Sunday, November 30, 2008

Solidarity Forever

Last night I finally watched Salt of the Earth, a 1953 (or 1954?) movie about a miners’ strike made by blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers against fierce resistance. (And I do mean fierce: Howard Hughes blocked development of the negative, and the lead actress, Rosaura Revueltas, was deported to Mexico, where she shot her remaining scenes illegally for insertion into the finished film.) I’d stumbled on the DVD at the public library a couple of years ago, and, always interested in political art, had checked it out. But the credit sequence turned me off with its overdone marching music over gritty footage of a poor woman working around her family’s shack, and I hadn’t been able to steel myself for another try.

Then I read a discussion with Noam Chomsky in which he praised the film:

CHOMSKY: Salt of the Earth. It came out at the same time as On the Waterfront, which is a rotten movie. And On the Waterfront became a huge hit -- because it was anti-union. See, On the Waterfront was part of a big campaign to destroy unions while pretending to be for, you know, Joe Sixpack. So On the Waterfront is about this Marlon Brando or somebody who stands up for the poor working man against the corrupt union boss. Okay, things like that exist, but that's not unions -- I mean, sure, there are plenty of union bosses who are crooked, but nowhere near as many as C.E.O.s who are crooked, or what have you. But since On the Waterfront combined that anti-union message with "standing up for the poor working man," it became a huge hit. On the other hand, Salt of the Earth, which was an authentic and I thought very well-done story about a strike and the people involved in it, that was just flat killed, I don't even think it was shown anywhere. I mean, you could see it at an art theater, I guess, but that was about it. I don't know what those of you who know something about film would think of it, but I thought it was a really outstanding film.

While I respect and admire Chomsky, he’s not known for his artistic sensitivity. Still, I agreed with his take on Hollywood’s treatment of labor issues, so I decided I should give Salt of the Earth another try.

Getting through the opening credits was still a trial. The bombastic music, by Sol Kaplan, was played by a full orchestra and was very Boy Meets Girl Meets Tractor if you know what I mean. Worse, it was very Hollywood: one thing that makes ‘classic’ Hollywood films difficult for me to watch is the music, which lays on emotion with a trowel and gets in the way of the films’ moving me honestly. (John Williams, the antichrist of today’s Hollywood soundtrack, is a well-known exponent of this approach to movie music.)

After the opening credits, though, the film was quite watchable. Based on an actual strike and using a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, including mineworkers and union organizers, Salt of the Earth tells how a mining community in New Mexico brought the mineowners to the bargaining table through solidarity and inventive tactics. What makes it startlingly fresh even today is that, first, the main protagonists are Mexican Americans, and they are played by Mexican Americans; and second, the miners’ wives insist on playing an equal role in the strike, with demands of their own. (Indoor plumbing and hot water, for example – radical!) I began to wonder if that obnoxious opening music might not have been meant ironically after all, the self-importance of machismo against the day-to-day labor of housewives and mothers, but I don't think the filmmakers were that self-aware.

Is Salt of the Earth preachy and didactic? Sure, but so were many Hollywood classics, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to It’s a Wonderful Life, from The Wizard of Oz to Gone With the Wind. After watching Salt of the Earth I looked up some online reviews through IMDB, and found that several of them complained about the film’s agenda and its division of the characters into good guys and bad guys. I particularly recall one writer who complained that Esperanza (Revueltas’ character, the wife of a miner and union leader) is always right, and her husband Ramón (played by Juan Chacón, one of the nonprofessionals) is always wrong. That’s not quite true – Ramón is right in the areas where he’s used to having competence, but not when he faces change as his wife and the other women start breaking out of the roles he expects; and Esperanza takes time to find her voice and the courage to use it. But again, the characters are no more two-dimensional than most Hollywood characters, then or now.

The acting also came in for slighting comments, especially that of the nonprofessionals – big surprise! I thought that the nonprofessionals were pretty good, and was surprised to learn in the closing credits (which identified the status of each cast member) that some of the characters, such as the Anglo union organizer, were not played by pros. Juan Chacón is a bit wooden, true, but no more so in my opinion than Humphrey Bogart, whom he resembles. Classic Hollywood acting isn’t known for its subtlety or its fluidity anyhow, and the director Herbert J. Biberman evidently managed to make his amateurs comfortable in front of the cameras.

There was also some sniping at the film’s shaky production values. But it should hardly be news anymore that expensive production isn’t necessary for a good movie. I wonder how many people who dismiss Salt of the Earth as cheap and shoddy, can still enjoy (say) low-budget slasher films, to say nothing of the Italian neo-realists. I suspect that the film’s politics are a stumbling block for many people, but since I share those politics, down to its feminism and antiracism, I found it refreshing.

There are probably other American feature films that have dealt well with political issues, but aside from Norma Rae and maybe Bulworth, I can’t think of many. Usually I look to foreign films for intelligent handling of politics, especially those of South Korean directors like Park Kwang-su or Lee Chang-dong. Salt of the Earth turned out to be much better than I expected, and I’m not surprised that it was suppressed in the US.