HARE TIMES IN GARWWN
Journalist turned movie-maker Michael Moore put his shirt on a ‘docu-comedy’ about what happened to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, when General Motors announced the biggest programme of lay-offs in labour history. Fortunately for him, Roger and Me became one ofthe year‘s surprise hits. Trevor Johnston tracks down an unlikely working-class hero.
I‘m in silent admiration as movie director Michael Moore gives me the low-down on the heady world of film finance. ‘Well, yeah. first ofall we had a coupla yard sales and I got rid of most ofthe stuffin the house.‘ he confides in chirpy mid-American tones. ‘Then [just sold the house altogether. I think that was before we started up the weekly bingo game. People are just crazy about bingo. you know. We made 350.000 from it. which really helped us get started, until the grants started rolling in.‘
As you may have spotted. this man is no Spielberg-style mogul, but from such shoestring origins has come a first film Roger and Me that has ' created a storm of debate amidst the American press and public. and which has been up there challenging the Hollywood blockbusters at the box office. Moore‘s $260,000 epic has been called a doeu-comedy. because it‘s a wry and often ironic look at the real-life misfortunes of Moore‘s hometown of Flint. Michigan. The birthplace of auto juggernaut General Motors, Flint used to employ more car-workers than Detroit. until. that is. the recession of the early Eighties when GM’s new boss Roger Smith decided to fight declining sales by laying off 30,000 workers. a fifth ofthe town's total population.
With Moore as our genial on-screen guide. the film looks at the effects of unemployment on the local area. Evictions pile up. queues lengthen outside the blood bank. and the city authorities desperately pour huge amounts of money into white elephant tourist attractions like the ill-fated Autoworld theme park (Moore remarks ‘Would you go all the way to Valdez. Alaska to visit Exxonworld? I think not‘). As Money magazine‘s 1987 livability ranking places Flint 300th out of 300 American cities. recognition at last that the community is officially the absolute pits. Moore embarks on an ambitious quest to land an interview with GM boss Roger Smith and confront him with the disastrous human cost of his industrial slimming-down programme.
Picking out all manner of folk like Flint native and TV gameshow host Bob Eubanks (he presides over The Newlyweds Game. a daily festival of crassness that makes Mr and Mrs look like Mastermind) who chips in a few platitudes and a decidedly off-colour string ofgags. or an airhead beauty queen whose message to the depressed burg is to ‘keep their fingers crossed for me on Miss America‘. Moore blends quirky observation with an unflinching focus on the essential moral and social questions at the root of the whole debacle. The humanly comic truthfulness of Roger and Me. has seen the film-maker lauded as a kind ofcontemporary Mark Twain. made it a smash at several leading North American film festivals. encouraging Warner Brothers to buy the exhibition rights for a hefty $3 million. The fee was a record for a so~ealled documentary. as was the subsequent release on 900 screens across the USA.
To publicise the film. Moore personally visited 81 American cities. but Holy Week finds him doing Europe. A formerjournalist. his resignation as editor of the San Francisco counter-culture glossy Motherlones over his refusal to run an anti-Sandinista feature was what took him back home to Flint. joining the ranks ofthe unemployed. and proved the initial crazy catalyst for making Roger and Me. Now as interviewee rather than interviewer he‘s proving almost as hard to track down as his elusive celluloid adversary Roger Smith. Allegedly staying at a swish hotel in Dublin. he‘s instead gone on the lam to a tiny guesthouse near Cork. ‘You know what this is.‘ he says. ‘it‘s like this real small place and this is their only phone. Yeah. and I think Mister. uh, Murphy here is kinda quite anxious to get using it himself.‘
At my end ofthe line an enthusiastic handyman hammering his way through the wall only inches from my ears completes the farcical conditions for attempted communications. Never mind though. a set ofthe film‘s stills laid out in front of me is almost as good as eye~to-eye contact (ifl move them about a bit). This guy looks like a sofa I think to myself. I wonder ifl should tell him that?
‘Aw gee. I‘m sorry about all this.‘ the chubby defender ofjusticc chips in. ‘I tried to call you yesterday. but I just wasn‘t near a phone‘. In any other country in the civilised world this would be the lamest ofcxcuses. but he is. you remember. in Ireland after all. Peat and Guinness the Irish have mastered. but somehow a modern telecommunications network has yet to catch on.
With the impatient Mister. uh. Murphy very much in mind, I head straight to the nub ofthe matter. While eliciting some rave reviews. Roger and Me has also been the object ofa hail offlak (thus generating much free publicity) for its alleged chronological shuffles and implied misrepresentations. Commentators have apparently sought to damage the film's factual credibility: this may be why the movie failed even to gain an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary from the highly conservative voting members ofthe Academy.
Moore's doesn‘t bullshit. ‘There aren‘t any chronological inaccuracies or misrepresenrations in the film. Those are made-up criticisms by people who don‘t agree with the politics. Near the beginning of the picture we have a montage of plant closures from 1979 to 1987. Everything else in the film stems from that sequence. The civic spending on Autoworld and the Hyatt Regency Hotel happened after the closures and not before. We haven't turned anythingaround. I expected that the opponents of the film would try to debate me head on. but no. all they come up with is this nitpicking. I mean ifwe were here talking about the Holocaust we wouldn‘t be arguing over five million dead or six million dead. right'?‘
‘That would be an obscene
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4'l‘he List 20 April — 3 May 1990