|Roger & Me|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 19 August 2003|
With this, his first movie, writer-producer-director established himself as the gadfly of corporate America, a knowledgeable, cynical-but-optimistic buttinsky who just won't go away. Picked up, surprisingly, by very mainstream studio Warner Bros., "Roger & Me" played in far more theaters than documentaries ever do. It received strongly positive reviews and great word of mouth, resulting it its becoming the largest-grossing documentary ever released.
Moore kept up his annoying-to-the-bosses inquisition of America's ruling elite with subsequent films, including "The Big One" (1997 -- bet you didn't see it) and "Bowling for Columbine" last year. He also created two TV series, "TV Nation" and "The Awful Truth," for sale on DVD. He's also written, his most prominent book being "Stupid White Men," a best seller. When he won the best feature documentary Oscar for "Bowling for Columbine," his brief acceptance speech was arrogant that even his supporters felt let down. But that was just a few minutes in a career that sprang into being with "Roger & Me."
As he explains in his narration -- the narration already on the movie, not the extra narration on this DVD -- he grew up in Flint, Michigan, a one-company town where the company was General Motors. Most of his relatives worked for GM, but Moore drifted for a while before editing an alternative newspaper for ten years. It was successful, and led to his being offered the editorship of an alternative magazine in San Francisco. But he and the owner clashed so badly that after four months, he was out of a job, and back in Flint.
Roger Smith had recently been appointed chairman of General Motors, which was doing spectacularly well at the time, and Flint was prosperous and happy. That is, until Moore decided his only allegiance was to the fat cats who own General Motors, and not to the people who'd worked for it for decades. It didn't help that the mid-'80s was also a boom period for corporate downsizing (the partial subject of Moore's later "The Big One"). In a very short time in 1986, Smith laid of 30,000 workers in Flint, closing down factories and completely destroying a way of life -- and very nearly destroying the city. They opened plants instead in Mexico, where workers are paid much less.
In a short time, people were evicted from their homes; no jobs were available -- all those plant closures and layoffs -- and so many had to leave Flint that the local truck rental companies simply ran out of trucks. Instead of the city government having the balls to criticize General Motors, they launched into desperate-sounding but hopeless boosterism. A huge hotel was built downtown, along with a vast shopping mall and the "amusement" park AutoWorld. All of them went out of business in short order.
Money Magazine listed Flint as the worst city to live in of all American cities, which roused a lot of short-lived indignation on the part of Flint residents. The crime rate soared so rapidly that when a much larger city jail was built, it was instantly filled.
Moore was shocked by all this, and decided to scrape together enough money to shoot a documentary about GM's devastating impact on his home town. Initially, he planned to cover everything in much the matter of most documentaries -- interviews with locals, pro and con, views of the crumbling city, and interviews with GM executives, including, of course, Roger Smith. Naively, Moore assumed that he could saunter into GM corporate headquarters in jeans, a windbreaker and a baseball cap, in great need of a haircut and a diet. He was honest and straightforward, however -- enough so that every attempt to get to Smith was rebuffed.
This gave him a new structure for the documentary. More than he'd originally planned, Moore himself became the central figure, and the structure was his endless quest to get an interview with Smith (hence the ironic title). He still did interview Michiganders famous and unknown, from game show host Bob Eubanks (who unguardedly tells an anti-Semitic joke) to laid-off factory workers, and a disarming/distrubing woman who advertises bunnies and rabbits for sale -- for pets or food. To Moore's surprise, she killed and butchered a bunny while he watched, filming the whole disquieting event. In the commentary track (as opposed to his narration), Moore is still amazed and appalled by this -- a woman in modern America who has to do work you'd associate with the poor in a Third World country.
"Roger & Me" at first seems to be a breezy, ironic stroll through a collapsing economy, but there's plenty of information here. A visit to a post office reveals that during the period the film covers (about two and a half years), there were at least 82,000 changes of address filed. Flint wound up with the highest unemployment rate in the United States -- and it needn't have happened. GM closed down the plants when it was prosperous, not hemorrhaging money. In the commentary track, recorded in May, 2003, Moore reveals that after the time of the film, there were even more job losses. From a high of employing 82,000 citizens of Flint, GM now employs only $15,000. And, he says, all this happened while a Democrat, not a Republican, was President of the United States.
Although he couldn't get to Smith, Moore was given surprising access to other aspects of financially-devastated Flint. Wealthy women out for a morning of golf blithely say that laid-off workers should just get other jobs as they tee off. The opening of the jail is celebrated by a kind of jail night, with wealthy Flint residents paying for the "honor" of staying a night in the slammer. A "Great Gatsby" party for the millionaires of Grosse Pointe is staffed with laid-off factory workers who're hired to play human statues. Guests at the party freely chat with Moore, expressing more clearly than a narrator ever could the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in this country that stresses equality.
It's a little odd to hear a commentary track added to a film that was already narrated by the same person, but it's easy to tell by the value of the sound itself whether you're hearing the original narration or the commentary track. The movie didn't really need a commentary track -- but it does allow Moore to express more emotion than he allowed himself in the movie itself. And he also praises Warner Bros., which he admits isn't usually what you hear from someone in his position.
He had been offered more money by other distributors, but Warners vowed that they would get the film into 800 theaters, many more than any other distributor could offer. And they eventually played it in 1300 theaters. Furthermore, he made some demands: he wanted Warners to pay for the housing for two years of the people whose evictions we see in the film -- and they did so. He wanted them to take the film to the 30 most economically-depressed of American states, and to show the film for free to unions, the unemployed, schools, and so forth. And they did so.
Moore says one of his goals was that by showing Flint's problems, to shame General Motors into doing something about it. The company has not reacted in this way, so Moore feels, he says, a sense of personal failure about the movie. It was a genuine hit, it established him as the first nationally-known hard-hitting but funny satirist in years, possibly since Will Rogers. But it didn't do what he wanted it to do.
The only other extra is the theatrical trailer, which, surprisingly, includes several scenes not included in the film itself. Otherwise, the DVD is notable by its lack of supplementary material.
"Roger & Me" is loosely but brilliantly organized, a hilarious and upsetting tour of burgeoning American poverty. The mayor pays California evangelist Robert Schuler $20,000 to preach a get-back-on-your-feet sermon to Flint residents, while piously allowing those who can prove they're out of a job to get in free. It would take a satirist of the caliber of Sinclair Lewis to try that in a novel, and we don't have many of those today.
But we do have Michael Moore.
He can be incredibly annoying; his last film, "Bowling for Columbine," was a partly laser-focused, partly loopy look at gun control in the United States, capped with an interview with Charlton Heston that leaves the viewer feeling sorry for Heston and angry with Moore. In the commentary track, he claims to be a shy, retiring person, but that's not who's in front of his cameras, this big, intrusive egoist who's not loud in volume but cacophonous in his approach. Now he's working on what he calls "Fahrenheit 9/11," which will be at least partly a look at how the Supreme Court appointed as President a man who, in terms of numbers of votes, lost the election. I'm sure it will be irritating to Moore's friends and foes alike, and that's exactly how it should be.
Gadflies don't do the work if they only sting thee; they have to, at one point or another, sting everyone. Moore trades in satire based on real footage ("Canadian Bacon," his one attempt at a fictional film, was not well received); he goes where he "shouldn't," he offers evidence and though he's cheerful, he's angry and incisive. He's doing work that used to be done by crusading newspapers and magazines. But now that almost all American media is locked up by just a few companies -- NBC is buying Universal as I write -- the boat is too weighty to be rocked from within. But here comes Moore in his rowboat, and he creates a mighty wake. Even if I do want to punch him in the nose from time to time, more power to Michael Moore.