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Roger & Me: The Spark Of Flint

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For the little that is heard these days about the town of Flint, Michigan, it could almost have ceased to exist, and if I didn’t have friends who have family there, I might think so too. Michael Moore wants to make sure none of us forget Flint, his hometown, or what happened there.

Flint, the once the booming town of steel and home of automobile production factories and General Motors plants, (GM, one of the richest companies in the world), Flint, for all intents and purposes has since turned into a ghost-town. Who better to tell us the devolution of Flint than hometown boy and documentary producer Michael Moore, who in his film, Roger and Me, sets out to find General Motors Chairman Roger Smith and to sit down with the man and ask him how he feels about what happened to Flint and the workers who live there after Smith laid off 30,000 workers, and after that, closed plant after plant as he sent increasingly more work to Mexico where he could get away with paying workers, according to Moore, as little as seven cents an hour. So begins Moore’s search for Roger Smith – as he follows “a trail of three-martini lunches all across America.”

There’s no question that Moore can be persistent and opinionated to the point where he almost loses any favor his original argument of point of view may have had. That Moore often takes comments out of context and is nothing short of masterful at combining clips and pull quotes to create the effect that he wants (and thus lead you to seeing things his way), none of this should come as a surprise. After all, in one way or another, isn’t that what film-makers everywhere do? Any film, any documentary, and any news report, regardless of what we’re told, inevitably has some bias. The true objective story is a rara avis, and I wonder if it’s even as interesting as the one with the slant anyway. Maybe I want the slant. Maybe I want the point of view of a guy who grew up in Flint because he seems to care a bit more than I do and by God, if it were my home town, I’d probably feel the same sense of outrage and melancholy that Moore captures in Roger and Me so incredibly well.

It may just be that Moore is a little less reticent about hiding that bias, and in that way, there’s something likable about him. Boo all you want, but Moore is cheering for the working man in a time when few seem to bother. The consensus seems to be, if it’s not my hometown, why should I give a shit. Give a shit because it could easily be your home town and just might be tomorrow – those are the watchwords that underlie Moore’s message.

Roger and Me, like another of Moore’s documentaries, Bowling for Columbine, is bound, if not tailormade, to stir controversy. It’s all about big business screwing over the little guy, your standard David and Goliath parable; about well-fed, high-living, self-aggrandizing CEOs like Roger Smith who get fatter and fatter and richer and richer while we see the aching boned, canvas jacket-wearing workers in Flint are barely surviving. Theirs is a town that sees shop after shop go out of business and the words Final Sale crudely spray-painted on cracked window fronts, all of which seem to eventually give way to wooden boards that building after building of downtown Flint.

How funny and more than a little sad, it is that years after Flint went down the tubes and the crime-rate skyrocketed due to the huge unemployment (Flint was known as the “Capitol of Unemployment”) millions were spent recreating an indoor version of Flint’s Main Street “exactly as it used to be.” A regular life-size and true to life replica of Main Street in better times, only this time, it’s all under a dome, like some kind of surreal mall, and the people of Flint and the few people who got lost on their way to or from somewhere had the very surreal experience of visiting a replica of a town in which was in the town in which they were in.

Moore’s footage of locals perusing the indoor replica is more than a little bit strange. And what about the campaign created by the chamber of commerce in a effort to revamp Flint’s image – not a bad idea, but one doomed to fail in many ways – whose tagline was “Flint: Our New Spark Will Surprise You!” Thirteen million dollars of taxpayers money was used to build a Hyatt Regency that held the city’s only escalator. On opening day, local Flint-folk could go into the hotel and ride the escalator all day long. This was the most exciting thing to happen in Flint for years, since the jobs had gone south, money was scarce, and a the company that probably everyone in your family had worked for had now laid off thousands of workers, why the hell not spend the day going upand down on the escalator. It would be like going down into the sixth circle of hell and then back up again, then down again, then up again, and on and on …

Flint had taken a hard fall. The only job remained secure, in fact, was made possible by the massive GM layoffs, was that of the local Sheriff’s Deputy /Eviction Lord, a sort of rolly-polly-grandmaster-pimp looking guy in a porkpie hat and a seventies style, white poly-blend suit who went about with a pair of pliers (to break of doorlocks for those who aren’t home) and a heavy rap on the door for those who are home as he evicts family after family from their homes. At one house, the woman, home alone with her kids, explains that she spent a great deal of money on getting her rented house revamped with vinyl siding because it was “the rattiest house on the block.” And she was embarrassed, she says.

That she spent her own money to do this on what was not even her property, that she is that house proud, that she’s working to pay the rent, take care of her kids and gets evicted anyway seems grossly unfair. I’d like to think that landlord who apparently, didn’t take time to fix the gaping hole in her ceiling through which water pours, would take heed of the fact that she has actually improved his property – and truly, at what benefit to her? – at the end of the day, out she goes, and her vinyl siding will be there for the next tenant. Never mind that she’ll never see the money she spent on that again or that she was only about a hundred dollars short on the rent – (and really, who hasn’t been?) – she’s out. Quite literally, kicked to the curb. Her Pier 1 wicker wall hangings, her ratty couch, her harvest gold refrigerator, her kid’s toys, and a thin mattress… all that is hers in this world, sitting under a steel-grey sky as the rain drizzles over Flint, Michigan.

Meanwhile, there’s a parade going down Main Street, or what’s left of it. Crappy floats rolling past the Plasma Bank where you can make a few extra bucks for your blood, and alongside the weedy lots and boarded up shops, there’s Miss Michigan, in her “largest parade to date”, and interviewed by Moore and asked about the state of her of her state says brightly, “I’m for employment and working in America!” But, she says, she doesn’t want to say “too much” and wants to remain “neutral” because she’s going out for Miss America. Yes, sweets, remain neutral. You’re Switzerland. It’s sad that this kind of neutrality is, in a few short weeks after the taping, rewarded. Wouldn’t it show more spunk if she actually took a stand and said how much this really, really sucks for Flint? Sure enough, a few weeks later, she gets her wish and in fact, wins and is crowned Miss America. Mediocrity at it’s best.

Moore’s camera crew, when not chasing Roger Smith and having themselves kicked out of building after building, is focused squarely on Flint, and at times, it’s hard to watch because it’s just so fucking sad. The constant evictions are like punctuation marks in this documentary; a scene that is played over and over again, even on the day before Christmas Eve, while, as Roger Smith sits in his nice warm auditorium quoting Charles Dickens and the “meaning of Christmas”, yet another family with an infant in diapers, moves all they have, including their tinsel covered Christmas Tree, out to the curb. “Better lay that tree down” the Sheriff’s Deputy says, “Might blow away otherwise,” as if at this point, the tree blowing away would really make a shit’s worth of difference. What Moore captures so well, and grant, it’s highly manipulative, is the stark contrast between Roger Smith’s Christmas and the homeless and grey and cold day before Christmas of the evicted family; the kids sitting on the curb, the tree on it’s side, the gold tinsel falling off and into puddles.

The thing to remember is that Moore couldn’t show the contrast if it didn’t exist – so manipulative as one may say it is, it exists nonetheless. Is it Roger Smith’s fault that these people are out of work? A tricky question – in some ways, yes; he laid off that many people and with little notice. That said, he’s a business man with a company to run and regardless of what one may think of it, the bottom line in a capitalist society is profit and that’s all smith wants to do – turn a profit. Flint became a liability and Smith walked away, not caring too much about the devastation the hole that would be left in his wake. As much as it sucks, and it truly, truly does suck, it’s not really Roger Smith’s job to take care of everyone in Flint. After all, he had given people in Flint work for many profitable years for both them and for him. Whether he has any obligation after that is not a question I, at least, feel qualified to answer. But Moores’ point – should Roger Smith care? – should he have some concern for the people whose lives were devastated with the plant closings and whose town turned into a wasteland. Some level of humanity would be nice: not expected, perhaps, but something to show us that Smith gives a shit.

Throughout, all the Flint boys done good eventually make their way home. In between town fairs and the high-board diving donkey attraction, two Flint boys in particular come home, though note, never to stay: they are, Pat Boone and Bob Eubanks of The Newly Wed Game. Pat Boone has a positive spin on things, bien sur. He notes, that if the “you could only go so far at the plant” you see now, “you can start your own business!” And Bob Eubanks, meanwhile, is busily asking contestants how much their wives’ chests weigh. When questioned about it by Moore, all he can say is “I wouldn’t say breasts…” as if that would be so awful. He then goes on to make an offcolor joke about about Jewish women (I take it he doesn’t think the camera is rolling). I guess it’s okay to be an anti-Semite as long as you don’t say “breasts”

But start your own business…What a great idea! And some people do. They sell lint rollers, and hey, we all use ‘em, so why not. As one GM Spokesperson tells Moore, the future is in lint rollers. Well, thank God for that! I was afraid we’d all be poor and covered in lint. That just wouldn’t do. Soon, the whole town will be booming because of the huge success of lint rollers! And should that not quite float your boat, hey, you can work at the local Taco Bell where there is a future. Yes. That’s right. Burritos are the future. And maybe they are, but really, can Taco Bell make even a small dent in the thousands of unemployed who need work?

Still not satisfied? Well, due to the huge crime wave, many former GM assembly line workers have been hired as prison guards where they now watch over former GM co-workers in the new jail (which, as an aside, I should note, when it first opened, locals could pay $100 to spend the night in jail “for fun”, while a bad band belted out “Jail House Rock.” Really. Or there’s the woman who used to run a local feminist radio show and is now doing people’s “colors.” Are you a Spring, Summer, Winter, or Fall? A whole segment shows her “colorprinting” local women. A few months later, she calls Moore’s crew back, and she sounds quite upset. Apparently, someone had colored her wrong (gasp!); she’s not really a Winter after all; she’s a Spring. This woman was really broken up about this.

TV Evangelist Schuller visits and says “Turn your hate into a halo! Just because you got problems is no reason to be unhappy” He’s offering salvation and hope to people who have nothing, but in reality, he is offering what they already have, which is more of nothing, as if a “can do” attitude were all it would take to get Flint out of the number one crime and unemployment slot in the whole of the United States and put the spark back.

As Moore is kicked out of every venue he seeks Roger Smith- GM Headquarters, the Grosse Point Yacht Club, and pretty much anywhere he goes seeking Smith (Moore just can’t seem to get to the fourteenth floorof the GM building, where apparently, Mr. Smith is sitting, despite his valiant attempts), the camera pans back to Flint. Flint: Former home of Bob Eubanks of The Newly Wed Game fame and Pat Boone, all trying to distract us from the fact that it’s awful to see people being evicted from their homes, their worldly possessions – which amount to so very little- piled up on the curb like so much junk – which it is, but still, it’s their junk. Even the local James Bond (and yes, that’shis real name), an old pal of Moore’s, is evicted from his home. There’s something voyeuristic about watching all these people during what must be among the lowest points in their life, yet one can’t turn away. You want to help, and wonder how it is that Roger Smith, who after all, at one time had done a lot for Flint, could so easily cross it off his holly jolly Christmas list.

Among other interesting segments are Moore’s run in with a local woman who sells rabbits for “Pets or Meat,”; the trip to the completely bizarre “Auto World”, which was an indoor exhibit paid for by GM complete with a singing puppet worker who has made friends with the robot who has replaced him on the assembly line and dances to a song called “Me and My Friend.” (it closed six months after opening: millions did not come.) But perhaps the story that tells the tale of Flint better than any comes from an old friend of Moore’s, a former GM worker who was laid off five times in five years. The last time, he is driving home after being laid off and hears “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys on the car radio. He kept trying to pick himself up, he says, and sing the words in an effort to cheer himself up, but found he just couldn’t do it. That the words stuck in his throat. As of Moore’s filming, he was a guest of the local mental institution where he plays hoops most of the day. Says he had a complete breakdown and the Wouldn’t It Be Nice Song just was the last straw.

I couldn’t agree more.

This is worth seeing. If you hate Moore, don’t bother. This film won’t change your mind. But for a really personal view of what can go wrong when we put too much of our life into the hands of one company, check out Roger and Me, and if you’re ever in Michigan, stop by Flint, and see for yourself. As for other news about General Motors, remember that this is a company that in the nineties, was still crash-testing live pigs in their cars to test auto-safety, back when other manufacturers were using crash test dummies. After much protesting from various animal rights groups, that soon passed, but not before hundreds of live animals were killed, tortured by live flames from a torch to see the effects of fire on skin. Back when I was young, I protested GMs practice of using live pigs in their crash tests. I stood in front of a GM dealership on the roof a GM car with an ax in my hand and, with the help of a few others, smashed the car to bits. It made UP. Did this stop GM from the practice? I can’t say. But they did stop the testing a few short weeks later. Maybe dressing up like a bunny, wielding an ax, and smashing a car to bits was worth it after all. Sounds like Roger Smith makes friends wherever he goes.

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

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  • audrey

    wow- what a great perspective. from a former city of flint employee who’s moved on to a better place, thanks.