnotic voice. "Why, if Saudi Arabia has all these untapped reserves on shore, are they moving heavily into offshore drilling? If it's 5, 10 or 15 times more expensive to drill offshore than land, doesn't that tell you that Saudi Arabia knows that they've no more oil to find?"
To say that Ruppert is Beck's psychic twin would be an understatement. Beck comes from the right and Ruppert seems to live on the left -- he believes, for example, that we invaded Iraq for its oil reserves, arguing that we have no intention of ever leaving the country since "we built an embassy compound in Baghdad that's bigger than Vatican City." But both men transcend politics, since no amount of partisan posturing could justify their gloomy certainty about the future.
Asked by Smith at one point in the film if he's ever been called a conspiracy theorist, Ruppert offers the kind of answer you'd expect from Beck. "Of course," he says triumphantly. "But I don't deal in conspiracy theory. I deal in conspiracy fact." Once you get past his brisk dismissals of every form of alternative energy ("Ethanol is an absolute joke -- it takes more energy to make ethanol than you can make burning it"), Ruppert's view of the future isn't so different from Beck's. Neither man is an optimist. If they were optimists, they'd be out of business.
Even though these guys aren't artists, they share something in common with people who make movies about doomsday events -- they are consummate storytellers. And our best storytellers are not naive optimists. In fact, even though it is too soon to understand what today's films might have to say about our grim times, if you look to the last era when things were falling part, you can see how in sync filmmakers were with the spirit of the times.
By the mid-1970s, America was at least as unsettled and pessimistic as it is today. After Watergate, the agony of Vietnam, the 1973 oil crisis and a 1973-74 stock market crash where the Dow Jones industrial average lost more than 45% of its value, the country was in a foul, defeatist mood. And the movies of the mid-'70s cannily captured all the hard feelings in people's heads. They were full of angry zealots, including Charles Bronson's brutish vigilante in "Death Wish" and "Network's" Howard Beale, who famously bellowed "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore." (Needless to say, Beck has often cited that film as an inspiration for his own shtick.)
The movies were also full of unhinged, paranoia-steeped loners like "Taxi Driver's" Travis Bickle or the cranky surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman in "The Conversation."
It turns out that when things go bad, America's full-throated patriotism often devolves into rampant paranoia. Long before Beck and a host of Republican political leaders were accusing Obama of turning the country into a socialist paradise, conservatives in the 1960s were saying they had secret documents proving that the entire concept for a civil rights movement had been hatched decades earlier in the Soviet Union.
Paranoia has always been an integral part of American politics. But paranoia, as we can see from generations of films taking us right up to "Collapse," is an integral ingredient in the artistic playbook too. Writers and filmmakers get a huge lungful of artistic oxygen from confronting their worst secret fears, instinctively knowing that facing up to anxiety and dread often produces great drama.
It may be small consolation for those of us today, but bad times often make for wonderful art, since peril and uncertainty are more stimulating than safety and contentment. When I was watching "Collapse," it struck me how reminiscent Ruppert's disaster scenario was of Orson Welles' 1938 radio production of "War of the Worlds," which briefly had the country persuaded that we'd somehow been invaded by Martians, eager to wipe us out. Like Welles' radio broadcast, "Collapse" reminds us that while the world is a scary place, what we find lurking in our imaginations is often even scarier still.