Friday, 24 April 2009

Michael Moore's Roger & Me begins with a personal autobiography of the filmmaker and a little family history, which segues into a history of the United Auto Workers, which segues into a sustained attack on General Motors as it shuts down 13 auto plants in the city of Flint, Michigan. The 1989 film is a baptism of fire for Moore, whose trademark knock-kneed amble is visible on several occasions as he storms the bastion of the Establishment: GM's Detroit headquarters.

He's refused entry there and, about two years later, he'll be refused entry to a shutting auto plant where a number of ex-workers are gathered who he wants to talk to. Moore gets shown the hand on more occasions than you'd like to count, and is forced to make mileage out of footage of a sheriff's office employee as he tours the grimy streets of Flint evicting people from their homes.

Getting to interview Roger Smith, GM's chairman, is almost beyond even the master of irritating persistence himself. We finally get footage of Moore's offer to Smith - come up to Flint to talk to some of the auto workers who had lost their jobs - on Christmas eve, 1988. We're not surprised when the small-faced leader turns him down.

But there's more than one way to skin a rabbit.

To get the required footage and justify spending two years chasing through the streets of his hometown, Moore talks to anyone who will give him the time of day. On top of these short segments he layers sounds and we see his trademark fast cutting even at this early date. Two decades later we see the same characteristics in Moore's more recent films. But Moore started out in print journalism, editing a magazine in Flint.

He tried to get out of town - the sign of success to Moore even as a boy - but covering news in San Francisco did not align with Moore's hard-nosed approach to journalism. He doesn't want to be popular. He wants to be interesting.

And Roger & Me is interesting. We see the city crumble as GM pulls up sticks and relocates its operations to Mexico. We see the reaction: an auto theme park and a retail mall both open with much fanfare but both fail. We hear the people talk, not so much those being removed from their homes as a series of odd characters including entertainers, Amway salesfolk and a woman who ekes out a meagre existence on welfare by selling rabbit meat.

Moore's method is simple: talk to anyone who will give you the time of day and use the resulting material in a rapid sequence of frames overlayered with ironic applications of music. Don't let the audience get bored. Keep the pace up. Cut often and cut fast. And let people hear the real voices of the people. Getting kicked out of a building for the fifth time can be just as compelling viewing as actually talking to your target.

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