Roger & Michael (Rebel with plenty of causes)
Irish-American political protagonist Michael Moore is in the news. His current film Fahrenheit 911 is set to play a significant role in the election of the next President of the United States of America. Moore has lined up with the Democrats, but given his involvement with Ralph Nader’s campaign, and his previous criticisms of the two-party system (“a one-party system with two heads”) one suspects that this is simply a case of ABB (Anyone But Bush).
Now is a good time to have a look at Moore’s first effort in the cinematic realm, Roger & Me, which has recently been released with director’s commentary from Moore, which he added after his Oscar victory with Bowling for Columbine.
At first glance, Roger & Me is a film about Michael Moore’s attempts to meet Roger Smith, then chairman of General Motors, after GM closed its factory in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan and made 30,000 people redundant. Moore’s initial idea was to meet Smith, and try to convince him to visit Flint. He would then take Smith around the city, introduce him to some of the 30,000, and show Smith the consequences on the ground for company’s actions. Filmed over 3 years and originally released in 1989, Roger & Me won Best Film at the Vancouver, Toronto and Chicago Film Festivals, and Best Documentary from the New York, Los Angeles and National Societies of Film Critics.
The film goes far beyond its stated purpose, and is in fact a journey into life below the bread line. Moore largely avoids political commentary and economic statistics, preferring instead to focus on the human stories. We meet characters like the lady who is forced to sell her pet rabbits for “pets or meat”, as this is her only source of income. We see how carefully she skins the dead rabbits, so as to preserve the fur for a coat she hopes to make.
With a cunning eye for an ironic image, Moore also shows us how some recently unemployed people work as human statues at a garden party. They stand perfectly still, while the local high society wander among the “statues”, enjoying the party and oblivious to how the “other half” live.
“Roger & Me” is made with a sympathetic eye towards to ordinary citizens of Flint. Even as the rabbit-lady bludgeons her pet to death, we cannot help but feel sorry for the plight she is in. And back to the ironic images, when a few fired former factory workers turn to crime, it is a former colleague who is their prison officer. Even the assistant at the Sheriffs department, whose job it is to evict people who are not up-to-date with their rent manages to elicit our sympathy and comes across as a man who does not enjoy his work but sees it as one of the few options open to him, however unpleasant it may be.
The normal rules of film reviewing do not apply to a documentary. The acting, for example, is non-existent – the film is a sequence of interviews and “recorded live” footage. The writing is also simplified, as the bulk of the dialogue (and the equivalent of a plot) is driven by the interviews. One technical skill that is crucial to a good documentary is editing, and in Roger & Me, the editing is as slick as any you will see.
Apart from the examples given above, shots of unfortunate evictees are interspersed with meaningless platitudes from B-list celebrities and TV evangelists hired to promote the town of Flint. And the closing few minutes is a classic piece of cinema. Moore finally catches up with Roger Smith on Christmas Eve at the General Motors Christmas party. Smith is praising his colleagues and offering a Christmas toast while a choir provides the carols. Meanwhile back in Flint, an African-American family is being evicted from its home. Christmas trees and gifts are piled on the footpath outside the evictees house, while Roger Smith has another glass of champagne. Every 5 seconds or so, the screen flicks from one of these images to the other. One thing about Michael Moore….he’s as subtle as a herd of stampeding buffalo!
Roger & Me was re-released recently on DVD with an additional Director’s Commentary. This was added after Moore won his Oscar for Bowling for Columbine and the caustic wit that is his trademark is more obvious than in the original. From the opening credits where Moore pokes fun at Warner Brothers, through his method of referring to George Bush Snr. (“the one who was elected”), to his self-deprecating remarks on how to receive an award graciously, Moore displays a natural sarcastic wit that enables him to transmit a serious message without boring his audience.
His commentary also explains some of the practical difficulties he faced, such as the fact that he was on his last roll of film when he finally got to exchange a few words with Roger Smith. Moore also explains some of the off-camera detail (there were security guards forcibly restraining him as he spoke to Smith). In addition, he describes the feedback when the film was originally released. There were protests over the killing of a rabbit – none about the shooting of a black man.
In a rare moment of praise for a large corporation, Moore gives Warner Brothers (as it then was) lavish praise for their support. He also details how part of the deal was that Warner Brothers would pay the housing costs of the families evicted on-screen, for three years. While such costs would not have been significant to an organisation the size of Warners, the gesture is significant and Moore seems appreciative.
Looking at Roger & Me now, we can see how Michael Moore developed a technique that was to serve him well in his more recent films – gritty realism and sarcastic commentary. His interview technique is innocent and bumbling, and he appears almost surprised when he doesn’t get a more caring response from GM. His questioning is gentle and sympathetic, and it works. People from all sides talk freely to him (although this has now changed), and a damning statement is far more damning when it is volunteered, as opposed to being engineered by the interviewer.
Michael Moore has a personal stake in this film. He grew up in Flint, and his father, grandfather and many of his high-school friends went to work in the General Motors factory. Aside from giving the GM spokesmen ample time to state their case, Moore makes no attempt to maintain objectivity, but maybe he shouldn’t. When I see a company about to close a factory give the counter argument for actually keeping it open, then I’ll listen to complaints about Moore’s lack of neutrality. Michael Moore is a patriot. For all its faults, he loves his country. What makes him truly patriotic, and distinguishes him from (picking someone at random) George W. Bush, is that Moore wants to make his country a better place for those who need it most, and he doesn’t equate “better” with “more powerful”.
Roger & Me was an excellent film first time around, and the additional commentary now gives a valuable insight into one of the finest documentaries of its time. Moore tries to get a particular message across to his viewers, and could scarcely have been more effective if he had visited us individually and explained it to us. The message, for those of you who would prefer to avoid a visit from the Michigan man, is that corporate decisions have human consequences.