"Roger & Me" put Michael Moore on the map as a social documentarian whose whimsical irreverence belied his anger and serious intent. Although using questionable juxtaposition (events did not always occur in the sequence he depicted them), his acclaimed 1989 theatrical film was a small jewel.
It comes to television tonight with a new follow-up film on the PBS series "P.O.V." (9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15).
With the economic stagnation of Moore's hometown of Flint, Mich., as a backdrop, "Roger & Me" traced the filmmaker's efforts to gain an audience with General Motors Chairman Roger Smith in hopes of getting him to "spend a day with me in Flint and meet some of the people who are losing their jobs" due to GM plant closures. No way.
The frumpy, dumpling-shaped, toothpick-chewing Moore and his camera crew were relentless, pursuing their target from GM's impenetrable Detroit headquarters to the white-flanneled gentility of the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, creating an essay bursting with ironic, darkly humorous visual images that contrasted the high-living swells of Smith's privileged culture with the growing numbers of Flint "have-nots" who were suffering as a result of GM policies.
Although unable to reach the elusive Smith except for a few words on the run, Moore was able to induce a surprisingly large number of la-dee-das to place their heads in his noose. The results were often devastating.
Two years later, Moore brought his camera back to Flint to record what had transpired in the interim. "P.O.V."--a series frequently under fire from conservatives for the points of views of the films it shows--is following "Roger & Me" with this 29-minute update, which leaves no footprints and is unlikely to offend anyone politically.
Little more than a weightless addendum, "Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint" gets its title from the business operated by a woman who appeared in the first film, Rhonda Britton. Moore labled her the "bunny lady" because she sold rabbits either for pets or meat, and he tracks her down again for the second film. Even poorer than before, she now sells mice, rats and rabbits as food for snakes.
Moore also relocates other Flintonians who appeared in the original film, including the city's ever-optimistic tour director and the sheriff's deputy whose evictions of destitute former auto workers were interwoven through "Roger & Me" as a counterpoint to the high-sounding pronouncements of Smith and his ideological colleagues.
Like a recurring bad dream, Moore also places a call in his new film to the now-retired Smith, whose $1.1-million pension, we learn, was cut $100,000 by his successor. Even after drolly telling Smith's secretary, "Roger and I were in a film together," Moore still can't get through.
Without Smith as a foil, "Pets or Meat" isn't very penetrating either, and Moore's discovery that things in Flint have worsened since 1989 has no more impact than any other grim story about the economy. In stretching for glimmers of humor, moreover, Moore sometimes carries his playfulness too far, as in making light of what happens off camera to a fat rabbit that is fed to a boa belonging to one of Britton's customers.
In "Roger & Me," Britton was shown clubbing to death and skinning a rabbit that moments earlier she had been gently stroking, regarding it as impersonally as Smith apparently did the GM employees his policies put out of work.
Like the Flint economy, not very pretty.