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article imageOp-Ed: Twenty-five years later, 'Roger & Me' still pulls no punches

By Jeff Cottrill     Dec 14, 2014 in Entertainment
A quarter of a century ago this week, Michael Moore's “Roger & Me” unleashed itself upon the general movie-going public in North America and showed us all what a documentary could be: hilarious, angry, muckraking, irresistibly entertaining.
Before Moore's scathing and enlightening portrait of how the closing of eleven General Motors plants – and the moving of jobs to Mexico – decimated the city of Flint, Michigan in the 1980s, mainstream audiences shied away from documentaries. Today, it's not so unusual for nonfiction film to score at the box office if it knows how to connect with viewers on a certain level. The movie's legacy is clear not only from previous twenty-fifth-anniversary coverage this year (the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie won the People's Choice Award in 1989, hosted a special screening in September), but also from its influence on filmmaking and popular satire. Without Roger & Me, would we have had An Inconvenient Truth, or The Corporation, or Super Size Me, or even Borat? Where would The Daily Show or The Colbert Report have gotten its inspiration? (On the other hand, we might not have had reality TV, either.)
Not that Roger – and Moore's oeuvre in general – hasn't had serious detractors, and I don't mean just the right-wing nutters. Film critics Harlan Jacobson and Pauline Kael were the first arrivals at this party in 1990, accusing Moore of exaggerating the chaos that GM's layoffs had caused and switching around the chronological order of the events depicted. (Moore unconvincingly tries to justify the latter charge on Roger's 2003 DVD commentary. “There are no dates in the film,” he explains sheepishly. “We'll be going back and forth throughout the decade of the '80s.”)
Liberal-leaning Toronto filmmakers Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk claimed in their 2007 documentary Manufacturing Dissent that Moore had, indeed, interviewed GM chairman Roger Smith and left the film footage on the Roger cutting-room floor. If true, this is a shocking face-smack to Moore's throughline – his futile pursuit of an interview with Smith, meant to illustrate how rich corporate bigwigs evade accountability and shield themselves with security personnel and yes-men. Moore's 2002 doc on American gun culture, Bowling for Columbine, has similarly come under attack for supposedly misrepresenting facts and staging its set pieces.
I know about all these criticisms, and I concede that Moore's a very manipulative director, but I have to admit that I willingly buy into the manipulation. I know very well that my enjoyment of Moore's films is largely because he's telling me what I want to hear. As a progressive liberal, I enjoy his slanted point of view. I thoroughly relish his cheap shots against big business and political leaders. And as a film lover, I appreciate that he's preaching to the choir in a language I understand instinctively – that of cinema. A Moore movie plays not as a factual, objective documentary, but as the cinematic equivalent of a newspaper op-ed piece.
In short, this article isn't about Moore's questionable journalistic ethics or his alleged dishonesty, but about Moore as a filmmaker and his debut purely as a work of cinema. Within that scope, Roger & Me is a masterpiece. Outside of political or journalistic standards, it still holds up as Moore's best film.
Watching it again, you may be surprised at what a rich and personal work this is – and how slick and sure of itself too, considering that Moore had no prior professional filmmaking experience. After a decade of shallow, greedy Reaganism destroyed the American economy, Roger confidently shredded the status quo, armed not with corporate millions or nuclear armaments, but with a satirist's toolbox full of wit worthy of Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut. Yet the film also feels strangely modest, at least compared to Fahrenheit 9/11 or Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore has since become a superstar, albeit one who still poses as an underdog. But he shot Roger back when he really was an underdog, before corporations got wised up to his shtick, and it shows.
Right from the opening words, “I was kind of a strange child” – narrated by Moore over grainy home-movie footage of him as a boy goofing around – you know this isn't going to be an old-fashioned, stiff, academic, talking-heads documentary. Moore sets the subjective tone right away, segueing into a look at Flint's prosperity in the days of GM's glory with a mix of nostalgia and campy 1950s footage. What you're getting here as a viewer isn't just information, but also a strong point of view, and it's essential to the movie's success.
Moore's initial focus on his own story – his relationships with both Flint and GM – may seem like a long tangent on the first viewing, but almost everything he discusses has a payoff later. His recollections of Pat Boone and Anita Bryant as beloved GM shills lead to disillusion when they return to Flint in the '80s, when their sound bites about the city's economic situation come off as naive and out of touch. His romanticized view of '50s Flint is reflected in the segment about the failed AutoWorld theme park, which has a tacky reproduction of the city's downtown in better times. Moore's heroic perspective of the Flint Sit-Down Strike is an ironic foreshadow of the small, defeated protests of the GM plant closings. These recalls throughout the film reveal how carefully crafted and structured it is.
As the young and surprisingly thin Moore chases after Smith (following “a trail of three-martini lunches”), he's a stand-in for the audience. He's trying to do what many powerless blue-collar guys dream of doing: talking to the big guns and getting some answers. His efforts are doomed from the start, but since it's a natural instinct to sympathize with the underdog, you can't help rooting for him. Moore's stunt with Smith may come off as a thrown-together gimmick, but it's a perfect microcosm of the impenetrable social barriers between the one percent and the other ninety-nine. This reveals the symbolic meaning of the title: Roger & Me – Roger being the rich, Me being the powerless rest of us.
As Moore gets turned away by Smith's gatekeepers, he turns his attention to the “Me” side: people whom the layoffs have affected. Another documentarian might have narrowed the film to dry facts and linear storytelling, but Moore opens it up to a whole world of ripple effects. Once again, he personalizes the film, giving the town's victims faces and voices – sometimes pathetic, sometimes bizarre. We spend a lot of time with Fred Ross, a sheriff's deputy who evicts former GM workers from their homes. Instead of framing Ross as another villain, though, Moore wisely shows him as a regular guy just doing his job – as long as he still has one. “I treat a person the way I would like to be treated,” he says. “If they're lucky enough to draw me, at least they got somebody to talk to.”
Moore also interviews a bluntly honest GM public-relations man, Tom Kay, who explains that GM has no obligation to protect its employees. We meet privileged elderly women criticizing the downsized workers while lazily playing golf (it's not often that a movie makes you want to punch an old lady in the face, but that's exactly how you feel when they say, “They just don't want to work,” and call “some of them” lazy.) We meet celebrities like Boone, Bryant and Bob Eubanks. And there's the goofy lady who's reduced to selling her rabbits for “Pets or Meat” to make a meagre living. Just before the gruesome scene in which she clubs a bunny to death, then skins and guts it, note how Moore cuts to shots of her hungry dogs, who know what's about to happen; it's a great example of his eye for detail.
Through these interviews, Moore's strategy is to leave the camera rolling at all times, long after most directors would normally cut. He captures a lot of magic moments that way, the kind that could never be planned or manipulated; he shares Errol Morris' talent for getting subjects to reveal more about themselves than they realize. We see Eubanks make a vicious antisemitic joke, apparently thinking nobody will see the footage. The rabbit-killing lady says she wants to become a vet – while petting a possibly doomed bunny – because “there's a lot of animals that need taking care of.”
Also witness the former GM employee now working as a jail guard, who insists he likes this job better – just as an off-camera prisoner starts screaming and cursing at officers. Witness the worker who gripes, “What's everybody so happy about? We just lost our jobs!” as his GM colleagues applaud the final truck produced by the closing plant. Witness the men in the gun store explaining the benefits of their products, unaware (or not caring) that there's a little girl in front of the counter. Sometimes, irony doesn't need to be forced; it just happens.
Moore's roaming camera and commentary capture other odd premises, out of the diverse You Can't Make This Stuff Up category. A visiting televangelist assures unemployed Flint residents that, “You can turn your hurt into a halo,” whatever that means. Wealthy citizens hold an ostentatious Great Gatsby-themed party with laid-off auto workers hired as “human statues”. The city hosts an opening party for a new five-storey prison, inviting couples to pay to spend a night in an authentic jail cell (one woman shouts “Eureka!” as she and a friend find riot gear and start playing with it). It's a whole universe of moral hypocrisy and privileged ignorance.
Roger was denied an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary after the Jacobson/Kael backlash, but how first-timers Jennifer Beman and Wendey Stanzler were denied a Best Editing nod is just baffling. At ninety-one minutes, the movie is amazingly tight, considering its wide scope of angles and characters, with slick transitions between sequences. And many of those transitions are tiny masterworks of ironic juxtaposition. Note how after Gatsby-party guests say Flint is “a great place to live,” the movie jumps to your first view of Ross, kicking a family out of their home. When Kay boasts that Flint still has plenty of great business opportunities, we immediately go to the first “Pets or Meat” sequence. And a clip of a pampered local beauty queen getting crowned as Miss America leads us right back to more evictions.
One talent in film technique that's often overlooked is adaptation of music. I don't mean original-score composers like John Williams or Bernard Herrmann; I mean directors who use already existing music or pop songs to juxtapose with what's on the screen. A handful of directors have been masters of this, to wit: Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino. They don't necessarily pick the best music on its own terms, but they pick the perfect music to suit specific shots or scenes.
Moore is arguably another genius in this realm. His musical choices always have the right style of bitter irony. I loved his use of the Greatest American Hero theme in Fahrenheit 9/11 and of “What a Wonderful World” during scenes of war and destruction in Bowling for Columbine (even if he did borrow the latter idea from Good Morning, Vietnam). In Roger, Moore's music choices are equally inspired. The Beach Boys' upbeat, yearning “Wouldn't It Be Nice” plays during endless tracking shots of ghostly, abandoned, boarded-up houses and shops throughout Flint, and the effect is shattering. Boone's “I'm Proud to Be an American”, played over the closing credits, also inspires mixed emotions, as does a high-school choir's cheesy jazz rendition of “Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town” during another one of Ross' evictions. Only the William Tell Overture, which chimes during Moore's pursuit of Smith, seems a little obvious and clichéd.
You wouldn't expect the Singing Dogs' version of “Jingle Bells” to be poignant, but for me, the track's playing late in the film (as a GM plant sends downsized workers home on Christmas Eve) may be its most depressing and haunting moment. The barking, originally intended in the '50s as silly novelty fluff, now sounds like cruel mockery, and it really cuts into your soul. It's another way the movie powerfully mixes humour and pathos – a gift Moore shares with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Charles Dickens.
The famous closing sequence, which cross-cuts between a family's eviction just before Christmas and Smith's pious speech at GM's annual holiday party, is still devastating today. Moore uses the eviction footage to squeeze every iota of Smith's hypocrisy out into the open, as the chairman talks about “the individual dignity and worth of each human being” and quotes A Christmas Carol. This sequence has received a lot of criticism, from those who believe Moore is implying that the two events occurred at the exact same time, but I've never gotten that impression. I don't think Moore intends you to take the cross-cutting literally; it's a film technique that goes all the way back to the silent days, and Moore is using it to make a point – with chilling effect.
Most documentaries are quickly forgotten or end up used only as dry educational tools. After twenty-five years, Roger & Me remains a classic, and repeat viewings prove it. It's sad, in a way, since part of the reason it holds up so well is because America still has the same social and economic problems. Maybe the world always will.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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