FILMS

GM gets the gears

A novice film-maker takes on an auto giant

Brian D. Johnson January 15 1990
FILMS

GM gets the gears

A novice film-maker takes on an auto giant

Brian D. Johnson January 15 1990

GM gets the gears

FILMS

A novice film-maker takes on an auto giant

ROGER & ME Directed by Michael Moore

The scruffy man in the baseball cap had trouble getting anyone to take him seriously. He had never made a movie before, and he looked as if he

did not even have enough money to process the film in his 16-mm camera.

But Michael Moore, novice moviemaker from Flint, Mich., knew that he had a good story. And he pursued it like a terrier. His subject was the devastation of Flint by the elimination of about 35,000 jobs at General Motors. But it was to be a comedy, a farcical quest in which the little guy seeks an audience with the big boss.

Moore cast himself as the little guy;

General Motors chairman Roger Smith was unwittingly cast as the boss. The result, a brilliant documentary titled Roger & Me, takes slingshot aim at the headlights of America’s automotive empire—and scores a direct hit. Moore’s film is an astonishing, enraging and often poignant look at the decay of capitalism in the Rust Belt. It is also one of the funniest comedies in years.

But what is most remarkable about the movie is its success. Documentaries, no matter how good, rarely reach a mass audience in North America— especially political documentaries. But after a lively bidding war among the major Hollywood studios, Moore sold distribution rights to Warner Brothers for $3.5 million. And this month, the studio conglomerate that made Batman is releasing Roger & Me in 965 theatres across the continent. Strong opening crowds indicate that the movie, which cost $185,000, will easily

shatter the box-office record for a documentary, currently held by Woodstock, a Warner product that grossed $23 million.

Moore has called his movie “a cross between Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and The Grapes of Wrath.” And that is a fair description. The film opens with Moore, the 35-year-old son of a Flint autoworker, reminiscing about growing up in the birthplace of General Motors. Using archival clips from the 1950s, he shows how the city has been transformed from the cradle of the American dream to a junkyard of industrial despair. Wondering whether the GM chairman has the answers, Moore sets out on an Oz-

like search to find him. With the camera rolling, he looks for Smith at his head office, his yacht club, his golf course—all to no avail.

Meanwhile, the movie records a doomed campaign to revive Flint’s economy. A new luxury hotel, unable to attract much more than a Scrabble convention, goes bankrupt. And a

$116-million indoor theme park called Autoworld closed after six months. “It was like asking people to go to New Jersey to visit Chemical World,” Moore says in his narration. One city project that does succeed, however, is a towering new jail—built because of the city’s soaring crime rate. And Moore’s crew is on hand as Flint’s wealthier citizens celebrate the jail’s opening by paying $116 to spend a gala night behind bars.

Shrewdly playing the naive Everyman, Moore captures some absurd situations on camera. He meets laid-off workers posing as human statues at a glamorous Gatsby party. He

films an evangelist hired by the city to find a spiritual cure for unemployment. And he gets visiting celebrities to reveal their insensitivity—from GM jingle-veteran Pat Boone (“Take a ride today in your Chevrolet”) to singer Anita Bryant (who crooned the praises of spark plugs before becoming an orange-juice queen). Moore also interviews game-show host Bob Eubanks, a Flint native, who cracks a lurid joke insulting several minorities at once. Eubanks, who clearly never expected his comments to reach the big screen, has since pleaded that the footage be cut.

Occasionally, Moore also makes fun of those people who are creating exotic alteratives to regular jobs. Displaying the deadpan cruelty of a blue-collar David Letterman, he interviews one woman who breeds rabbits (“stewers, fryers or pets”) in her backyard, and another who runs a Tupperware-type business in per-

sonal color analysis. But he displays empathy in documenting a series of evictions. As shots of a black family being thrown out of their home on Christmas Eve are intercut with a scene of Smith delivering a pious Christmas message about “individual dignity,” Moore’s unstated anger becomes graphically clear.

Roger & Me makes its point with irony rather than sentiment. And the film-maker says that he tried to avoid dwelling on depressing images. “Most people, when they’re depressed, just want to forget why they’re depressed,” he told Maclean’s last week. “I wanted the images in this film to stick.” Moore added that he hopes his movie will not just entertain, but spur people to become politically active.

A former editor of the glossy leftwing magazine Mother Jones, Moore, who is unmarried, sold his house and furniture and staged bingo games to finance his movie. “But I never felt it was a risk,” he said. “I always thought of it as a mainstream, mass-audience movie.” In making a deal with him, Warner Brothers accepted some unusual conditions. It offered free

screenings in Flint while agreeing to rent or purchase houses for families

that the movie showed being evicted—and to leave one seat in every

theatre where the movie plays empty for Roger Smith. The GM chairman

recently said that he refuses to see the film because he is “not much for sick humor.” Moore’s response: “Any guy who eliminates 35,000 jobs at a time when his company is making $5 billion in profits is into sick humor.” The success of Roger & Me reaffirms the power of protest—and art. Among all of the projects sparked by Flint’s decline, it is one that worked. But asked if his movie may be the exception that restores confidence in American free enterprise, Moore is quick to reply: “It’s a fluke—pay no attention to it.”

BRIAN D. JOHNSON