A working-class hero is something to be:
Around mid-day, on May 8, 1970, a small contingent of anti-Vietnam war demonstrators set up for a rally near the corner of Wall and Broad Streets in downtown Manhattan. [open endnotes in new window] Several hundred, perhaps one thousand, had gathered. Eyewitnesses noted that, as usual, the majority was college students, but the group also contained the young, the middle-aged, and the old. During the speeches and chants, the demonstration was suddenly attacked—not by the police—but by a raging, nasty group dominated by hard-hatted construction workers, wielding lead pipes and crowbars. They called themselves patriotic and said they supported the Vietnam war; mostly they were incensed by the “desecration of the American flag,” which sometimes occurred at these events.
The media had arrived as well. Right off they could see the news scoop at hand. They dubbed it the “Hard Hat Riots” and their fellow editors, columnists, and big thinkers were off to the races. Here certainly was a trend. The U.S. working-class was turning to the Right. The Sixties was over.
Later, witnesses came forward to point out that the “hard hat” convergence was not as spontaneous as first appeared—many had been bused in by conservative unions and the attack was well-coordinated. Also, many of the “patriots” turned out to be white-collar office workers on their lunch break, eager for some excitement. But the media frame was set. Blue-collar men, especially those with traditional jobs and values had been over-looked for too long. Hollywood wasn’t far behind.
The movie industry has depicted working people since its earliest days. Viewers have seen coal miners, farmers, waitresses, truck drivers, fishers, maids, secretaries, and even union leaders. Some decades, like the 20s, 30s, and 40s featured more of these people. Others, like the 50s and 60s pushed blue-collar types to the side. Then, for a few years in the 1970s, working-class characters suddenly re-appeared in a few notable film cycles.
Why was that? This is the first question that Derek Nystrom addresses in his rich and provocative book, Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men. The answer, he believes, stems from the needs of middle-class audiences to allay their fears of a rapidly changing world. For these viewers, blue-collar men in traditional occupations, with their accompanying values and garb, provided fantasies of stability. Despite changes in gender relations and generational attitudes, wrenching adjustments within the work-world, and the country’s shifting economic regions, some groups of men remained straight-forward, thus reassuring—even desirable.
How were these audiences, filmmakers, and critics using working-class characters and situations to provide entertainment, draw inspiration, and dispel fears about a changing world? Why, asks Nystrom, were white working-class men suddenly discovered and found appealing in the 1970s?
Such questions compel Nystrom and his readers to accept a class analysis of U.S. society, something that film studies has rarely addressed. He admits the complexity of defining such a working-class, beyond the obvious blue-collar occupations in industry and service work. Equally difficult is the drawing of boundaries for the middle-class. If, for example, we base the analysis on a person’s relation to the major means of production, most of the U.S. population would qualify as working-class. But if we look at persons in managerial positions, whose role is to enforce existing relations of production between owners and workers, a significant middle-class takes shape and clear differences emerge between these classes. For Nystrom, the work of Barbara and John Ehrenreich provides the best model for tackling these questions and for his purposes. The Ehrenreichs argue that the middle-class is a separate entity best defined as a Professional Managerial Class (PMC). This approach, they emphasize, shows that the PMC has an “objectively antagonistic” relationship to the working class (pp. 9-12).
An analysis of class such as this gives Nystrom the basis for discussing how PMC audiences looked from a distance at working-class characters, with a
Hollywood had economic problems of its own. The breakup of the old studio system in the 1950s gave more power to independent, often maverick producers, and by the 1960s a round of near bankruptcies ushered in conglomerate ownership—groups with no clue about moviemaking. This was matched by a catastrophic decline in audiences, particularly young people. A panic mode of this sort required new approaches, perhaps even a different type of filmmaking.
There were two New Hollywoods. The first stretched from the late 1960s to the late 1970s and can be glimpsed in a set of films based partially on a European art-house aesthetic, some directed by young, film school grads and others by old hands, such as Arthur Penn, from TV, and Martin Ritt, a survivor of left-liberal Hollywood. This first New Hollywood featured adult content, various strains of realism (sex, violence, and odd locations), unmotivated heroes, and smallish budgets, exemplified by Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and their ilk. The commercial goal was to uncover niche markets composed of those young audiences who had disappeared.
The second New Hollywood, soon to gain dominance, staked its claim on big-budget blockbusters, spectacle, fantasy, old-time genres, and action heroes with conservative values, epitomized by Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and ET (1982). The creators of this second strategy understood equally that the return of young audiences provided the key to future success. But as the 1980s ground on it became clear that with this strategy young viewers now meant the under twenty-fives, not simply liberal arts students schooled in the cinema of Bergman and Godard. The emphasis had shifted dramatically from realism to spectacle. With Star Wars and similar fare on its heels, protagonists became cartoon heroes, flaunting retro values but with a knowing post-modern wink to the audience.
Nystrom’s focus is the first New Hollywood, a phenomenon that found a place for working-class characters and stories, but an approach almost entirely swept away by the second in the 1980s. These were broad trends, of course, and film scholars debate the characteristics, timing, and economics of these changes in the industry. Regardless, the movie business still values a few small-scale realist dramas in their yearly lineups, featuring specific locations and more mature subject-matter, the type of fare launched through festivals, like Sundance, such as Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco (1998), Fred Schepisi’s Empire Falls (2008), and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008).
Nystrom takes us back to three significant film cycles, all of which emerged in the 1970s: the Youth-culture drama, the Southern, and the New Night-Life cycle. For the Youth-culture drama, the breakthrough came with Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), which, as Nystrom demonstrates, depicts working people as the enemy—directly opposed to the new youth counter-cultures. In most of these films Hollywood
Later hits of the decade included Five Easy Pieces, which unlike the exploitation roots of Easy Rider,led its audience into art-house terrain. In each case, youth seemed to have nothing in common with their parents or any of the prevailing ideals of the mainstream. For Nystrom, these films reflect a PMC anxiety about “class reproduction.” How was the country to continue if its youth rejected their place in society, whether as workers or managers.
From the nightmare of Deliverance (1972) to the backroad hi-jinks of Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy, White Line Fever and dozens of others, the new Southern cycle pulled audiences into the strange world of the New South. Parts of that world had been glimpsed before, especially in the 1930s, with hillbillies, chain gangs, and the dirt farmers of King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934). Other elements were embryonic, depicted as the new growth and cultural strains of the South. How, ponders Nystrom, did the nasty old redneck get transformed into the good ole boy depicted in the Southern cycle? Who in the world had asked for Burt Reynolds?
He was invented. Partly through wishful thinking among the middle class, says Nystrom, and partly as a reflection of the “easy-going,” non-union workers who made up the film crews for these on-location productions. This labor ambience differed greatly from the old, well-organized unions then prevailing in Hollywood. How fitting that Smokey and his pals make their money as independent big-rig drivers, hauling Coors beer, the non-union product par excellence. The cycle’s popularity stemmed from the films’ ability to create a “spectacle of free-wheeling resistance” (p. 157), embodied by stars such as Reynolds or Kris Kristofferson with an easy charm and a veneer of blue-collar aura. These southerners might have been throwbacks but they were not uneducated or mean.
If the Youth and Southern cycles featured eccentric and far-fetched personalities, glimpsed from a distance by PMC audiences, the New Night-life films struck closer to home. These characters could induce real fear. Looking for Mr. Goodbar (Brooks, 1977) and Cruising (Friedkin, 1980), for example, took place in familiar city streets and created scenes from daily life. For Nystrom, these films and many others, reflected a PMC attraction to male bodies, coupled with a confusion about the cultural signals needed by youth to navigate the urban world. Some people you’d meet were working-class, some were not; some were gay, many were not; some dressed naturally in blue-collar garb, others adopted it as a costume. Some were easy-going; many were violent, even dangerous. Perhaps then, representations of the traditional blue-collar character set in motion a nostalgic longing for a simpler world where values and desires seemed less complex.
Yet, the attraction to these working-class bodies might also represent an excitement and physicality missing in so much urban white-collar work. Just as the characters played by Diane Keaton in Goodbar and Al Pacino in Cruising searched for urban excitement, so too might their audiences. Nystrom works hard to redeem the universally loathed Cruising, suggesting that the film’s narrative and shifting points-of-view reveal a valid and sophisticated attempt to challenge viewer’s prejudices. He also sympathizes with the film’s gay extras who
In other words, the filmmakers tried to create a dark and scary world; the extras made it fun and appealing. Later Night-life hits of the decade, especially Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977), the most profitable by far, drew on an up-tempo, feel-good genre, and these films showed in different ways the attraction to a white (‘ethnic’) male character, in this case slightly tragic and hardly threatening.
Nystrom argues throughout that film scholars have ignored issues of class. In contrast, he finds it everywhere, even in violent crime films ostensibly centered only on gender trouble. This may be admirable but it pulls him far from the central issues of social class. His discussion of Goodbar and Cruising take us into the world of working-class costumes and role-playing, as enacted by middle-class professionals and police. This gives us PMC characters playing out the fantasies of PMC audiences.
The book ends with a discussion of three films that stand out as exceptions: Blue Collar (Schrader, 1978) Norma Rae (Ritt, 1979), and 9 to 5 (Higgins, 1980). Nystrom argues that, despite their faults, these provide a more nuanced and conscious treatment of working-class lives. All three take us beyond the stereotypes about traditional blue-collar men, to feature women and African American characters. All three not only depict working people but also shape their dramas around class conflict. (Who would have thought in the 1970s that this would be the last time these themes appeared in Hollywood cinema, now some thirty years later?)
Nystrom’s discussion of contemporary mainstream and leftist critiques of these three films replays the ongoing debates concerning individual versus class narratives and about the role of comedy or romance fiction in political cinema. Norma Rae, for instance, was criticized for its focus on a single worker, rather than the group, and for the romance elements that threaten to upstage the class conflict. Similarly, some reviewers felt that the broad generic elements of crime story and comedy seriously weakened Blue Collar and 9 to 5. The book brings a nuanced and open-minded analysis to the films and their critics. Here, in particular, he moves away from a largely text-based analysis to imagine various class-based audience responses.
Nystrom states that his focus is the PMC audience and how it viewed depictions of the working class on-screen. Likewise, he focuses on middle-class filmmakers and their journalist class equivalents who write for the dominant media. Fair enough.
As interesting, useful, even important as these questions may be, I question why the book completely excludes a discussion of working-class audiences. I understand that you don’t criticize a book on the fall of Rome because the author neglects Greece. But surely Nystrom owes us a short discussion on this missing element. He spends considerable time teasing out the possible reactions among PMC viewers to characters such as Tony, in Saturday Night Fever, Jerry, in Blue Collar, and Bandit, in Smokey and the Bandit, as played, respectively by John Travolta, Harvey Keitel, and Burt Reynolds. Does it not also beg the question as to how working people would react to such characters?
We could argue that in the United States the dominant culture is a middle-class culture, made by and for PMC audiences. In this formulation, the working-class remains on the sidelines to pick up the scraps that also apply or appeal to them. But surely, none of the culture industries in their frenzy for profits can afford to ignore the majority of Americans, its working-class, for either commercial or ideological reasons. Even with Nystrom’s emphasis on PMC viewers, which, to repeat, provides a fruitful and fascinating line of inquiry, it would seem useful at some points to compare, theoretically if not empirically, how—based on their class position—viewers might diverge in their understanding of and response to working-class characters on screen
In 1977, when I first started writing about Saturday Night Fever, I wondered how a working-class viewer would react to the film’s representation of upward mobility, neighborhoods, education, and even dance. Unfortunately, Nystrom doesn’t help us with that query. This missing element also seems notable in his catalogue of reasons as to why workers were “discovered” by Hollywood in the early 70s. The list includes several plausible reasons based on changing gender roles in the workplace and elsewhere, and the challenge to PMC mores from new social and gender movements. At other points he talks about working-class agency itself, as manifest in new workplace relations, extraordinary strike activity in the early 70s, and supposed authoritarian turn among workers, exemplified by the hard hats. Nonetheless, he states that while
Another fruitful but underdeveloped line of enquiry traces the changes in Hollywood’s labor system and how these may have been mirrored in the films. He notes, for example, that the breakdown of the centralized studio system prompted some producers to decamp for new types of location shooting. This gave us, for example, the various Southern cycles, featuring good ole boys, Georgia scenery, and ubiquitous blue-highway car chases. He also believes that some youthful directors, anxious to experiment in New-Wave-type styles, ran up against the old-guard in Hollywood’s hierarchical unions. The media mind-set of youth versus the working-class would thus be easy for these filmmakers to adopt.
A coda takes up an intriguing parallel between the 1970s and the many film depictions of class and ‘honest’ work after September 11, 2001. These reveal two moments when blue-collar workers of lower Manhattan were re-discovered and valorized for their valuable labor—building the World Trade Center in the 70s and clearing away its rubble after 9/11. But the spate of 9/11 films has centered on fire and emergency workers; filmmakers have neglected the opportunity to expand into other stories of working-class life.
Aside from this longitudinal analysis, I would hope that Nystrom will continue his study and step back from the minutia of U.S. cinema to compare Hollywood’s working-class cycles of the 70s with parallel trends depicting working-class characters in, for starters, Britain, Canada, and Italy. Think, for instance of the many productions of Ken Loach and Tony Garnet, in England, Bill Forsyth in Scotland, Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road, in Canada, Lina Wertmuller’s absurdist class-comedies in Italy. All this blue-collar fascination was hardly limited to the fantasies, needs, and nostalgia of the U.S. managerial class.
Is there anything left of these cycles and sub-genres in 2012? Amid all the Avengers, Hunger Games, and Kung Fu Pandas, does Hollywood seriously depict working-class characters today? The answer is no. Occasionally, a few examples break in from the margins, but that’s hardly a noticeable trend or enough success to trigger a commercial cycle. Rarer still is a film that moves beyond class depiction to class conflict. John Sayles stands out as a director who reminds us of the class dimension in any subject he tackles, but it’s been many years since he has depicted class conflict head-on. A few British imports take up class conflict, such as Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses (2000), on the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, and Nigel Cole’s 2010 comedy, Made in Dagenham, which earned decent reviews. But these never managed wide release.
Perhaps it was just a fad of the 1970s, like disco and mullets. Nystrom’s thoughtful book drew me back to those far-away years to wonder again what brought those characters to the screen. Who were the people who created these stories? What were the conditions that granted them some success?