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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: True grit in filmmaking

January 11, 2010
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On February 2, 2010, nominations will be announced for the 82nd Academy Awards. This year there will be ten Best Picture nominees instead of the customary five.

With movie award season upon us, (movie critics made their selections in December, Golden Globes will be handed out January 17, Screen Actors Guild Awards January 23, Directors Guild Awards January 30, the Film Independent’s Spirit Awards in March), let’s get into the spirit.

What is the best movie you have seen reflecting the realities, attitudes and culture of true grit working people?

I’m not talking about just in 2009. Hollywood makes so few “working class” films (blue collar is boring, the “suits” decided long ago) that we can’t limit picks to any one year. No, the question is: What is the best movie you have ever seen depicting workers up against the kind of risks and dangers we talk about every month in this magazine?

Hollywood’s comfort zone

This rules out scads of flicks about white-collar corporate characters. Hollywood is more comfortable with white-collar bad guys or sad guys, probably because the characters remind them of themselves. There is 2009’s excellent “Up in the Air” with George Clooney as a headcount exterminator, and you can go back through the years with films such as “Michael Clayton” with Clooney again as a conflicted law firm “fixer,” the greed is good gang in “Wall Street,” an unethical journalist in “Shattered Glass,” Jack Lemmon scrambling to salvage his clothing business in “Save the Tiger,” director John Cassavetes’s stark study of a bored, philandering middle-aged exec in “Faces,” and the 1950s study of conformity in “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” with Gregory Peck donning the uniform.

Where are the films with workers who have dirt beneath their fingernails? Who risk life and limb for a paycheck? Who are not necessarily heroic but down-to-earth real?

For your consideration

I nominate the following:

How Green Was My Valley (1941) — Story of a Welsh valley’s turn-of-the-century descent from pastoral paradise to decimated coal mining region and the effect on pre-union miners.

The Bicycle Thief (1948) — One man’s struggle to feed his family. After nearly two years of unemployment, he finds a job posting bills that requires a bicycle. But his bike is stolen on the first day of his job. With his small son he combs the streets of bombed-out, postwar Rome searching for it with no luck. His will finally broken, he steals a bicycle but is caught in the act.

Wages of Fear (1953) — In a remote, hot and desolate Central American village, four men risk all to get out by accepting an offer from an American oil company to drive two trucks filled with nitroglycerin over treacherous terrain to a well fire.

On the Waterfront (1954) — Marlon Brando is an ex-prize fighter who struggles against himself and union corruption along New York’s grim, wintry, dangerous docks.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) — An angry young man trapped in a mindless factory job in a polluted, down and dirty northern English industrial town spends Saturday nights drinking and Sunday mornings fishing; a rebel without focus.

Norma Rae (1979) — Based on a true story, an uneducated woman fights to improve her own life and deplorable conditions in a southern textile mill.

The Devil’s Miner (2005) — A documentary of two brothers, age 12 and 14, raised without a father in a shanty on the side of a mountain in Bolivia, who scramble through silver mines daily to afford the clothing and supplies needed for their education, the only ticket to escape their bleak destiny.

Mississippi Chicken (2007) — Real-life documentary of an activist working among trailer park Latin Americans employed in poultry plants and who are too scared to cause trouble or alert authorities to workplace abuses.

Encounters at the End of the World (2007) — Another documentary, this one studies the motives and philosophies of marine biologists, physicists, plumbers, and truck drivers who work in extreme conditions as far away from society as one can get at the Antarctic compound of the National Science Foundation.

The Simpsons (1989 – present) — I’m cheating here, of course. This is TV-land. But the follies of Homer the nuke plant operator, his family and buddies, are really no farce; beneath the buffoonery are populist predicaments of work and play. Plus, unlike most “workingclass” film central characters, Homer is no victim, no underdog scraper, or stranger in a strange land.

To this list I’d add the following films, which I’ve read about but not seen. Perhaps you have:

Bread and Roses (2001) — The 1990 Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles is depicted through the struggle of an immigrant woman who refuses to believe she cannot win every battle on her own terms.

El Norte (1983) — A young brother and sister journey from their remote Guatemalan village to the promised land of Los Angeles. Working as a domestic, the sister is puzzled why her employers use a washing machine. Her brother works his way up from busboy to waiter to the promise of a better job in Chicago, but their past returns to haunt them.

Hard Labour (1973) — Brutally harsh study of an aging Englishwoman and her daily grind cleaning the homes of the wealthy. She returns to her own home each night to face whines and rants from her husband, an alcoholic custodian.

Blue Collar (1978) — Richard Pryor is one of three friends scraping by trying to escape auto assembly line boredom, hazards, and fears of a dead-end future.

Your submissions, please

OK, it’s your turn. Email your nominees for “Best True Working Grit” picture, and why you think so, to johnsond@bnpmedia.com. We’ll shine a light on this under-populated genre of filmmaking and post all your comments on www.ishn.com.

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