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A Film of Social Conscience

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To the editors:

Jonathan Rosenbaum's article, "Nihilism for the Masses" [February 2], starts out sounding like a welcome defense of Michael Moore's Roger & Me against Harlan Jacobson's criticism in a recent Film Comment. Unfortunately, Rosenbaum goes on to make a similar mistake as he is criticizing. He tells us that the film causes us to laugh at our own impotence and takes advantage of us as victims. Further, he suggests that the film does not do what it should have done.

What exactly are films of social conscience supposed to do? Who sets the criteria for their success? The fact that so many people respond to and discuss the myriad issues raised in Roger & Me speaks to its success. If filmmakers or anyone had the total solution, the vast social and economic injustices we face would be uprooted by now. Only working people in vast numbers can take on the mighty corporate giants and the government who are responsible for the devastation brought by plant shutdowns and layoffs. Bringing these issues to the fore in a popular way that can reach large audiences is a great contribution to the overall struggle.

As far as laughing at the victim, a significant part of life is recognition of the humor, indeed the irony, of our condition: going up against this powerful and greedy corporation and its heartless figureheads, with only our comparatively modest resources, and all the ideas, enthusiasm, and solidarity that we can put together. Such efforts are bound to bring some frustrations, rejections, and more. Many, if not most people, have yet to learn the necessity of acting collectively to end economic injustice. The futility of trying to meet one-on-one with Roger Smith and not succeeding is something most people can probably identify and sympathize with. Far more important than ever meeting with Roger, Michael Moore's film has the potential to reach thousands of working and laid off people, unionized and non-unionized, with an expose of General Motors and Roger Smith. Within the countless conversations that are generated by this film and the struggles it depicts will hopefully be the seeds of a genuine fight-back against these corporations in the future.

If all films that raise political issues had the responsibility to also raise all the "politically correct" solutions there would probably be precious few films, and the critiques would undoubtedly argue with many of the solutions posed. It is easy to criticize an artistic work that also has a social conscience for not being good enough. It is much harder to organize a genuine fighting resistance to the powers that be. I don't think it's a prerequisite that a film offer all or necessarily any solutions. I applaud Roger & Me--I urge everyone to see it two, three, many times, at least once. It's only playing on "Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays."

Linda Loew
N. Hermitage

Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:

Mr. Powell, meet Ms. Loew. Ms. Loew, meet Mr. Powell.

Both of their conclusions differ from mine only in degree, and I believe that context has a great deal to do with whatever position one takes toward Roger & Me. The disillusionment about the way that this country is currently headed, as expressed in the movie, strikes me as being "radical" if one compares Moore's film to most other commercial releases; compared with, say, Salt of the Earth (1953), it is both cynical and reactionary. Certainly fostering awareness that something is dreadfully wrong is the first step in any meaningful political process that leads to change, and I don't agree that Moore fails in this regard. Furthermore, just about every documentary that I can think of, from Nanook of the North to Coverup: Behind the Iran Contra Affair, can be accused from a purist position of "deliberately [distorting] fact to serve its own purpose." The question is how much, why, and to what ends. Two things inhibit me from dismissing and condemning the film in toto, as Powell implies I should. First, the fact that, as Loew suggests, its humor and anger are liberating and clarifying tools up to a point, despite the questionable attitudes that go along with them. Second, that postulating an either/or relationship to the film, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, is playing right into the hands of a Roger Ebert or a Pauline Kael, neither of whom seems interested in dealing with the film as a mixed blessing. (It's worth noting that Kael's dismissal of the film is currently being distributed by both General Motors and the UAW.) Under these circumstances, I'm more partial to Loew's and to Ebert's consumer-product endorsements of Roger & Me, even if they gloss over some of the serious issues discussed by Powell. But I'm even more inclined to urge everyone to see the film and to quarrel with it--the approach that my review took.

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