Michael Moore Returns To Telluride
September 1992

Geoff Hanson

When you look at the schedule for the 9th annual Telluride Film Festival, you will see several slots toward the end of the weekend that say to be announced. Those slots are saved for the Cinderella films that invariably emerge over the course of the weekend- films whose popularity the festival directors could never have predicted.

Films in the last 10 years that have filled those slots include "Blue Velvet", "El Norte", "My Left Foot", and of course, "Roger and Me", Michael Moore's biting documentary about the impact that General Motors plant closings had on his home town of Flint, Michigan, which set the Telluride Film Festival on its ear in 1989.

"I remember [Bill and Stella Pence] telling me that they had added more screenings of "Roger and Me" than they had added for any other film in the history of the festival." Moore recalls.

Moore is back in Telluride this year, testing whether lightning can strike twice, with his 25 minute sequel to "Roger and Me", "Pets or Meat: The Return To Flint".

The new film marks an opportunity for fans of Moore's previous films to see how many of the characters have fared over the past three years.

What was all the fuss about in 1989? The story line of "Roger and Me" reads like a Vittorio De Sica film- General Motors closes several plants in Flint (G.M.'s birthplace), resulting in the loss of over 30,000 jobs. Yet, Moore, who had never before made a film, managed to turn the story into a comedy, albeit a dark one.

"I figured who wants to sit in a dark theater and watch people collect surplus federal cheese?" Moore said when the film first came out. "How's that going to be entertaining? How's that going to change anything?"

Moore decided his film had to be funny, the kind of picture people would go out and see on a Friday night. To achieve that goal Moore enlisted the help of Kevin Rafferty ("Atomic Café"). Moore flew Rafferty to Flint (partly with funds raised through Bingo games) to give Moore and his novice crew a crash course in filmmaking.

The premise behind "Roger and Me" is simple. Moore sets out with his film crew to find G.M. chairman Roger Smith and convince him to come to Flint and see firsthand the devastation wrought by the closings of the General Motors plants. While Moore is continually rebuffed in his attempts to see Smith, he introduces the audience to several natives of Flint who are trying to make a living in the wake of the plant closings- the most memorable being Rhonda, who sells rabbits for "pets or meat" and Deputy Sheriff Fred Ross who we see evicting people from their homes.

Moore also chronicles the fruitless efforts to turn Flint into a thriving tourist center by pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a Hyatt Hotel, AutoWorld, (which Moore claims is like trying to draw people to New Jersey to visit an amusement park called Chemical World), and the Water Street Pavilion. All three projects went bankrupt.

Moore combines these stories with news footage chronicling Flint's demise; segments on Flint's wealthy; and interviews with people like Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, TV host Bob Eubanks, and Miss Michigan, Kay Loni Rae Rafko, who tells the people to root for her as she goes for Miss America.

Moore had no idea if his experiment had worked when he arrived in Telluride in 1989. But it didn't take long for him to get his answer.

"We were fairly stunned by the whole experience," Moore says. "We were just shocked by the reception we got in Telluride. You have to understand that we had been working on the film for over three years, we had no money, we only got to Telluride because they flew us there. We had left the lab in New York around three in the morning and got on a 7 a.m. flight out of Laguardia, so we hadn't even seen the final print. The first time we ever saw it was on the screen of the Mason's Cinema in Telluride. It was one of those moments I'll never forget. People started laughing during the titles, and it was then that we thought we might have pulled it off."

While in Telluride, Moore was besieged by offers from studios and independent distributors, all vying for the rights to distribute "Roger and Me". (He eventually settled on Warner Bros., which paid $3 million for the rights.) General Motors also flew a woman from the public relations department to Telluride to see the film.

"As I understand it, she went back and told the people at G.M. not to worry because it was a documentary and people don't go to see documentaries," Moore says. "G.M. also sent someone to Toronto and the reaction was very much the same, which was, 'It's very popular, but it's not our crowd. These people drive Hondas, they're foreign car people, these festivalgoers. The American people are not going to embrace a documentary about a dying industrial town, especially a comedy about a dying industrial town."

General Motors clearly miscalculated. "Roger and Me" became the most successful documentary in film history, playing in over 1300 movie theaters across the country and grossing over $25 million worldwide.

In Telluride, Moore witnessed the beginning of a snowball effect that became bigger and bigger and didn't stop for an entire year.

"From the moment we arrived in Telluride, we really didn't get back home for more than a day at a time for the next 11 months. There were all the things in dealing with Warner Brothers. Then we went on a huge promotional tour in which we visited 110 cities. Then the people from Flint who worked on the film went on their own tour of depressed cities, showing the film in union halls and community centers. They went to about 30 cities with that. Then, there was the video release, then the European release, and each time I had to go on the road to promote the film and get people to do exactly what the G.M. P.R. woman said they wouldn't do, which was to see a documentary."

At first, the critical response to "Roger and Me" was overwhelmingly positive. However, starting with an article that appeared in the November/December 1989 issue of "Film Comment", there came a slew of criticism of Moore's tactics.

Critics claimed that Moore had played tricks with the film's chronology. For instance, there is a scene in the film in which Ronald Reagan comes to Flint to take a group of unemployed auto workers out for lunch. Critics pointed out that Reagan had actually come to Flint in 1980, not in 1986 as the film suggested.

Critics also pointed out that the efforts to turn Flint into a haven for tourists actually occurred long before the plant closings of the mid-eighties.

"The disinformation campaign against 'Roger and Me' was run by General Motors," Moore says. "They had a fulltime P.R. staff cranking out as much information as they could to gum up the works. Luckily, by the time they did it, it was too late and it didn't stop people from seeing the film.

"There are no dates in the film," Moore counters. "People who attacked 'Roger and Me' invented their own dates and said, 'See, that happened before the film started' I didn't mention dates on purpose. I wanted to make a film that was essentially a portrait of Flint, Mich. through the 1980s. Everything that happened in the film happened as a result of the factories that started to close around 1980. The chronology, if you look at it that way, is entirely correct. This was not C-Span. I wasn't trying to show the exact in-time sequence of what was happening. But all the statistics, all the facts are correct. Reagan did come to Flint, and he came because of the factory closings, and he did come to take those people out for lunch."

Moore says he feels that the criticism of "Roger arid Me" came primarily from liberals who felt guilty about what happened in Flint, while they themselves were enjoying tremendous financial success.

"I think working class people respond to this kind of dark humor," Moore says. "It's the upper middle-class white liberals who get uncomfortable because they find themselves laughing at people who are having a hard time when they themselves did so well in the '80s. Upper middle class liberals were the most nervous about "Roger and Me" because even though they claimed to be liberals and against Reagan, they all did pretty well with their stocks and trust funds. Imagine how you'd feel if you made all this loot at the expense of people like those in "Roger and Me", and you're forced to sit and watch the film. That backlash occurred from people who didn't want it rubbed in their face. There was no backlash from the working people in Flint, or the unemployed, or the blacks. It never came from the people I was championing, it came from white upper middle-class liberals who were strangely brought into the G.M. propaganda."

Moore took half of the profits from "Roger and Me" and established The Center for Alternative Media. In the last 18 months, Moore has given grants to independent filmmakers totaling over $250,000. Moore also gives foundation grants to social/political action groups working for change in their communities.

Through his foundation, Moore was able to help his friend Kevin Rafferty by giving him and James Ridgeway $ 15,000 to make "Feed", which also enjoys its world premiere this weekend.

Since the release of "Roger and Me", Moore has been working on his first fiction film, "Canadian Bacon", a political satire about the new world order. Moore took time off from his current project, which begins shooting this winter, to make "Pets or Meat".

"With the election coming up, I had a sense that the issues were going to be who was sleeping with whom, and not the depression that the country was going through, and that really bothered me," Moore says. "And I knew that things had gotten worse in Flint, and in the three years since "Roger and Me" played in Telluride, the depression has hit the entire country. I said that constantly when we screened the film, 'View this film as a coming attraction became this is coming to your hometown. The party that the Reagan administration threw in the 1980s, the bill is going to come due for that party, and you're going to have to pay it, just like Flint is paying for it now.' Three years later, we're still in the grips of one of the longest recessions in the history of this country.

In "Pets or Meat", Moore catches up with Rhonda the bunny woman and deputy Fred in addition to the Amway color analyst. It seems hard times have hit Roger Smith as well, as G.M. announced that they were cutting his retirement package by $ 100,000 a year, leaving the former chairman with a mere $1 million annual stipend to get by on. In "Pets or Meat", Moore offers to help out his former co-star.

"Rhonda has moved further down the food chain to survive," Moore says. "She's gone from rabbits to mice which she sells as snake food. Fred has expanded into car repossessions, in addition to evictions. The color analyst woman tells how a colleague was hired by the city of Flint to color analyze downtown Flint and place different color banners on the boarded up stores on the street to create that overall happy feeling. I show a sampling of the different talk shows I appeared on after 'Roger and Me', and the publicity tour I was on to show the strange world I had found myself in. And of course, Roger Smith figures in to the film."

"Pets or Meat" debuts on the PBS program Point of View on Sept. 28. Moore says he 's negotiating with a few distributors in hopes of grouping "Pets or Meat" with two other shorts and billing it as one program.

Copyright 1992 Telluride Film Festival

 

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