Roger & Me

Dir: Michael Moore, 1989. Documentary.
Roger & Me

Forgetting Michael Moore’s politics, his sometimes annoying personality, and his questionable fact-checking skills, the guy has done more than any other director to bring the art form of documentary filmmaking into the mainstream. His first film, Roger & Me, is still probably his best film. It caused a major stir in the world of documentaries, established the format he has continued to use for decades, and has since been ripped-off and copied by numerous other documentary makers. No documentary before Roger & Me instantly gave its maker such a strong brand name.

Before the breakthrough of Roger & Me in 1989, the documentary field was mostly dominated by concert films, nature, travelogue, and straight political docs, or film theory class usual-suspects like the works of Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies). Though there were a number of important documentarians on the scene with vital careers like Albert and David Maysles (Grey Gardens), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA), D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back), Rob Epstein (The Times Of Harvey Milk), and even Michael Apted with his ongoing Up Series for British television. Then in the mid '80s Errol Morris really broke through with his minimalist true-crime saga, The Thin Blue Line, as did Ross McElwee with his very personal history lesson, Sherman’s March. They all led the way for Michael Moore to infuse blue-collar liberal politics with his personal and humorous slant.

Moore narrates Roger & Me and appears on camera (though not as often as he tends to in his subsequent films). This is his own political essay - the economy and bedrock of his hometown of Flint, Michigan has been devastated by continuous General Motors plant closings. Flint was the original home of GM and the center of much historic labor strife in the 20th century. Moore wonders how a great corporation like GM could abandon Flint and sets out to find the answer by confronting GM’s elusive CEO, Roger Smith. The film follows two fronts: Moore wandering into GM headquarters (or upscale yacht clubs or other places where he is not wanted) looking for Smith, before being thrown out. But more importantly Moore also documents the now out of work people of Flint and their increasingly hopeless situations.

We meet many of Flint’s down and out denizens. One woman has been reduced to raising rabbits and selling them as "pets or for meat." Famously gruesome, in one moment she casually skins a little Thumper after beating it with a stick. An ex-assembly line worker, now a county sheriff (he compares working in the plant to prison), is forced to evict families from their homes. Though he could come off as a bad guy he proves to be a sympathetic character, even while he kicks a woman and her kids out on Christmas Day. The scene is juxtaposed against Smith speaking to shareholders, quoting Charles Dickens about the magic of Christmas. The film is a continual study in contrast.

Flint’s upper class seem oblivious to the problems of the poor, at their country clubs and golf courses they scoff at the idea that a depression has over taken their city. In an effort to put ex-auto workers back to work some are hired to be human statues at a ritzy soiree. The town's most “famous” son (before Moore became its biggest star), Bob Eubanks, host of the Newlywed Game, returns to host a mock version at the city’s fair. Moore interviews him, but instead of inspiring words he lays some bad racist jokes. Others who were once pawns of GM appear in town including Anita Bryant and Pat Boone, again all completely shallow to the worker's plights.

Eventually Flint naively decides to reinvent itself as a tourist town, opening a huge downtown Hyatt and an amusement park called Autoworld that celebrates GM and Flint’s history. It’s now shocking and even surreal to see the money sunk into these bad ideas. Less shocking, both the hotel and the park closed soon after. With the crime rate soaring, Flint’s only growth industry is its super jail. The day before the park opens rich people are invited to hundred dollar ticket bash there, where a way out '80s band plays jailhouse rock. Again Flint’s upper class proves to be completely insensitive to the world beneath them.

Like the alternative press reporter that Moore once was (he was an editor at Mother Jones, among other magazines), he is not only combating GM’s CEO, but also the entire Ronald Reagan decade of the yuppie and leisure class. He’s a smartass with a microphone. Roger & Me doesn’t mine the pathos as much as Moore’s future films seem to, though it’s powerful, but the power comes from the almost surreal differences between the classes which live in Flint. A Miss America contestant rides a float down Flint’s main street, past abandoned storefronts and sad folks in lawn chairs; it’s like a ride through the apocalypse.

Moore doesn’t often need to add a punchline to a scene, he lets the person end the scene, their off the wall remarks usually giving up the punchline we need. Though he is aggressive when dealing with the elite gatekeepers who continually keep Moore from getting to Smith, he seems much more at ease with himself and less the windbag he would become known for (though I generally agree with him on all things political, I, like his enemies, can find him a tad cloying at times as well). As a directional debut Roger & Me is a landmark. It’s both a funny piece of autobiography and a very persuasive piece of propaganda.

Moore would follow the success of Roger & Me by doing a non-documentary, the completely forgettable satire, Canadian Bacon. He had a couple of TV shows, TV Nation and The Awful Truth, which pushed his political pranks even further. He would do a doc similar to Roger & Me, this time going after Nike in The Big One. The film had no impact, but then he would find his footing with a couple more landmarks, Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko. They had cultural impacts on the issues they took on, and made a lot of money as well.

As Moore grew the entire field of documentaries would continue to become more high profile with popular fair like Hoop Dreams, Spellbound, and March of the Penguins all reaching a bigger audience than docs had hit in the past. The autobiographical nature of Moore’s style, making a point by making himself the star, would become standard issue. With his hit Super Size Me, imitators like Morgan Spurlock would come out of the woodwork, often taking Moore’s abrasive pranks one step further. No matter what you think of Moore personally, I think Roger & Me is a masterpiece; the guy is the D.W. Griffith of the genre. He’s reinvented documentary and brought them to new heights, his success has opened the doors for another generation. Whether it’s fighting the power or just having a laugh, Roger & Me does both perfectly.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 25, 2011 5:08pm
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