|Copyright 1989 Newsday|
|Suddenly He's In, Unlike Flint; Michael Moore's Film About Laid-off Michigan Auto Workers is Being Promoted, He Notes Ironically, As The Season's 'Feel-Good Hit'||December 17, 1989|
|By D.D. Guttenplan|
"I had this dream," Michael Moore is saying as he bounds into his hotel room.
"The revolution started and there I was
in this limo. I was banging on the windows, screaming 'No! No! Warners made me
ride this.' So I made them take back the
It is a snowy afternoon shortly before the opening of "Roger & Me," and Moore, the "Me" in the title, is doing his best not to lose his grip on reality.
Put yourself in his shoes: An out-of-work left-wing journalist moves back home just as the town's biggest employer - the world's largest corporation - lays off 35,000 people. He decides to make a movie, a comedy, about the devastation that follows. Having no film experience, he holds weekly Bingo games to raise money, sells his house and most of his possessions, completes the picture, and, still desperately in debt, sends it off to film festivals in Vancouver, Telluride and New York. It wins lots of prizes, moves even big-city audiences to actual applause, and is snapped up by Warner Brothers, which promotes it as, in writer-director-producer Moore's words, "the feel-good hit of the Christmas season."
If the making of "Roger & Me" were a Hollywood screenplay, it would never get "green-lighted." But then, if you were casting the part of a nervy 35-year-old film maker whose first effort is on Rolling Stone magazine's Ten Best list weeks before it opens to general audiences, you would hardly pick the blond, bespectacled bearlike young man squinting quizzically under the bill of his Warner Brothers gimme cap.
"All the hotels where real people stay were full, so they had to put us here," Moore says. Here is Morgan's, the Madison Avenue hotel too chic to advertise its existence with so much as a nameplate on the building. Moore orders from room service - "a burger and fries and a Coke. And can I have a scoop of vanilla icecream with maybe some chocolate sauce on it?" - then gets back to his improbable story.
He is the son of an autoworker, the nephew of a man who in 1937 sat down inside a GM plant and refused to leave, even when the National Guard was called in to break the strike. Eventually the company gave in to the workers' demands, and the United Auto Workers union was born.
Michael Moore's medium was printer's ink, not axle grease. He founded and edited his own newspaper, The Michigan Voice, then moved to San Francisco to take over the editorship of Mother Jones magazine. Less than a year later he was fired, partly over his refusal to publish an article critical of Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
In "Roger & Me," which begins with scenes from Moore's home movies, he treats the incident humorously, depicting it as a culture clash between his own working-class values and the cappuccino-crazed hedonism of San Francisco media types. But here in New York, Moore admits, "It was a pretty devastating experience, being fired.
"I'm stuck out there in San Francisco. I don't get out of bed for a month. I'm depressed and I start going to a lot of movies just to relieve the depression. I probably went to a movie a day. I would go to see everything - [Sylvester] Stallone, Arnold [Schwartzenegger], everything except ninja movies and Neil Simon - and I thought 'Well, Why not try and make a movie?'
"It didn't look that hard. Most of 'em are pretty lousy. I didn't know what I'd do it on, so I moved back home to Flint, and two days after I move back [GM chairman] Roger Smith goes on TV and announces these plant closings and I said 'Well, that's the movie.'
The layoffs were a death sentence for the city that had been GM's birthplace. Suicides, murders and evictions skyrocketed. Instead of trying to fight GM, the city fathers pleaded for a chance to prove that Flint had the right attitude - and built a new jail to show the town hadn't gone slack. As people abandoned or were forced out of their homes, Flint's rat population exploded.
"My idea," says Moore, was to get Roger Smith to come to Flint - for a day. And I'd drive him around in a Ford Econoline van - I didn't want it to look like a commercial for GM. I'd take him around and show him all the sights: Fred the eviction man, and the 'bunny lady' " who turns to her pet rabbits as a source of meat.
Moore asked Kevin Rafferty, who directed the rock-and-roll history of the atom bomb, "The Atomic Cafe," and Anne Bohlen, who made "With Babies and Banners," to spend a week in Flint teaching him "what they knew about making a movie." Ralph Nader donated office space and a little seed money to go after his old adversary. Bingo profits, the proceeds from Moore's house and his wrongful discharge settlement from Mother Jones furnished most of the rest of the film's $ 160,000 budget.
By the time shooting started in February, 1987, Moore had his concept down cold. "It was gonna be like 'My Dinner With Andre' on wheels," he says. "But of course that didn't happen."
WHAT DID HAPPEN is part black comedy, part picaresque, part absurdistadventure. Moore tracks Smith from yacht club to country club to company headquarters in a vain quest to confront him with the consequences of corporate policy.
Using clips from old GM training films, news footage about the layoffs and interviews with former GM pitchman Pat Boone and such celebrities as Bob Eubanks and Anita Bryant, "Roger & Me" takes an unsparing look at the precariousness of America's blue-collar prosperity. At the same time, it is, by design, an extremely funny film, which some reviewers have even compared to "Modern Times."
"How would you describe Charlie Chaplin?" asks Moore. "Great film comedian, right? Yeah. But no. His films are all tragedies. He was being abused by the state, thrown in jail, kicked out of his job, losing the girl, riding off into the sunset with nothing. That's not how we remember him, though. We remember the comedy. He used humor as a weapon. He realized that, if you want people to think about the issues, you've got to get them to laugh a little bit, you've got to entertain them."
What does Moore want people to think about? "Even the world's richest corporation, with $ 5 billion in profits a year, can't guarantee you a job. In fact, you can't even get a house loan in Flint if you say you work for GM. Think about that."
In person Moore is serious, committed, radical. But on film he never preaches. "I just assume a vast number of Americans know they're getting screwed," he says. "I don't have to spend the first half hour telling them that."
It is that assumption - that class anger - that sets Moore apart, just as Spike Lee's assumption that racism and police brutality are simple facts of black life make his films far more powerful than any number of well-intentioned documentaries.
Opening Wednesday in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, with a wide release scheduled for mid-January, "Roger & Me" seems poised for the same kind of commercial success Lee's film's have enjoyed - an irony that Moore is only partly able to savor.
"This isn't Warner Brothers turning it into some Chevy Chase National Lampoon's Flint Vacation," Moore said. "I asked them to present it as a comedy. Because I want people to see it. And I think they will like it."
He's happy that a lot of people will get a chance to see his movie. And the money "Roger & Me" earns means he can make his next movie without the Bingo games. "But there is no happy ending. Not for Flint. In some ways it's a very sad film."
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