Paul Schrader said in an interview with The Guardian, “It doesn’t really matter what I do. The first line in my obituary with be ‘the writer of Taxi Driver.‘” Sure, he also wrote Scorsese’s Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Sure, he also directed Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Affliction and The Canyons (whose production is notorious for Lindsay Lohan’s on set behavior). But, all of these movies are overshadowed by that earlier Scorsese movie.
Schrader grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the largest city on the west side of the state. If you know the hand thing for locations of cities, it would be located somewhere between the end of your heart line and your head line. Though Michigan is known as part of the rust belt, Grand Rapids was known as a furniture manufacturing town. Early in the 20th century, loggers and builders convened there to build off the land, proiding much of the area’s industry. In 1931, the furniture makers developed their own guild to help train incoming craftsmen and pool funds. But, by the 1960s, most of the furniture industry had moved on to North Carolina, leaving the city to stall economically. There hasn’t been a drastic change in population since 1930, growing less than 30,000 over 85 years.
Growing up in a Calvinist home, Paul Schrader’s didn’t see his first movie until he was 17 and saw The Absent-Minded Professor. The son of an executive, Schrader was attending summer school at Columbia University where a chance meeting would put him under the watchful eye of Pauline Kael who encouraged his movement into the film criticism world. His critical essays and novels remain required reference materials for aspiring film students and critics alike. It was through these connections that he eventually co-wrote Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza with his brother Leonard and Robert Towne (Chinatown). After the success of Taxi Driver, he finally got to direct his first feature, Blue Collar.
By the time Blue Collar was made in 1978, people were already noticing the small town effects of the incoming neoliberal economy. Neoliberalism is a form of free-market economic policy that focused on deregulation and supply-side economics. Though largely seen as the foundation of Reaganomics, neoliberal memorandums were issued by the Chamber of Congress in 1971. During the Carter administration, he rubber stamped deregulatory legislation of various industries that woud lead to the economy of the 1980s. Combining the seedlings of globalization with the 1970s oil crisis, small semi-rural towns were getting hit as industries moved around to where they could get their best deal.
The most notable of these films were Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, and George Roy Hill’s 1977 comedy Slap Shot. Harlan County, USA featured a labor dispute between the coal miners and the Duke Power Company. At the time, the miners were living in squalid conditions and getting a 4% raise while the cost of living increased 7% while the Duke Power Company saw profits increase by 175%. Eventually Duke brought in strike breakers who came to work armed with guns. Slap Shot, used a Pennsylvania factory town as the background for a hockey team where neither the audience nor the players have anything to lose. If you combine the two, you get something close to Blue Collar.
Set in the then-flagging Detroit auto industry, three guys are desperately trying to make their ends meet. Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor) is already struggling to pay the bills when the IRS comes around after realizing that Zeke is claiming 6 kids though he only has 3. Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) is working two jobs just to get by while his daughter needs braces that he can’t afford. Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto) owe money to a loan shark and probably drug dealer. As they’re struggling, their union rep can’t even smooth out their working conditions with a racist slavedriving shop foreman who berates and insults everybody on his line. Though he’s brought it up at various union meetings, Zeke’s locker has been broken for six months and the soda machine keeps stealing people’s money. Their union is just another layer of control trying to quell the masses before they burn the place down. Did I mention that this starts out as a comedy?
At the intro to the Noir City screening, Eddie Muller said that Blue Collar was different than any other film of its time and was practically devoid of style. He’s wrong. Blue Collar, like Slap Shot before it, has an intentionally rough and raw style that eschews fancy frames for a “git r dun” sensibility. Right from the opening where the driving blues rhythm of Captain Beefheart’s Hard Workin’ Man is interrupted by what sounds like an industrial stamping machine, this movie is straight whiskey, no chaser. Even the opening credits are stamped over the image of an auto line in a no-nonsense sans serif font. If you look at the tiny details – the hand stamping, the freeze frames, even the way the camera captures the work – this is all pure intention.
The visual style, the music, the characters all have one thing in common: they have little patience for excuses. Though broke, the guys still have time to have a girls and blow party at Smokey’s apartment, and no wife of theirs is going to stop them. They drink at the bar after work to blow off steam before coming home to bitch about the clownishly reductive behaviors of The Jeffersons playing on television. Zeke is a live wire, pissed off at the world and finds little comfort in the day to day struggles of the industrial job. Smokey is a single ex-con with nothing to lose. Jerry is a union man, proud to of the work his union does.
But, Blue Collar is actually a film noir. Desperate to survive, the three friends decide to rob a whole bunch of cash from their do-nothing union. The union can probably just call the insurance company, and, besides, they’re owed something for putting up with all the dehumanizing shit at their company. The central heist is easy and comes relatively early in the film. Then, as the union figures out what happened, everything starts to go haywire.
As an examination of blue collar life, Schrader’s film is a dehumanizingly real depiction of life on the line. As you’re working as hard as you can go, some jackoff foreman denigrates you and prods you into moving faster. Then your union refuses to do any actual work to better your life, including not fixing the damn locker you just cut your finger on. And, all you’re doing is trying to keep your head above water and maybe have a little fun along the way. Is that so challenging?
Blue Collar is a furious film that has nowhere to go. You can’t take solace in your family, your job, and even your bar has been infiltrated by anti-union feds who seek to destabilize your town’s industry for profit and gain. The big companies hire assholes to whip the workers into shape. And, when it all goes down, the unions, who are supposed to have your back, play a game of divide and conquer to remind you just how fucked your life actually is. Like any of the really good film noirs, there is no rainbow at the end of this storm.
The surprising thing is, this movie still matters. It maybe matters more than ever. While discussing why they keep working their shit job, they wonder why everything is such shit.
That’s exactly what the company wants – to keep you on their line. They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white – EVERYBODY to keep us in our place.
That’s exactly what happens in the movie, and that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing in the media (from McDonald’s making a joke of hot coffee lady to the ongoing twitter wars between the Berners and the Clintonistas). It’s all divide and conquer.
But, more than anything, Blue Collar is nihilistic about modern life. Jerry Bartowski bitches about the consumer culture that has already been overtaking the country:
Credit’s the only thing you can get free from the company. Got a house, fridge, dishwasher, washer-dryer, TV, stereo, motorcycle, car…”buy this shit, buy that shit.” All you got’s a buncha shit.
They’re in debt up to their ears so they have to keep working, but why can’t they ever keep up? Why are prices still going up even though wages are stagnant or dropping? Why is their rent and their taxes and the cost of living rising when nobody can afford anything? You can’t turn to the company because they’re out to make money and are set to fuck you just to make a penny. The unions are caught up in illegal loans with high interest rates that further enslave the employee, and when they do work, they hardly every actually do anything positive for the worker. That leaves the workers with each other, but how do you control that? Why is Jerry’s daughter more important than Zeke’s children? Why is a brother getting preferential treatment? Why is that guy with 18 years experience more important than this other guy with 18 years experience? Maybe its better if we’re just out for ourselves.
These issues haven’t abated. In fact, watching Blue Collar this year feels even more prescient than ever. As people in non-metropolis areas were faced with a decreased dollar and depressed wages, they wanted to be at the front of the line again. Some saw the identity politics of the left as a further isolation from the purposes of the union as they expected it to function. They want the union and the political leaders to stand up for them and not put anybody else to the front of the line. Modern politics are increasingly warped by the politics of survival. And, so, we fight each other.
It’s not really that Blue Collar is nihilistic. It’s just really pessimistic. But, that pessimism doesn’t stem from a place of destabilizing fear. It’s from a place of love. Paul Schrader saw how all sides of an industry conspired and colluded to dehumanize their workers, and told a story whose moral lesson is “we can do better. YOU can be better than this.” In the vein of the auteur films of the 1970s, Blue Collar is anti-authoritarian, but it has the balls to finish out its convictions. Paul Schrader is practically grabbing everybody by the collar and screaming at them that this is how it all happens. By the end of this movie, you should be frustrated. Strike that…by the end of this movie, you should be down right pissed off. Not just for the characters, but for the 40 years that have passed with little to no progress.