Work Is a Four-Letter Word: Short movie notes

Let’s do this one from worst to best, yes? Or no, “best” isn’t what I want, let’s do “worst to the one I moat want to talk about.”

Evil Laugh: ’80s slasher, aka the one ’80s horror subgenre I can almost never stand. This was an unusually stupid entry. There are organ meat gags (why did this random posh med student do-gooder have a thing for cooking organ meats?) and the music is indeed pleasantly neon-flavored, but that is about all the good I can say for this. I think I dug this thing up on some list of “underrated horror movies” and all I can say is the author of that list must’ve loved twist endings that were done better in like five other ’80s slashers, preppy bondage sex, or organ meats.

Son of Dracula: The best thing about this film is that in some shots the Spanish moss looks like fangs in the mouth of the Southern night. Oh, and there’s a nice Dracula-floating shot. Every other aspect of this film is kind of terrible and it is still slightly better than Evil Laugh.

The Return: A documentary about the prisoners freed when California voters reversed their three-strikes law. It’s fine? I mean no disrespect to the people profiled, who are all admirable and whose stories are quite moving. But this is very intro-level and lacks an individual vision.

Dead Calm: Boat-based suspense. Very tense. Mostly well-structured, with the parallel stories in the second half. Not enough ocean for me, not enough “we have left society behind and entered the amoral world of the sea sublime,” but it is an effective popcorn flick if you’re down for sexual violence. Does what it says on the tin.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers: On a stormy night in the 1930s, a child kills her repressive, wealthy aunt. The two other witnesses–also children–keep her secret; one flees town that night with the circus. Flash forward twenty? years and killer Martha has grown up into extremely killer Barbara Stanwyck. She has married the one witness, who’s now an alcoholic DA running for Mayor, with ambitions that might reach as far as the White House. But then the other witness comes back to town….

This movie has a terrific setup, strong characters, Barbara Stanwyck!, and some excellent child acting from little Martha and circus kid. There are scenes in which the DA abuses his power at the expense of a woman returning from prison, which really hit me hard, especially since even our tough-guy hero basically rejects and blames her for being what he calls a liar, but what looks from 2017 like a victim of domestic violence. So all of that is quite powerful. The direction, dialogue, and to a lesser extent music are all distractingly bad.

Stranger by the Lake: So, a story. I watched Don John, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s porn-laden movie about how porn destroys your ability to relate to real women, with a friend of mine. Or I watched the first half-hour or so, anyway. My friend was getting increasingly uncomfortable with all of the… how to put?… all of the porn, and finally she was just like, “I’m leaving.” I had to wonder, as I followed her, who is the target audience of this movie? Does it make sense to make a greasy nudie movie about how porn degrades its audience?

Stranger by the Lake is an even more bluntly pornographic suspense film about a killer at a gay cruising beach. It is meditative rather than gory–lots of slow shots of the gravelly beach and the still waters. It is also just so unpleasantly full of graphic sex acts. Like, I think watching this movie made me just fluorescently lesbian. And to the extent that the thing has a message, that message is, “What if anonymous sex is in some way not right, perhaps inhuman? heartless?, and we should simply be friends and maybe cuddle?”

I mean, it isn’t a message picture; the guy who represents the alternative of friendship is himself deeply self-destructive, more turned against himself than he is turned toward the guy he maybe loves.

This movie did not say much to me, but I suspect there are in fact some gay men who are the target audience and who find it unsettling, touching deep chords of self-doubt and mingled fear and desire, provoking the conscience as much as the appetite. I don’t really think watching it would be a good idea even if you’re in that target audience, but if you’re in that target audience, good ideas are not really what you’re here for.

Cranes Are Flying: Soviet WWII picture. Gorgeous to look at–swirling camera, and shots whose off-kilter angles and strange wartime surrealism reminded me strongly of Lee Miller.

Blue Collar: It is 1978, the year of my birth, and three desperate autoworkers are planning a robbery: Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel. This was just an intensely watchable movie. Emotionally raw, utterly hero-less (our working-class heist men blithely lie to and cheat on their wives), tense, completely 1970s in its universal cynicism and paranoia. I often find that mindset overdone in films from this era but Blue Collar, maybe because it’s not artsy (despite featuring an almost Argento-weird murder scene), made the twitchy friendless worldview convincing. Both the worker-boss and to a lesser extent the worker-union rep relationships are shot through with open contempt on both sides. The cops, the Feds, nobody will help you; nobody will view you as anything more than useful scum.

Jennifer Silva has this 2012 book where she finds that what characterizes working-class adulthood is utter lack of trust for any institutions or authorities. Here’s my summary:

Because most of the traditional pathways to adulthood—marriage, economic independence, stable job—seem out of reach or prove to be reversible, working-class young adults have developed a new definition of maturity. This new pathway relies heavily on therapeutic culture: You become an adult by overcoming the trauma of your past, whether that involved abusive parents, drug addiction, mental illness, or less flamboyant hardships. Young adults who take on this new definition focus on protecting the fragile self, and they reject solidarity and close, committed relationships in favor of individualistic, judgmental competition. …

Silva notes that “the transition to adulthood has been inverted; coming of age does not entail entry into social groups and institutions but rather the explicit rejection of them.” This might actually be the book’s most important point, bigger than the sexier point about the infiltration of therapy culture into the working class. Growing up means rejecting or overcoming your parents and family of origin, your church if you had one, your college if you went to one. It means getting over the longing for marriage or commitment, getting over your belief that your employer will look out for you—learning to stand on your own.

Silva argued that unions were the one exception, the one place where her interviewees found authorities and communal bonds they could trust. That may very well have been true of the people she interviewed (iirc several of those union cards were from the F.O.P. by the way; there are a lot of unions in this world) but I’ve also heard union members express the frustrations of the guys in this film, for whom the union rep isn’t really on their side either.

I’m getting sociological here but the film definitely wants me to do that–actually the only unsatisfying moment is the condescending use of voiceover at the end. We get it, movie, you do not need to tell us what it all means. But yes: If you’d like a genuinely entertaining crime drama that is also a portrait of working-class men coming unmoored from all forms of community and relationship (“Will you come to Mass with me?” Keitel’s character’s wife asks hopefully), Blue Collar is your man.

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