Saturday, January 13, 2007

Blue Collar

dir. Paul Schrader"This thing's a goddamn killer, Miller!"

January 13, 2007 - DVD

One of the reasons I wanted to do this blog is to help purge myself of the idea that a movie has to accomplish certain things to be considered invaluable. Often we watch something with a kind of unconscious checklist going; Good cinematography? Good acting? How often do you hear or say something like, “no qualms with the story, but what about that dialogue?” I’m so guilty of doing this, it’s not even funny. Usually we can get away with it, because it’s a polite way of discrediting a movie we don’t admire, or the film isn’t really worth thinking very hard about anyway. Other times, though... Other times, we meet a Blue Collar, a film that sticks its livid finger in the barrel of our critical shotgun. We squeeze the "review" trigger, and suddenly we’ve got words like “intent,” “nuance” and “subtext” all blown backwards in our face. When evaluating something like this, relying on our usual concepts of quality and success will only fuck us up, and we risk overlooking something unique and tremendous.

The story begins like this: Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) are three friends working together on a checker cab assembly line and united, at least in part, by their depression and shared sense of hopelessness. Every day’s another disaster; Zeke is caught in a tax scam, Jerry’s daughter slices up her mouth attempting to create the braces she needs but her father can’t afford, and Smokey drowns his superior intelligence in alcohol, drugs and prostitutes, probably because nobody in his life has ever been willing to consider him as anything but a big, black workhorse. Like anybody in a bad situation, they need something to rail against, and the most apparent causes of their misery are the men running their local labor union. They don’t have any qualm with the union in general, just with the men denying them their basic human rights on a regular basis. So it is that they eventually scheme to rob their own union headquarters. They expect to find bundles of money, but instead come upon a ledger detailing a long series of illegal money loans, all with huge rates of interest. Smokey decides to use it for blackmail.

Up until this point, the movie has been playing by the regular rules—Schrader even includes witty background decorations, like big posters of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the union meeting hall, serving almost as a reminder that their efforts toward progress and equality have been subverted into an excuse to simply oppress everybody in the lower class. It’s been a classically “good” movie for an hour, and the viewer probably expects it to stay this way, and perhaps even to offer some insight as to how we as a society can help to rectify these injustices.

Once the blackmail plan is put in action, however, everything changes. The union leaders become almost Machiavellian in their evil deeds, remorselessly terrorizing, creatively murdering, and fork-tonguedly tempting the three guys in a string of melodramatic and unbelievable situations. Suddenly gone is the realism of the early scenes, where we began to know these three men and their families. The film no longer has time to focus its attention on little details; the characters are too busy running for their lives, stabbing each other in the back, and staying up at night gripping baseball bats. The logic behind who gets killed, who gets corrupted, and who becomes an FBI informant is simple-minded at best, and stereotypical at worst. But here’s the thing—each of these “flaws” are essential to the film’s accomplishment. The more fevered and unbelievable it all gets, the more disturbing the movie’s messages become. The further it gets from its internal logic, the closer it comes to fully inhabiting and communicating its central emotion.

This is one of the most pissed off movies I know, a film that sacrifices almost everything for its anger. It depicts characters whose lives are mostly made up of work, debt and drinking. They aren’t well educated, and they aren’t well compensated for the hard work they do. These are people feeling pinned against the wall without a clue how to better their situation, and being slowly driven crazy by a vague awareness of the corruption and oppression that make the bosses around them rich. And just like these three guys, the movie they’re in is prone to hyperbole and irrationality. In the second half, it essentially throws away its effortless sense of realism and honesty, instead becoming totally consumed by outrage and paranoia. It takes the same plunge as Zeke, Jerry and Smokey; as they lose the very values they swore they’d cling to (really, all they had going for them), the film turns its back on plausibility and abandons any sense of responsibility it had toward suggesting a way out of this mess. This isn’t an intelligent study of union corruption; it’s a bath in cold human panic. Whether this is by calculated design or not is irrelevant, and not worth worrying about. The fact that this progression of logic exists—that people think and feel this way, and can eventually be reduced to nothing but blind rage—is all that matters. That’s a tremendously distressing notion, and one Blue Collar follows all the way down to the bottom. It’s not about guys like this; it’s a product of them.

In the end, the movie isn't about answers, it's about questions. One of the film’s posters reads, “Whatever happened to the American dream?” As a tagline, this couldn’t be more perfect. We begin by asking this question of the movie, expecting some kind of reasoned response. Once it's over, we find that we're dizzily asking the question of ourselves, and this time we're asking with a lot more frustration than before. For Christ’s sake, what the hell did happen to the American dream?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i think you just mean "mythic."