Roughly a dozen years ago I had the good fortune to spend some time with Michael Moore and some of his associates at a downtown Milwaukee hotel bar. He held court, and his primary—if not sole conversation—regarded his socio-political concerns. He was the same in real life as he was on the screen; wearing his passions unabashedly and wholeheartedly on his sleeve. He was a good guy and this event was approximately between now and the release of Roger and Me. So, by that time, he was the Michael Moore celebrity that we all know.
And that’s what brings us to: Roger and Me. Not only was it a turning point in Moore’s career, it was also one in the realm of documentary itself, because Roger and Me hit the theaters—very unusual for non-narrative films. It was an aesthetic and financial success as well, catapulting the form into the public eye. Prior to that, documentary usually found itself in the firmament of the school classroom (putting heads on the table for some furtive naptime) or on PBS, which was avoided like the plague by the hip. Well, at least in the case of PBS, that has all changed, for the hip gravitate to that fine institution in droves now. And if I watched TV, I’d find myself there as well.
DOCUMENTARY AS MAINSTREAM ENTERTAINMENT
So, “Roger and Me” demarcated the dividing line of the documentary trajectory. It put the form into the populist zeitgeist and we haven’t looked back since, taking the genre out of the doldrums of avoidance and into a highly regarded and anticipated entertainment.
Did I say entertainment? Yes, I did. Because that was essentially one of the functions of Roger and Me, as well as it was to inform. And it’s that mixture of disparate elements that made it a game changer. No longer was the form a bore, no longer did it just serve to merely document, now it had a life of its own. And, it was Moore who gave it that life by making himself a central character in the film, possessing a kind of rustic charm and making plenty of irreverent quips along the way.
Roger and Me was released in 1989 and I happened to see it at the theater, so I shared in that little bit of cinematic history. I believe I saw it at the Northridge Shopping Mall—now far defunct, as are most of the theaters in the Northwest side of Milwaukee. Those too became the faded icons of filmic history as well.
MICHAEL MOORE—POLARIZING DOCUMENTARIAN
Times have changed since the film’s release. Back then, Michael Moore was the new thing, and most rallied around his exposure of the everyday man’s plight, but now Moore has become a point of contention between many divides of opinion and political leanings. Say his name and you’re sure to get a charged reaction; people will definitely have their opinions.
As for the film itself, Roger and Me concerns the shutting of an auto plant in Flint, Michigan, by the chairman of General Motors, Roger Smith. This will cost up to 30,000 jobs with an understandably devastating economic impact on the city and more so to the lives that are now thrown into harrowing uncertainty. This brings native son Moore back on the scene with his documentary crew in tow. The narrative follows his dogged pursuit of Smith, but Moore just can’t get to him, except of course toward the film’s conclusion. Moore gets ousted out of a lot of ritzy places in his continual quest for Smith. He’s made aware that he’s definitely out of his class echelon in no uncertain terms.
Along the way we meet some interesting citizens of the blighted town. We follow a sheriff around as he evicts one family after another from their homes for lack of payments to the landlord. The sheriff has an even-tone as he informs the families that they just have to go; they take that equilibrium to mean business, yet he has a down-to-earth compassion for their plight. He’s truly just “doing his job.”
And then there is the “rabbit lady,” a character unto herself who either sells or slaughters her herd of bunnies. The queasy will be shocked by what they see. When the alternative to sale is enacted, the camera does not cut away.
But arguably, the crown jewel is “The Newlywed Game” host Bob Eubanks, who is miffed by the suggestion that he would say “breast” instead of “chest” in a bout of moral indignation, yet shockingly tells the camera some jaw-dropping, incendiary jokes. I tell you, that was crazy. And there’s other luminaries as well, to varying degrees, who make their charming appearances that you’ll get additional kicks out of.
One of the most poignant moments in the film occurs when Roger Smith is giving a holiday sermon to the converted and that footage is continually juxtaposed with a family getting thrown out of their home with all of their belongings, along with their Christmas effects, including presents and of course the tree itself. The woman of the house is not happy and she makes this all-to-clear in a stream of cursing while our chairman let’s us know that all is well in this Christmas season.
Moore had cleverly put himself in Roger and Me to good effect, but his continual presence in his subsequent films, as well as his politics, have rubbed some the wrong way. But of course that is to be fully expected, for that in itself, fulfills the narrative arc of public tolerance: they only build you up to ultimately tear you down.
I look back on that meeting so many years ago with Mr. Moore, realizing of course that the march of time waits for no one; one wonders what happened to all of those beleaguered citizens of Flint, Michigan.
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