Roger & Me (Michael Moore, 1989)
Roger & Me screens on Wednesday, October 22. Director Michael Moore is scheduled to attend the screening. More information can be found at the Chicago International Film Festival's website here.
What lit the fuse is unclear, but the blast of personal films from 1989 left an indelible impact on contemporary cinema. From Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing to Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, the independent scene of 1989 spurned on a host of new filmmakers to follow. One of the pioneers of this troop was documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Roger & Me was Moore’s first feature; there aren’t many films, documentary or otherwise, that brandish such flagrant confidence as this debut.
Roger & Me looks into Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan where a string of layoffs and closures from General Motors has effectively crippled the city. Moore investigates how the once thriving city is a shell of itself, which prompts him to seek out an interview with General Motors chairman Roger Smith. Much of the controversy regarding the film upon its release was less about its content but rather in how Moore chose to present that content. His skillful use of editing and voiceover was accused of distorting facts. Moreover, his presentation of time is perhaps dubious at best, with sequences shifted around to maximize dramatic effect. And most condemning of all was his treatment of subject, whereby the director may have appeared to poke fun at the oddities on display in Flint.
The above are all qualities to Roger & Me, but it nevertheless remains an important film that functions as the ideal juncture between objective documentary and fiction filmmaking. Moore is a satirist first and foremost and his presentation of details is no less different from any other documentary filmmaker. Documentary filmmakers have the privilege to relay information to their audiences in any manner they wish, all in hopes of achieving an ideal tonal quality. Moore understands this better than any other filmmaker in that Roger & Me mounts its anxieties in a dramatically compelling way. There’s a masterful sequence toward the end of the picture that intercuts Moore’s attempts to speak with Chairman Roger Smith with scenes of a deputy foreclosing on the home of a family. The sequences are played as if told in real time though, obviously, it’s improbable that the two events are actually run parallel. Rather, this is the sort of brilliant editing that supports Moore’s thesis while submitting a dramatically rich scene.
As far as accusations regarding Moore inviting ridicule for his subjects, it’s clear that Moore cherishes his subjects’ bizarre worldview. One of the more strange interviews is with a young woman in Flint who sells rabbits - with a handwritten sign indicating that they could be used as pets or for meat. She proceeds to skin a rabbit as she discusses her frustrated social and economic circumstances, while also sharing her hopes to become a veterinarian’s assistant. It’s the sort of strange contrast in dialogue and action that illicit a laugh but makes one uneasy. But her presence, along with so many others in the film, is rather a testament to the floundering city, whereby its residents are left to seek out absurd remedies to eek out a living.
Moore’s camera does not lie: the bordered up businesses along Flint’s main streets, the image of black human statues during a posh upper-class get together, the process of a deputy relying on pliers to jerry-rig open a foreclosed home, etc - these are the images that are among Moore’s most potent and haunting. Flint is Moore’s hometown and I think he can be excused for distorting facts - after all, he’s witnessing his birthplace destroyed before his very eyes.