|Issue No 23||23 July 1999|
10 Reasonably Interesting Moments in Film
Cultural theorist Snag Cleaver flies off the handle again..
It's hardly surprising, given that most of our cinema either comes directly from, or is overwhelmingly influenced by the US film industry, that workers' rights and the union movement are not the subject of a vast canonical genre. I mean, this is the sausage factory which produces The Bikini Shop (parts I-IV) and allows Jon-Clod-Dental-Damn to be listed with credits for acting and script-writing.
American cinema uses a cultural lexicon in which the individual (always wrongly accused, set-up, victimised, oppressed, ruggedly handsome and/or any combination of these problems) who takes on the (always corrupt) establishment, armed only with a Gatling gun, rocket-launcher and an unlimited special affects budget, is glamorised. The idea of a negotiated settlement which brings the greatest benefit to the greatest number of interested parties is godless commie talk, or worse - just plain wimpy.
...and apparently nobody in the Hollyworld actually does a shit job for bugger-all money with crap conditions under exploitative management structure. If they do they're illiterate Mexicans anyway, and it's gonna take proper American hero (see above) to fix those non-anglo bastard bosses who are really just a front for a drug cartel poisoning the precious bodily fluids and compromising the orthodontic integrity of our children anyway...
But here's some thoughts which may or may not be relevant about some films which may or may not be significant, and vice versa
1 Hoffa (1992)
Jumpin' Jack Nicholson grimaces and bullies his way through two hours plus of dimly-lit mid-century grind. As narrative, the flashback device, with Nicholson and Danny DeVito waiting for some "colleagues" at a two-bit diner, turns the story of the USA's most (only) (in)famous labor leader into a kind of scattershot meeting of Raging Bull and The Waltons. The period detail is nonetheless evocatively realised (DeVito co-produced too, so we're not talking "lamington-drive" funding here).
There's some fist-shaking action scenes as cops and hired goons take on the Teamsters with baseball bats and pool cues in a bloody battle. And Nicholson gets some opportunities for inspiring if somewhat didactic oratory.
The analogy between organised labor and organised crime is never far from the surface and neither David Mamet's script, which is spiked with brusque dialogue, or DeVito's direction, really resolve this ongoing of subtext of the American labour movement.
As an accurate document of the American labor movement, it's a good Jack Nicholson flick.
2 Strikebound (1983)
The 1936 miners strike, where protesting workers barricaded themselves inside the main shaft, is captured in a taut semi-documentary way in this under-rated Australian film. Notable for squarely addressing labour relations issues, albeit through the schooner glass of historical narrative conventions.
Also notable for not starring Bill Hunter.
One of the reasons it might be underrated is that director Richard Lowenstein quickly followed this debut with Dogs in Space, and everyone tried to forget about him.
Chris Heywood stars (he also played the enigmatic chainsaw-man in Dogs) during his mid-'80s "issues" phase.
3 Salt of the Earth (1954)
This relatively obscure film was directed by Herbert Biberman, who was not the best friend of Senator McCarthy's Unamerican Activities Committee.
It's a straight story of a group of Hispanic miners in New Mexico who down tools when accidents in the workplace make reaching tea-break on any given shift a lottery. The company sends in the goons, backed by the cops and the local judge (is a theme starting to emerge).
Blacklists and a Screen Actors Guild which appointed Ronald Reagan as its head head-kicker in 1947 made it difficult to get good help. So many of the cast and crew were non-professionals who actually came from the union movement in Mexico where the film had to be shot. Women play strong central roles, carrying on the struggle as the men are spuriously hauled away or simply bashed shitless.
One US face you might recognise is a young Will Geer, who later played Grandpa Zeb on The Waltons.
Occasionally pops up on SBS.
4 Sunday Too Far Away (1975)
Historicism and a raft of loved Aussie larrikins (both fictional and thespian) once again serve to glaze the grit of workers being pushed to the limit by exploitative contracts. This time it's shearers (it has to be miners or shearers in Australia because other jobs just aren't real work). Personal rivalries, pride, mateship, and smoko are all central themes in this portrait of Aussie blokes bending over sheep until it hurts.
5 Brassed Off (1996)
It' all in here: "trooble at 'pit", women challenging the Working Man's (capital W, capital M) infrastructure already emasculated by Thatcher, marching bands (controversially, the film features actual musicians from the actual Yorkshire mines - this is why Grimthorpe will never host the Olympics), evil bosses backed by the fascist bully-boys of the state masquerading as public servants, a Ewan McGregor nude scene...
6 Riff Raff (1991)
Another nude-scene notable Robert Carlyle stars as an ex-con Scot looking to get by and keep his nose clean in this no-budget Ken Loach verité piece set on a luxury apartment building site.
Itinerant labourers, left friendless and helpless by Thatcher's destruction of union regulation in the construction industry are forced to not only risk their lives to earn a quid (scriptwriter Bill Jesse was a construction worker who never saw the film's release), but pull all manner of scams to earn another quid and afford a beer after work.
Surprisingly, much comedy ensues before a bleak finale.
The broad accents from all over regional Britain and the Caribbean (and lo-fi sound production) make it necessary to concentrate on the dialogue until you catch the rhythms, but it's a little gem.
7 F*I*S*T (1978)
Sly Stallone's portrayal of a "fictionalised" trucking union boss not totally dissimilar to Hoffa, J. is directed by Norman Jewison and studded with grizzled tough-guys like Brian Dennehy, Rod Stieger and Peter Boyle.
Stallone's presence guarantees that there'll be more emphasis on the eponymous acronym than the acting or dialogue - double that when you realise he co-scripted with Joe (Flashdance, Basic Instinct) Esterhas. Hence, the finale is reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde or Scarface.
8 Rollerball (1975)
Jewison again. Here the director of film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Fiddler on the Roof predicts a future (including a thinly veiled Superleague metaphor) in which nobody works at all because the needs of mankind are met by five omnipotent "corporations" which have emerged from "the Corporate Wars". If the corporations won... who lost?
The happy proles' one obsession is the brutal rollerskating (try using these words together in conversation, it's a hoot) spectacle, Rollerball. James Caan stars as Jonathan E, an ornament to the game. His dilemmas over retirement, superannuation, holiday loading and tight leather pants make compelling cinema. Some low-level animated violence.
9 Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Hey, pre-communist Russian sailors are workers too you know. Apparently the finest film ever produced. Something in the soup sends the seamen on said boat into a mutinous revolutionary frenzy. Needless to say, authorities are concerned and kill everyone.
10 The FJ Holden (1977)
A guy called Deadlegs owns a chocolate-brown panelvan and the biggest dick in Bankstown. A guy called Kevin is doing up an old Holden (without any help from the bank) and has just started a mechanical trades apprenticeship (interesting first day). Sigrid Thornton has a bit part which has long since slipped from her CV. Essential.
NB. On the Waterfront doesn't get a blue singlet for two reasons. First, it's patently anti-union and scondly, director Elia Kazan ratted on all his mates to McCarthy's un-American activities committee.
Mr Cleaver will be available for frank and open debate on the issues raised above in the lower deck of the Noble Stand at the next Swans home game, consultancy rates payable in beer.
Interview: An Economic Wet
Dr Christopher Sheil on economic rationalism and the 1997-98 water failures in Adelaide and Sydney.
Unions: The Stench from the South
In 1997 the entire Adelaide metropolitan area was drenched in foul, sulphorous, sewerage odours, emanating from the Bolivar waste water treatment plant.
Environment: Trading into Trouble
Seattle, USA, is shaping up as demonstrator mecca in the lead up to World Trade Organisation talks.
History: Eveliegh Rail Reunion
Former workers and their families from the historic Eveleigh Railway Workshops in inner-Sydney are holding a picnic reunion and folk music festival on the site on Sunday, August 29.
International: Bosses Use Armed Gangs to Break Russian Picket
On 9 July 1999, eighty masked, uniformed gunmen accompanied by the local prosecutor and other officials tried to storm the Vyborg Pulp and Paper Mill, under occupation by workers for the past eighteen months.
Satire: New Refugee Crisis: Journalists Flee Peace Zone
The camps are once again full in the Albanian border town of Gruntiez.
Review: 10 Reasonably Interesting Moments in Film
Cultural theorist Snag Cleaver flies off the handle again..
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