Friday, November 14, 2008

Reprise on Michael Moore: "Roger & Me"

Having seen “Sicko” earlier this year and “Bowling for Columbine” a few years back, I did wonder, when a visitor suggested it, what Michael Moore’s original “Roger & Me”, about the sacking of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, would be like. The film actually carries Warner Brothers’s full studio label (in 1989, the boutique independent labels were not yet well established) and Michael Moore’s own independent “Dog Eat Dog Films” which sounds as political as my own “Do Ask Do Tell”.

Moore goes around Flint doing a lot of asking, and the powers that be don’t do a lot of telling. Security repeatedly tries to evict him from the old GM building in downtown Detroit, from a country club in Grosse Poine (sorry, Michael, you’re no John Cusack, even though I liked “Grosse Pointe Plank”). He shows the very process of his filmmaking, and that becomes part of his political statement. At one point he is told “you’re just a private person” and that he has no credentials. He also shows plenty of home evictions, with the sheriff in full force, putting stuff out in the light snow of a Michigan Christmas, while CEO Roger Smith talks about how great life is at Christmas. Some of the laid-off auto workers wind up getting decent jobs as sheriff’s deputies at the Gennessee County jail, which even celebrates its expansion with an overnight conjugal party.

The cause of all of the difficulties is, of course, multiple plant shrinkages and closings, starting in the late 70s or early 80s (the film gives no dates), as executives move jobs to Mexico and probably Asia. (It all started with the "loss of one product line" rather than a full plant closing. We all remember the recession around 1991 or so that culminated in part from all the leverage buyouts and offshorings of the Reagan years, as long as real estate contraction, which seems mild compared to today’s fiscal crisis in 2008. But, when watching the film, one gets the feeling that the underlying problems in the 80s with the rust belt cities led to our problems today. Big business is not transparent and gets to remain too secretive, and working people do not make enough money to buy what they make. Yes, that helps cause business depression. But it is a little more complicated. Auto workers with union jobs were extremely well paid with great benefits, and other consumers who made less could not afford to subsidize them; so GM executives needed to find cheaper labor, overseas, to make a product that non-union people could afford. It was a race to the bottom that still goes on today. It’s well to bear this in mind as Congress mulls an auto industry bailout.

But, it’s even more than that. GM brings Dr. Robert Schuller and Anita Bryant and others to town to try to preach religious capitalism, and wind up sounding like they are selling nothing. People who make a lot of money do it by manipulating the work or effort of others; it seems like they make or create nothing themselves. Sound familiar?

Some of the ex-employees have to step down, and curiously can’t hold down fast food jobs, which seem to require hard work in comparison to assembly line work. But, it’s no accident that Amway is in nearby Ada, Michigan. One of the women sells color analysis and does a “warm” and “cool” color “audit” of Michael Moore himself. Again, read the message: to make money, you have to peddle and manipulate. I recall back as far as 1970 that people looked at Amway as an insurance policy for financial security. The film also shows the rich having a "Great Gatsby" party and hiring unemployed workers as "statues" to decorate the party.

There is a clip where an executive makes an anti-semitic joke, which should not be repeated here. But there actually was a protest from the same executive later.

Flint tried to repair itself with a four block Water Place, with exhibits from GM itself, and it fails in six months. It brags that it will become a center for “tourism.” Okay, if I do go back to work for ING some day in Minneapolis (maybe that really could happen in 2009), should I make a pit stop in Flint on the way back? It’s a little out of the way.

Curiously, in my own horror screenplay “Baltimore Is Missing” I create a stripped down “Grand Rapids” of what was left of urban America in a nightmare-scape of a world that suddenly finds itself nothing more than a puppet kingdom in some higher power’s scheme. The analogy fits.

At the end of the film, the end credits that the film cannot be shown in Flint, because it has no theaters any more.

Moore says that this is his first film, that he did not go to film school (just to a lot of movies) and he learned to make movies by making this one. Flint, Michigan is his home town. The film shows his brief episode living and "working" in San Francisco (having taken his small newspaper national) before losing this backing and returning. He says he made the film while on unemployment at $99 a week. Some of the material is filmed on 16 mm. He negotiated deals with providers. Warner Brothers, although it did not offer the most money (Miramax made a bid, as did Universal) offered to show it in the most theaters, offer free admission to the unemployed, and even paid rent for two years for people shown being evicted in the film!

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