Michael Moore became a parody of himself long ago. The trucker cap was the most obvious sign. His look hasn't changed in 25 years, and neither have his ideas. His vision of himself and of America is totally static and his prescription for the United States in its various woes remains pretty simplehe thinks America should be more like Canada, or rather what he imagines Canada to be like. His recent divorce, which , didn't help the populist image. The man has become a punchline, a limousine liberal poorly aping a working man. But unlike Moore himself, his greatest film, Roger & Me, has only grown better with time. It turns 25 years old this week, and from that distance it seems less like a documentary and more like a work of prophecy.
Roger & Me justly made Michael Moore famous. It remains the definitive documentary study of post-industrial America, a both chilling and heartwarming portrait of what happens when the economic order underlying society is altered, and the terms by which people live are completely transformed. Perhaps what is most depressing about re-watching Roger & Me today is how normal everything in the documentary feels. In the late '80s, we were actually shocked by factory work being shipped to poorer countries and working people having their jobs taken away. We thought it was wrong that executives would fire thousands of employees and then give themselves raises. The destruction of the American middle class and of the cities they built was still new. We thoughtwe really believed, only 25 years agothat the American Dream was not just a scam or a fantasy or a fluke for the fortunate, but a vision of freedom and prosperity to which every American citizen was entitled. Not only is that vision of the American middle class gone, it's now been gone for so long that even the outrage has passed. This is just the way we expect things to be now.
The economic process at work is established quickly at the beginning of the film. Roger Smith, the chairman of General Motors, was one of the pioneers of globalization. He closed down plants in Michigan and moved them to Mexico, where cheaper labor abounded. He used the leverage of the threat of moving the others away to weaken the unions terminally. These decisions led to massive profits for the corporation, a hugely widening economic inequality, and the total erosion of the economic basis of Flint, Michigan.
The brilliance of Roger & Me is that these economic questions are the subject of the movie but not its focus. Moore concentrates on the people, whose eccentricities reveal the underlying reality of the situation better than any argument ever could. Roger Smith gives a speech on the "totality" of the spirit of Christmas at the GM Christmas show, while Moore shows a poor family being evicted at the same time. The fraudulent sentimentality of the ownership class could not be more fully exposed. They want to talk about brotherly love at the same time they're screwing people over. Moore highlights the comedy of the situation, too, in of the movie featuring a woman who makes ends meet by raising rabbits for fur and meat. She was so funny that her presence in the movie was a at the time of its release. Was Moore making fun of desperate people? In hindsight, I can't see mockery in those scenes, only a kind of melancholy tenderness. A collapsing economy makes people do ridiculous things. It sometimes turns them into ridiculous people. Moore is just showing it.
The whole adds up to a compelling portrait of a culture in transition. At one point, Flint, in an attempt to save itself, with a motif of what the city used to be. Literally, there's a recreation of the main-street stores that once flourished. Nobody shows up. The mall cost tens of millions of dollars and closed quickly. (It should be noted that some of Moore's chronology related to the park and other elements in the film .) Pat Boone comes to town and talks about how America is still a great land of opportunity. Reagan comes to town and tells the workers to move to Texas. More or less, nobody knows what to do or what to say to the victims of the new economic order, so they fall back on platitudes and bromides. The blood clinics are crammed with people who trade their plasma for a little money. Crime spikes. The rich throw parties at which they hire unemployed workers to pose as living statues.
I found the rich-people parties particularly poignant. We are meant to feel disgust at their luxury, but the parties seem, by contemporary standards, muted, down-at-heels affairs. If only Moore knew what was coming, I thought while re-watching. If only he had foreseen that Tyco would have .
Roger & Me is supposed to be a portrait of an extraordinary situation, the situation of Flint, which was extraordinary in 1989. But what happened to Flint happened soon after to Detroit and after Detroit to every place else where manufacturing was a key component of the local economy. What Roger and Me described as a bizarre extreme is now the new normal. Moore is joking at the end when he says, "It was truly the dawn of a new era." He couldn't have had any idea how right he would turn out to be.
The humanism of Moore's response is what makes it worth re-watching now. The gift of Roger & Me is that it put that confrontation with actual human beings, in all their folly and toughness, right at the center of the economic discussion. I can't think of a film or a television show that has managed to do the same since. Maybe The Wire. Roger & Me is political, and it is expressly confrontational in its politics. But it is the opposite of the hectoring outrage that overwhelmed Michael Moore's later movies and overwhelmed to a certain extent the American left over the same period. Moore does not pander in simplistic slogans. Rather he just reveals the consequences of economic indifference in the lives of people.
The main joke of Roger & Me is his attempt to interview Roger Smith. He does finally get a few seconds at the GM Christmas party. He asks Smith to go with him to Flint, to see the people whose lives he has destroyed, but Smith won't go. He didn't want to look the human beings in the face. Moore couldn't force Roger Smith to see the humanity behind the But he did force everybody else.