Friday, March 11, 2011

Blue Collar (March 14 at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[BLUE COLLAR screens Monday March 14th at 7pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady Jr.

I have mixed feelings about labor unions, and now the states are trying to do to collective bargaining what digital photography did to Kodachrome (R.I.P. - Kodachrome, I mean). Sure, a lot of business tycoons are greedy swine you shouldn't trust any further than you can throw them. But many unions, once they got a taste of power, turned out just as unreasonable, rotten and corrupt. A detail that avuncular Pete Seeger never quite got around to balladeering about. That song on Harlan County kept asking "Which side are you on, boy? Which side are you on?" I'd consider being on None of the Above's side.

Same, evidently, with BLUE COLLAR, a drama that marked the feature directorial debut of Paul Schrader (and, in some corners, is still regarded as his best). It's very much a product of 1970s Hollywood - the Altman-Coppola-Scorsese part of the 1970s Hollywood when American movies briefly seemed to be engineered for grownups, before Lucas and Spielberg set us all on the path to today's live-action digital comic-books 24/7. 

Thus it's as dark, downbeat and disillusioned as the day's headlines, though BLUE COLLAR had the cruel timing to premiere when co-star Richard Pryor was a rising comedy superstar. Many who went to this expected another of his laff riots, and it died in the marketplace like one of the crummy late-70s American-made cars that figure prominently in the plot.

Pryor, along with Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, play a trio of dogface Detroit auto workers who feel ripped off by their exorbitant union dues as well as callous management. They put on goofy masks (one of the few overtly schticky moments) and stage a break-in at the union hall. Instead of the cash looted from rank-and-file, however, they find only incriminating documents that expose some of Michigan organized labor's dirty deeds. A government investigator is looking for exactly that sort of evidence, but the cash-hungry protagonists try to blackmail the local instead. This inspires one of the more grueling industrial murder sequences I can remember.

I warned you this movie was dark, and it also has a sour undercurrent of how this no-hoper work environment fractures the close-knit comradeship of the multi-racial antiheroes. Gov. Kasich would be smart to get this movie back in theaters if he ever wants to join Wisconsin and do some serious Republican whaling on what's left of the labor rackets.

If memory serves, I first saw BLUE COLLAR in a film class towards the tail end of earning my generally worthless liberal-arts degree. It might have been my last film course I ever took, with reason. The instructor had hand-picked a grab-bag of movies and George Orwell essays to illustrate his thesis (heavily alcohol-fueled, from what bits of gossip came my way) about the "machine" of modern society chewing everyone up.

Before the whole class became a twice-weekly ordeal with an academic who had clearly spent too much time listening to himself talk, BLUE COLLAR illustrated the “machine” theme well, and I'll say the teacher was correct in one observation. The way Schrader (or his editor) put together the title sequence, an assembly line intercut with hard-charging Ry Cooder rhythms, is a gem, one of the most dynamic opening credits of all time. Otherwise the class made me leery of ever teaching cinema studies; I don't think I'd fancy becoming like that guy over the years. Which is too bad, because teaching film at a college wringing every last tuition buck out of desperate, unemployable 21st-century students is just about the only way for left for a critic to make stable money. And I'd probably even have to join a union to do it... (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)

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