Every day, it seems like there's more being written about fewer films. The internet is an endless expanse of opinioneering, but every writer seems to be working from the same limited Rolodex. How many times do the virtues of Goodfellas need to be extolled? How many bland "Top 10" lists do you need to see recycle the same titles before you realize, "Gosh, maybe I should see Vertigo and Breathless?"
You might not know it from the 100th article you'll see this week about Hollywood in the 70's or Quentin Taratino's influences, but there's a whole universe of movies out there - every now and then The Pink Smoke will be recommending a pair of films that despite their virtues rarely seem to get dredged up from the bottomlessly shallow internet morass.
If you like: Union reps arguing with intransigent middle-managers, piles and piles of sheep guts, cow carcasses getting cut in half with bandsaws, 70’s style mustaches and sideburns, just barely figurative looks inside the sausage factory, outstanding achievements in the field of documentary excellence.
Points of reference: In a Year of 13 Moons, Gates of Heaven, Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, Franz Kafka (for scenes of impenetrable bureacracy), Salesman, Titicut Follies, American Movie.
Like any Wiseman film, a basic description of Meat sounds as dry and predictable as Buñuel’s daily martini: a look at the day to day operations of one of (at the time) America’s largest feed lots, the Monfort Meat Packing Company in Greeley, Colorado; an exploration of the process that transforms livestock into neatly packed, super-market ready packages of plastic, styrofoam and flesh. It contains some of the best examples of the eternally recurring Wiseman scene: people trapped in a conference room having intractable, essential, alarmingly idiotic discussions - in this case, it’s union representatives taking on management over working conditions and efficiency measures.
Meat comes into focus during those sequences of labor strife because, like any Wiseman film, what it is really about is the messy conflict between individuals and institutions, the value of organizing versus the dehumanization of collectivity. Wiseman has always had a talent for capturing the loneliness produced by institutionalization and the jam-packed, energetic frames of Meat might be his most arresting vision of the subject: a Bosch-esque frenzy of blood-splatter, confinement and labor - with obdurate bureaucracy thrown into the mix. Meat depicts the brutal and tedious isolation of hell.
Of course it’s Wiseman, so the essential humor of human misery seeps from the omnipresent wet clumps of viscera as well as the bloodless, circular disagreements between management and the union reps. It’s the funniest movie ever made that will definitely be impossible to stomach for most audiences. The laid-back, mustachioed Denim Dan union rep who makes the biggest impression is like like something out of an Errol Morris movie - he instantly recalls the pet cemetery bureaucrats from Gates of Heaven (or rather as it came later, Gates of Heaven instantly recalls this character - which makes sense as Morris has always been a passionate fan of Wiseman.) There’s a dark humor to the rep’s resignation - he’s a beaten-down, blue-collar drone who can’t get over the fact that he’s constantly the smartest guy in the room. He’s cursed with being right all the time and not having it matter because his entire existence is set in a world that combines Kafka’s The Trial with the final section of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.
- christopher funderburg
If you like: Can-crushing, mid-afternoon naps, clothes hanging on a
fence, awkward dinner parties, non-professional actors, films set in
South Central where nobody gets shot (I think only Burnett makes
those), the late great Johnny Ace.
Points of reference: Visconti's La Terra Trema, Renoir's The
Southerner, Satyajit Ray's The Big City, early Cassavetes, Burnett's
own Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger, F. Gary Gray's Friday.
Since we're already on the subject of films set in abattoirs, have you
watched Killer of Sheep lately? Charles Burnett's master's
thesis-turned-National Film Registry selection is a movie every
afficionado should watch at least once a year - it can only benefit
one's appreciation of cinema's singularity to make that effort to stay fluent in Burnett's
spellbinding film language. Just as captivating yet somehow even more
neglected is his sophomore effort My Brother's Wedding, recently
screened as part of BAM's Indie 80's series. These are two films that
should have sparked a new movement in American cinema in the late 70's
and early 80's. Instead, they lingered in near-obscurity until
Milestone Films resurrected both for proper limited theatrical releases in
2007, giving Sheep a miraculous second life and Burnett the
opportunity to create a brand new director's cut of Wedding.
Like Sheep, Wedding is set in the Watts district of Los Angeles and
follows the earlier film's almost neorealist approach to documenting
life in the slums. Although there's more of a plot than in Sheep, it
similarly plays out in minor sketches set on lazy afternoons and idle
nights. While there's nothing quite like Sheep's shirtless dance to
Dinah Washington, there are unexpected flashes of romance such as a
married couple's interrupted moment of intimacy when their son returns
to the room, and dreamlike digressions along the lines of three
unrelated pregnant women who enter a dry cleaners one after another.
Echoing the famous scene in Sheep where children leap heedlessly
between tall buildings, several of Wedding's vignettes abruptly change
from frivolous to dangerous, and vice versa. In one of my favorite
moments, two men chasing a junkie who just tried to shoot them with a
broken gun are forced to stop and cautiously look both ways before
crossing the street and continuing the pursuit. There's a botched
heist scene that's played for laughs, even though somebody could have
easily been killed. Later, there's a tense hesitation between hellbent
Soldier and his father when the former returns home from prison... it
seems at first like the reunion will be contentious, then they wrap
their arms around each other.*
All this is centered around 30-year-old Pierce, one of cinema's least
ambitious and most beleaguered characters. Content to lounge around
his parents' dry cleaning business when he's not carrying on with a
married woman or getting into trouble with Soldier, he's hassled by
his brother's snobby "signifyin'" fiance ("Is he retarded?"), pursued
by an underaged admirer, constantly jumped by his fist-happy father
and shamed for sloth by his church-going mom. He gets away with
general inaction and lack of commitment by asking nothing of anyone
around him; he doesn't want anything, gladly allowing his unproductive
existence to lapse into the collective indifference of his insular
environment. It puts him in a comfortable position to judge others and
the things they do, all the better to avoid the kind of upper middle
class mobility represented by his lawyer brother and future
sister-in-law, who surely isn't misspeaking when she assures Pierce's
mother that her beau is sure to be "white" successful one day.
In the final third of the film, Pierce has to make a choice he can't
escape, one that brings all his carefully-planned callousness crashing
down. Suddenly, it's not enough to simply not care and remove himself
from the clashing cultures on opposite sides of him - he'll be forced
into a literal life and death decision. The spiraling implications culiminate in a lengthy long shot of Pierce running towards the camera,
confused and directionless, recalling a similar set-up from The
Graduate but punctuating an entirely different emotional dilemma. The
shot's so important Burnett kept it intact even after removing over 30
minutes from the film almost two decades later for his director's cut.
As to which version should be viewed, the original two-hour cut from
1983 or Burnett's heavily-trimmed 2007 release? As in most cases my
response is, why not both? But if you've only got time for one, stick
with the 2007 director's cut: a few scenes end abruptly, but not at a
disservice to the narrative, and the pace is much tighter. And the
shorter running time will make it easier to pair it up with Killer of Sheep
for the perfect double feature.
- john cribbs
~ AUGUST 30, 2015 ~
* [ This moment always reminds me so much of Rififi, an inversion of when Tony first sees his girl after getting out of the pen - and that connection further emphasizes how Burnett's work can only be compared to the greatest films ever made. - funderburg ]