Originally published in the New York Times September 27, 1989
America has an irrepressible new humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain and Artemus Ward. He is Michael Moore, the writer, producer and director of the rude and rollicking new documentary feature ”Roger and Me.” Much in the manner of those 19th-century forebears, Mr. Moore celebrates the oddities of the American frontier, once defined by the historian F. J. Turner as ”the meeting place of savagery and civilization, where democracy is strengthened.”
The American frontier of tall tales and garrulous fables has long since been developed into extinction. Mr. Moore’s frontier is his hometown, Flint, Mich., population 150,000, the birthplace of General Motors. As a result of the closing of various G.M. plants and the elimination of 40,000 jobs, Flint has become one of the more embarrassing eyesores in the landscape of what is supposed to be a booming American economy.
All sorts of attempts have been made to save Flint. ”Just when things were beginning to look bleak,” Mr. Moore recalls on the soundtrack, ”Ronald Reagan arrived in Flint and took 12 workers out for a pizza.” Somebody walked off with the pizzeria’s cash register, though it’s unclear whether the two events were connected.
When Money magazine named Flint ”the worst place to live in America,” ABC planned to devote an entire ”Nightline” show to the subject. The program was canceled at the last minute. The television power truck had been stolen.
Depressing figures and nutty anecdotes bubble out of ”Roger and Me” nonstop, leaving the frequently appalled audience roaring with laughter, the kind of response that Twain would cherish.
”Roger and Me,” which does not yet have a commercial distributor, will be shown at the New York Film Festival today at 9:30 P.M. and tomorrow at 6:15 P.M.
The film takes its title from Mr. Moore’s attempts to reach Roger Smith, the G.M. chairman. Mr. Moore’s plan is to take Mr. Smith on a tour of Flint and to persuade him of G.M.’s responsibility in attending to the problems of the unemployed. A modest goal, it seems, though Mr. Moore knows as well as anybody that it’s not a goal that stands any chance of being achieved. It is, however, a wonderful premise for an angry, biased, witty movie.
The portly, beady-eyed Mr. Moore, as sharp and sophisticated a documentary film maker as has come on the scene in years, manifests a down-home wonder at the world’s idiocies. With a toothpick stuck in the corner of his mouth, wearing a down jacket, jeans and the sort of cap that should have the name of a feedlot on it, he stalks the G.M. chairman in the assorted sanctuaries of the seriously rich and powerful.
He shows up at the G.M. offices in Detroit, where he has some hilarious, comparatively polite arguments with security guards and public relations people, who bite their lips as they try desperately to to hang onto their well-paid cool.
He is hustled out of both the Grosse Point Yacht Club and the Detroit Athletic Club. He attends the annual G.M. stockholders’ meeting and successfully gets the microphone, only to be cut off. On the dais, Mr. Smith brags to an associate about the fleetness with which he managed to avoid the embarrassment, not realizing that his microphone is still on.
”Roger and Me” is stuffed with such remarkable ”found” moments, which are not really found at all. They may be unplanned, but only a film maker thoroughly at ease with his subject, and aware of various possibilities, is going to be in a position to find those moments.
They include Mr. Moore’s not terribly warm encounter with Mr. Smith at a reception following the G.M. chairman’s annual ”Christmas message,” a scene cross-cut with the Christmas Eve eviction of an unemployed G.M. worker.
To save their city after the G.M. pullout, the Flint city fathers approve a series of schemes that sound as if they’d come out of the head of Evelyn Waugh, reborn as a Flint booster. They spend $13 million to build a Hyatt Regency Hotel and $100 million or so more for a theme park called AutoWorld, both of which quickly go broke. They attempt to boost morale by bringing in Pat Boone and Anita Bryant to perform for the tired masses. The television evangelist the Rev. Robert Schuller is paid a reported $20,000 to tell his audience, ”You can turn your hurt into a halo.”
After photographing a radiant Miss Michigan in a Flint parade waving to crowds standing in front of closed stores, Mr. Moore tries to get her reaction to Flint’s ever-present poverty. Her smile vanishes as she tries to show concern. Does she have any message for the people of Flint? The smile returns. ”Just keep your fingers crossed for me as I go for the gold!” Miss Michigan did, indeed, become Miss America that year (1988).
Mr. Moore is clearly someone who believes that poverty and corporate neglect are sins, and he doesn’t pull his punches. He doesn’t appeal to easy sentiment. He demolishes the television personality Bob Eubanks, of ”The Newlywed Game,” just by letting him talk on and on.
Mr. Moore makes no attempt to be fair. Playing fair is for college football. In social criticism, anything goes, as it goes triumphantly in ”Roger and Me.”
ROGER AND ME, directed, written and produced by Michael Moore; cinematography, Christopher Beaver, John Prusak, Kevin Rafferty and Bruce Schermer; edited by Wendey Stanzler and Jennifer Beman. At Alice Tully Hall, as part of the New York Film Festival. 83 minutes. This film has no rating.
The Bunny Lady . . . Rhonda Britton
The Tourism Chief . . . Steve Wilson
Narration . . . Michael Moore
WITH: Roger Smith, Ronald Reagan, Miss America, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, the Rev. Robert Schuller, Bob Eubanks, Deputy Fred Ross
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