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Michael Moore's 'Roger & Me' (1989)

By David Ehrenstein

From Michael Moore's Roger & Me

by David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed

Picked by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association as the Best Documentary of 1989, this mordantly funny piece of investigative journalism centers on the near-total economic collapse of filmmaker Michael Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan, in the 1980s--after General Motors closed its once-thriving auto plants, laying off 35,000 workers, moved its auto operations to Mexico, and entered the armaments industry. Narrated and starring Moore, Roger & Me recounts his (unsuccessful) efforts to get GM president Roger Smith to come to Flint and see the havoc his company's exit had wrought.

Moore's film is a sardonic set-up of a serious subject, an approach that undermines some cherished notions about the socially aware documentary. Far closer to Orson Welles' F for Fake than Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity, Roger & Me revels in a rhetorical playfulness whose roots are in the stories of George Ade and whose branches are the Pete Smith "specialties" and the deadpan satirical assemblages of Bruce Connor.

Shot in 16mm with a miniscule crew, its funding partially coming from church bingo games and Moore's selling his own home, Roger & Me is classic degree-zero filmmaking. As Moore has stated elsewhere, "I didn't want to make another 'dying steeltown' documentary with all the clichs about how horrible it is to be unemployed. I wanted images you don't see on the six o'clock news."

Moore didn't have to look too far or too close to find examples of the town's destruction. In the wake of the firings, Flint had become a major US crime capital. The layoffs resulted in widespread evictions, and citizens had taken to everything from working for Amway to raising rabbits in order to survive. The town fathers, meanwhile, rather than dealing with the problem squarely, had taken to importing show business and political figures to give "uplifting" talks, and investing money in a luxury hotel, a shopping center and an amusement park in a harebrained attempt to turn a dying city into a tourist attraction. Moore shows it all with remorseless, scathing wit.

The film made the front page of The Wall Street Journal in an article about GM's allegedly dire financial straits. "It's really funny," Moore said. "Here's this article about the global economy and somehow Roger & Me has figured into the toppling of GM!" He also reveled in the unintentional irony of the Journal article deeming his film both "brilliant" and "incredibly unfair."

Moore was prepared to deal with Smith if, for some reason, the GM executive agreed to go back to Flint with him. "I was ready," Moore insisted. "We'd tool around and we'd have this hour-and-half conversation in the van as he viewed the crumbling American empire. I pictured this as sort of My Dinner with Andre on wheels."

Moore knew that "there was just a slim chance of that...I felt it was like the end of The Wizard of Oz, where they were on the quest for the big bad wizard and suddenly little Toto pulls back the curtain and its just this little runt of a man, shouting 'Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.' That's just what America wants us to do: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."


Editor's note: The complete version of this article was published in the Winter 1990 issue of Documentary (then called International Documentary). Read more: Michael's Big Adventure: David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed on 'Roger and Me'.

David Ehrenstein has been writing about film and the arts since 1965. Bill Reed produces records and has been cohabitating with David Ehrenstein in unadulterated gay bliss since 1971.