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Attacks on 'Roger & Me' completely miss point of film

PARK CITY, Utah -- There they were at brunch on Saturday morning, Michael Moore and Harlan Jacobson, sitting at tables right next to one another, back to back, not speaking. Somebody helpfully suggested that they hold a debate, right there on the spot. Nothing doing.

Moore is the director, writer, fund-raiser and star of "Roger & Me," the most popular documentary in many years. It's an attack on the way General Motors moved factories and jobs out of its hometown of Flint, Mich. Jacobson was, until recently, co-editor of Film Comment, the influential New York film magazine. Moore's movie had been getting unanimously good reviews; then, Jacobson bushwhacked him with a Film Comment article. The magazine's cover blurb was "Motor Mouth Michael Moore," and portrayed the director with tire treads across his shirt.

Jacobson's article charged that "Roger & Me" was both more and less than it seemed; the movie, he wrote, "is too good to be true." Conceding that Moore is "glitteringly smart in his analysis and arresting right in his essence," Jacobson charged that Moore also "created the impression of a direct sequence of events that didn't happen in Flint in the one-to-one casual fashion his documentary implies."

Among Jacobson's major charges: Ronald Reagan visited Flint as a candidate and not as president, as the film suggests; the massive boondoggle of the Auto World amusement park opened and closed before the big GM layoffs, and was not built in response to them; and closer to 10,000 jobs were lost in Flint, not 30,000.

By itself, the Film Comment article might not have stirred up much controversy. The magazine is important but its circulation is small. But then Pauline Kael, the New Yorker film critic who is powerful enough to set an agenda for the discussion on a film, picked up the Film Comment critique of Moore's facts, and ran with it in a review much more scathingly negative than anything Jacobson wrote. The movie cheated and manipulated so much, she suggested, that she felt unclean while watching it.

Out in the cold mountain air of Utah, independent filmmakers had gathered at the annual Sundance Park City Film Festival. Many of them were also documentary film makers. All of them were familiar with the controversy. It was impossible to find anyone who seemed seriously disturbed by the "revelations" about Moore's manipulation of the facts -- anyone, that is, except Moore, who kept saying he had clippings from The New York Times that proved, absolutely proved, that GM had already laid off 20,000 workers before the construction of the ill-begotten Auto World was ever dreamed of. Moore also had documentation to refute other charges in the Film Comment article, but you will not read about it here, because I think Jacobson and Kael have missed the real point of the film with their factual complaints, and Moore is playing into their hands by responding.

The first time I saw "Roger & Me" was last Labor Day weekend, at the Telluride (Colo.) Film Festival. I responded to it immediately, in part because it was a funny, angry film that was consistently entertaining, and in part because it said things that had not been said in the movies in a long time: That the MBA-powered "success ethic" is just another word for greed, and that beneath their benign PR-powered images, big corporations are as ruthless as they ever were. But there was another element I responded to in the movie: I liked it because it felt like Michael Moore was getting away with something. He was thumbing his nose at GM, he was taking cheap shots, he knew it, we knew it, and it was about time.

Among the obvious cheap shots in the movie: At the film's climax, Moore cuts back and forth between GM chairman Roger Smith reading piously from Dickens' A Christmas Carol while deputy sheriffs evict the family of an unemployed GM worker and throw his Christmas tree in the gutter. It's a dramatic juxtaposition of images, but, watching the film, I knew that these two events had probably not happened at the same time. How did I know? The way any sophisticated film goer would know: (a) Because the movie was a one-camera shoot, and one camera can't be in two places at once, and (b) because it was too good to be true.

Did I care? No. Was I offended at this manipulation of reality, this twisting of the facts to suit Moore's thesis? No. I thought it was obvious what he was doing. He was taking the liberties that satirists and ironists have taken with material for generations, and he was making his point with sarcasm and deft timing. The whole movie, I wrote last September, "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."

Well, of course it is. I would no more go to "Roger & Me" for a factual analysis of GM and Flint than I would turn to the pages of Spy magazine for a dispassionate study of the world of Donald Trump. What "Roger & Me" supplies about General Motors, Flint and big corporations is both more important and more rare than facts. It supplies poetry, a viewpoint, indignation, opinion, anger and humor. When Michael Moore waves his sheaf of New York Times clippings in the air and defends the facts in his film, he's missing his own point.

Out at Park City, it seemed like every other conversation was with a documentary filmmaker eager to defend Moore against his critics. If they all had one point in common, it was this one: There is no such thing as a truly objective, factual documentary. All documentaries, they agreed, manipulate factual material in order to make a point, and they imply by their style and tone what kind of a point they are making. Some hope to give you an accurate view of a situation, and you can tell that while you're watching them. Others might be poetic, elegaic, angry or funny. You can tell that, too.

Ed Lachman was at Park City. He has been the cinematographer on some of the best independent films of the last two decades, including such unforgettable documentaries as Werner Herzog's "La Soufriere" (1977), a film shot on the slopes of a Caribbean volcano about to explode. Only Herzog, Lachman and one other crew members dared the slopes.

"You know the part where Werner says all the animals came running down the mountainside?' Lachman said. "Of course we had to stage that. You can't get animals to run when you want them to." On the subject of the "Roger & Me" controversy, he shook his head and said, "What you do on a documentary is, you get the best footage you can, and put it together to make the best point you can. If everything had to be in chronological order, there aren't many documentaries that could pass the test."

Karen Thorson was at the festival, too. For many years she has worked with Albert Maysles, who with his late brother David has made such great documentaries as "Salesman." Now she has directed her own doc, "James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket." She wasn't concerned about factual loopholes in "Roger & Me," either.

"Are the critics of this movie seeing a documentary for the first time?" she asked. "Can't they tell by the tone what the movie is doing? Moore is a satirist. He's making an emotional point. The movie isn't supposed to be an objective review of the facts, and few people would see it that way."

Another documentarian at the festival was George Butler, whose new doc "In The Blood," tells the story of a hunting expedition in Africa. His biggest hit was "Pumping Iron," the documentary that put Arnold Schwarzenegger and body-building on the map. Butler himself admits that "Pumping Iron" was "scripted" -- that Arnold was always going to defeat Lou Ferrigno in the movie's big contest. He says he takes New Journalists like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe as his guides: "I use the materials of fact and the techniques of fiction to tell the story I want to tell."

My own feeling about "Roger & Me" is that the movie needs to be approached as neither fact nor fiction, but as an original work of art on the subject of corporate greed. I was not born yesterday, and as I watched the film I knew that certain shots were set-ups. So, I think, do most other audience members. Of course the whole gimmick of the film -- Moore's unsuccessful attempts to get an interview with Smith -- is manipulative. Of course Moore could never get an interview using the techniques he's using. We know that. We enjoy his efforts, anyway.

Does Moore "demean" the subjects in his film, the "little people," by holding them up to ridicule? I don't think so. I think he is looking at the infinite goofiness of human nature -- at the things people will say -- with the same deadpan astonishment that I sometimes have when I watch the TV news. He has the same kind of ear for revealing dialog as Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, the two most influential American humorists of the last 40 years, who in all of their work reflect the cadences and vocabularies of people telling us more about themselves than they know. "Roger & Me" also contains elements of the same genius found in Errol Morris's "Gates of Heaven," a documentary about California pet cemeteries that is one of the best films ever made -- best, because it has the patience and wit to allow real people to strike truer, sadder and even funnier notes than would be believed in fiction.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing about the "Roger & Me" controversy in the Chicago Reader, makes a good point when he says that some film critics have been made uneasy by the film's political content. There may be a sense in which people who spend all of their time in the movies are avoiding the politics outside the theater doors -- and resent it when political issues follow them into their womb of dreams.

"Roger & Me" is a brave, brash breath of fresh air in American moviemaking. It considers one of the real issues in America today -- which is not whether the hero will be able to save the girl from the drug kingpin, or whether the two oddball cops will be able to get along, or whether the other person in bed with you is a slasher, but whether the traditional American ethic of fair play between worker and employer has been replaced by a paganistic corporate worship of the bottom line.

Parts of "Roger & Me" are factual. Parts are not. All of the movie is true.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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