Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Roger & Me (Michael Moore; 1989)
Nutritional Value: Your daily required dose of class-war polemic
“It was truly the dawn of a new era.” Michael Moore’s last words of narration for the film.
This film gives us a first glimpse of a young raconteur in action. Michael Moore bumbles and stumbles his way into a hornet’s nest of corporate greed while poking (and sometimes stabbing) fun at GM for firing so many people in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. The film is ostensibly about his attempts to talk with former GM executive Roger Smith, but the title’s synecdochal tete-a-tete is best rendered “GM & FLINT.” Moore’s plucky everyman ethos (signified through his ubiquitous toothpick, disheveled hair, prop cap, tuffskin jeans, late 80s mullet, and wool sweaters) tells us he’s a populist, a working man who just happens to have a camera and the innate humor to out the whole rotten system.
If there’s an implicit argument to the film, it’s this: GM’s decision to cut jobs is moronic. They justify the cut because profits are down but their policy pragmatically cuts down the number of consumers who can buy their products. Then, when their product sales go down, they cut more jobs, which then compounds what initially prompted the firings. It’s a vicious circle.
The only problem is, the film leaves that cycle implicit. Instead, we get some good old incendiary class war-baiting.
Moore is funny. His gift is more about timing than it is the ability to write overt one-liners. He knows when his camera is catching something hilarious, and he knows when to cut. This comes through most clearly in his use of music. Whether it’s the “William Tell Overture” that soundtracks the fleet of U-Haul trucks speeding out of Flint or the barking dogs version of Jingle Bells that underscores a tenant’s eviction, Moore knows how to counterpoint the seriousness of his images with sound.
And the images are tragic. Shots of Flint’s prodigious rat population. Stretches of boarded up businesses and abandoned homes. Families getting evicted. The ludicrous attempts to resuscitate the city’s dead economy. The disconnected attitude of Flint’s wealthy residents. The oblivious comments of celebrities brought in to buoy the people’s spirits.
But the question is, what are we supposed to do about it? Corporations are greedy, hungry only for profit. Governments are corrupt, often in league with the corporations that are taking out the country’s working men and women. The church, apparently, won’t help. You can’t replace an industry that employed 30,000 people with two or even ten other employers.
Moore silently scoffs at GM lobbyist Tom Kay’s observation that a corporation can’t give employees cradle to the grave security and function under a free market system. I’d go a step further and say that you can’t offer that kind of security period. In a way, the film documents the toppling of an idol, an exposed god. Depending on your point of view, the god-corporation is either dead or malevolent. In the first case, the sincere devotees scramble around trying to make sense of a world without its overseer. In the second case, the god still exists but is no longer a kind or loving deity. What Moore can’t admit is that it was a problem that one industry ran that much of the city, that the city and its workers are as much to blame as the corporation. We get hints of this when we hear about life in the factory. On the one hand, the corporation bleeds people dry by demanding rote, dehumanizing work inside a stifling plant. On the other hand, the corporation is to blame for letting people go from this already suffocating vocation. Which one is it? Was the corporation bad before or after it let people go?
The subject of Moore’s film is emotionally and intellectually affecting. If the goal is to end the shockingly disconnected awareness of the haves with regards to the have-nots (a sort of “there but for the grace of God…” warning), then it succeeds. If instead, its point is to have us rage against a system of greed and corporate and government corruption, my response is: “Yes, Michael…and then…?”