Minutes into Michael Moore’s first feature length film the viewer is introduced to the two themes which will reoccur for more than a decade. The first is the plight of the American working class and the maniacal nature of predatory capitalism. The second, as Moore’s first employer outside his hometown of Flint, Michigan tells him, is that Michael Moore and California are a “mismatch.”
After a Bay Area magazine gave Moore the sack and sent him home in a complimentary U-Haul, which we will soon learn is something of a state mascot in Reagan-Bush era Michigan, he becomes witness to the rapid decay of a city which once boasted the most manufacturing jobs in the world.
Roger & Me also acquaints us with Moore’s soon-to-be notorious filmmaking style. A disheveled fat man in a ball cap tilting at corporate windmills, playing out an amusing picaresque equal parts Quixote and Columbo. Moore is determined to interview General Motors chairman Roger Smith and somehow convince him to visit Flint so he can look into the eyes of the 30,000 people whose livelihood he shipped to Mexico.
The subject comes naturally to the filmmaker. His father, along with Dinah Shore and Pat Boone, worked for GM. His uncle was involved in the 1936 Flint Sit Down which resulted in the birth of the United Auto Workers Union in February 1937. Throughout the course of the story he comes across friends and classmates who have been adversely affected by the plant shutdowns.
This doesn’t result in a detached documentary. Accusation One hurled at Moore from 1989 to 9/11 is that he isn’t, in Faux News parlance, “fair and balanced.” He never claimed to be, but that is no matter. There is a point of view to this and all of his films. What is astounding is that his point of view seems so jarring to the American public. Amongst the criticisms from the mainstream media the fact that films such as Roger & Me were until recently on an island in providing some context to the realities of economics. How often does one hear pundits lambasting Maria Bartiromo for presenting industry and economics strictly from the shareholder or CEO point of view? If one is surviving on a diet of television networks and The New York Times, odds are never. Moore attracts ire for having the audacity to show mere externalities as flesh and blood human beings.
Which was what quickly parted him from California. He had the idea that a progressive magazine in San Francisco should run a column penned by an auto worker. Then he had a better idea. Put that man, Ben, on the cover. Set and match.
Ben doesn’t elicit much in the hearts of latte liberals, but he serves as the emotional focal point of Roger. We catch up to him shooting hoops at the mental health center shortly after a complete breakdown. Clutching a packet of Camel Lights and wiping tears, Ben relates the day it happened. As though “Pet Sounds” needed any added poignancy, the thing that sent Ben over the top was a tune he’d usually enjoy. As he drove back home from the plant, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” comes across the airwaves. (It is pretty tough not to well up on a normal day when hearing that song, so music buffs will have little surprise at the results.)
Moore deftly juxtaposes the tune to montages of Flint’s newfound urban decay, replete with rats (now more populous than humans in Flint) and scenes of violence. As the wealthier interviewees in Roger & Me assure the audience, there is an upside to downsizing. A number of industries benefit and new opportunities abound for laid off auto workers. There’s Taco Bell. The Post Office Mail Forwarding division. And with the staggering increase of crime that follows, new prisons need to be built. That means jobs for guards and a pre-trained workforce locked down!
This must be what the women golfing at the country club must have been thinking while lamenting the state of these layabouts in a charming Montgomery Burns sort of way. As one lady tells us, the welfare in this country is just so good people don’t want to work. This sentiment is echoed by other upper class citizens at a Great Gatsby party as well as Pat Boone and Miss Michigan. There’s a fog of Reagan era fuckwit optimism that permeates these scenes like Milton Friedman beer goggles.
This “can-do” spirit has consequences which are as hilarious for the viewer as they are tragic for the citizens of Flint. General Motors lobbyist Tom Kay derives inspiration from lint rollers and market dogma. The city dads see promise in Flint as an entertainment mecca and tourist destination. Yes, Flint, Michigan. What do you do when Money Magazine dubs you “Worst Place to Live in America?” Why, you spend $13 million on a Hyatt Regency for upscale tourists and dump over $100 million into an Auto World theme park. There you can rebuild downtown Flint, instead of, say, downtown Flint.
The Hyatt was quickly bankrupt and the theme park closed in six months. The new state-of-the-art jail fared better.
Another area of job security in Genesee County is that of Sheriff’s Deputy Fred Ross. Aside from fighting crime, which at the time of the film was highest in the United States, Ross is responsible for evictions and foreclosures. As we see, he is a busy man indeed.
Moore gets a lot more out of Ross than he will with Smith. Fred evicts a number of people during the course of Roger, and seems to be fairly humane about it. Unlike the country club or polo ground set, Ross is a glimmer of inspiration. While putting out an old classmate of Moore’s, we learn that Fred worked at the GM plant for seventeen years before leaving the factory. When asked why, he responds that the factory plays tricks with a person’s mind and felt like a prison. Cold comfort to the newly destitute; but where lip service is provided from the likes of Bob Eubanks (along with a great anti-Semitic zinger, hey-O!) and Anita Bryant, Ross approaches his undesirable task with a stoic Midwestern determinism. Life outside the factory will go on, and though it can be unpleasant it does continue.
Near the conclusion of Roger & Me, Moore manages to catch up to his erstwhile protagonist. Foreshadowing a genius that has changed documentary filmmaking, he manages to capture a moment of irony so raw it is difficult to believe it isn’t scripted. Intermingling Smith’s Christmas address with yet another Flint eviction scene taking place on Christmas Eve, Moore records Smith quoting Dickens. Who says serendipity is a rarity?
Roger & Me is a tremendous effort. Were it Moore’s only documentary his legacy would still be assured. In some ways it is. Michael Moore has spent years on what is really one very epic documentary about American politics and economics from a working class perspective. It would be fair to say that Roger is really Book I. of his Odyssey. Many would devote much energy to avoiding this type of focus which defines Moore’s career. Then again, it is precisely the kind of path Whitman took in composing “Leaves of Grass.” In American arts, that is pretty good company.
Dog Eat Dog Films
Color & Black and White, 91 minutes, 1989