Prophet and Loss: I watch “Roger and Me”

Prophet and Loss: I watch “Roger and Me” August 7, 2016

Along with Barcelona, my other RNC counterprogramming was Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary, Roger and Me. It’s structured around Moore’s quest to get a personal interview with Roger Smith, the head of General Motors, who is in the process of basically devastating Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich. by closing the GM plant there. It’s incredibly powerful–I don’t think there’s a wasted frame. A few thoughts, beyond my basic thought which is just, “You should see this movie.”

Artistically it is just so tight. Moore uses all these techniques that make me want to punch lesser films in the reel–the ironic smash cut, the ironic musical choice–but when he does it they’re earned, not cheap. Maybe the most obvious example of this is the use of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” See, even now if you’re reading this (and you haven’t already seen the movie) you’re groaning, aren’t you? Ugh, what a cliche! But when it comes the song isn’t chosen–at least, it isn’t chosen by Moore–and it takes your breath away.

The personal focus on Roger Smith also seems gimmicky in concept. And okay, it’s kind of gimmicky. Moore is trolling. But without Roger as the target the movie would be a political statement–ten-point plans, solutionism–when what it actually turns out to be is prophetic.

I don’t mean “prophetic” as in “predicting the future,” although Flint’s present-tense is still a story of governmental abandonment and suffering. I mean “prophetic” in the sense that the Hebrew prophets–like Jesus, like the Church Fathers, like virtually every Christian leader until about five minutes ago–call for personal repentance on the part of the wealthy. There are some collective solutions, like jubilee years. But there’s also, over and over, a constant drumbeat calling attention to the choices specific rich people (not systems) make that keep workers suffering. Ever since I read The Humiliation of Sinners (which isn’t even about this!) I’ve been thinking about the way the Church in France simply assumed that the rich were prone to certain sins: Power corrupts, so you as a priest need to ask your wealthy penitents in confession whether they have committed usury, or withheld just wages, etc. These days you still hear that stuff from popes, but where else?

Moore identifies some structural problems (the phenomenal moment with the animatronic worker thanking the robot who just took his job) but offers no structural solutions. I’m not adamantly opposed to structural solutions but a) do you in fact think Michael Moore would come up with good ones? I don’t. Nor do I think I would. I’m glad he didn’t muddle his documentary by telling me how Uncle Sam could fix everything with this one weird trick.

and b) Humans interpret laws and regulations as damage, and route around them. If you shift people’s incentives without changing their hearts, you just buy yourself some time before they come up with some workaround for their wickedness. The real minimum wage is the price point at which your job will be eliminated or automated, etc etc.

So Moore is a prophet. You know who absolutely, shockingly abandons the responsibility of the prophet, in this movie? American churches. I doubt Moore is being entirely fair when he portrays the Christian response to Flint’s collapse but on the other hand why should he be, when a little bit of optimistic prosperity gospel does so much damage to the souls and solidarity of poor and working people? The churches come in, with their celebrities, and they address themselves to the unemployed (not to the unemployer), and they say, “Believe in yourself and try harder, and you’ll succeed!”

You know things have come to a bad pass when the only person singing the Magnificat is Michael Moore.

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