12 March 2012

Movie Review : Roger & Me

Yeah, we’re getting even more ancient in the reviews, especially since there’s really no rhyme or reason as to which movies end up getting reviewed. On the other hand, if there’s ever a time to review a twenty-three-year-old movie, it’s now... right?

For those not in the know (by now, surprising,) Roger & Me was Michael Moore's first film, a story of what happened to Flint, Michigan after General Motors decided to move work from Flint to other locations, and what amounts to a visual diary of the people left behind and what the city tries to do to help its citizens.

The largest problem with providing a review of Roger & Me is that it’d be primarily wrapped up in the current worldview of its viewer. Michael Moore is very involved in the politics of the situation, and the movie presents scenes that one person would nod their head and say, “Right on”, while another would dismiss as cheap demagoguery. My goal is to present a neutral review on Michael Moore’s style, the pitfalls that he encountered, and overall the possible non-politically-charged reactions. For reference, last nights’ viewing was with Michael Moore’s commentary turned on, as I had seen parts of the movie previously and was interested in hearing what he had to say regarding specific scenes.

Throughout the commentary, as if seeing the film wasn’t proof enough, Moore makes the point that the movie was a (paraphrased) love letter to the city of Flint. You can see how much he loves the city, that while he shows the blasted buildings that he still tries to intercut footage of Flint around downtown, trying to get scenes of children playing and the parade scene where there are more than a few people lining the route.

I can see how people can be annoyed at his style of filmmaking by watching this first movie of his. From the start, Moore draws a very big, bright, painfully prominent line back to General Motors’ doorstep throughout the movie. His critics can rightfully point out that GM is not the only party that deserves blame in this situation, and I do agree with that. In the movie, it’s even acknowledged that Moore is chasing the white whale of bringing Roger Smith to Flint to show him the conditions of the city that GM was trying to move away from, and even then there’s really no doubt that it wouldn’t have affected Roger Smith even a bit.

Some people agree with Moore’s point of view regarding GM and others definitely disagree. It’s sad that it seems to have marginalized Moore in some ways... I remember being plugged into political discourse in the 90s and hearing about how Moore was a distorter of truths, and partly based on things that were seen in this movie. Of course, the tactic that Moore used and acknowledged in the commentary was to point the camera at the interviewee, ask a couple of leading questions, and let the person talk. As many of the people on camera were likely not expecting to see themselves in an honest-to-goodness movie, they became comfortable and effectively talked themselves into a corner at times. (Witness the GM lobbyist, who Moore praises as being the last honest PR guy). The bad news is that this does allow misinformation to come out, and Moore is not going to correct any of the misinformation… he’s just going to let the audience try to sift through it.

Well, whenever anyone’s trying to set up an argument, like Moore’s overarching movie statement regarding GM, any misinformation is going to feel like an attempt to manipulate. This is sadly the net effect of many of Moore’s movies on people who don’t agree with the central premise of the movie; viscerally, they probably feel that Moore is arguing using misinformation and perfectly fine with allowing it to go uncorrected, while others who hear the exact same statement understand where they believe possible fallacies in truth come from. In essence, people who agree with Michael Moore will laugh behind their hands at the stooges and other stupid people expressing their wrong viewpoints, while people who don’t agree with Moore’s points will get mad that their point of view is getting represented as a joke without any sort of ability to defend their point through counterargument. In later years, many reviewers have had issues with facts that Michael Moore has reported in movies, and Moore himself has issues with having his information taken seriously.

This speaks a lot to what has happened to news reporting versus the entertainment factor in this country. This is not to say that news and entertainment is mutually exclusive, but the main problem is to be able to appeal news of many types (world events, business news, sports, celebrity news) to all of the people all of the time, which is where the entertainment part comes in. Entertainment will get a person to sit down even if they’re not thrilled about the topic, and this causes less examination of issues and to some extent, of truth.

This movie also sets out to entertain as well as inform and faces the same challenge as above. The movie also cultivates a large amount of gallows humor... as Moore mentioned in the commentary, you want to laugh because it’s more comfortable than crying, but referencing the above due to your viewpoint you may not be the one laughing, just really angry. The side effect of the entertainment and laughing is wondering which information (if any) is serious and which is played for jokes, or for those who are horrified, to doubt whether or not he’s trying to exaggerate the situation.

I do think that the movie is effective, but only to someone willing to have an open mind and willing to do more research. This includes both liberals and conservatives, because I think that the message was skewed just a bit too far to the side to see clearly, which is a shame. I think that Michael Moore stumbled onto it a bit as he was describing the “pets or meat” lady as he was recounting her tale. To clarify, the “pets or meat” lady is a Flint woman who bred and raised rabbits, and was perfectly fine selling them as either pet rabbits or slaughtering the rabbits to sell them for their meat and fur. As long as I’m remembering the commentary correctly, it turned out that GM wasn’t really to blame for her current predicament. Moore noted in the commentary (not the main body of the movie) that her husband was a GM worker but that he had died accidentally prior to the events of the movie rather than being laid off by GM. Moore presented the movie as GM leaving town and showing the consequences... and then presented her as a character, without stating her mitigating circumstances, allowing the viewer to tie her and her circumstances together with GM’s leaving rather than her circumstances arising from an individual tragedy (and again leading to questions of authenticity in argument and/or manipulation of facts). Moore then went on to comment on the director’s audio track about how our society allows people to fall through the cracks, and made more remarks about how most other Western societies that don’t allow that sort of thing to happen.

The movie was made in 1989, and I have the ability to see twenty-three years into the future where Michael Moore did not at the time, but I feel that ultimately this movie was pulled off of the mark because of the central premise. It linked the death of a town inexorably to the loss of its sole employer, and it seems by implication the movie also argues the reverse… that employers have a duty to their workers rather than to their profits, which is arguing a point that many people do not believe in regarding free market capitalism. I would not presume to take upon that argument in this space. However, where the movie could have hit the mark, was to try to present the reasons to DISCUSS what duty the government, companies that operate within the country, and the workers themselves have to each other as an interconnected whole and to make sure that all of the actors, including government, are present and engaged. This was the line that Moore was trying to comment to within the director’s remarks listed above, and maybe by focusing a bit more on the thought process behind that the movie would have been a much more effective instrument.

I will admit that this movie definitely illustrates one of the reasons that I am interested in economics, because it raises a very salient issue regarding economics… that capital can be very mobile while labor cannot. In real terms, that means that the tools and inputs of a GM plant can be moved from Michigan to Mexico to anywhere else, but the labor that GM utilized for seventy years in Flint, Michigan cannot move as easily. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t inspire the discussion that it was desperately hoping it would stimulate.

The sad part is that the time for this conversation in the United States is likely past. In this day and age of polarization, a movie like this that would attempt to stimulate conversation would do no more than to divide people into camps all over again, and there’s more than a few stakeholders that can’t even figure out whether or not they have a stake in this discussion. There’s really no compromise throughout our discourse, and therefore these discussions and subsequent actions really cannot happen.

At the very least, this movie is an eye-opener. Once you get past the main message of the movie, you see the tragic and very visible decline of the city of Flint, Michigan, and the desperation of the people who live there. Moore was absolutely correct in turning the camera onto Flint to document the last vestiges of a vibrant city and to also hopefully serve as a cautionary tale. One of the more stirring images was when the camera panned over a dilapidated house to put the focus across the street... on one of the GM plants, already looking empty.

That said, though the message may have ended up a bit off, I did enjoy the passion and the love that went into making this movie. As above, you can see how much Moore loves his town, and this movie was in his wheelhouse as a muckraking journalist. I would suggest this movie to people as a conversation-starter, but again your mileage may vary due to Moore’s subsequent notoriety and the fact that some people are going to argue contra-Moore due to his own style.

Reminder of the rating scale:
1 -- never see again ever
2 watch if on TV or cued up by others
3 intentionally seek out occasionally
4 watch often

Final Rating: 3.3
Whether you’re happy or unhappy about the methods, I do feel that there is an important message in there to debate. Watching these people try to navigate their lives after this turn of events is tragic, but I think that it shows the strength of the human spirit that you see all of these people trying to pick up their lives and keep moving forward. I also like this movie for selfish reasons due to having lived in the area (Fenton, MI, Genesee County) for a time, and the Flint area still holds some affection from me.

As a last note, I was really unsure how I was going to attack this topic apolitically, especially since I have been on both sides of the political spectrum at different points in my life. I hope that you, the reader, can tell that I am not trying to allow my biases into the review above and please comment with any issues if they have cropped up.

For postscript, if there are any movies that you (our audience) want us to review, please feel free to drop a comment as well.

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