Working man’s film 

Laboring through union cinema

Labor is certainly on the brain. First, there’s this week’s cover story, and on Feb. 3 and 4 the Missoula Central Labor Council (CLC) hosts its inaugural film festival, an opportunity to raise awareness about labor issues. The four films being screened by the CLC are outstanding selections to represent their cause: 1954’s benchmark Salt of the Earth, about New Mexico’s Empire Zinc Mine strikes, a film actually blacklisted during the Cold War; The Fight in the Fields, a critically acclaimed documentary about Cesar Chavez and his fight to create the United Farmworkers Union; Where Do You Stand: Stories from an American Mill; and the recently released Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices.

But there are so many other labor movies out there—maybe that’s why the CLC is presumptuously calling this festival its “first annual”—that we decided to do some advance scouting of labor-friendly flicks for the CLC to consider for next year’s lineup.

Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Field won an Oscar for her portrayal of a southern textile worker inspired to organize a union in her traditional Baptist town—and, you know, overcome the porn movies she films on the side. It’s kind of like Remember the Titans (race relations play a key role) meets Woody Allen (the union rep is a hypochondriac named Rueben from New York) with a labor slant. Not only is the film inspiring, it’s also insightful: viewers hear what it sounds like when an Alabama girl speaks Yiddish and learn Field’s cup size (32-B). Most rousing line: When a disapproving priest tells Norma Rae, “We gonna miss your voice in the choir,” she responds, “You gonna hear it rise up someplace else.” Alas, she’s not talking about the porn films.

Hoffa (1992)
Danny DeVito costarred and directed, Jack Nicholson starred and David Mamet wrote the screenplay for Hoffa, and yet this film about the renowned union boss still comes across flatter than Nicholson’s prosthetic nose. Nonetheless, it tells the sweeping story of the man who billy-clubbed his way into leadership of the country’s most powerful union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It appears DeVito made the film not only to portray a legend and offer a theory on Hoffa’s mysterious 1975 disappearance, but also to make himself look like a tough guy—DeVito’s character, Bobby Ciaro, gets rough in multiple scenes, including one where all 5 feet of him kicks the ass of a cowering Justice Department official. DeVito’s message to the official was the same as Hoffa’s movie-long mantra: “Never let a stranger in your cab, in your house or in your heart…unless he is a friend of labor.”

F.I.S.T. (1978)
The Central Labor Council must—I beg, must—bring this film to next year’s festival simply because none of Missoula’s video stores keep it in stock. What makes F.I.S.T. so special? It’s the first film credit for screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls, Basic Instinct) and Sylvester Stallone’s first starring role following his success with Rocky. In F.I.S.T., which is loosely based on Hoffa’s life, Johnny Kovac (Stallone) helps the struggling Federation of Inter-State Truckers by striking a deal with a mobster named Babe Milano (who, unfortunately, is played not by Alyssa, but by some television actor named Tony LoBianco). Critics panned the effort, but F.I.S.T. made news when, upon its release, Stallone tried to take credit for Eszterhas’ script. Why he wanted it is almost as mysterious as Hoffa’s disappearance.

Gung Ho (1986)
From Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa we fall to Michael Keaton as Hunt Stevenson. Stevenson is an energetic softball stud who works at an American car factory recently purchased by a Japanese company, and it’s his responsibility to smooth the transition to new ownership. Let’s just say that when Stevenson addresses his union (including George Wendt in a rare semi-memorable movie role) the goosebumps aren’t quite as big as when Hoffa stepped to the mic. Ron Howard directed this platform for foreign stereotypes (Japanese: uptight workaholics; Americans: lazy alcoholics), er, I mean, testament to the working man’s perseverance in overcoming the threat of outsourcing.

The Full Monty (1997)
What does happen when blue-collar jobs are outsourced? This “feel-good comedy” from the UK about steel workers gone wild shows the exact consequences—pudgy dudes will get naked for money. When their mill closes and the men get desperate for cash, they decide to train for and promote a Chippendales-esque dance show where they’ll bare their eggs and bacon. So, in a sense, this is a pro-business cautionary tale. In a sense.

Blue Collar (1978)
Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver) wrote and directed this dark comedy/drama starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto as three disenfranchised auto workers who decide to rob their union office. This is a long shot for being included in next year’s CLC film festival (the robbery ends up exposing the union as corrupt), but it’s arguably the best film on this list. Pryor’s character rants about the IRS, television and pretty much anything else that gets in his way with a combination of humor and vitriol, but much more of the latter. Blue Collar may not be very uplifting in the end, but it’s a strong, biting commentary on the challenges of the working man.

The CLC Film Festival begins Friday, Feb. 3, with a 6:30 PM showing of Wal-Mart followed by an 8:30 PM showing of Where Do You Stand. On Saturday, Feb. 4, The Fight in the Fields shows at 6:30 PM and Salt of the Earth follows at 8:30 PM. All shows are at the Crystal Theatre. $4 suggested donation.

arts@missoulanews.com

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