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Michael and Us: Remembering Michael Moore's Roger & Me 25 Years Later

04/03/2015 07:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

The only panic dream I have with any regularity is the one where I realize my final exam starts in five minutes and I haven't cracked a book all semester. The feeling of relief upon waking and realizing it has been thirty years since I was actually in school is palpable. But that realization did not stop me from feeling a twinge of regret upon seeing 2014 turn into 2015. You see, I had planned on writing about two movies which shook up the world back in 1989. They were celebrating their 25th birthdays. I wrote about John Singleton's Boyz in the Hood , but I never got around to Michael Moore's Roger & Me.

Here's my dog-ate-my-homework excuse. I was going to write about Moore's remarkable achievement -- about how prescient it had been in its depiction of the destruction of unionized America, about how the increasing wealth gap was leading the alternating blocks of 1st worlders and 3rd worlders in American cities -- when I read Stephen Marche's Esquire Magazine article (12/19/14) which essentially described all that better than I could. So I shelved the idea and got on with my life.

But after recently seeing Ethan Hawke's documentary about Seymour Bernstein, Seymour: An Introduction, it occurred to me that there was more to say about Michael and Roger. And it has nothing to do with Michael Moore's ideas about government or economics. I'm not really qualified to discuss those things anyway. But I feel on pretty solid footing when I say that Michael Moore is one of the three most important documentary filmmakers in the history of cinema, and that it all began with Roger & Me.

Many people are familiar with Moore. As was once said of Charles Foster Kane, he "spoke for millions of Americans, was hated by as many more." He had published a populist newspaper in Michigan for a decade before unemployment left him with some free time. He decided to make a movie -- his first -- about the hard times that had befallen Flint, Michigan, at one time an automotive juggernaut, after repeated plant closings by General Motors and their CEO Roger Smith throughout the 1980s had devastated the city. Moore's story spine was built around his futile attempts to bring Smith to Flint for a visit so he could see that devastation firsthand. He blended personal stories of Flint citizens with some political and economic history to create an extraordinarily powerful portrait.

In the world of documentary filmmaking, Moore's politics are not exactly ground-breaking. Political documentaries, from the earliest days of John Grierson and Dziga Vertov, through the Labor Left 1930s, Frederick Wiseman and Barbara Kopple, right up until recent Oscar-winners An Inconvenient Truth and CitizenFour, have generally been guided by liberal principles. But Moore has done two things that set his films apart.

First, he made his films very funny. In Roger & Me, you may feel anger directed at Roger Smith, you may feel sympathy for the families that we see being evicted from their homes, you will almost certainly feel squeamish watching Rhonda Britton, who sells rabbits as "pets or meat" slaughtering a bunny. And you will almost certainly laugh. Moore's narration is the stuff of droll, dead pan stand-up comedy. He took a depressing, complex political/economic subject, and made it entertaining.

The second thing he did was to put himself front and center into the proceedings. This constituted a rather serious break with the iconic figures of documentary. Grierson, the leading theorist in documentary's formative years, would never have allowed this. Titans of the field, Albert and David Maysles spent their careers trying to stay out of the picture. Wiseman has always focused exclusively on his subjects, not even providing narration from an outside source. But in Roger & Me, there was Moore, narrating his own life story, complete with baby pictures, establishing himself as a character just as significant as the elusive Roger Smith.

Moore was not the first documentarian to inject comedy into serious subject matter, nor was he the first to inject himself into the narrative. He was simply the most effective. And that is one of the reasons Moore, along with the grandfather of documentaries, Robert Flaherty, and the aforementioned Vertov, is one of the three most significant documentary filmmakers of all time. Roger & Me grossed what may seem like a modest $6.7 million in domestic release, but in the world of political documentary that is like Babe Ruth hitting 60 homers when entire teams weren't hitting that many. Depending on your definitions, there have only been about a dozen political documentaries that have grossed more than two million, and Moore's is the only one released before 2000. Three of Moore's subsequent movies are in the top five on this box office list, including Oscar winner Bowling for Columbine and the top grossing political documentary by a mile, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Proving that political documentary could be profitable is one of Moore's greatest contributions to cinema. In 1983's The Right Stuff, the line was "no bucks, no Buck Rogers." We are now living in a golden age of political documentary. If you enjoyed 2014 Oscar shortlisted movies like CitizenFour, Citizen Koch, The Case Against 8 or The Internet's Own Boy, you owe some thanks to Michael Moore. He provided proof that the bucks were there.

Moore's other major contribution to film may not be as beneficent. By putting himself in the center spotlight, he helped usher in a new era of personality-driven politics. This is certainly not a new phenomenon. But by taking advantage of mass communication technology, Moore became the story in ways his spotlight-seeking predecessors never could. Along with his right-tilting counterpart in the world of talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, Moore represents a dangerous cult of personality. (Family Guy nailed this back in 2009 with an episode that revealed Moore and Limbaugh were in fact the same person, and both were creations of Wonder Years star Fred Savage). The reason Ethan Hawke's new movie reminded me of this is that Hawke inserts himself into his movie for no apparent reason. It has simply become commonplace for directors to walk and talk and sometimes preen in documentaries in a manner that was previously frowned upon. Other movies on the 2014 shortlist, such as Salt of the Earth and Finding Vivian Maier, used this device with varying effectiveness.

Moore has become a tremendously polarizing figure since Roger & Me first appeared. I imagine there are a good many people for whom being trapped in a room with him would constitute their own panic dream. But whether you consider him a fearless speaker of truth to power or a showboating blowhard, if you love documentaries, you owe at least some thanks to Michael Moore, who just over 25 years ago, emerged from the unemployment line to create one of the most important documentaries ever filmed, and to usher in a new golden age of the genre.