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Roger and Me

Documentary films are sometimes the poor relation in the motion picture industry.  Despite Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that documentaries are “the noblest of genres,” their appeal is usually limited, and their profitability is questionable.  It is therefore rewarding for documentary filmmakers when one of the genre strikes a chord with the public and becomes a hit.  Michael Moore’s 1989 Documentary Roger & Me was just such a documentary.  Moore told the story of the effect that GM plant closings in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, had on that community and his efforts to obtain an interview with then-GM Chairman Roger Smith.

Roger and Me

Roger and Me by Moore

However, Michael Moore did not simply run film through his camera and then assemble it together in a control room.  The film can and should be examined on the artistic merits of a documentary, all the more so because it reached a wide audience.  The question becomes: was it subject or style that appealed to people (or both?).  According to an author, “documentaries deal with facts rather than fiction, with real people, places and events rather than imagined one”.  Moore introduces the audience to this real story by placing it in the context of his own life: born and raised in Flint, Michigan, child of an extended family who all seemed to work at the various General Motors plants in the city, moving back home shortly before the ax fell.

As a part of corporate restructuring in the late 1980s, corporations (including GM) closed their plants in the US, moved to Mexico, and laid off hundreds of thousands of workers in the drive for greater profitability.  Roger & Me presents the human side of those layoffs, the community disaster that befell Flint, the naive optimism and empty platitudes that the people of Flint were forced to digest, individual efforts to eke out a living, and corporate indifference to the entire process.

Roger and Me, The Documentary

“Documentarists…shape their raw materials through their selection of details.  These details are organized into a coherent artistic pattern”.  The overriding theme that keeps popping up in Roger & Me is that of irony, Moore juxtapositions a dichotomy in Flint that borders on the absurd.  The irony is especially poignant in the choice of music soundtrack.  At one point, Moore overplays the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” over a moving shot of row after row of abandoned houses and empty storefronts.  The marriage of these two media—upbeat song and depressing film—shocks the audience by their great contrast.   Such use of music tends to heighten the dramatic tension that the film wishes to portray.  Similarly, one hears one interviewee say that Flint is “a great place to live.”  The camera then cuts to the Sheriff Deputy evicting families.

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