Why American Movies Have No (Working) Class
Where the heck are America's working-class films? It's a question you don't often hear.Most movie talk in this country, live or canned, tries to answer questions that the movies themselves raise. Notice how The Lost World provoked your Aunt Ada to ask questions like: "Under what circumstances should we mess around with nature?" Or The New York Times to ask: "Precisely what ingredients combine to form a boffo summer movie?"But we're missing out if we interrogate American movies with only the list of questions they hand us under the table. Far better to dream up our own questions: "Why, in High Noon, does Grace Kelly wear a skin-tight dress? Isn't she a Quaker?" Or plop American movies down on the table next to other national cinemas to see what we have in common and what we don't.Watching Brassed Off, from Britain's Channel 4, it strikes you, hard, that the American movie industry would be as likely to produce a pro-labor, anti-government movie as, say, China.Set in a fictional Yorkshire mining town called Grimley, Brassed Off takes place in 1992, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began closing perfectly good coal mines and opening nuclear power stations. Grimley's Danny (Pete Postlethwaite), the leader of the colliery's brass band, is the only soul in Grimley who doesn't see Maggie's iron hand poised to sweep away the local pit. Or care. Thi s very year, he tells them, the Grimley Colliery Band might just win the National Brass Band Contest! Music, he thunders at his rheumy-eyed musicians, is the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts.You believe Danny, too, which is the movie's main problem. You know you ought to be cussing out the old bastard for failing to see the troubles raining down on his poor son, the trombone-playing Phil (Stephen Thompkinson), who loses a family, a council home and the will to live. But, no, all you want to hear is the band play Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. ("Which one?" the band asks. "You know," says Danny, "Orange Juice.")It's a bit of a shock, then, that Danny, standing on stage at Albert Hall, gives old Maggie and her Tories a great earful of righteous worker complaint. And that Brassed Off has the guts to leave you with a take-your-breath-away scene. After the moral victory at Albert Hall, the Grimley Colliery Brass Band is tooling around London at night in one of those double-decker sightseeing buses. They're giddy with happiness, swilling beer and tossing out jokes. But as the bus begins to pass the Houses of Parliament, Danny directs the band to take instruments from cases. Solemnly, angrily, the euphoniums, baritones and flugelhorns toot E lgar's Pomp and Circumstance into the night.Can you imagine an American comedy where the last scene features a bunch of North Carolina textile workers flipping the bird at the Capitol? Aliens can blow up the White House, but heaven forbid some Hanes needleworker wave her third digit at a filmic Rose Garden. How come?If you ask the folks next door, first they'll look at you funny, then they'll say something sensible like, "Movies about angry workers aren't entertaining." But why not? The United Kingdom manages to pull it off. There's Danny Boyle's Trainspotting; Mike Leigh's movies (Life Is Sweet and High Hopes); Ken Loach's work (Raining Stones and Riff Raff). If you poll the clerks at Visart, they'll probably point out the documentary section, where Roger & Me sits. And then they'll wave wearily at Norma Rae and Matewan.OK, but how many people actually rent Matewan? And how many more movies about American working-class struggles can you name?The real reason America doesn't make movies about the working classes is that 80 years ago the government didn't want it to. You should read about the whole sordid story in two recent books, Reel Patriotism: The Movies and World War I (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) and The Hidden Foundation: Cinema and the Question of Class (University of Minnesota Press, 1996). But here's the Cliff's Notes version.Before 1917, our government didn't give a hoot about the content of American movies. Pre-1917 audiences were mostly immigrant and working-class folk who saw plenty of labor-friendly movies like A Martyr To His Cause (1911) and From Dusk 'Til Dawn (1913). (No, not the Tarantino flick.)But on April 14, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson dreamed up the Committee on Public Information (CPI), whose job it was to strongarm the media into "sell[ing] the war to the American public." Then, seeing how the war wiped out most other national cinemas, the CPI started pressing Hollywood to create visions of American social harmony for export, lest other countries get the "wrong idea" about us.The events of April 1917 didn't lead inevitably to the Hollywood we know today, the one controlled by multinational corporations, but it sure started the ball rolling. In the 1920s, local and state censors, fearing another Russian Revolution, weeded out any flicks with suspicious Bolshevik tendencies. In the 1930s and 40s, the studios (who'd already put the kibosh on movie-industry unions) became vertically integrated, buying up exhibitors and distributors. In the latter half of this century, business conglomerates, often subsidized by the U.S. government, gobbled up (new verb) the studios.Does this mean that American studio-financed films ooze capitalist ideology? Well, yes. But no film is utterly monologic. No matter how restricted the content of our movies, working-class concerns (and anything else the movies try to repress) have a habit of surfacing in odd ways and odd places.In "race" movies. In any role Thelma Ritter played (ex: Rear Window). In stereotypes of the wise-cracking waitress.The working class hasn't completely disappeared from American movies, it's just gone underground.