The real question is who comes off worse: the callous GM executive, the bunny-cidal woman or Bob Eubanks, the anti-Semitic, joke-telling gameshow host.
You might recall Michael Moore as the fellow from Flint, Michigan, who lasted about four months as editor of Mother Jones. After getting canned, he returned with empty pockets to his hometown and sued the magazine for wrongful discharge. This brought him an out-of-court settlement of $58,000—a turn of events so inspirational that he decided, without the encumbrance of experience, to put his money into making a film. The result, titled Roger and Me, is so good that I wish Mother Jones had fired Moore twice, so he could have made two movies.
Though its subject—the destruction of a once-prosperous town by factory closings—could hardly be more wrenching, Roger and Me is one of the funniest, most invigorating movies you’re likely to see this year. “I figured, who wants to sit in a dark theater and watch people collect free Federal surplus cheese?” Moore says. “How’s that going to be entertaining? How’s that going to change anything?” He decided his documentary would have to be accessible and funny The Atomic Café is the model he cites—and to some degree, Moore has followed that example. Roger and Me is crammed with found footage: home movies, promotional films, TV shows and stock clips, most of them used with deadpan humor. (This might be the place to mention the editors, Wendey Stanzler and Jennifer Beman; amazingly, they too are novice filmmakers.)
But the mocking use of found footage is already a bit too familiar a technique; though well employed here, it would not have been effective in itself. The real delight of Roger and Me comes from Michael Moore’s personality—his dry, common-sense wit as a narrator, his shambling on-camera presence, his interest in the people he encounters as he knocks around Flint. In his amused sympathy with all sorts of human oddity he reminds me of such gonzo documentarians as Les Blank and Tony Buba. Moore also brings to mind Harvey Pekar, the auteur of American Splendor comics, another autobiographer of the dead industrial heartland.
As the Me of the title, Moore represents not only himself but a long line of industrial laborers. His father used to work on the line at AC Sparkplugs; his uncle was among the sit-down strikers who founded the United Automobile Workers. On behalf of them and everybody else he knew in Flint, Moore thought he should invite Roger to visit his hometown—that being Roger Smith, chair of General Motors. Under Smith’s leadership, GM has been closing its US factories and relocating the assembly lines to more favorable climates, such as Mexico. Moore therefore thought it would be a good thing for the GM chair to pass through town, so he could see for himself how the loss of 30,000 jobs might cause some inconvenience. Strangely enough, Smith declined the invitation. In fact, he wouldn’t even talk with Moore.
A large part of Roger and Me thus consists of a hilarious series of failed efforts to meet Roger Smith. Moore—a portly young man with long, dirty-blond hair and radar-scanner eyes—keeps turning up with his camera crew at GM headquarters in Detroit, at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, at the Detroit Athletic Club, at the annual GM stockholders’ meeting. Usually, he is dressed in an old blue windbreaker and a baseball cap bearing the message “I’m out for Trout.” He sometimes augments this costume with the accessory of a toothpick stuck between his lips. People keep asking him if he has an appointment. When one of Roger Smith’s guardians requests his credentials, Moore hands over a discount card from a pizza establishment. “1 didn’t have a business card,” he explains on the sound track.
Since these near-encounters with Roger happened at long intervals, Moore had a lot of time on his hands. He filled it by taking his crew around Flint to see how the neighbors were coping with the economic equivalent of occupying ground zero under the Enola Gay. In their own grim way, these meetings are as funny as the hunt for Roger Smith. GM had put some money into a job-retraining program, so its former employees could learn to work at Taco Bell. All of them dropped out, though: A Taco Bell manager explains that they couldn’t take the challenge of the fast-food environment. Other former auto workers and their families started selling Amway products door to door, though this, too, proved full of unexpected risks. One of Moore’s informants, trained as a color consultant for makeup and clothing, suffered a shocking loss of faith when she discovered that the instructors had classified her incorrectly—they had called her an autumn, but she was really a spring.
Some of the others captured by Moore get a little closer to the bone. At the Flint Plasma Company, Moore talks with a man who makes a living selling blood. “They’re open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,” the man says, going over it carefully in his mind. “They’re closed Saturday and Sunday.” It’s side-splitting, unless you think about why the man can no longer remember how to say “weekdays.”
And then there is the remarkable young woman Moore encounters when he sees a sign by the road: “Rabbits and Bunnies‘Pets or Meat.” He knocks on the door and asks about the rabbits. “Pets or meat?” asks the woman. It turns out that she makes $10 or $15 a week at this business, her only supplement to Social Security, and no doubt eats a hell of a lot of fried bunny. Of the working-class people in Moore’s film, she is one of the survivors, a rare example of someone who actually gets by as an entrepreneur, the route to self-sufficiency touted by the ruling-class people and their shills.
The latter provide Roger and Me with its most outrageously funny moments, turning some sections of the film into a fantasia of misguided optimism and all-American puffery. Keep in mind that the rats in Flint had started to outnumber the humans; entire blocks were boarded up or burned down; the city had one of the highest homicide rates in the nation; and one of the few growth industries was in evictions. (Moore got close to sheriff’s deputy Fred Ross and filmed him practicing this trade.) The civic leaders’ response was to try turning Flint into a tourist center— you can’t make this stuff up‘spending millions to put up a luxury hotel and a quaint marketplace (designed by the people who built New York City’s South Street Seaport) and topping it off with an indoor theme park called AutoWorld, celebrating the industry that had left town. GM built a $1 million exhibit for AutoWorld in which a puppet auto worker sang a love song to the robot that was replacing him on the assembly line. The song was titled “Me and My Buddy.” Auto World, the marketplace and the hotel are all closed now. I assume the rats are doing fine.
Roger and Me, having been an unexpected success at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, has now won Manhattan as well. It became a smash hit within an unusually strong New York Film Festival; various studios are competing for Moore’s attention, asking to distribute the film. Sooner rather than later, it should appear at a theater near you. Put on your windbreaker and your baseball cap and get ready for a night on the town.