Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Reviews: "Roger & Me" (1989) and "Super Size Me" (2004)

"Documentary" was once a term that, for most people, translated into "dry", "educational" and "boring". Then along came Michael Moore. He wasn't the first person to make documentaries entertaining as well as informative, but he was the most important. Fifteen years after Moore broke ground with "Roger & Me", filmmaker Morgan Spurlock followed in this tradition with his own documentary, "Super Size Me". Both films make for an interesting compare and contrast.

"Roger & Me" begins as the story of Michael Moore himself, a kid who was born and raised in the town of Flint, Michigan. He describes his Halcyon days in the 1950's where Flint was the model of the growing American town, and he has an entire family of General Motors employees to prove it. Flash forward to the 1980's, when massive layoffs by GM have transformed the once bustling Flint into a shell of its former self. Moore decides to take up his beef with the president of GM, Roger Smith. Getting in to see him is not as easy as he would hope, so he ends up filling us in on life in Flint and how things have changed since the layoffs began.

I first saw "Roger & Me" back in 1993 and thought it was simultaneously the most depressing and hysterical thing I had ever seen. It presented a sobering view of a town, once the ideal of 1950's prosperity, seeing its vitality bled away by a corporation who sought lower-paid workers in Mexico. Moore's attempts to get an interview with Smith, which even he must have known was never going to happen, is a punchline that takes a back seat to such Flint denizens as Deputy Ross, Bob Eubanks and, most notoriously, Rhonda "Pets or Meat" Britton.

Back then, Moore was not the lightning rod of controversy he is today, but his first film sewed the seeds of the resentment some people would eventually hold for him. During the film's second half, he details efforts by Flint to revitalize its economy with a new Hyatt Hotel, a convention center named Waterstreet Pavilion, and an auto-themed amusement park called "Autoworld". Though the inferred timeline suggests all this happened after the layoffs, they in truth occurred several years before. This bears examination.

There are basically two kinds of Moore critics. The first kind are whiplash conservatives who refuse to listen to his case no matter how much evidence he presents. These kind of people cannot be engaged in a rational discussion, so I'm not addressing them. The second group are earnest and non-partisan critics who question Moore's occasional efforts at misdirection and omission of pertinent facts. In the specific case of the altered Flint timeline, the difference is negligible. The city fathers end up looking slightly less silly for their efforts (Autoworld's animatronic autoworker singing a duet with the robotic arm replacing him on the line remains incredibly misguided). The overall message of the film remains intact and valid.

Moore's strategic editing is used to create a better object of entertainment. And he is in the entertainment industry, like it or not. His films aim for a wide audience and he continually gets it through his ridicule of the rich and powerful. All of this does not excuse his lapses, but provisions must be made for the storytelling process. The key question one must ask when discussing these lapses is this: Is the overall objective/premise still a sound one? Ever since "Bowling for Columbine", Moore has been on the defensive. And Moore has been up to the task, backing up every niggling detail in discussions on his website as well as others. In a sense, all of this serves to further the documentary's overall goal: Get people talking about the subject at hand. More on this in a moment.

"Super Size Me" is the story of a culinary experiment conducted by Morgan Spurlock. One Thanksgiving, Spurlock heard a TV report on a lawsuit filed in New York City by the parents of several overweight children. They claimed that McDonald's' food endangered their children's health. McDonald's disputed the lawsuit by claiming, among other things, that their menu can be a part of a healthy diet. Spurlock decides to take McDonald's up on their claim by eating nothing but McDonald's food for thirty days straight. As we track his progress, or rather descent, we are filled in on many aspects of fast food and American dietary habits.

Though Moore went for an emotional pull in his film, showcasing his dilapidated downtown with boarded-up storefronts, Spurlock goes for a clinical stance. This happens right off the bat as we are presented with the numbers concerning his health before the experiment. To be sure, there is an emotional aspect as we listen to his girlfriend's genuine concern for his health as he gains more weight. Overall, however, Spurlock goes for the rational arguments, bolstering his case with eye-catching graphics and a truckload of statistics.

Whereas some might say that Moore's passionate zeal make him blind to other sides of the issue, Spurlock is willing to poke fun anywhere that it's pokable. Sixteen years younger than Moore, he's a bit of a smart aleck, yet not so sarcastic or cynical as to be unlikable. At the same time he's taking issue with McDonald's marketing tactics and such, he's also showing how the lawyers handling the lawsuits against McDonald's are in it far more for the money than any moral or health crusade. He points out stupidity and crassness wherever he finds it.

Both filmmakers, and both films, have a wicked sense of humor. Much of this comes from the interviewed subjects themselves. Then there are other instances such as when Spurlock shows a series of picture cards to children to see if Ronald McDonald is more recognizable than famous historic faces. He shows one picture to a child and they guess that it's President Bush, only for Spurlock to turn the card to the camera and show us a picture of Jesus Christ. Both films also use "Animal House"-style epilogues for the people we've come to know (including an instance in both films of an executive getting canned shortly after the film was made, possibly for statements made to the interviewer).

The key similarity connecting the films is also the most obvious: Both titles end with the word "Me". This significant detail is not an indicator of ego. Rather, in the case of the subject matter in both films, the filmmaker's bias is a result of being themselves involved. These are personal stories that they are telling us. Some might say that for this very reason they shouldn't be the ones telling them. To that objection, I would say that it's quite possible these stories would never be told were it not for their efforts.

In this sense, Randall Adams was very fortunate when filmmaker Errol Morris made the excellent documentary "The Thin Blue Line". Morris did not know the people involved nor was he himself involved in the murder case. In fact, the Long Island native was about as far from Texas as you can get. He had no personal role in the story itself, so it's style could be viewed as Moore's polar opposite. However, what Moore and Morris share is a passion for telling a story in order to move, inform and stimulate interest in the subject. In the case of "Blue Line", Morris succeeded. The release and success of the film resulted in Randall Adams' case to be reopened whereupon he was later exonerated. That is the power of the medium, and Moore understands this more than anyone.

One final note on Moore. Above all the insults that are thrown at him (and liberals in general for that matter), the most ludicrous is that he hates America. Now, you may say his methods are unethical. You may say he's biased. You may say he's an egotistical blowhard. You can argue all of these points. But the one thing he has proven time and again through his documentaries is, like Flint itself, he loves America. That's why he does what he does. Saying the opposite is just indulging in the simplistic name-calling that is meant solely to push people's buttons. The fact that such tactics succeed in stirring up some groups of people doesn't make the slur any less hollow and baseless.

Some people have expressed sorrow at what they perceive as the death of documentaries. This is nonsense. Non-Michael Moore documentaries do exist and even thrive. "Spellbound", a moving film about eight young contestants at the 1999 National Spelling Bee, actually got a theatrical release that came to Jacksonville back in 2002. It's a superior example of the documentary form, and there remains plenty of room for films like it alongside its flashier cousins. And make no mistake that documentaries such as "Super Size Me" are not going away, and that's a good thing. We would have a poorer cinema without them.

"Roger & Me" and "Super Size Me": Nine out of Ten

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