Rightwing Film Geek

Michael Moore becomes a jerk

… or how I learned to start worrying and loathe the bombast.

(Like my previous post on DOGVILLE, this was written back in 2003-04 for the webzine of two friends, Zach and Gabe, the now defunct 24 FPS. It began in response to demands on a film-discussion board that, given his skepticism of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, this reactionary “better explain” why he had ROGER & ME as his #1 film of 1989.)

One of the first film reviews I wrote in college called ROGER & ME (premature blurb-whoring) “the funniest and best film of the year.” Along with JFK, DO THE RIGHT THING, and THE TRAVELING PLAYERS, it’s one of the standard litany of “lefty but I love them” movies that I can cite as a politically conservative film buff. But I hadn’t seen ROGER & ME for a decade, and director Michael Moore’s subsequent work on TV NATION, THE BIG ONE and his latest, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, was pretty uneven. The later works had their moments, but as a whole I didn’t much care for them – though I didn’t outright hate them nearly as much as my more-liberal film-buff pals thought (quite reasonably I hasten to add).

So, a couple of nights ago, I re-watched ROGER & ME just to see if it held up or whether was I on crack in 1989. There was no way the film could make me laugh as hard as it did when I saw it at the time. It made such a strong impression on me that I still remembered all the jokes, and part of the fun I had at ROGER & ME was that I had never then seen anything quite like it – a comic, satirical documentary. I’ve seen a lot of movies like that since (a couple of non-Moore films even modeled on ROGER & ME). So the film didn’t have the same impact, I guess, but it didn’t decline in my esteem. And even if I were to have seen it for the first time yesterday, it would not have annoyed me like Moore’s recent work does for some formal and content reasons that add up to “Moore isn’t the overbearing jerk he is in his recent films.”

For example, his outsized “gonzo-wacky telling-truth-to-power” persona doesn’t yet exist in ROGER & ME, he’s more of a regular guy. During the film’s “find Roger” segments, where he’s trying to get an interview with General Motors chairman Roger Smith, there is nothing as obviously scripted and rehearsed as, e.g. the photo-op checks to pay Mexican workers and the “Downsizer of the Year” awards he gives in THE BIG ONE. As a result, there’s none of the “bully” factor that makes so grating some of Moore’s hits on corporate flacks. These “find Roger” segments in ROGER & ME are also just about the only scenes in the film where Moore is actually onscreen and the center of attention, but he doesn’t hog it. He’s playing a befuddled everyjournalist just trying to get an interview. My favorite moment was when he went into an elevator at GM headquarters and tries to hit the button for the top floor where Roger’s headquarters are – like he’s too naive to know better. Never in the earlier film does Moore play to the camera, like when he hugs those book-store employees in THE BIG ONE or the sobbing teacher in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE.

Moore is also more tactful in the other two types of scenes in ROGER & ME – in the segments about how Flint is coping with the layoffs, he is rarely on-camera and always at its edge when he is; in the direct interview segments, he is never on-camera and sometimes even eschews being an offscreen voice. In fact, the best sequences in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE are the interviews with Marilyn Manson and Matt Stone, who are given the opportunity to say something without Moore getting in the way. Stone in particular has some interesting points to make about the falsely deterministic “this will decide the rest of your life” pressure in high schools. In ROGER & ME, even though Moore makes brutal fun of the chipper Chamber of Commerce flack extolling Flint as a tourism mecca, it’s funny because the guy is making himself ridiculous, saying more than he intends to. With Moore onscreen, it would have come across that Moore was making a schmuck out of him (although I now realize that several of those scenes were probably pre-existing footage).

ROGER & ME does have copious voiceover, which makes his views on the material crystal-clear, but it seems less intrusive than Moore actually appearing on camera. And he sometimes even eschews voiceover and lets the subject material speak for itself, even for comic-goofy effect. He just asks, for example, the ladies at the golf club what people should do about the layoffs, and they come across as boorish snobs without a word from him. And he says nothing while all the upper-class people cavort around the city’s new jail at the pre-opening-night party. He sets up the situation and watches it. Again, contrast that to BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE where he makes an open, caustic attack on welfare-work requirements as “making fudge for rich people.” This level of bitter explicitness invites others (well, at least me) to wonder whether the mother of a 6-year-old who committed a Flint school shooting (the occasion for Moore’s rant) would have been less unavailable if the state required her to be “making fudge for poor people” or even “making gruel for poor people” or even if she had an 8-hour-a-day private-sector job doing whatever. Never is there a line in ROGER & ME after the jail’s opening night like “the next night, the inmates were there and things were rather less light.” Latter-day Moore would not have resisted that.

In a similar vein, there are lengthy segments in both ROGER & ME and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE set to ironic counterpoint music and they also illustrate the major difference in content between the two films – the earlier film is about one thing that Moore understands (the devastation of his hometown by GM layoffs); the latter is about anything and everything, and on much of which Moore simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In ROGER & ME, there’s a lengthy drive through Flint’s slums set to the Beach Boys “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” It could have come across as cheap, but it follows a scene where an auto worker, whom Moore had put on the cover of Mother Jones, describes his last day at work, when he had a mental breakdown on the job and then he turned on his car radio and that song was playing. In other words, the juxtaposition isn’t simply Moore grabbing for an easy effect. And its link to a guy who’s in a mental home puts us in his mind and makes it kinda poignant (as well as sarcastic and angry). In BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, the comparable scene is a scroll of U.S. foreign-policy actions set to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” It comes across as annoyingly self-righteous, not simply because of the tendentious and sometimes laughable descriptions of U.S. foreign policy (I could quarrel with the majority of them in one or another way), but also because of the too-cheap irony of the song is coming from nowhere.

And even apart from that, Moore is positing an argument that simply doesn’t make a lick of sense or stand up to a second’s scrutiny. He’s trying to make some point to the effect that the Columbine shooters were inspired by the Lockheed missile factory in the town. But where then are the defense-contractors in such school-shooting venues as West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., or Pearl, Miss.? I went to a high school whose district lines jutted an Air Force base and was in a metro area with two additional Air Force bases and one Army base. There hasn’t been a single school shooting in the San Antonio area to my knowledge. In contrast, with ROGER & ME the link between job layoffs and local economic depressions and their subsequent effects (the rats outnumber the people because garbage pickups get cut back) is rather clear. In the “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” scene, all Moore does is show the effects of a local depression and that’s enough.

Not that BOWLING for COLUMBINE is worthless or doesn’t have some sharp things to say. It doesn’t take the easy route and claim, as gun controllers are wont, that gun deaths in the United States are a simple function of gun numbers or availability. Instead, Moore comes down harder on the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality of news coverage, particularly of local news, TV news and reality TV. This diet of bloody images has caused people to think that violence and mayhem are much more routine than they in fact are. This resulting mentality stifles community and poisons ordinary interaction and so puts the country on a “gotta have a gun/shoot first” hair-trigger and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. But even when his film is making that interesting point, Moore pushes it too hard in a desire to bash capitalism. He blames the coverage on a desire for ratings and profits, but this merely raises a further question that Moore doesn’t answer – why does gore and mayhem produce the ratings and profits in the first place? Again, as throughout his later, more ambitious, but more-scattershot and far less-satisfying films, Moore trips over his press clippings while his reach is exceeding his grasp.

April 8, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. What are some of the other best comic, satirical documentaries you’d recommend?

    Comment by sarah | May 17, 2021 | Reply


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