It’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, all the talking heads dismissed Michael Moore as a “comedian.” God only knows why. There are very few ha-ha moments in Roger & Me…unless the slow, painful death of a community strikes you funny.
On September 16, 1908, philanthropist William Durant opened the first General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan. With seventy-two years experience in ol’ fashioned, American car making, the company realized record- breaking profits in the the 1980s. It did this, in part, by closing eleven plants in Flint, leaving thirty thousand factory workers suddenly unemployed. The company considered this savings on labor-cost a profit, but it became death blow to the city of Flint, which entered a financial nosedive which it has not climbed out of to date. All attempts to revive the area have failed miserably. Today, Flint is as much an urban wasteland as anything this side of Detroit, South Africa, or Afghanistan. If you’d like a sneak peak at America’s future, hop a flight to Michigan…and bring some spare change for the guy standing on the highway with a cardboard sign. WILL WORK FOR FOOD.
In the midst of this chaos, a man and his film crew embarked on a hopeless quest to track down GM CEO Roger Smith, and convince him to visit Flint. Perhaps spend the day exploring the consequences of all these plant closings, and the lives they’ve ruined.
With Roger & Me, Moore propelled himself and his beleaguered little city into a quasi-national spotlight for something other than crime. The bulk of the film chronicles three years of Flint’s decline, the camera shadowing Mike as he peruses Roger from the blase opulence of the Grosse Point Yacht Club to the polo-playing elegance of Flint’s richest citizen’s annual Great Gatsby Party, to the stone facades of GM’s World Headquarters in The D. We see Moore repeatedly banging his head against corporate indifference and collecting diddly for his efforts, save yards of film, and the annoyed stares of obsequious GM toadies. Roger & Me is to see a textbook example of what the suits called “guerrilla film making”…until it won an Oscar. Shot on 16mm by Moore and his bare-bones crew, it’s amazing that the finished product comes out looking so well. It’s amazing there aren’t boom mikes hanging into every frame. It’s amazing this movie was finished at all, to say nothing about it getting distribution from a major studio. God bless the Weinstein’s.
The scenes from Flint itself are the ones that really stick with you: the ground level-up portraits of a community in meltdown. In response to the growing unemployment brought on by the factory closings, the city poured millions into downtown tourist attractions and Hyatt Regency too expensive for most citizens to stay in. The attractions closed within months due to lack of attendance. The Hyatt went bankrupt, along with millions of Flint citizens. Millions more taxpayer dollars watered the first shoots of what we now call “the prison-industrial complex.” We see unemployed autoworkers struggle to make ends meet inside those prisons and the softer, gentler ones down at the local Taco Bell. We follow Sheriff’s Deputy Fred Ross as he evicts one person after another, right up to Christmas Eve. We see the dark side of America’s Regan-Bush economy, in all its grainy horror. Families tossed into the streets. Black men shot by cops. Ordinary citizens patronized by oblivious government shills, struggling to survive by raising rabbits, or having nervous breakdowns.
The actual “truth” of this movie is immaterial. The very possibility of Flint should be enough to move decent human beings to action. That’s this film’s purpose, its very reason. It exists to move. Not just move, but move you. Get you up off your collective ass. The implicit message of ever frame of this grainy, real-world horror story is, We’ve got to do something. Before it’s too late.
GM is, was, and looks long to be one of the richest corporations on the planet. Far from improving, Flint has grown even worse as its corporate daimyo has grown richer, as you’ve probably see in the rest of Moore’s cannon. And just look what’s happened to the rest of America: we’re slowly but steadily being Flint-ized. All the more relevant fourteen years after its release, Roger & Me should strike terror into the hearts of a whole nation. But, then again, what do I know? I’m just another angry liberal with a web site, right?
Right. Well, fine. But forget about all that for a second. Or, hell, one hour, thirty minutes and thirty-two seconds. Remarkably enough, Roger & Me is as a-political as any personal project can be, given Moore’s background. His uncle participated in the 1936 Sit-Down Strike that gave birth to the United Auto Workers. His father worked at the AC sparkplug plant until retirement, making enough money to allow his strange, fat child to escape the assembly lines Deputy Fred describes as “a prison.” After years slaving over a muckracking, indie newspaper (remember those?), Moore attempt to break in with the liberal intelligencia of publishing, headquartered in San Francisco. His return to Flint coincided with the initial plant closings, one of those horrible coincidences self-aware creative types will recognize at once. In that sense, this is the most personal, and quietest, film in Moore’s cannon. Mike doesn’t do a lot of narration here, preferring to let his subjects tell the story for him. Politicians (including then-President Ronald Regan), musicians, Amway saleswomen…hell, even the host of Newlywed Game, Bob Yewbanks (another famous Flint escapee) shares his views on All of This, along with a Tasteless Aids Joke involving Jewish women.
It’s not just a matter of presenting a “fair and balanced” view of his hometown’s decay. Indeed, GM’s united front of low-level PR hacks and faceless security guards succeeds in shutting down Moore’s every attempt to interview the Chairman. “The big brush off,” Moore rightly calls it. Yet some of the upper class prove willing for a quick vox pop, exposing themselves to our collective ridicule with their collective ignorance, neglect, and worship of the “free” market. Their honesty is refreshingly a-moral, their contempt for the lessers as fragrant as a beef fart in a tiny, gold-plated elevator. The GM PR flack, Tom Kay, comes off the best during Moore’s interviews by virtue of the fact that he genuinely understands the implications what we used to call the “free enterprise system,” before the term “free-market system,” eclipsed it in popularity.
“Nobody likes to see anybody laid-off or put in a hardship situation.” Yet those higher up on the American class system repeatedly express disbelief that “things are as bad as all that.” “Get up in the morning and go do something,” says one Gatsby Party attendee. “Start yourself. Get your own motor going. There’s things to do out there.” When asked about the good aspects of Flint, they point to the ballet or the hockey programs they’ve squeezed their spoiled spawn into. The evangelist Robert Hour of Power Schuller offers the clearest articulation of the ruling class’ message to all of us: “Just because you’ve got problems is no reason to be…unhappy.” And people call this biased.
If that helps them sleep, fine. But the facts remain. Something terrible happened in to this country in the 1980s. Greed became the Ultimate Good, self-interest became our new American religion (whatever its doctrinal stripes) and an aura of malign neglect settled over entire national discourse. “Fuck you, buddy,” became our new national motto. Yet we were told to be happy, upbeat, and positive. To keep our fingers crossed and our hearts, minds, and souls keyed up to placate our Almighty Gods: the dollar, the GDP, and the stock market. Our ruling class – always careful to conceal themselves since the end of Gilded Age – suddenly became unapproachable supermen, safe in their towering offices, behind their phalanx of suit-wearing, lisping mouthpieces. If we didn’t accept this new national order of “GM uber alles,” then, obviously, something was terribly wrong. “If you’re espousing the philosophy,” Tim Kay tells Michael’s camera, “which apparently you are, that the corporation owes employees cradle-to-the-grave security, I don’t think that can be accomplished under a free enterprise system.”
Flint, on the other hand, is perfect example of what one can accomplish under such a thing. It exists, and you’d better thank the gods someone raised the alarm and had the stones to tell this story, one of the greatest horror stories of the past thirty years. The ruling class answered our economic plights with a pseudo-New Age bullshit about the power of positive thinking. As songstress and former GM-spokeswoman Anita Bryant says, “Hang in their…don’t fret or worry about the future…you have today. Today’s a new day. It’s an opportunity to look about you and look at the positive within yourself and within your community.” She quotes Margaret Thatcher, who told us all to “cheer up” during an address to Congress in the 1987. Wonderful advice…provided you can pay your rent with cheer, clothe your children with positivity, or feed yourself with happy thoughts. If not…well, too bad. Starve.
The fact that people mistook this film for a comedy only underlines the dangerous ignorance of the American movie-goer. Sure, Moore’s brings a dark sense of humor to the whole affair, his narration dry and sharp. Yet you get the feeling he is only laughing to keep from screaming, along with most of Flint’s ordinary citizens. There’s a sick desperation infecting this film that’s not at all quiet, polite, or unbiased. It’s the feeling I always get as the credits role under the Beach Boys song which, for better or worse, has become the anthem for all socially-conscious Americans: “Wouldn’t it be Nice.” Because it really would be nice if Roger Smith were hung by his haunches and beaten with sticks by blindfolded children until he popped, like a pinata filled with bile and disdain for the plebians he’s made a fortune tossing into the street. But this is America: so no matter how nice it might be, be assured it won’t happen. We can’t have angry, child-mobs stringing the chairmen of corporations up by their balls. Wouldn’t be nice.
I can say this with absolute certainty: Roger & Me paints a picture of the world too horribly bleak to be anything other than real. The very idea of it should move every morally-conscious person to act for positive, socially-conscious change. I don’t want to live in Michael Moore’s America, but the evidence suggests I have no other choice. Whether you believe you do or not, Roger & Me is too good, too powerful a movie to pass over because of your pre-existing ideological bias. As the basis for all of Moore’s subsequent work and a painfully effective film in its own right, you have no excuse not to see this film.