Monday, May 23, 2011

Blue Collar (1978)

Detroit in the Seventies: "And Then, We Woke Up..."

directed by Paul Schrader
starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel,
Yaphet Kotto

Opening credits. A caught-on-barbed-wire howl none other than Captain Beefheart with a paean to ass-raped working stiffs, its beat like the clanging of hammers, steel against steel. It's the pounding of a bill collector's fist on your dinnertime door, or maybe the clamp of a license plate press. It's the big-city blues of the modern industrial age: the plant, the bar, then home to the family where bills keep piling and shit needs fixing and the wife needs fucking and inane sitcoms blare away on a TV it took you three years just to pay off while the rugrats you can't afford to feed or clothe yell and scream at each other and break up everything you barely even own. That's your life. That's your working-class American Dream.

It's also your Detroit in the late Seventies, a perpetual Night of the Living Dead set in a burned-out urban cemetery strewn with condemned buildings, crushed hopes and spare auto parts, where the working poor stumble about under a permanent cloud of factory smoke in that pregnant pause before the barbarians finally broke down the gate, before the ground at the city's feet gave way to the hellfire maw of racial and economic chaos whose white-hot flames had been warming the concrete above it since before King and his dream were obliterated by an assassin's bullet.

For guys like Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), chaos crouched in waiting just around the turn of the decade. Like a sack of mangoes rocked by blow after blow closed auto plants, rising crime rates, white flight, inept (and, in some cases, outright corrupt) leadership good ol' Motor City would never again regain its former shape. Year by year, the carrot of basic solvency would be yanked another inch beyond the grasp of outstretched hands; year by year, in lieu of the fulfillment promised him by all the shiny happy people in the TV ads and the political speeches, Cain of the broken-backed rabble would edge ever closer toward the jugular of Abel standing next to him. Say goodbye to country tunes at the local watering hole, Hank: Detroit in the age of RoboCop would see worker set against worker, friend against friend, black against (what remained of) white, inner-city blight lashing out at the Job's hedge of nitroglycerin working-class stability that surrounded it. American Working Man, meet the hellhounds loosed by your own bed-buddies-with-state-government union. Take a hard look at the impracticability of that dream you've been paying for on layaway the last ten years. Next stop: the pasture. In the meantime: "Buy this shit, buy that shit." In the end, "all you got's a buncha shit." That's what it all adds up to. That's all these guys know.

So, like the Paul Schrader protagonist that he is, Zeke takes an idea that's been growing in his brain for some time and decides to put it to action. The idea? Payback. A little righteous vindication, even. Not the "true force" of Travis Bickle's fantasies and not the moral cleansing effected by a Charles Rane or a Jake Van Dorn, but something rather appropriate to the downscale existence of three frustrated worker bees: why don't we rob the safe at Union headquarters? Zeke got the idea while there to file a complaint with their Union rep the damn safe was big as day and wide open, nobody looking after it but some half-asleep geriatric. Zeke spills the plan to Jerry and Smokey during the comedown from a coke-fueled orgy that's like the only stab these guys have at rolling back the clock for a couple of hours and letting the sunshine of pre-adulthood spontaneity wash over their drab, responsibility-burdened lives. It'd be a knock-over, Zeke says in and out. And with the bread split between the three of them, Jerry could finally get his daughter the braces she needs and Zeke could get the three grand he needs to pull the IRS out of his ass. They've certainly done worse.

Besides, they agree, what the fuck has their Union done for them, anyway? What, break their asses for Monopoly money and keep their backs strained from trying to get the tips of the ends just to kiss? (Forget about meeting.) The Union can't even take care of their most basic needs just ask Zeke's poor little finger, cut to shit from months of him sticking it in a hole just to get his broken locker open every day. Clearly, the bitch is fucked from the asshole out the foreman shouts abuse, the shop steward ignores it, and the Union rep just looks the other way so fuck 'em all and let's just take what we've got coming to us.

And then, they hit the safe. Where they find nothing but petty cash mere pocket change plus a ledger documenting a series of illegal loans. Turns out, that's the sweet blowjob of fortune and an ass-rape from bad luck in one fell swoop. While our heroes go about trying to extort a Union desperate to keep a spotlight off of its shady dealings to build a half-assed breaking-and-entering into a long-overdue housecleaning, a blow for the common man Union higher-ups discover what they've stumbled onto. Well. Tricky Dick might have left the White House, a cleaned-up Iggy Pop might have been rocking synthesizers, and Star Wars and Spielberg might have just kickstarted the Bigger and Deffer '80s; but up in Murder City, it was still the Gritty '70s. Faster than you can say "downbeat ending," here comes the iron fist of Uncle Sam to hit these guys where it hurts most boom, there goes a simple plan hatched over early-morning regrets; boom, there goes years of friendship. And boom there goes life as they've known it.

After a solid run of era-defining scripts realized by other directors (Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese, Rolling Thunder for John Flynn, Obsession for Brian De Palma, The Yakuza for Sydney Pollack, plus an early crack at Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Spielberg), Paul Schrader happened upon a basic story cooked up by his brother Leonard and decided to take the reins himself. True, Blue Collar may seem at first to be an odd fit for a depressed, emotionally throttled son of Dutch Calvinism with a knack for loners consumed by messianic, suicidal redemption quests. (There's that ten-mile shadow The Searchers apparently cast over his imagination.) But it's a fit that winds up hand-in-glove. The Lord Jehovah's unblinking eye over Schrader's Midwestern childhood gets a nifty transmutation into the boot heel of that coal-hearted prick Capitalism and the economic penalties guys like Zeke and Jerry face simply for having families hell, for breathing. (If the lives of our country's sainted poor are any indication, then Howard Hughes was on the money like Andrew Jackson: frightened at the thought of knocking any of his women up, Hughes ejaculated in mouths, never vaginas.)

Blue Collar stands tall as one of the last gasps of great '70s working-class cinema a pantheon that includes Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Straight Time without turning into something Barton Fink might have pulled from his typewriter. It's from an era when Hollywood still knew how to speak to its audience, from an era when Hollywood still acknowledged that bank tellers and waitresses and office drones watch films, too; that not everyone in the audience puts "cop," "criminal," or "disillusioned private eye" on their yearly tax returns. A guy like Schrader was at least two social classes removed from a guy like Jerry Bartowski, and certainly so from strugglin' brothas like Smokey James and Ezekiel Brown, but Blue Collar wastes nary a frame on po'-folks condescension. And it absolutely nails the grind of paycheck-to-paycheck living: Wednesday nights at the bowling alley, jalopies that need new gas pumps, Hamburger Helper with bread and butter for dinner (and your kid's still hungry), asshole bosses who only notice you when you pause for a breather but never when you're busting your ass. Fat cats expand their stomachs while Jerry stands around in his Big Mac T-shirt and his Archie Bunker house, giving vent to white resentment "it'd be better off if I didn't work at all; at least then, we could collect some government welfare" that would ripen into public discourse (and open political strategy) under Ron 'n Nancy. An auto worker trying to feed his family, a filmmaker struggling to bring his vision to the screen either way, that ceiling you can't break through is just a floor to the guy above you.

Sure, as with any directorial debut, there's a few off-notes. There's also the occasional moment of undigested symbolism when you see a lug like Ed Begley Jr.'s character reading Catch-22 on his lunch break, clearly, that's Schrader's hand popping out from behind the camera and waving hello. Some of the gags a tubby worker's ongoing war with a vending machine, the masks sported during the robbery of the safe don't jibe with the film's overall tone, although the levity is appreciated. And Lucy Saroyan is perhaps a bit too erudite for a working-class Detroit housewife.

Rarely has male camaraderie on film been better realized, though Pryor, Keitel and Kotto don't act these guys' long-standing friendship; they wear it: in their ease with one another, in the little gestures, the knife-edged jokes and barbs that guys trade over cheap beers (and especially in front of women) the way girlfriends trade gossip and self-aggrandizement. The three of them wear Bobby Byrne's suitably grubby cinematography like fuzzy old slippers at any moment, Schrader could cut away to another table of Joes and these guys would melt right into the mise-en-scène, just another soft-focus jumble of high-fives and shared grumbles about the boss, despite the fact that one of them just happens to resemble one of the most popular comedians of the decade. It's a sketch of doomed friendship made all the more amazing when you consider the alienated loner holding the pen, or read accounts of the three actors at each other's throats due to Schrader telling each man that he, not the others, was the true star of the film. (Drugs and Pryor's infamous volatility during the era probably didn't help, either.)

How is Pryor? Well, if you've heard anything about this film, then you already know: the man had serious dramatic chops, chops enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with another typically fine, intensity-on-the-verge-of-boiling-over Harvey Keitel performance. Of course, Pryor's comedy could have told you that, too. Onstage, acting out the movies that clattered away on the projector of his own imagination, Pryor embodying winos, junkies, preachers, slick-talking pimps, befuddled boyfriends, flustered rednecks, sexually frustrated women, stern fathers, stuttering Chinese waiters, dimwitted boxers, cops, kids, dogs, monkeys, (hell) even his own malfunctioning heart — did exactly what he does in Blue Collar: he gave voice to the voiceless, he let you know how the "other guy" felt. He put anger inside the unthinkably hilarious, humor inside the foul-mouthed satirical rage and never once did he spare himself. Hell, no, his greatest jabs were directed at his own gut and if only one could say likewise about his legion of imitators those jabs never failed to have an underlying humanity or sense of uncertainty to them. "I was a fuck-up, too," you could hear him saying when he spun comedy gold out of stories like getting his ass kicked at junior boxing or fighting with his father or his many failed relationships. Zeke Brown comes closest to preserving the real Pryor on celluloid not the cool, jive-talking Negro there to imbue Gene Wilder with hipness and then step aside so that Wilder can kiss the girl, and certainly not the neutered funny-face-making of his wan '80s comedies.

Zeke meets Jerry on his porch one last time and irreparably frayed bonds are held to the light so as to kill all lingering doubt. It's all over now, babe two friends, once brothers in toil and debt, now forming a "V" on divergent paths. Jerry's "thinking white" and Zeke is taking the best opportunity for his family, for himself that he's ever been offered. Neither man can understand or even hear, really what the other man is saying, what's important to the other man. It's two separate value systems, two separate histories, two essentially irreconcilable worldviews locked in combat. That's the history of black and white in an all-American nutshell. It's the reason you'll never see Oreo-style configurations of beer buddies taking over your neighborhood dive bar. And it's entirely to the film's credit that this comes off not as hip cynicism or didacticism or a junior Marx sermon in a lunchbox with your Twinkie, but as living, breathing human tragedy.

Ultimately, it's Zeke who ends up the voice of reason. Sure, "they pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white everything they do is to keep us in our place." But revolutions as revolutions tend to do fail and fail miserably. Bills, taxes, next month's rent that's the only reality. People have families, they have mouths to feed; there's no time for impotent adolescent fantasizing. "Takin' it to the streets"? Fighting "the Man"? The Sixties? Yeah, good dope, banged a few hippie chicks, but wake up, kid that alarm clock's been blaring for years.

Are cards stacked in service of Schrader's vision here? Absolutely. Blue Collar posits that three Joes trying to make a difference will fail miserably where even a nut like Travis Bickle succeeds. It never pretends for one second to consider the possibility of any alternatives these guys could have had education, a different line of work, the existence of anyone up in the penthouse who might genuinely address workers' grievances. And yet, it carries a much larger emotional truth, especially relevant to the tenor of our bad-economy times. As with Billie Holiday's old friend Heartache, half of America's gotten used to rolling over and bidding good morning to its financial woes and precarious employment situations. Where once we took can-do optimism and boundless opportunity for granted, mere crumbs for starving throngs are the truths we now hold to be self-evident. Behold your possible future, America: a freeze-frame on the inevitable, a cut to blood-red. Blue Collar is a new national anthem.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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