It's tricky to write about a documentary like Requiem for the American Dream. For one, it's not a conventional documentary, exactly. It's more of a long-form conversation – or series of conversations – with American philosopher, linguist and social activist Noam Chomsky. If it's documenting anything, it's the depth and breadth of Chomsky's thinking.
In particular, the filmmakers attend to Chomsky's rationed, reasoned explanation for how the concentration of wealth in America corrupts the balance of power, delegitimizing the nature of U.S. democracy and souring the whole mythic dream of American life.
There's no doubt that the 86-year-old Chomsky is insanely intelligent. He can, with stark clarity, describe the United States' long history of struggle between democratization (feminism, the Civil Rights movement, anti-war activism, environmentalism) and its nastier, more plutocratic tendencies (corporate personhood, the rise of the superwealthy), between the "civilizing effects" of the United States in the 1960s, and the "business offensive" that began in the 1970s as a backlash against these effects.
Chomsky rejects many of the fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist thought. As a supporter in anarcho-syndicalism, he believes in the empowerment of labour unions, but rejects the idea of a workers' or socialist state as inherently corrupt. Nonetheless, he seems very much a part of that long Marxist tradition of making the intellectual material.
All the ideas presented in Requiem for the American Dream are lively enough. But for anyone who has been exposed to Chomsky's thinking or writing, it all feels a little rehashed. There are already a half-dozen documentary films that are either about Chomsky and his ideas, or prefigure them as a kind of structuring mechanism, everything from 1992's Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, to 2013's animated documentary Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?.
Then again, Requiem for the American Dream was bankrolled in part by Kickstarter crowdfunding. This means it was underwritten by a presumed viewership. The viewership is almost deliberately narrow from the outset. Despite the problems dogging big name documentarians such as, say, Michael Moore or Errol Morris, their films have a way of penetrating the culture at large. Requiem for the American Dream, by comparison, feels like a fans-only affair aimed at Chomsky's established admirers.
The hope, I suppose, is that such admirers will continue Chomsky's work and further develop his thought – be it through the practice of political philosophy or through social-justice activism. As much as these filmmakers trump up their subject as some abject singularity, the fact is that the world needs more Noam Chomskys.
Requiem for the American Dream is playing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.