Week 23 — Michigan
I’m breaking two rules here. First of all, I’ve seen this movie — or at least most of it. Second, I had planned on excluding documentaries from this project. With those admissions out of the way…
There’s probably no person more polarizing in the realm of documentary filmmaking than Michigan native Michael Moore.
Moore’s most infamous moment was probably the 2002 Academy Awards. His latest film, Bowling for Columbine, had been an indictment of U.S. attitudes towards guns and gun control. It had set new box office records for a mainstream documentary film, been nominated for an Academy Award, and won. After coming to the podium and accepting the Oscar for Best Documentary for his film Bowling for Columbine, Moore launched into a verbal assault of then-President George W. Bush. This wouldn’t be the first time someone has used the Oscar platform to speak out for his or her political cause, but Moore’s attack on Bush came only a few days after the attack on Baghdad which marked the start of the Iraq War. Moore called Bush a “fictitious president” who brought the United States into a war for fictitious reasons. His speech was greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos. Soon, even those who didn’t know who Michael Moore was before this moment or didn’t have an opinion on the man, had something to say about him.
His detractors be damned, Moore’s contempt for Bush would drive his next project, Fahrenheit 9/11, a film which examines post-9/11 America and the Bush regime. It, too, was a hit. At the 2004 Cannes Film Festival in France, Fahrenheit 9/11 took the top honor, the Palm d’Or. Back on American shores, it was submitted as a potential nominee for the Best Picture Oscar, but did not receive a nomination. Still, Fahrenheit 9/11 received the audiences’ seal of approval and remains, to this day, the second-highest grossing documentary of all time.
With its various conspiracy theories surrounding Bush and his family’s connections to Saudi Arabian royalty, Moore’s critics have derided Fahrenheit 9/11 as a work of fiction. Yet, as far back as 1989’s Roger & Me — Moore’s first feature — Moore has been painted by his foes as a master manipulator.
What’s the truth about Michael Moore? Furthermore, what exactly is truth in documentary film?
I’m not going to attempt to answer that question today. One could write a book on the subject. If you’re interested in the topic, check out Capturing Reality, a documentary currently available on Netflix Instant Watch which I reviewed in a past Instant Gratification article.
I will give you my opinion on Michael Moore in a moment — because I do have an opinion on Michael Moore. Who doesn’t?
For now, forget about the controversy. Forget about Michael Moore, as you know him today. Forget about Fahrenheit 9/11. Forget about Bowling for Columbine. Forget about Moore’s 2002 Oscar speech. I want to talk about Roger & Me and, to be fair to Roger & Me, we need to talk about it in its historical context.
Back in the mid- to late 1980s, Michael Moore was an unknown persona to the rest of the world, but was well known to people in Michigan. A college dropout and Buick factory worker, Moore founded an alternative weekly magazine, The Flint Voice, which he later changed to The Michigan Voice. Before that, Moore’s reputation as a community activist preceded him as, at the age of 18, he was elected to his local school board.
In 1986, Moore become the editor of liberal political magazine Mother Jones and moved out to California. He was only there a short time before being fired. Some journalists report that Moore was fired for refusing to print an article he felt was inaccurate about the Sandinista human rights record in Nicaragua. (Thank you, Wikipedia!) Moore claims he was let go after putting the picture of a laid-off GM factory worker on the magazine’s cover after Mother Jones’ publisher refused to let him cover GM plant closings in his hometown of Flint.
Regardless of the whys and hows, Moore sued Mother Jones for wrongful termination and settled out of court for $58,000.
Moore knew just how he wanted to use the settlement money. He was still fixated on how the GM plant closings were affecting his hometown of Flint. (I know. I know. Moore grew up in upper-middle class Davison, not Flint. Still, his parents and grandparents worked in Flint. He probably spent plenty of time there. For all intents and purposes, Flint is Moore’s hometown.) So, Moore’s plan was to make a movie about Flint. He would make a movie about how the GM plant closings were turning the once prosperous city into a sad empty shell — a city of desperate people waking up from the American Dream in a cold sweat.
All good movies need a knockout plot, right? Moore had just the hook in mind. In what he would eventually title Roger & Me, Moore attempts to track down then GM President and CEO Roger B. Smith (the titular “Roger”) and tries to convince Smith to visit Flint to speak to some of the men and women affected by his plant closings. First, Moore tries more conventional means. He attempts to set up meetings with Smith’s secretary on the phone. When that doesn’t work — and I’m certain that Moore knew it would not — Moore takes things up a notch by showing up at the GM headquarters with a camera crew unannounced, posing as a GM stockholder or attempting to track down Smith at the country club he frequented.
Even if Moore never gets a hold of Smith, it’s fun watching him try. And if Smith never appeared on camera, Moore stacks the movies with “celebrity” interviews to balance things out. In Roger & Me, Moore interviews a number of B-level stars who are brought to Flint in order to try and boost the morale of the laid-off factory workers, including crooner Pat Boone and former Newlywed Game host Bob Eubanks, who cracks a particularly offensive homophobic and antisemitic joke on camera. Ouch. Give Moore credit for keeping his composure, a trait which served him well when he interviewed neo-Nazis and members of the KKK in 1991’s Blood in the Face (Available on Netflix Instant Watch. Viewer discretion seriously advised.)
Moore’s antics in Roger & Me balance out the more sobering parts of his film — the interviews with laid-off factory workers, a ride-along with a sheriff’s deputy as he evicted families from their homes. It’s not fun stuff. Even the attempts by Flint’s elected officials to revitalize the town, while humorous in their absurdity, are depressing. The fact that government leaders can be so misguided is sad.
There’s no attempt to mask Moore’s message in Roger & Me. Moore believes that when an entire town’s economy is based around a corporation’s enterprise, that corporation has an obligation to the people of the town. It’s not a very capitalistic concept, at least in a right-wing American capitalistic sense. You may disagree with it. So why, if you hate the message, should you care about Roger & Me?
To put it quite simply, Roger & Me changed documentary filmmaking. The various tactics and techniques that Roger & Me employs continue to be emulated today — the ironic use of stock film footage and pop music, the “gotcha” journalism techniques. Probably Roger & Me’s single greatest contribution to documentary filmmaking is Michael Moore’s decision to put himself into the movie. Prior to Roger & Me, having a filmmaker insert himself into his own movie was not commonplace. When you look at earlier documentaries, the camera is more of an observer. Moore wields the camera like a weapon, catching people with their guard down. I’m sure Eubanks — and later Charlton Heston — cursed Michael Moore’s name every night before they went to sleep after appearing in his films.
For better or worse, Roger & Me provided a template for a host of imitators. Some very entertaining films would come from the Roger & Me mold — Nick Broomfield’s Kurt and Courtney (1998) and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004) come to mind. Even reality TV probably owes something to Michael Moore. (Both Kurt and Courtney and Super Size Me are available on Netflix Instant Watch.)
For studios, Michael Moore proved that documentaries could make money — but at what cost? I’m not going to try and fool you into thinking there isn’t some loss of journalistic integrity when you make a movie in Moore’s fashion. I’m not going to try and pretend that some of Moore’s editing techniques are questionable.
Unless you’re an idiot, though, you’re going to go into a modern documentary expecting it to have an agenda. There are very few documentaries now that aren’t rooted in a particular ideology. Sometimes, whether you like a documentary or hate it, depends on whether you agree with that ideology.
Still, I wouldn’t go as far as to call the films that Michael Moore and his kin make “propaganda.” That’s hyperbole. Moore has an opinion. He expresses it on film. You don’t like his opinions? You don’t like his films? Don’t watch them. Watch something else. There are at least two films that I have watched recently dissecting Michael Moore and his films. One is pretty bad. The other is pretty good. I recommend them both.
By the way, I like Michael Moore. I agree, he can be a bit of a blowhard and I agree, he’s gotten too big for his britches. I didn’t like Capitalism: A Love Story. I thought it was his weakest film so far and pretty much a rehash of his earlier movies. BUT, at the end of the day, I agree with what he has to say. My only wish is that he close his mouth and let the camera run a little more. That’s all. At the end of the day, truth rings true. If you let the camera run, you’ll capture what you’re looking for.
Next week: Why are those birds say? And is the “short man complex” a real thing?
Roger & Me on YouTube
Matt D.’s Top Five Documentaries That Will Blow Your Mind
5. Marjoe (1972) — Why? Because it exposes the traveling evangelist/faith healer racket with help from Marjoe Gortner, a former preacher who started ministering to crowds as a child in the late 1940s. This won an Academy Award for Best Documentary. It’s not easy to find, but worth seeking out.
4. The Cove (2009) — Why? Because it exposes Japan’s widely condoned annual dolphin slaughter, an event which continues to take place to this day. Using high-definition underwater cameras, filmmakers secretly recorded the event. The results are pretty shocking. The Cove was also an Academy Award winner. (Click here to add this to your Netflix Instant Queue!)
3. This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) — Why? Because the MPAA arbitrarily controls motion picture ratings and its members’ identities are a closely guarded secret. Using the help of a private investigator, this film exposes the group. (Click here to add this to your Netflix Instant Queue!)
2. Titicut Follies (1967) — Why? Because it shows the inhumane treatment of mentally ill patients at the Bridgewater Hospital for the criminally insane. Also, because it was banned for more than 30 years because of scenes filmed without patient consent. Another tough one to find, but a must-see.
1. The Thin Blue Line (1988) — Why? Because it saved a man’s life. Seriously. Randall Dale Adams was arrested and convicted of murder in the shooting death of a police officer in Dallas in 1976. Only he didn’t do it. Two years after this documentary was released, the investigation was reopened and Adams was saved from death row. (Click here to add this to your Netflix Instant Queue!)