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April 4th, 2013 4:29 PM

'Roger' makes its point with humor

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

September 5, 1989

When Flint, Mich., was named by Money magazine in 1988 (it bounced from No. 300 to No. 299 in the latest poll) as the worst place in America to live, some of the local citizens were so upset they held a rally and burned the magazine. But not long after, when Ted Koppel tried to do a live hookup with the city for his "Nightline" program, the show went off the air after someone stole the TV truck during the broadcast.

Such civic embarrassments seem to be common in Flint. The city, birthplace of General Motors, was brought to its knees when GM shut many of its plants there and put 30,000 people out of work. Civic boosters responded by trying to turn Flint into a tourism center. A big new Hyatt Regency was built downtown, and Auto World, "the world's largest indoor theme park," was opened. But within months both went bankrupt.

The closings are noted with a macabre satisfaction by Michael Moore, the director and narrator of a savagely funny new documentary named "Roger and Me," which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and was the event's surprise hit.

Moore financed his film by selling his house, and raised additional funds by running a Tuesday night Bingo game in Flint. He seemed a little dazed by the success of "Roger and Me" at Telluride, where two screenings were scheduled but four more had to be added. Festival co-director Bill Pence estimated the film set an all-time Telluride attendance record.

The Roger in the film's title is GM board chairman Roger B. Smith, and the film is, among other things, the three-year record of Moore's attempts to invite Smith to visit Flint and see what his plant closings had wrought.

Smith is successfully shielded by an army of GM publicists and lobbyists until the final minutes of the film, when Moore finally catches up with him at the company's annual Christmas party. While Smith, in his speech, quotes Charles Dickens on the meaning of Christmas, the movie intercuts scenes from Flint where sheriff's deputies are evicting fired GM workers who can no longer pay the rent.

A family's Christmas tree is dumped on the curb just as Smith is reaching his sentimental peak.

"Roger and Me" is not another one of those grim documentaries about hard times in the rust belt. It's more of a Bronx cheer aimed at GM. It uses humor as one of its most effective weapons, and the humor is sometimes angry, sometimes sarcastic and sometimes just plain weird, as when former Flint citizen Bob Eubanks visits town with a stage version of his "Newlywed Game." Eubanks was a local hero, Moore reports, "because if Bob Eubanks could get out of Flint, anyone could."

As more factories close and Flint sinks into economic ruin, Moore's cameras are there to record the pathetic attempts to boost local morale. A parade is held past the shuttered and bankrupt stores of downtown. Orange County minister Robert Schuller is imported, at a $ 20,000 fee, to address a good-times rally ("Tough times don't last," he exhorts, not very originally, "but tough people do.") Other visiting celebrities include onetime Chevrolet spokespersons Pat Boone and Anita Bryant.

Moore, a former editor of Mother Jones magazine, enjoys juxtaposing the gulf between the rich and the poor in Flint. He visits local golf courses where the wives of executives explain that "some people just don't want to work," and then continue their games.

Some of the scenes Moore documents have to be seen to be believed.

For example, an annual "Great Gatsby" garden party at which unemployed local people are hired as "living statues," and stand in the garden wearing expensive period costumes. Or the $ 100-a-ticket "Jailhouse Rock" benefit at which local society people party all night in a new jail before it is officially opened to the public. Dressed to the hilt, they have fun trying on riot gear.

Flint was the scene of the nation's first sit-down strike in the 1930s -- a strike that led to GM recognizing the United Auto Workers.

But as GM closes its American plants and opens plants in Mexico, employing cheap labor, the UAW response seems feeble. A "massive demonstration" at the closing of one plant produces only four people.

Meanwhile, some people in Flint do find employment. Moore visits a woman who makes an extra $ 15 a week selling "bunnies as pets or rabbits as food." He records Boone's helpful advice that a lot of the workers might be able to start new careers as Amway representatives. And he follows the activities of one Flint man who never seems to lack for work -- Fred Ross, a deputy sheriff in charge of evicting people. As one family after another sees its possessions dumped on the curb, Ross watches sadly and says that a job is only a job: "I treat people the way I would like to be treated."

"Roger and Me" is narrated by Moore in a spirit that reminded me of Woody Allen in "Take the Money and Run." As a Flint native, he would like to see the positive side of things, but events keep tripping him up. Moore has made an angry yet hilarious film that cuts through the statistics and the PR language to show an American city being destroyed by a giant corporation that cares more for profits than for its own employees.

The print shown at Telluride was wet from the processing lab; the world premiere was held only 24 hours after the print was made. Moore said his film does not yet have a national distributor, but he hopes to find one after "Roger and Me" plays at the Toronto and New York film festivals.

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