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Rob Edelman: ROGER & ME Revisited

Could it be? Has it been 25 years-- or, in other words, a whole quarter-century-- since the now-landmark documentary ROGER & ME placed its director, Michael Moore, at the epicenter of the American independent cinema? It certainly is and, this year, the Toronto Film Festival is presenting a special 25th-anniversary screening of ROGER & ME.

Back in 1989, ROGER & ME premiered in Toronto. It walked off with the festival’s top prize, the People’s Choice Award. Moore, of course, will be on hand-- across the years, he has had a high profile in Toronto-- and he also will be offering what is being billed as a “keynote conversation” in a festival event that will spotlight the “current landscape of documentary production, financing, and distribution.”

ROGER & ME is of course the saga of the manner in which General Motors abandoned Flint, Michigan, which is Moore’s hometown. Once upon a time, Flint was a thriving industrial city, its economy dependent upon the eleven GM plants that were the area’s economic backbone. But Roger Smith, the company chairman, ordered the factories closed, eliminating 30,000 jobs. He moved production south of the border, where the hiring of non-union labor would earn General Motors higher profits. The Flint that is depicted in ROGER & ME is an economically depressed, crime-ridden ghost town and, a quarter-century later, the question of the moment is: Has anything changed in Flint since 1989 and the premiere of ROGER & ME? According to Moore, at that time there still were 50,000 GM-related jobs in Flint. Today, that number has tellingly dwindled to 4,000.

Just before the theatrical release of ROGER & ME, I interviewed Moore. A number of his comments resonate today, and these range from his approach to storytelling to the price of a movie ticket once upon a time. In explaining his inability to pin down Roger Smith for an interview for the film and also bring him to Flint to observe first-hand the human toll of his corporate policy, Moore explained, “All he had to give me was five minutes [of his time]. Perhaps he would have if I’d been from a network, because that would mean that I’d be part of a `team’ and would play by a certain set of rules. But I wasn’t playing by those rules.”

Because of its subject, ROGER & ME might easily have been a relentlessly grim expose. Instead, the outrage Moore expressed is tempered with the same irony and wit that is highlighted in his subsequent documentaries. Moore told me that he chose this approach because “I’m a person with a sense of humor. That’s who I am, and this prevents me from sinking too deeply into despair. You have to develop this when you live in a place like Flint. I wanted to make a movie for the mass audience, one that people would go to see on a Friday night. I didn’t want to show an hour-and-a-half of depressing images, the same old unemployment lines and bag ladies.

“It’s a very serious story. A very angry story. But I’m also asking you to sit in the dark for an hour-and-a-half, and I’m taking $6 of your money. So I think the movie should be entertaining. You already know that there’s unemployment. Why should you have to pay $6 just to be told that?”

Moore, who has since proved himself a master of self-promotion, concluded by observing that ROGER & ME is “a great way to spend an evening. Eat some Goobers and enjoy the show. And, hopefully, leave [the theater] thinking about what has happened, and what is your responsibility as a citizen of this democracy.”

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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