I was unaware that Stanley Kubrick had made a documentary about the Seafarers International Union in 1953. I have not seen it, but it is now available here, although I will have to wait until I am back in the U.S. to watch it.
John Le Carré on Philip Seymour Hoffman as A Most Wanted Man comes close to its release date. I’m excited about it but it’s going to be hard to watch just because you know you are watching Hoffman’s last great performance (I know he’s in some Hunger Games movies yet to be released but the chances of me watching those are low so for me this is it).
I mostly hate the whole Star Wars series and am generally disinterested in science fiction. But as a man of a certain generation, I have of course seen all the original Star Wars movies, for better and worse. So Hardware Wars, which I don’t doubt many of you have seen, was of moderate interest. I can’t exactly say this is good or even near the level of Spaceballs, which is a bad movie. But it might be the first Star Wars parody, which is something. Right?
I turn my book into my editor in 36 hours. I am delirious. The only thing keeping me going is The Gay Shoe Clerk.
So I am teaching a short 4-week summer session course on Cold War Film. It only meets 10 times (4-hour sessions) so while the official course title is Recent America through Film, I’m concentrating on the Cold War since it’s not really possible to do a broader topic justice. And just because it says Recent America doesn’t mean I’m going to let something as silly as a course title stop me from showing foreign films as well. Plus we can’t understand the U.S. in the Cold War without understanding other nations as well.
I mention this because I am making them get a Netfilx account as part of their course “readings” and keep a film notebook on films they watch outside of class. What films would you show? We can think broadly here–either films that are really Cold War-themed in an obvious way or some film(s) from the era that aren’t political but some up an era.
The films I presently planning on using in class, subject to some change include parts of the Animated Soviet Propaganda set (paired with bad Cold War US propaganda from the Chamber of Commerce), Atomic Cafe, Salt of the Earth, The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Am Cuba, The Battle of Algiers, Punishment Park, Red Dawn, and Goodbye Lenin (I think). I could also skip a post-Cold War film and go with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which has certain advantages.
So what should I put on the list of possible films for them to watch outside of class? I have lots of ideas, but I am sure I am forgetting things.
In “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is a mild-mannered electrical engineer with an inferiority complex. That is, until he becomes Electro in one of the most blatant series of workplace safety-protocol violations ever committed to film.
He’s forced to stay behind after hours to fix a circuit. Without a buddy or spot — and thus not complying with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation 1910.120 — Max climbs to the top of a catwalk above several tanks of genetically modified electrical eels. He does so without the proper use of a standard harness, infringing OSHA fall-protection guidelines. He is unable to get another employee to shut off power, in blatant violation of rudimentary OSHA electrical guidelines. He balances on top of the catwalk railing and — without the use of standard work-issue insulted rubber gloves (see OSHA 1910.137(a)(1) for voltage-class requirements) — reconnects the cable. He then pushes the cable back into its slot, is severely shocked, falls a long distance into one of the eel tanks, is shocked by those eels and eventually becomes Electro.
This sequence of events — and essentially the entire plot of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ — could have been avoided if Max’s employer, Oscorp Industries, complied with even the most basic workplace health and safety standards.
You have been warned.
Too busy to blog today (in fact, with a book due in 6 weeks, that may be a not infrequent occurrence for a bit). But not too busy to put up another British Pathe film, this time on another topic close to my heart: logging. Watching this footage, especially of the guys working on the log drive in the river, should remind us all what a horrifyingly dangerous profession logging was during these years.
What are the best documentaries of all time? Sight and Sound is about to release a poll around this issue. Richard Brody has his choices, of which I’ve seen 2: Night and Fog, which belongs, and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, which is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen although I’m not sure one of the best.
I don’t know that I’m quite qualified to answer this question. There are a lot of bloody documentaries out there and I’ve seen a lot of them, but then a lot of really important ones I haven’t seen. I think it’s more interesting perhaps to think about what makes a good documentary. Brody’s take:
What these selections have in common is the idea of history, the construction of history cinematically, and the manifest personal involvement of the filmmakers in that construction. The ultimate subject of all great documentaries is the presence of the filmmaker at the events on view or under consideration—and when, as in Wiseman’s work, the filmmaker is subtracted, it’s a conspicuous subtraction, as if by way of an onscreen equation. The implication of the past in the present, the ongoing effect of the past in the present, is another crucial documentary idea—the contextualization of reported events by means of visual archeology and intellectual analysis, the unfurling of the filmmakers’ own thought process by way of that analysis. That’s the source of these ten movies’ vital, dynamic, and ongoing inspirations for other filmmakers, as well as for these filmmakers’ own later works. The past in the present, the future in the present—the essence of the great documentary is in the cinematic conception of time, the disjunction between the real time of filming and the times that it implies. Rule of thumb: the greater and more wondrous that disproportion, the greater the film.
I’m not as smart as Brody, so I’ll be a bit less lyrical. I like documentaries that throw you off kilter. That certainly can consist of the interplay between past and present as Brody says, but it doesn’t have to be. What I dislike about documentaries–and what annoys me about how people talk about interesting documentaries–is the idea that the tell the truth. So often, when I watch something like Jennifer Baichwal’s Act of God, which is about people struck by lightning and closes with the experimental guitarist Fred Frith telling his story of his strike with a 5 minute guitar improvisation, the commenters are angry because they just wanted to know SOME FACTS ABOUT LIGHTNING!!!! There’s the strong sense that documentaries serve as either how-to manuals of understanding the world or as crusading films exposing evil.
I’m more sympathetic to the latter, but most of them aren’t very good films. I don’t necessarily want to know more about a topic when I come out of a documentary. I want to have my way of thinking about the world transformed. And sometimes this happens. Here’s 11 I think very highly of as I’m sitting here. Not definitive, even for me.
Night and Fog (Resnais, 1955). Maybe the best documentary ever. Even among Holocaust films there’s a lot of competition there, but that’s a very powerful film.
Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006). What is nature? Following the photographer Edward Burtynsky as he photographs Asian pollution, both artists involved challenge the viewer. It’s 2 stories, with Baichwal as important as Burtynsky. Wonderful for the intelligent Environmental Studies student interested in social justice. Plus anytime we can start a film with a 8 minute shot of row after row after row of Chinese factory workers doing the exact same thing, we are on the right path.
Grin Without a Cat (Marker, 1977). The best film about what the 60s represented and how they declined. No one played with the complexity of truth and memory more than Marker.
Louisiana Story (Flaherty, 1948). Probably my favorite of the older style of documentary that provides a lot of narration and a main character that may or may not have any real relation to how these people actually lived. But again, who cares about some arbitrary line of accuracy.
Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005). Speaking of the complexity of truth, I’ve had multiple people who did not know each other question whether Herzog was really telling anything resembling the truth here. Which is great. Timothy Treadwell is an anti-social weirdo with major problems. So is Werner Herzog. And it’s not like Herzog is even all that sympathetic. So there are two stories from two dislikable people going on at the same time. Entertaining and seriously makes the viewer question the relationship between people and the wild.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010). I usually try to limit films to one per director on these lists, but Herzog tells an incredibly compelling story about life and art 10,000 years ago. The past and present merge in this beautiful film. I was completely compelled from start to end.
Louie Bluie (Zwigoff, 1985). Documentaries about musicians are usually somewhat entertaining but don’t often get to the point of being really compelling. Louie Bluie is an exception, about a very cranky and hilarious old man and his amazing musical and visual art (including his “found art” (a term I hate) pornographic alphabet book.) Astounding.
The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein, 1984). An exception to the political documentary problem of earnestness, as Epstein tells a story of movement just beginning to rise in American culture at a point where it is just beginning to go through its biggest crisis.
When the Levees Broke (Lee, 2006). Spike Lee’s finest film. Some complain that he gave credence to people who thought the government had blown up the levee to force black people to suffer the brunt of the disaster. Sure, that didn’t happen. However, it actually did happen in 1927. And given how horribly the government has treated African-Americans in New Orleans basically forever, those people had good reason to think that was possible. Again, documentaries aren’t about telling a single truth, whatever that even means in a case like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The Beaches of Agnes (Varda, 2008). The best autobiographical documentary I’ve seen. A great filmmaker making a film about a great filmmaker.
The Battle of San Pietro (Huston, 1945). Almost forgot about my favorite World War II film, where Huston spares the viewer nothing of the horrors of a minor battle in a necessary war. Made the military so uncomfortable that Mark Clark added an intro on the vital importance of this battle so the public wouldn’t get so upset by it.
Pretty recent set of films, but then we are living in the golden age of documentaries.
Bspencer’s post about animated films reminded me of the great and utterly bizarre Vladimir Tarasov 1979 animated film Shooting Range. Part of the superb Animated Soviet Propaganda DVD set, Tarasov’s film is perhaps best described as what happened when a bunch of LSD was smuggled into the Soviet Union and then dropped in whatever horrible concrete building the animators were stuck in. Maybe it was so hard to believe in Soviet propaganda messaging by 1979 that the craziness was necessary to keep it interesting, I don’t know. I’m surprised I’ve never posted this before, but I haven’t. The first time I watched this was in front of students. I basically decided to screen this cold because it looked great. I didn’t regret it. In 2 parts:
Georges Méliès, The Doctor and the Monkey, 1900
On March 14, 1954, the great labor film Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized version of a 1950 Mine, Mill strike in the zinc mines of southwestern New Mexico, premiered despite being lambasted as a communist plot, subjected to police harassment, and having one of its leads deported to Mexico.
On October 17, 1950, miners in Grant County, New Mexico went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company. These workers were led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or Mine, Mill for short. Mine, Mill was a communist-led union, a left-leaning alternative to the United Mineworkers of America. It was the direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners, the radical mine workers in western mines that played a key role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Mine, Mill joined the CIO, but was kicked out with the rest of the communist unions in 1950. Mine, Mill had supported the Wallace campaign in 1948, opposed the Marshall Plan, and defied the odious Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-communist provisions (although in 1949, it caved on this).
The workers had several complaints that led to the strike. They wanted their time traveling to and from the mines paid (a common point of friction in the mining industry). They wanted more paid holidays. Mostly, they fought against institutionalized racism. Jobs were classified to give the higher paying jobs to whites and the lower paying jobs to the majority Mexican-American workforce. The strikers were united in their demands to end this racist system. After 8 months of picketing, Empire Zinc won an injunction against the strikers, thanks to provisions of Taft-Hartley. Mine, Mill had few funds without CIO support and could not pay fines for violating the injunction. But the local’s ladies auxiliary proposed that they picket instead. Although this offended the gender norms of many workers, it was the only avenue they had to continue the strike. So they did.
For the next 7 months, women were the strikers, despite police harassment and arrest. The women were pretty intense. They dragged strikebreakers out of their cars, threw rocks at them, and even used knitting needles, rotten eggs, and chiles as weapons. They brought a new militancy to the front lines of this strike. The men were more than a bit flummoxed as gender roles were reversed and they had to stay at home and take care of children and feed the family while their wives took on the more traditional male roles, not to mention one fraught with real physical danger. Most of the men really did not like this at all.
Yet the tactic worked. Empire Zinc caved somewhat in January 1952. Mine, Mill certainly did not win everything, but they did receive a major pay raise disproportionately favoring the lowest paid workers which effectively undermined the racialized pay norms, even if it didn’t overturn them. The company also installed indoor plumbing in the company houses of the Mexican-American workers, a sign of how women’s influence in the strike affected the outcome and shaped the demands.
The strike received national attention from the left and after the victory, leftist filmmakers worked with Mine, Mill to shoot a feature film based upon it. It is a sort of last gasp of leftist filmmaking in the Cold War, combining a union evicted from its federation for communism and blacklisted film people. Herbert Biberman directed. He was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to play along with HUAC’s bumbling facade of an investigation against communists in Hollywood. Clinton Jencks, a leftist Mine, Mill organizer who only subjected to the Taft-Hartley anticommunist provisions at the last second (and in fact was later charged with perjury for signing the anti-communist card) plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself. Will Geer, also on the blacklist, plays the sheriff. Juan Chacon, president of Mine, Mill Local 890 is the main miner and his wife is played by Rosaura Revueltas, a professional actor from Mexico. The minor roles are played by locals, mostly the miners and their wives. The film itself is a landmark in a number of ways, not only for its sheer existence in the face of such virulent redbaiting and intimidation, but its promotion of women’s rights, indictment of machismo, feature of Mexican-Americans as protagonists, and focus on the viciousness of the employers and police. Even in the heyday of left-leaning film in the 1930s, this would have been controversial. The production was harassed by police. Revuletas was arrested and deported back to Mexico toward the end of the shoot. Vigilantes fired shots at the set.
The film caused a national outrage by redbaiters. It was officially condemned in the House of Representatives. During its production, in February 1953, Donald Jackson (R-CA) lambasted it in Congress, saying, “This picture is deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples. If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. “In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”
On March 14, 1954, the film debuted in New York. My old friends at the American Legion, a group always ready to raid an IWW hall or work as strikebreakers, called for a national boycott. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for Sight and Sound wrote it was “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” That’s absurd. What the film does is present the dignity of people fighting for a better life, fighting against racism, classism, and sexism. If fighting for labor right and opposing racism is communist, sign me up. If anything, the film played down communism. The workers themselves were constantly accused of communism, but the subject never comes up in the film, either as a political position or an epithet. Only 13 movie theaters in the country showed it and it was forgotten for a decade.
The long-term effects of the strike on gender relations among the New Mexico miners is complex. Some couples returned to their previous ways of doing things. Others saw their relationship change. The wife of one high local official, who had been abused by her husband, walked out and moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, he went to L.A. to convince her to return. When she refused, he shot and killed her. At his trial, he claimed he was protecting his children from communism.
The film is also in the public domain. So watch it right now.
For more on the background of the strike and the making and controversy around the film, see James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth.
This is the 98th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.