Once you start toying with a list of politically powerful movies, it’s hard to restrict yourself to just a handful.
And while starting off with “Do the Right Thing” last week seemed like a natural first entry, I’ve been struggling to decide between several possibilities for a number two. (Foreign, doc, anti-war?) And while these are not in any particular order, there is obviously some sort of hierarchy established, whether I intend it or not.
So let me emphasize that my order is random, and that my second pick, Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” — released in the same year as “Do the Right Thing” — comes without any specific reason, except that it’s one of the most profoundly resonant and sustained arguments about the plight of the working class in America than anything made since.
The film’s precursor “Harlan County U.S.A.” comes close, and I was considering devoting an entire entry to Barbara Kopple’s coal mining nonfiction epic, but I believe Moore’s montage is more effective, more enduring and, well, more compelling.
Moore’s juxtapositions are priceless; as stark and dynamic as the work of Sergei Eisenstein. In “Roger and Me,” Moore makes an art out of such dialectics, cutting back and forth between upper-crusty white aristocrats lounging at a luxurious picnic with a news story about rats overcoming the town’s human population; harrowing housing evictions with a children’s choir singing at a GM Christmas party; the urban blight of rows and rows of bombed-out-looking houses with the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” on the soundtrack. I can’t think of another contemporary filmmaker who has mastered ironic counterpoint as much as Moore: When I teach film classes about editing and the power of juxtaposition, I show the killing/baptism climax of “The Godfather” and the Beach Boys scene from “Roger and Me.”
I don’t think Moore has made a better film since “Roger and Me.” While there are sequences in “Bowling for Columbine” (a murderous montage), “Fahrenheit 9/11” (the credit sequence in which the architects of America’s perpetual war are seen getting ready for interviews through live feeds) and “Sicko” (the heartbreaking testimony of insurance victims) that aspire to the level of arch-irony and disturbing social comment that exists in “Roger and Me,” there is a kind of knowingness and self-consciousness that keeps Moore’s later films from a more genuine outrage.
While Moore’s manipulations of chronology and certain factual minutiae can be criticized, I don’t think they are egregious enough to undermine his overall project. As film essayist, I’d say he is allowed some wiggle room, after all. As New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote in his review of “Roger and Me”: “Playing fair is for college football. In social criticism, anything goes.”
Writing about “Fahrenheit 9/11” in 2004 in a post I titled “Truth is Fiction“, I argued: “Moore is just another manipulative storyteller in a crowded field of manipulative storytellers, which includes everyone from ABC News to CNN to that ‘objective’ purveyor of ‘fair and balanced’ reporting, Fox TV. In his book ‘Spike, Mike Slackers and Dykes’, John Pierson counters the Moore-bashing with a quote from filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard: “You can start with either fiction or documentary. But whichever you start with, you will inevitably recall the other.”