9 to 5

Welcome to Labor History Month! In case you didn’t know, being aware of the role of labor and labor movements doesn’t end on May Day (or Labor Day). In 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the official distinction “to commemorate this month with appropriate educational exercises that make pupils aware of the role the labor movement has played in shaping California and the United States.” The link is chock-a-block with good ideas, but they don’t mention any movies. That’s where this blog post comes in.

I’ve long had my eye on two sites, laborfilms.com and laborfilms.org, that have, in the past, helped people find films that empathize with our working-class brothers and sisters. The sites have changed a lot! They could use your support. A great place to start is with this list, but PLEASE remember that the dates are not the release dates of the films, but instead the years that those films screened at their annual festival. Yet that list isn’t quite enough for me.

Another good list, though only 23 films long, is this list from the Onion’s AV Club. And another good list, though a bit dated now, comes from Julia Lesage in jumpcut.

I don’t feel that a film has to be directly about a labor strike, a la Norma Rae, to qualify as labor-celebrating. I love any realistic (non-fantasy, non-horror, non-sci-fi) film that shines a long hard light on the struggles of members of the working class…and sympathizes with them, unlike this year’s Grimsby. I love a film that makes you sympathize with just how difficult it is to provide for your self and your family if you don’t have an elite degree or the “right” connections. You might say that every non-fantasy film is like this, but a lot of films that ostensibly root for the underdog striver seem to take place in a sort of fairy-tale, idealized, rarefied, well-scrubbed world (looking at you, The Devil Wears Prada).

So let me just add a few supplements to those three lists, with a few reasons. Thank you for thinking of your working-class brothers and sisters this month!

Land Without Bread (1933) Known amongst film scholars as perhaps the first “surreal documentary,” this is Luis Buñuel heading deep into his Spanish homeland to find people who apparently had never learned to make bread. The events aren’t all real, but the empathy is.

Ikiru (1952) Darn, AV Club and laborfilms.org, this is #131 on imdb’s Top 250, where are you guys? Basically Bartleby the Scrivener with a postwar Japan, Kurosawa touch. Profound and haunting.

The peak of the Elia Kazan filmography, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) to America, America (1963). It’s true that Kazan slightly caved to McCarthyite hysteria (giving them names they already had), but it’s also true that that came smack dab in the middle of a filmography that was more working-class-sensitive than, well, anyone’s. I have to think that Kazan’s role in the blacklist is the reason that only one of his films is on the laborfilms.org index – Viva Zapata! (1952). Yet that’s a shame, particularly in the case of On the Waterfront (1954) (which did make the AV Club) – the whole film is great, but it could be included on the index on the basis of the “I could have been a contender” speech alone. This year, as every year, The Hollywood Reporter interviewed anonymous Oscar voters, and one of them made me laugh as he criticized the new (and I thought excellent) movie Brooklyn: “way too idealized, it wasn’t like that for immigrants then, they should have gone back and watched America, America.” We should all go back and watch The Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky, Panic in the Streets, A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, and more. Together, they add up to the most poignant, most overwhelmingly effective way to make the current generation understand the quiet dignity and struggles of the people who built this country. Together, they’re like The Grapes of Wrath times ten.

 

apartment

The Apartment (1960) Just the imagery of Jack Lemmon as this cog in the corporate machine is absolutely indelible, but the rest of the film provides smart support. Deserved its Best Picture win, even over another movie that the index does have called Spartacus.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) When this came out, critics said “Oh, there’s the New York we know.” This almost doesn’t qualify because the characters almost don’t work, but rarely does any film shine quite this strong a light on the scuzziest, filthiest, most-beaten-down parts of America’s greatest city. You feel this Best Picture winner in your bones.

The peak of the John Sayles filmography, from Baby It’s You (1983) to Silver City (2004). The index does have two of these, Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988), so that’s good. But John Sayles at his peak was worth a lot more than those, particularly in the case of City of Hope (1991), Passion Fish (1992), and the Oscar-nominated Lone Star (1996). There’s this admirable quietness in almost all Sayles movies, as people gather themselves in rural or semi-rural locations, walk amongst the dislocated rocks and faded, chipped walls, and wonder how they are going to possibly improve their lives. That quietness nicely mirrors the quiet dignity of the working class even as it disturbingly mirrors the silence with which most of our movies, and most of our media, treats them. If you aren’t already, it’s time to become a John Sayles fan.

Many Coen Brothers films. Their critics hate them for misanthropy, and maybe the Coens do sometimes hate their subjects, but I see a deep empathy for regular, messed-up American folks in films like Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother Where Art Thou? (2001), A Serious Man (2009), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Yes, we see some terrible people in some of these, making terrible choices. Yet taken as a whole, I feel that a Coen Brothers-only film festival generally makes us feel closer to the people who work in society’s less glamorous jobs.

Boyhood (2014) Uh, I’ve already gone on and on about this, but I’m still right.

I may add more as the mood strikes. Strikes!