Michael & Me
"He's out to get Moore. He wants to punish him, humiliate him. But – Roger Smith direct a movie? He's crazy."
Victor Tomasoni is a public relations consultant, one of many hired by General Motors to fight the tidal wave of bad publicity brought on by the movie "Roger & Me." Now, recently let go by GM, he was free to talk about his former boss and, yes, his movie-making aspirations.
"I was hoping it would end when they ignored Michael Moore at the Academy Awards. But no. Roger Smith is serious. He's on a mission. He even went to San Francisco, to talk to the people at Mother Jones – disguised as a foreign journalist. He wore a very thin mustache, spoke in a very thick accent – said he was 'Rutger Schmidt' from Germany, doing an expose of Moore for Stern, or Der Spiegel."
"And they fell for it?"
"They're being sued by Moore, so it was easy. They're blinded by hate." (Note: Moore was fired by Mother Jones and his suit against them is still pending.)
Tomasoni tells me that filming begins next week in California, where Smith's private investigators have located Moore at a beach house owned by Democratic fundraiser Max Palevsky.
"He actually thinks he can do to Michael Moore what Michael Moore did to him!"
"Don't laugh," I say, trying not to laugh. "He'll probably win an Oscar."
Above, the beach house. Below, a small film crew led by a paunchy, rosy-cheeked man wearing a baseball cap with "GM" on it. The man is Roger Smith, the Chairman of General Motors, and he's making his directorial debut.
I'm here because Smith insisted on having a member of the press along favorable to his point of view (Okay, I lied) and to record events carefully, if not factually, to avoid the kind of criticism Moore received. Call it Tomasoni's Revenge.
Smith has thoughts of his own kind of revenge. You can see the twinkle in his eyes, the gleeful anticipation of that moment when Michael Moore is finally trapped, snookered into some uncompromisingly embarrassing situation. And, he's only got two weeks in which to do it. That's how much time the GM board of directors is giving him – they think he's crazy too.
Smith has decided to sneak around to the back of the house and enter from the beach. Unfortunately, the only access to the beach is from the heavily-protected, multi-million dollar homes themselves. Fortunately, Smith's friend Armand Hammer lives next door to Palevsky and he provides us access, as well as some extraordinary food. On my way out I leave a five-dollar bill with "Thanks, R.S." written across it.
"I want the camera up there, on the deck," Smith whispers.
Marty, the cameraman, starts scaling one of the concrete pylons that keeps the house from falling into the Pacific. Smith – easily in his 60's – starts climbing a different pylon, dragging sound man Bob along at the end of a thirty-foot cord.
Since I first met Roger Smith he has been absolutely focussed in the pursuit of his goal. He's learned the basics of lighting, camera angles, "framing" shots – and he's prepared. Of course, in the world of documentary filmmaking, you can prepare all you want, but nothing is guaranteed. You need a little luck. Michael Moore got lucky when he interviewed the vapid Miss Michigan and, later that year, she became the vapid Miss America. These things can't be planned.
Luck is not with Roger Smith tonight. The beach house is owned by Max Palevsky, but the only sign of life is a housekeeper, who is now five hundred dollars richer.
The very next morning we're at it again. Smith's only had a few minutes of sleep, but you'd never know it. A tip from his private investigators has Moore staying at the fabled Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood. He rousts us from our bunks in the large, luxurious camera truck/RV (made by GM in Mexico, of course) and we hit the road.
Smith, riding in the back and pretending to be "just one of the guys," decides to practice his narrative on a small, Japanese-made tape recorder.
"When I meet Michael Moore I'd like to invite him to come to Detroit – to come up to my offices in the General Motors building. I want him to see for himself that when he attacks me, the Chairman of General Motors, he is also attacking the people around me – the executives and the managers and the vice presidents that make up the best damn decision-making team GM has ever had. And I want Michael Moore to meet these good people and to see their faces and to see how he's hurt them..."
He sounds about as sincere as Frank Lorenzo. Nearing the hotel, he asks Marty to get some exterior shots.
"...the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood is a long way from Flint, Michigan. And Michael Moore seems to spend more time in Hollywood these days than in the hometown he says he's trying to help."
He stops the tape.
"Right around here I'm going to put in that clip of John Belushi."
The big truck pulls up to the side entrance of the hotel and Smith gets out.
"Wait five minutes," he tells Marty, "and I'll find a window to get the camera through."
Then he tells me to get out.
"It'll look less conspicuous if you come along," he says.
Without stopping at the front desk, Smith heads for the lobby and finds a place to sit down. I do the same. When he pretends to read a copy of Guitar World, so do I. The concierge looks at us with suspicion, but Smith follows his plan. After five minutes, he gets up and asks for the location of the bathroom. Then, he excuses himself. I go back to reading about Eddie Van Halen's new amplifier.
All of a sudden there's this loud squeal. The concierge goes to look. I follow. There, at the end of a hallway, is the Chairman of General Motors wriggling to free his head from a small window opening, with Marty on the outside, trying to push his head back in. It's stuck pretty good. A young actor, who I later learn is teen idol Johnny Depp, shuffles sleepily out of his room to see what's going on.
"Drugs," I say, shaking my head and going "tsk tsk."
Depp yawns and shuffles back to his room. The concierge, however, looks like he's ready to call the cops. He doesn't have to as Smith finally frees his head. The whole thing ends up costing another five hundred dollars, to keep the concierge happy.
On the road, USA.
We're headed for New York, where Smith's new private investigators expect Moore to show up at a tribute to documentary filmmakers at the Museum of Modern Art. Smith has decided to let his beard grow during the trip, the better to hide his identity.
I ask him if he's worried about the comparisons people are bound to make between his film and "Roger & Me."
"I'm sure there are people who are going to say I got the idea for my film from that film, but I can honestly say, 'How could I? I never saw it.'"
And why hasn't Roger Smith seen "Roger & Me?" – the only movie that is about him and even has his name in the title?
"I'm not a fan of sick humor," he explains.
New York City.
The Museum of Modern Art has a rule strictly forbidding cameras on the premises. So, Marty has parked the truck on 54th Street and mounted the camera on the roof, allowing a view into the museum's sculpture garden. In addition, Smith is wired with a hidden microphone, a radio-transmitter, and a miniaturized headset under a stocking cap that, added to the beard, gives him the look of an old sea salt. Once again, I go along as a shield, a diversion.
We pay and enter. Smith asks a young girl at the information desk about the film tribute. She says there will be a reception in the sculpture garden at 4:30. The sculpture garden. Will Michael Moore be there? Yes!
"But the reception is for Film Society members only," she adds.
Even though his name is on the list of the museum's biggest contributors, Smith doesn't want anyone to know he's here. He pulls me aside.
"You can get me in."
"I'm not in the Film Society," I explain.
"That's okay – you can join, then take me in with you as your guest."
This guy didn't rise to the top on ass-kissing alone. I pay the thirty-five dollars for my membership card and, Chairman of General Motors in tow, head for the sculpture garden.
We're a few minutes early, and Moore isn't there yet. Just a handful of "artsy intellectual types" as Smith calls them. The camera lurks beyond the wall. Smith checks the sound. He can hear Bob, Bob can hear him. Everything is in place.
Then a bit of hubbub. We turn to see what it is. Right on cue, none other than Michael Moore, looking just like he does in the movies, rolls in with a flotilla of admirers.
"How does it feel to hurt hard-working Americans?" Smith barks out.
Moore sees Roger Smith, but doesn't recognize him. If anything, he regards him as a crackpot, and turns away. But, Smith is relentless.
"I said 'How does it feel to hurt hard-working Americans?' Answer me, Mr. Rich Hollywood Director!"
He pushes through the crowd, eventually staring Moore right in the face, trying to goad him into a response.
"Answer me, Mr. Rich Hollywood Director!"
"I'm not rich," answers Moore. "And I'm not a Hollywood director. And I haven't hurt anyone."
"Yes you have!"
"Who have I hurt?"
"People. Good people. Dozens. Hundreds. Thousands," Smith charges. "You think you're so concerned for the working man? Prove it!"
Moore turns to the artsy intellectual types surrounding him.
"This bum probably makes more than I do," he smirks. Then he turns and moves on, his entourage following.
Crass? Crude? Insensitive? What did he mean? That this loudmouth in the crowd is a rich bum? That Warner Brothers isn't paying him a bum's wage? That this "bum" is being paid a lot of money by GM to heckle him? To tell you the truth, I'm still not sure what he meant, but it doesn't matter – Roger Smith just got lucky. Real lucky. Buster Douglas lucky. He just got Michael Moore to say something that's going to make him look bad, and isn't that what it's all about?
But, when I look over at Smith, he isn't laughing. He isn't even smiling. Instead, he's standing all alone in the middle of the sculpture garden, frozen in horror, as still as the Henry Moore sculpture next to him.
He holds out a broken piece of wire, then looks down, drawing my attention to a tiny microphone, severed from the wire, lying forlornly on the ground. No words are necessary.
Later, we view the footage. The silent footage. It looks like it was shot by Zapruder. I suggest, kiddingly, that he dub Moore's voice. Smith nods, as if he'd seriously consider it.
This is the last day of filming. Roger Smith won't give up. His private investigators, who are on a hot streak of one, believe Moore is staying here in Flint, with his sister.
We pull up to a modest house on a modest street about a mile from the closed GM plant that was featured in "Roger & Me." Smith hands me a yellow legal pad and a pencil.
"We're census takers. I'll do all the talking."
The next thing I know I'm wired for sound and ringing the doorbell.
A young woman peeks through the side window. Cautiously, she opens the door.
"Is there a Michael Moore staying with you?" Smith asks.
"Yes, that's my brother. But he's not here right now."
"Will he be back soon?"
"Who are you?"
"Let me explain, ma'am. We're with the Census Bureau. Your address is what we call a 'target address.' That means that we've targeted certain households to provide us with more detailed information about certain residents of those households. May we come in?"
She's not sure, but after looking us over, she decides to trust us. We're ushered into a cozy, unpretentious home.
"Iced tea?" she asks.
Smith starts asking her a bunch of vague questions, nothing too personal to arouse her suspicion. As a result, it takes him forty-five minutes and six tall glasses of iced tea to realize he's targeted the address of the wrong Michael Moore. We apologize, Smith offers her money – she's not interested – and head for the door.
"Goddamn private investigators," he mutters under his breath.
"Was your brother upset at not being nominated?" I ask the woman, just for the hell of it.
On the road, Michigan.
It's late and we're headed back to Detroit. No one is saying much. Smith shaves, Marty packs up the camera equipment. Bob, who's driving, whistles aimlessly along with the radio. I'm writing out the day-by-day chronology of events I promised R.S., as we call him. But it seems kind of pointless.
Then, as we're making a long, slow turn on the cloverleaf, we hear a loud bang. Bob slows down and pulls off onto the shoulder. We get out and look at a very flat right front tire.
"Does that beat all!" Smith cries. Nevertheless, we get to work. Marty searches for the spare, Bob switches on the warning blinkers, and Smith grabs some flares. I, of course, have to add the flat tire to the day-by-day chronology.
"Great," Marty groans from inside the luggage compartment. "There's no fucking jack."
Just then I look over and see that Smith has flagged down a car, on the opposite side of the expressway.
"Nice work, R.S.," Marty shouts.
We see Smith make a mad dash across eight lanes and start talking to the car's driver. He keeps talking to the guy, talking to him for so long that we begin to get a little concerned. Then Smith turns around – and he's grinning from ear to ear.
We look at each other, then back at Smith and this guy, this big, roly-poly guy in a baseball cap with "WB" on it.
All of a sudden Smith waves goodbye, gets in the car, and – before you can say denouement – they're gone.
(This originally appeared in The Realist.)
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