Sunday, November 10, 2013

Working Class Films: Winter's Bone et al

So I'm teaching this Working Class Lit class, and looking for a film to show them as we near the end of the semester.

We've already watch Matewan and Fight In The Fields.  Now I'm looking for something on the contemporary end of the spectrum.

I watched Norma Rae and rejected it.  It had its moments, but the focus on the character of Norma Rae herself (who she slept with, getting married, her domestic life, whether she had the hots for the Labor Lawyer or not) got too much screen time, which left the story of organizing the union itself -- which should have been the focus of the movie -- as almost an afterthought.  The result was near incoherence for that plot line.  It also left the impression that Norma Rae did most of the organizing on her own, rather than the unionizing being a group effort.

This was the same problem I had with North Country, an otherwise engaging film about the efforts to fight sexual harassment in a huge mining operation.  This one put the story of the fight in the center -- that part was good -- but then it changed the actual facts (which are that the women in the mine worked together, organized, to fight the harassment) so that our main character, Josey Aimes, has to fight the harassment all on her own.  She is the lone hero, in other words, and none of the other miners support her.  This includes the women, who in the film version of this story are too frightened to stand up to the harassment, and actually turn against Josey when she does, harassing her themselves.

As I said, in the actual story (which was the basis for the case Jenson V. Eveleth Taconite Co) the women worked together to file the class action lawsuit, and their ability to organize and unite is what allowed this to happen.  As this source notes:

"Theron's character is based on Lois Jenson, who in 1988 led her female co-workers in the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit and won after many long years in court.Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines proved women could prevail as a group against sex-based employment discrimination and galvanized employers across the country to adopt substantial anti-sexual harassment policies."

The film, sadly, does what much of American film loves to do -- misrepresent the truth to give us a lone hero.  I blame the American insistence on the Rugged Individual who wins against all odds; but it may just be film studios, who think if we have more than one character to pay attention to we'll lose the story line from distraction.


Last night I rewatched Winter's Bone, a movie I remember liking a lot when I saw it in the theater.

And there is, in fact, a lot to like about this film.  Breaks the Bechdel Test to pieces, for one thing.  The performances are great, as is the writing.  But it's not a working class story, since it gives us a picture of the rural Ozark poor who are not, in fact, working.  No one seems to have a job.  Everyone cooks meth or hunts for a living or is a cop, I guess.

It reinforces, in other words, the belief that the poor are poor because they don't work, and because they make bad choices.  Ree's best friend, for instance, has made the bad choice to marry a jerk, one of the many jobless in the film, whose parents are supporting them, and who -- it is hinted -- abuses her, emotionally if not physically.

And the other reason I don't want to teach it is the violence porn -- the notion that a mystique of violence and crime control working class lives.  I get that this was the plot to the movie; and I do know that many Ozark communities do, in fact, work on roughly the social outlines Woodrell & the screenwriters have shown us.

(That is, a kinship network that can be used and is used by people who understand it to settle the real disputes in the community.  That Woodrell showed the women's side of this is to his credit -- he shows, in other words, how influential women, and particularly older women, grandmothers, are in the Ozark community.)

But the whole organized crime aspect got pushed too hard, in my opinion; and the whole "he got fed to the hogs," and the scene where the corpse is mutilated, not to mention the squirrel butchering scene*, all of these strike me as playing to stereotypes of Ozark hill people as being savages.  Noble savages, but savages nonetheless.

So I'm not using that film either.  Which leaves me still looking for a final film.  Requirements: Must deal with American working class life post-1960.  The closer to 2013 it is, the better.  And I would prefer one that had women as main characters.  One with PoC would also be very nice.

I'm taking suggestions.

*A qualifier on the squirrel butchering scene.  My issue isn't that Ree and her siblings shoot and eat squirrels.  That part is fine.  But the butchering scene is foregrounded, lingered over, and this is not -- like the other scenes in which Ree is educating her siblings into how to survive in their world -- presented just to illustrate their lives; it's lingered over, and its squickly details are lingered over, in order to show us the savage nature of these Ozark hill folk.  If you think of the scene in Michael Moore's Roger & Me where Moore shows us the woman butchering rabbits, you'll see what I mean.  (Would a film about middle-class suburbanites focus lingeringly on a scene is which a woman cuts up a store-bought chicken to fry it?)

We're not being invited understand or empathize with these characters, but to view them with horror and disgust.  This despite there being, so far as I can see, no real ethical or moral difference between hunting squirrels, raising rabbits for food, or buying factory-farm chickens to eat at your local Wal-Mart.

Well, in fact, I would argue that eating squirrel you've hunted yourself is more ethical than buying factory-farmed chicken.

But these films aren't arguing that.  They want us to see Ree and the rabbit-killing women as Others, and as grotesque Others as well.  That's my issue with the scenes.


Spanish prof said...

Does it have to be an American film? If not, I would explore Ken Loach.

Spanish prof said...

Oops...missed the requirements. Sorry

delagar said...

I can probably show something that's not American -- I've been playing sort of loose with the requirements!

I'll have a look.

delagar said...

Ooo! He did Bread & Roses! Perfect!

Spanish prof said...

I had forgotten about that one! Great! Glad to help.

Athena Andreadis said...

Frozen River, with Melissa Leo & Misty Upham

delagar said...

Frozen River -- I'd forgotten about that one. Thanks, Athena!