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The grim contemporary relevance of Paul Schrader's 1978 union noir
by Saul Austerlitz  posted June 9, 2009
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With the auto bailout and the faltering economy much in the news recently, I got to thinking about a movie that might accurately sum up the times. Harried autoworkers, promised prosperity, find themselves burdened with debt and terrified by the future; pennies are counted and hoarded as bosses and politicians discuss billions; and the big man thrives as the little man suffers. All the while, gears grind, machines roar, and cars slowly, steadily come together on the line.

As it turns out, this movie has already been made, 30 years ago: Paul Schrader's little remembered 1978 film Blue Collar, with Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto as Checker assembly line workers driven to robbery by frustration and deprivation. (The DVD is currently out of print but the film can be streamed on Netflix.) Blue Collar is striking for its simultaneous relevance to today’s headlines (desperate workers one paycheck away from poverty) and evocation of an era long gone, when autoworker unions could be seen as bloated and greedy rather than shrinking and impoverished, and jobs on the line were as plentiful as American cars on the road. Schrader's film is a union noir for the 1970s, its villain the faceless somebodies who squeezed the American dream dry, but its schizophrenic tone—part blue-collar comedy, part heist film, part Greek tragedy in Detroit—covers a painfully realistic, painfully familiar world of working-class striving. It is a world in which a visit from the IRS or a daughter's crooked teeth can serve as the harbinger of tragedy just as much as any loose woman or false accusation from a past generation's noir. Blue Collar is a movie whose time has come and gone and come again.

Schrader’s directorial debut, co-written with his brother Leonard, opens with deceptive playfulness, as if they were setting out to make an assembly-line equivalent of Car Wash. The lanky, cranky Zeke Brown (Pryor), along with his pals Jerry (Keitel) and Smokey (Kotto), are assembly-line drones, building Checker cabs one bolt at a time. They are that rarest of Hollywood commodities—honest-to-goodness workingmen whose jobs are neither elided nor ignored. Schrader lingers on the factory floor, watching the men at their work, intrigued by their interactions with authority. “Hey boy!” an abusive foreman shouts at an African American worker. “Do you pick cotton that slow?” The union, professed defender of the workingman, is hardly more enlightened. Union reps are bloated and ineffectual, slick operators in three-piece suits hardly answerable to their putative bosses, the men of the factory line.

The men’s boredom and dissatisfaction is assuaged only by the twin narcotics of alcohol and television. “It took me three years to pay for that motherfucker,” Zeke shouts at his wife when she complains of a particularly dumb TV program. “We gonna watch everything they show on here. All the shit they show. Even the snow when the motherfucker go off—we gonna sit here and watch that.”

Zeke is the preyed-upon workingman, dinged by the IRS to the tune of $2,460 for claiming three imaginary children (Stevie Wonder Brown, Gale Sayers Brown, and O.J. Brown) on his returns. “Fuck Uncle Sam!” he exclaims to the visiting IRS representative. “The workingman’s got to pay every goddamn thing!” The figure is anything but arbitrary; for these men, as Blue Collar demonstrates with pitiless exactitude, it is precisely these sums of money that are the difference between brand-new-TV prosperity and financial calamity.

Zeke must pay off the IRS, and Jerry, who works a second job as a gas station pump jockey, must come up with the money for braces for his daughter’s teeth. Possessions and the relentless pursuit of prosperity are more a curse than a blessing. “House, fridge, dishwasher, washer-dryer, TV, stereo, motorcycle, car,” Jerry ticks off. “Buy this shit, buy that shit....All you got’s a bunch of shit. You don’t even own it, can’t give it back ’cause it’s already broke down.” There is genuine horror in want. Knowing of her parents’ precarious financial situation, Jerry’s daughter jury-rigs her own braces out of lengths of wire. Jerry is left to tenderly, gingerly examine his daughter’s bloody teeth for the damage done.

The wheels of Schrader’s infernal machine grind with relentless precision, but their noise is masked by the easy, unforced jesting of the three men, and the audience’s familiarity with Pryor—then at the peak of his notoriety as a stand-up comedian. If Richard Pryor is in the movie, it must be a comedy—right? Desperately needing a payday, the three friends brainstorm money-making schemes and come up with a plan to rob their poorly guarded union local’s office. The robbery scene is a marvel of silent, nerve-wracking intensity (Schrader had obviously seen Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge), only interrupted by Pryor’s amusing klutziness, getting his foot stuck in a garbage can at a particularly tense moment. The men come away with a much smaller haul than they had hoped for but with an unexpected find: the union’s real, uncooked books, with copious records of illegal loan-sharking activity. The heist marks a notable shift in tone, but the mood is still buoyant: the dominos appear to have been laid out carefully for this one moment of victimless, redemptive theft (in a deliberate echo of Taxi Driver’s far more gruesome bout of redemptive violence).

There is one further turn of the wheel, though, and the enormous, faceless powers that quietly dominate these men’s lives creak into action. The heist comedy gives way to a cracked, barren landscape of broken promises and squandered hopes. Smokey is killed, slowly choking to death in a locked paint room, his murder passed off as a freak workplace accident. Schrader films Smokey’s last moments with unflagging attention, as if recording not merely the extinguishing of a single life but the death throes of the American workingman.

Some are killed, some are rewarded, and some are left to languish. Zeke is named the new union rep, his raggedy work clothes swiftly replaced by button-down shirts and sweaters. On his rounds, Pryor struts through the plant in an exact, unconscious parody of his predecessor. Fearing for his life after Smokey’s death, Jerry mounts a halfhearted attempt at fleeing his tormentors. He hits the highway and aims his car for Canada (in a scene that will undoubtedly remind viewers of the similarly doomed flight of Keitel’s Charlie in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets), but where does one go to flee the American dream? The film ends with a freeze-frame of an iconic image of fraternal strife: Jerry, his arm raised over Zeke, poised to smash his head in with a hammer, as Zeke defends himself with a wrench. As the frame slowly turns red, we hear Smokey share his rules of the rigged game: “They pit the lifers against the new boy, the young against the old, the black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.”

The passage of three decades has made Blue Collar a relic of a time so far gone as to seem almost imaginary. The notion of work as a holding pen (if only!) has receded to the farthest margins; instead of living from paycheck to paycheck, workers in the auto industry (and many other industries as well) are learning how to live with no paycheck at all. The meltdown of the economy has given the red tint of Blue Collar’s final image a hue less bloody than rosy—remember the days when there were jobs for everyone? And yet Schrader’s searing pessimism feels just right for the year in which General Motors—General Motors!—has declared bankruptcy. “Whatever happened to the American dream?” the movie pointedly wonders, without offering even the ghost of an answer. The circumstances may have changed, but Schrader’s airless noir is now, for better and mostly for worse, the story of all our lives. 


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Courtesy Anchor Bay Entertainment
Yaphet Kotto, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel in Blue Collar
Photo Gallery: Auto Focus


Saul Austerlitz is at work on a book on the history of American film comedy.

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