Before Bowling for Columbine there was Roger and Me, Michael Moore’s breakthrough journey into the world of guerrilla documentary filmmaking. While not as good as Columbine, Roger and Me does show delirious hints of what was yet to come.
Moore is a man who is proud to be an American. Really, I truly think he is. He may go to extremes to challenge right wing politics but he is a man who recognizes the things that don’t make a lot of sense in the world. Moore goes one step further and does something about it. Case in point: Roger and Me. It’s the late 80’s and corporate America is starting to crack down on industrial inefficiencies. One of the first casualties is the American factory worker. The economy of Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan was driven by the numerous local General Motors plants. Residents would go to work there to build cars, bring home a paycheck and spend their earnings on food, rent and all the other things used in everyday life. But when the plants are shut down and the work sent south to Mexico and to other, cheaper parts of the world, Flint’s economy goes bust and the city disintegrates. People are losing their homes and crime is skyrocketing to the point where a new prison has to be built. All the while the rich are still rich and General Motors CEO Roger Smith is being praised by investors for helping the bottom line. But where’s the line between making a buck and ensuring, at the very least, a minimal standard of living? Roger and Me follows Moore’s first-person adventures as he tries to track down Smith in order to get some simple answers as to why Flint is suffering.
As far as structure goes, Roger and Me is similar to the Academy Award winning Columbine. Moore is the center of the narrative, even though he is speaking on behalf of his fellow Flint-ians. His presence is felt in nearly every scene, missing only in those that use news footage or out-of-context promo videos. Roger and Me‘s conflict isn’t so much in the plight of the common man but instead the assertive filmmaker trying to secure an interview with an elusive executive. Flint is screwed from the get go and since the city still wasn’t out of its economic funk when the film was released in 1989, it would be unreasonable to expect much tension to rise from what its citizens were up to. Instead Moore frames the story of Flint around his own cross-country stalking of Smith. The one thing this does is entrench the self-made Michael Moore myth where manners go nowhere in the hunt for someone other than a PR drone. And when they ask for tangible credentials, present the Air Miles card and see where it gets you.
While I like Moore’s style and in-your-face approach, it worked much better in Columbine than it does here. Columbine wasn’t so much an indictment of American gun culture, but rather one man’s (Moore) personal journey as he questioned a particular attitude that is rampant in his own society. With Columbine, there were never any answers to begin with. Like any personal journey, those that did seem like solutions only snowball into more questions. In Roger and Me, Moore has a specific target. He also had his mind made up before he even shot the first frame of film. Sure, Smith is easy to cast as the bad guy, but even if he does do the interview, it’s obvious the questions Moore would ask, Moore would already have answered in his own head. In putting himself amongst Flint’s average wage earners he casts himself in a noble light. But in doing so he also takes the sympathetic and tries to make it sensational.
What I’m fast learning with Moore’s documentaries is that he has a good sense of what’s entertaining. And when you’re making nonfiction films, you’re only as entertaining as those you choose to focus on and speak with. Or in the instance of Roger and Me, try to speak with. So there’s lots of strange Flint folks such as a rabbit breeder who goes on and on about how great rabbit dressing is, how the health board wants to shut her down and how great rabbit dressing is. But her muttering is nothing compared to the Jekyll and Hyde outburst Moore treats as to as Ms. Rabbit shows how you can turn a cuddly pet into dinner in just a couple of easy steps. Residents such as these are easy to watch and just go to prove that it takes all sorts to make life interesting. Of course, there’s also the fine line that Moore walks where you wonder whether he’s using these particular clips because of what the people are saying or rather exploiting them for how they are saying it.
Roger and Me is no Columbine. I never expect another documentary to approach the reaction I had for Moore’s later film. Roger and Me shows the coming-out of an anti-establishment rebel for the rest of the world to see. It’s an approach that certainly makes the documentary genre more interesting, but comparing it to his later works, Moore still had a ways to go before cementing his place in movie making infamy.
Roger and Me Gallery