To the editors:
Your review of Roger & Me [February 2] contained your usual attention to cinematic history and criticism and a creative, intelligent way of integrating these issues in a way that’s accessible to a non-academic reading audience. This approach sets you apart from every other writer on cinema in Chicago.
On the other hand, your discussion of the movie and your endorsement of it contradict one another. While you characterize Moore’s film as nihilistic, comically scornful of both victims and villains, guilty of “cheap tactics,” and politically ineffectual, you begin and end the review with praise. The credibility, authority and motivations of a film and its filmmakers which employs such methods should seriously be questioned, especially a film which purports to be, and which you imply to be, “political.”
Your use of the word “political” to apply to Roger & Me is at best a fanciful wish fulfillment for such a film within a Hollywood context that is, as you stated, “cowardly and conformist.” By “political” then I take it you mean “topical” since it is ostensibly about the GM layoffs and the effects on Flint, Michigan, real events and/or situations in a real city. Yet real politics always implies action and by your own description, the film “doesn’t even begin to show what form that action might take.” A film that evokes and encourages feelings of impotence and self-hatred could not possibly be political in any kind of real sense unless the politics were reactionary and oppressive.
Even more inappropriate is your use of the adjective “radical” coupled with the noun “critique.” If we could argue on the proper usage of “political,” surely “radical” still accrues some specific meanings to itself such as a real questioning of the basic assumptions by which we live and the problems we face. In the case of Flint, Michigan, one question is why no reasonable, effectual solutions could be found for the city’s economic and social devastation. The GM spokesperson, easily the most coherent of any of the film’s interviewees, said it best and I paraphrase: big business (read: capitalism) responds only to its own needs and will not be held responsible for how those needs and responses impact on the lives of laborers. That essentially is the nature of big business. Those statements could be labeled as radical critique, as a rationalization for status quo, or a simple exposition of “the way things are” depending upon your politics. If you’re willing to attribute radical thinking to Michael Moore based on his inclusion of this interview then you’re a great deal more generous than I am. Though at one point when talking to the mayor of Flint, he asks if another auto worker occupation of the plant would help, Moore’s primary intent is to bait and embarrass his interviewee rather than raise a serious suggestion of collective action.
The authority that the GM spokesperson carries in the film compared with the condescension with which the other interviews are carried out (and this includes the victims) reveals Moore’s real agenda as well as his real attitudes. The only people who don’t end up looking stupid or pathetic in Roger & Me are the people who are supposed to be the “bad guys.” Smith and the spokesperson may seem callous and cruel, but they aren’t made fun of in the unrelentingly scornful manner to which everyone else is subjected.
Of course, the person who ends up looking the best is Michael Moore, that charming, chubby jokester who braves the dangerous halls of the GM building on behalf of thousands of unemployed who are obviously too stupid to do anything for themselves. The film’s title and its prologue, an autobiographical sketch of Moore’s life (which you don’t mention in your review), should establish in our minds what this film is really about and what purpose it serves: Instead of empathy, Moore’s film primarily conveys his antipathy toward his hometown and serves to promote Michael Moore in a way perfectly consonant with the methods of public relations departments of auto manufacturers and the campaign staffs of actors who would be president.
The dehumanization you cite which characterizes Moore’s treatment of the un- or under-employed primarily reflects this solipsism and thus his failure to grasp the importance or necessity of any kind of collective and autonomous action on the part of the workers. Through his autobiographical introduction we learn that he was the only one in his family not to work in the auto industry and of other incidents in his life in which he tries to portray himself as the individualist, the outsider, the eccentric. While this information presents itself superficially as self-effacement, beneath all this winking modesty hides a big ego, the kind that strides into the GM building (the camera several deferential feet behind him) not once but three times in baseball cap and baggy pants to confront Roger Smith, the kind of ego who finds it easy to speak on behalf of those less fortunate than he, the kind of ego that has no difficulty making fun of what the unemployed do to survive as in the case of the woman who raises rabbits and the man who gives blood. Both people provide Moore with jibes to end his movie. His feigned identification with the working class only makes this smug moral superiority that much more offensive. In fact, the film glosses political concerns and has probably achieved its success not through the strength of its “critique” or its relevance but because its fundamental allegiances are not working class. This film is not produced through a concrete, material connection to any sort of labor movement or consciousness. This is why it fails as politics and succeeds as entertainment.
Finally, I can’t find anything to justify using the word “documentary” to define a film that deliberately distorts fact to serve its own purpose. I admit that these misrepresentations hardly assume the importance of the lies we’re fed by our own government and by news agencies but I think that “documentary” implies the creation of credibility which implies something about the filmmaker’s attitudes towards facts and the truth. Moore himself admits to misrepresenting himself to get into certain places for filming and this hardly contributes to a positive image of him as a serious documentarist. Further, his frequently tangential use of archival footage attests to his consistently sloppy attention to detail as well as to his apparent ignorance of a tradition of documentary filmmaking which includes films that critique and analyze rather than merely pastiche or ridicule.
If Roger & Me is a documentary it’s not about Flint or corporate greed but rather about one man’s rather elitist attitudes about Flint which amounts to self-interest and personal gain on the part of Michael Moore. Maybe that makes it entertaining but it doesn’t make it political or radical or even a “must-see.”