Tuesday, November 23, 2010

ROGER & ME (1989): Story of Flint, MI

Parroting Pauline Kael, three movie reviewers that I’ve read have referred to Michael Moore as a demagogue.  This would have no importance if not that Kael and at least two of the three reviewers labeled themselves as being politically liberal.  Kael, having more in common with the blue-blooded than the blue collared, becomes fainthearted whenever a moviemaker challenges an audience with populist rhetoric.   And Moore represents something that many on the left are now uncomfortable with.  Union members and factory workers have little in common with college professors and soccer moms, who now play such a prominent part in setting the liberal agenda.  The blue collared worker does not have the clout that he did during the first half of the twentieth century.  In Roger and Me, Moore afflicts the comfortable by reminding them that the blue collared worker is still there.
Roger & Me came out in 1989 and almost was never made.  Michael Moore, after recently being fired as editor for Mother Jones magazine for refusing to publish an article critical of the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, won a settlement from the magazine in a wrongful employment termination suit.  He then sold his house, held various bingo games and did whatever else he could do to raise some money.  Roger & Me was then filmed with a budget that did not exceed a few hundred thousand dollars.  It was Michael Moore’s first film, and many on the crew had no film experience.
In Roger & Me Michael Moore starts off to find Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors, in order to interview him.  To the dismay of many General Motors’ employees, Moore shows up on a couple of occasions at the company’s headquarters with his two cameramen and without an appointment.  Not surprisingly, he keeps getting told to leave and is eventually escorted out by security (all of which is on film).  To fill his time in between efforts to contact Roger Smith, Moore also interviews or films various other individuals who have notable connections to Flint.  Kay Leni Rae Rafko (Miss Michigan and later Miss America) is interviewed after a parade through downtown Flint (the parade route going past many boarded up windows) and states that she’s a “big supporter of employment” and wishes the laid-off workers well (you sort of assume that she has forgotten about the workers after being crowned as Miss America).  Ronald Reagan buys pizza for twelve laid-off workers and suggests that they move to Texas.  Bob Eubanks, who was raised in Flint, films an episode of The Newlywed Game in the community but seems more interested in telling Moore a couple of dirty jokes than what’s going on at General Motors.  Anita Bryant sings You’ll Never Walk Alone to boost the morale of those laid-off.  Pat Boone, who was given free vehicles by General Motors including a Corvette, calls Roger Smith a “can-do kind of guy” who will not abandon the laid-off workers.  Robert Schuller is paid $20,000 by the city of Flint to tell the workers that tough people can last it out.
We also meet many local characters from Flint who deal with the worsening economic status of Flint as best they could.  One woman sold rabbits as either pets or as meat, and her method of extracting the meat is shown in a graphic and none to hygienic manner.  We have an Amway sales person who coaches Michael Moore on what colors he should wear.  A deputy sheriff evicts various individuals from their homes who can no longer make the payments after the General Motor lay-offs (though landlords understandably did not want him evicting people while the cameras were rolling).  We have visits to the jail where many of the officers who used to work on the assembly lines at General Motors are now guarding inmates that also used to work at the factory.  Finally, we have Ben Hamper (author of the darkly humorous memoir entitled Rivethead) who was confined to the psychiatric ward of a hospital after being laid-off.  Hamper recalled driving away from the factory on his last day while listening to the Beach Boys tune, Wouldn’t It Be Nice.  We have a number of scenes showing rat infestation of houses and buildings that had been abandoned, we see a woman weeping after someone she knew had been murdered and was still lying on the street, and we have country club people being shown at various galas or on the golf courses while accusing the laid-off workers of being lazy.
We get two glimpses of Roger Smith during the entire film.  One shows him at a press conference that was abruptly ended when it was reported that an individual connected with Ralph Nader also happened to be present.  The second glimpse shows Roger Smith quoting a passage from Charles Dickens at Christmas time shortly after many of the employees had been laid-off.  Moore’s brief attempt to speak to Smith was brushed off after Moore asked Roger Smith if he would come to visit the laid-off workers in Flint.
The movie has been criticized for being called a documentary because Michael Moore allegedly played with the chronology of the events.  For example, Ronald Reagan presumably visited Flint prior to his being elected President, but many viewers were under the impression that the whole movie was filmed during the 1980s.  Also, the layoffs of the 35,000 workers did not all occur on one occasion as many viewers presumed.  Instead, there were a series of layoffs that occurred over a seven or eight year period.  I would be disappointed with Moore if he did play with the chronology of the events, but not so much as to dismiss most of what Moore is trying to say.  At what moment Ronald Reagan visited Flint seems like a minor detail because Moore never dwells on it.  And the fact that 35,000 workers were not laid-off at one time still indicates that 35,000 workers were laid-off.  It would have been devastating in either case.
One gets the feeling while watching Roger & Me that Moore honestly cares for the city of Flint, and that he’s not trying to make just a political statement.  This especially comes across when he finally speaks to Roger Smith and almost pleads with him to visit Flint.  The humor only makes the movie that much sadder because it magnifies how pathetic the situation in Flint had become.  (In later movies, Moore revisits Flint to show how circumstances have never improved.  In Fahrenheit 911, Moore shows how Flint looks remarkably similar to a war torn city in Iraq.  Recently, I just heard of a study that listed Flint as being the most dangerous city to live in America.)  Yet in his interviews with the local citizens shown in Roger & Me, including former high school classmates, the film portrays how decent these people were and how tragic their lives had become.  Most had little idea what to do concerning their changed circumstances.
Roger & Me came out before economists were commonly using terms like globalization or outsourcing.  This makes the movie even more oddly relevant than when it first appeared.  For in all of the neat little plans showing economic shifts of one kind or another, there’s usually some group that gets hurt.  And with the encouragement of more American corporations to look across the oceans for their labor markets there also has to be a larger number of communities that are put in the same position as Flint.  The obvious conclusion that layoffs hurt a certain group of people for the short term is too simple to grasp.  That layoffs hurt these same groups of people for the long term is less obvious but is still foreseeable.  And that an individual in a position of power will not independently investigate the consequences of a layoff on the people most directly affected shows a person a bit too comfortable in their own wealth.  Moore shows in this simple film something that Nobel Prize winning economists would probably fail to mention.  The 35,000 jobs lost would probably never be replaced since (in this case) General Motors had taken its business to Mexico to hire cheaper labor.  That some people do happen to be hurt under these circumstances may have gone unnoticed if you didn’t have someone like Moore rudely sticking his cameras in their faces.
Thomas Friedman, who wrote The World is Flat, argues about the benefits that he believes will occur because of the outsourcing of labor to foreign markets, and politicians on both right and left are quoting his work.  To roughly paraphrase Friedman, the free trade that will be generated will motivate American workers to be more innovative in attempting to advance their careers by attempting to get additional education or training; foreign nations will receive the economic benefits by having their citizens employed by American companies; and American corporations will achieve great benefits by paying foreign workers less than for what they pay American workers.  Of course, education and training come at a cost, and obviously the retraining may take years.  Blue collared workers, in particular, who are doing the jobs that no one else want to do (and those jobs will always exist) may not have the time or the means to be reeducated or retrained.  Also, unfortunately, American corporations often take advantage of lax pollution or safety regulations in foreign nations.  (For example, the gas leaks from the Union Carbide manufacturing plant in Bhopal India killed 2,000 and injured another 150,000 people.)  Often, foreign nations in desperate economic plight will have corrupt governments that will not be concerned about corporations making their citizens work 90 hours a week or companies that will be hiring large number of individuals under the age of 10.  An economist like Friedman is only too likely to shrug off these consequences.  Read Friedman sometime and see how simple it all sounds.  He will point right to the day where he feels past examples of economic globalization have taken place and will predict particular future trends with too much exactness.  No one can know that much.
To Michael Moore’s credit, he does not attempt to give any political solution.  His movie does strongly suggest that compassion is lacking and that the people in Flint are in need of help.  I was greatly surprised at the powerful impression that Roger & Me makes.  It’s not so easy to dismiss it as propaganda (as seems to be the non-thinking response to his movies) because Moore has a valid point that can be shown with little more than simple camera work and interviews with the people that have actually been hurt.  The layoff of 35,000 workers at the General Motors plant had a devastating impact on the city of Flint.  And though lots of people pay lip service to the workers, nobody in power really gave a damn about the fact that they were laid off.
December 4, 2006 
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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