“From the start, it has been the theater’s business to entertain people, as it also has of all the arts,” proclaims Bertolt Brecht with the forthright gusto of any old capitalist in his now infamous aesthetic treatise A Short Organum for the Theatre. “This business…needs no other passport than fun, but that it’s got to have,” he proceeds, following his swing through to its logical punch: “Nothing needs less justification than pleasure.”
But just as I begin to worry that I’m reading the wrong Brecht (some distant cousin, perhaps, who later moved to Hollywood and changed his name to Louis B. Mayer), Bert finishes off his argument with an artful left hook: yes, pleasure is indeed the sole responsibility of art, but what, he asks, is more pleasurable than learning?
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The buzz around Ken Loach’s new film Bread and Roses seems consistently to bear one common, slightly uncertain, half-whispered critique: “I hear it’s a little didactic.”
There are certain key words that seem to set off such alarms of “didacticism” in the arts: labor, unions, the working classes, “struggle” (when used in a non-individualist way), the “masses,” etc. – all terms which Loach’s film just happens to engage. Coincidentally, or not, these words also have leftist connotations. Which may lead on to wonder: is didacticism in the arts limited to the left, or have we just grown accustomed to accepting it when it comes, with such regular frequency, from the (conservative) right to (liberal) center fields?
Bread and Roses takes its title from the banner that Loach’s unionizing janitors carry to their final demonstration – a banner which allegedly dates back, along with all it represents, to the seminal 1912 textile mill strikes of Lawrence, Massachusetts, evoking a long-standing tradition of political, if not artistic, activism. The film follows the plight of Maya (Pilar Padilla), a Mexican immigrant, who comes to America to join her naturalized sister and make a new life for herself. A handheld camera opens up the world to us, in a virtual birthing scene. Attached to no palpable body, the lens subjectively thrashes through the Mexican border brush, tripping, being pushed – by invisible hands, by a constant flow of guttural off-screen insults, by some unknown and yet omnipresent pursuer. A glimpse of sky, a face full of earth, a ditch, a hill, the van, black-out. It is an expressly immigrant perspective, an escape surrounded on all sides by the unknown, characterized as much by desperation as by idealism. In this grittily stylish opening, Loach sets the tone, and identification, he hopes to pursue throughout the film.
Yet when the van hits Los Angeles, with Maya in it, the film’s style instantly becomes more predictably mainstream – as if the handheld bit only works in the third world, or perhaps suggesting that we should rest assured, for all is ordered and well in El Norte. Sure enough, when the van reaches the shadowy drop-off point, families are there to exchange American dollars for “illegals” – the system works just fine. Except that May’s sister Rosa (the phenomenal Elpidia Carrillo) didn’t bring enough money to retrieve her. Maya falls through the cracks, as the two immigrant-hustling coyotes knock her down, tie her up, and flip for who, that night in his hotel room, will collect the balance on her in-kind payment. The way Maya avoids rape – through artfully playing along with her oppressor, gaining his trust and then reversing the tables – shadows Loach’s overall philosophy of how the underdog must achieve power: by accepting the system so as to be in a position to subvert it. (As Brecht’s Herr K., his “thinking man,” proclaims: “There is only one way to fight authority…Outlive it.”)
Artistically, the octopus Loach is struggling with his Hollywood, and, to appease its basic requirements, he uses a fairly predictable narrative line. Maya is a plucky heroine whose invincible spirit cannot be assuaged. Upon landing a coveted janitorial job in a downtown office building, she immediately begins pluckishly toying with the uptight administrators who work there; falls for a cute, white, equally spirited labor organizer, Sam (Adrien Brody); and becomes torn between him and Ruben (Alonso Chavez), a fellow Mexican janitor with a driving ambition to go to college and rise up above the maligned “masses.” It is easy to root for Maya – even if she has nothing to lose but her own chance in America and even though she seems less driven by the notion of equality for all than by her young and restless sense of adventure. Her coworkers, such as her sister Rosa, often have families and are older and thus have more to lose. But by focusing the narrative on Maya, Loach gives us a traditional story to follow – replete with romantic complications and individualistic struggles – while he meanwhile quietly weaves in the story of his mass protagonist: the collective janitorial union movement. His is an artful balance of personal and group narrative. Maya is a spoonful of sugar, if at times a bit too pure, for the more potentially didactic medicine of how to organize. It is much to Loach’s credit that when the love story and the union struggle climax simultaneously, we are swept up in a traditional Hollywood catharsis yet inadvertently moved by a pro-labor story that might even make Brecht proud.
This coyly subversive approach also extends to Hollywood stereotypes of Latino identity, which Loach takes on almost gleefully. At first impact, the cartoonishly brash mariachi music punctuating every little underdog victory seems tastelessly heavy-handed, right out of an Old Hollywood western. Yet, although the voices and the melodies are instantly recognizable, from the first twang of the lyrics it becomes clear that this is actually a norteño-style corrido (Mexican ballad): Woody Guthrie meets Pancho Villa. “To fight the gringo boss, I had to have a voice, to defend myself from the evil angry gaucho,” a live band sings at a party, before hitting the chorus – “Because I couldn’t speak goddam English, just because I couldn’t speak goddam English.” – as the janitors dance the familiar dances and woo the old romances to these time-tested melodies with new fighting words. It is another craftily successful re-appropriation of conventional entertainment – the same form, but now infused with radical meaning.
The deeper struggle of these Latino immigrants is to fight their “invisibility” – both ethnically and professionally. Toward this end, Loach strives to document them as full and conflicted characters, not some concordant Mexican mass. These workers range in their views of labor from indifferent to individualistically self-centered to the politically informed. They are not naïve pawns led by the promises of some white do-gooder only interested in their union dues (to recap the first claim of most bosses when trying to dissuade fledgling organizing efforts). These workers are real, savvy survivors, with histories extending beyond their present situations – strangers perhaps to America, but not to politics and the intellect; some, the film suggests, were engaged in political activity back in Mexico.
There are, admittedly, some heavy-handed touches. The film is an unfortunate heir to the male leftist fascination with prostitution as a metaphor for everyman being compromised and screwed by the system in order to feed his or her family. Too bad this allegorical, genderless prostitute just-so-happens to always be female – belying a moralistic, slightly paternalistic obsession with female sexuality. That said, there are indeed a lot of female prostitutes forced work because it pays better than being, say, a non-union janitor. The scene where Maya discovers that her own path to radical politics has been supported by her sister’s moonlighting may be a little predictable, but it is far and away the most emotionally raw and riveting moment between two sisters I’ve seen in a while. The conflict feels only loosely scripted and is steeped in the subtleties of betrayal; the improvisational Loach re-emerges here, as it usually does when he is at his best.
There are a few other stiff elements. The bosses are unsympathetic, one-sided, lascivious oppressors (although, really, in what movie aren’t they?). And Sam is often given the difficult task of outlining in a clear, and thus potentially condescending, way the how-to’s of labor organizing – it’s hard not to sound agitprop yielding such “information” (why are war room strategy sessions never deemed didactic?). But as unsubtle as the boss and union presences can be, the tone is balanced by the winningly realistic comraderie with which Maya’s colleagues help her acclimate to her new job. Maya and Ruben, her working class love interest, get to know each other at the feet of administrators, as he gives her tips on how to clean the doorframe of an elevator. Her friend Ella, an older black woman, chuckles from the sidelines at Maya’s spastic vacuuming, then pulls her aside to show her how to do it more gently, like a dance. “He’s your man,” she says about the vacuum, teaching Maya to sway her hips and give herself over to this more sustainable work rhythm.
As for the other love interest (not the vacuum), Sam is a young idealistic white college-graduate with Marx on his bookshelf and Fredrick Douglass on his walls. He is, however, saved from predictability by his faults: he is gangly, at times awkward, leaves behind a paper trace, and even falls for one of his clients – nonetheless, he ultimately pulls off a successful organizing drive. But what makes all of these characters charming and unconventional (especially Maya) is their willingness to risk looking un-hip and even awkward for the sake of their political conventions. Their human weaknesses become their strengths. This very real glimpse of humanity on film is enough to break up some of the more programmatic moments.
But the most surprising images in the film – starkly effective and yet seemingly apolitical – emerge in the few, unexpectedly soft moments of leisure between plot points. For instance, when Maya is first waiting to enter the office building where her new life as a janitress will begin, she tilts her head back and looks beyond the tops of the tall buildings around her, for a rare moment shifting perspective from her (and the film’s) tightly focused drama of survival to this momentary breath of wonder. Later, when Maya is cleaning an office late at night, the camera lingers as she dusts. Everything is gently mic’d: her duster brushes over the rustling leaves of plants, flickers the long curtains, gently rakes across the metal serrations of the heating vent, presses the creases on a leather chair – these gentle daily sounds verge on becoming a soundtrack for the dimly lit scene. She stands quietly at the large glass window looking into the night, then spots a janitress friend in the glowing tower just across the dark courtyard. They both stand there, a single hand pressed to the glass, in greeting. An unstudied smile spreads across Maya’s face. It is a rare moment in which politics are so gently and successfully embedded in aesthetics. But how effective would these quiet moments be without the political framework.
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Bread and Roses, sadly, passed through New York theaters without pause. There are several reasons why this might have happened – critical world-weariness; resentment at idealism in art; or perhaps merely the tendency of audiences to choose films based not on their potential to learn from them, but to escape into them. Life is difficult enough; with the injustices experienced everyday at work, on the street, etc., who wants to see the same in a film? Nonetheless, as I watched this movie for the second time recently (at the second-string, but lovely and atmospheric, Two Boots on 3rd Street at Avenue A), I sat in the back row and spent half my time observing the few, but diverse audience members – giggling spontaneously and welling up silently as they watched (with surprise, I think) the tight and complex drama which Loach has formed. If anything, they seemed a little embarrassed to be getting such pleasure out of such politically overt material.
That a broader audience should be dissuaded from the subtleties of Loach’s work by the critically censorial stamp of “didacticism” is a shame, and the incident returns us to our instigating query: What lends a piece of art the oft-derided term “didactic”? Is it style, content, or politics? Can one indeed write about labor unions without being critically received as didactic? And don’t other ostensibly political films have a lesson to bear?
Consider, for instance, the liberal favorite of the past year, Traffic. What, pray tell, could be more didactic than the image of a black drug dealer, always naked, usually seen merely through a hip-level slot in his ghetto door, who at his first opportunity gets his hands on the white prepster whose daddy is too busy fighting the nation’s drug war to defend her honor? Didacticism not only instructs audiences about what they don’t want to hear, but it can also reiterate the values which they know too well and hold too dear. And what of the film’s overall message, dictated as it is by an outraged, always-right-because-he-is-not-yet-disillusioned-by-having-to-support-himself privileged white boy, who is allowed multiple lengthy tirades which the screenwriter (Stephen Gaghan) seems to agree with completely, not the least because the character is clearly (and admittedly) based on himself?
From the other side of the coin comes the essentially conservative Before Night Falls. A lush and stylish film – wonderfully experimental in its depiction of memory, sexuality, and the imagination as they function under oppression – it seems to be arguing for the artist’s essential, apolitical right to produce beauty. The gay, bohemian, and censored Reinaldo Arenas has genuine underdog appeal, and his story of an individual against an oppressive system seduces us without elaborating fully what the politics of the system are. In one scene, a wealthy older patron draws the poor young writer into his study, loading him up with literary classics and some clear advice: art and revolution don’t mix. Arenas’s eyes are wide with wonder – as if he has never seen so many books, or, perhaps, it is the wealth that dazzles him. Both are present, and both are set up in contrast to the communism of Castro, who we only see at his worst, in some carefully selected documentary footage of his orations. As Americans, we can root for the oppressed (Arenas) and still confirm our deep-seated belief in the union of capitalism and freedom (both artistic and sexual). The lesson – couched in the alluring, crumbling beauty of Cuba and filmmaker/painter Schnabel’s gorgeous images – is none the less didactic.
Of course, hinging on an argument around the theories of Brecht assumes that he is some kind of ideal to follow. Was he didactic? Well, yes, absolutely, at times. But he was also witty, subtle, and an aesthetic stylist – all traits which leftists are rumored not to have. Although best remembered for his aesthetic techniques of distentiation (alienation), Brecht was bent on educating the so-called masses, to reveal the mechanisms not only of the seemingly impermeable façade of theater but also of society. In doing so, he creates a tradition of leftist, labor-sensitive drama which has only sporadically been pursued since – and all the more rarely with success. In watching Loach’s movie, we are also reminded – as the near-strike of the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America has recently unavoidably forced us to do – that all those scripts and actors, costumes and lights, hairstyles, catered food and yes, even daily set-cleaning, take union labor. Unions drive the movie business, so why not, in good old Brechtian fashion, expose the mechanism, and show labor in action?