Saturday, September 26, 2009

Only The Middle Classes Will Find Working Class Story "Grim"

We've had an an interesting few years for movies that deal with poverty as a conflict. In some ways Fish Tank is a dance movie, but terribly unlike Fame, Save The Last Dance or Footloose. Fish Tank has more in common with Wendy and Lucy and Frozen River where the effects of contemporary economics plays out for females. Some of the most powerful films about poverty are the gangster rap movies made in the last twenty years...but there is also a quieter string of movies studying the characters who live in the margins of our wealthy lands. In some ways these films are excellent metaphors for independent film making and perhaps that has something to do with the independent original writer/directors making these movies. We could add Slumdog Millionaire, Gran Torino, Jamacain movies Life and Debt and Shottas as other examples of narratives studying environment and struggle. The film makers are pushing against a corporate capitalistic energy much like the main characters in their films. These films might seem like they fit into a box once called "social realism" but what a film maker like Arnold is doing is more like a genre-busting of the idea of working class motifs being used for a political agenda. No, these films have in common a respect for the emotional life of the characters stifled or contested by a bigger force than political idealism can legislate. I was impressed when I read a recent interview with writer/director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank) who points out an economic class system in the film industry...

Andrea Arnold sets her teacup back on it's saucer and flicks her eyes around the heavy paneling and drapery of London's Covent Garden Hotel, where she is holed up all afternoon giving interviews. "The thing about the film industry is that it's incredibly middle class, isn't it?" she says, "All the people who look at it and study it and talk about it-write about it-are middle-class, so they always see films about the working class as being grim, because the people in the film don't have what they have. I very much get the feeling that I'm seeing a different place. People at Cannes kept asking me about grim estates and I though, ugh, I don't mean that. I tried not to mean that."

The Essex estate in question is the setting for her new film Fish Tank and-depending on how your sliding scale of poverty is calibrated-it's not so bad, really. Certainly it's paradise compared to the looming los-res menace of the Glasgow tower block in Arnold's feature debut Red Road (2006), where the tectonic plates of death, sex and revenge crunched together with such riveting inevitability. Fish Tank the story of a troubled girl struggling to relate to her own physicality, builds up some fairly seismic emotional pressure too, but it's not so much the fault of the shabby, banal setting as of the cultural and emotional limitations of modern life. From, Sight & Sound Magazine.

Still from the MUST SEE movie Wendy and Lucy. You know I mean it when I start shouting in my posts :)

I'll tell ya what I'd like to see. I'd like to see Katie Jarvis perform on the hit tv show So You Think You Can Dance with a trailer for the movie. The elimination episode every week features all kinds of guest dancers and singers. I think wedding the idea of a character like this with a dance show that has accomplished bringing the art of the body back to the mainstream...would be a profound opportunity to showcase this story to young people.

Related Links:

1) Review in The Independant
2) The Guardian
3) Renewed interest in Keynsian economics?
4) Excerpt from movie...
5) Wendy and Lucy review.


Gardenia said...

For some reason I equate middle class with being the same as the working class, have we, as the working class slipped out of the middle class definition?

Candy Minx said...

No. They are completely different. The working class was never the same as the middle class.

Here is what Wikipedia says about working class:

Working class is a term used in academic sociology and in ordinary conversation to describe, depending on context and speaker, those employed in lower tier jobs as measured by skill, education, and compensation.
As with many terms describing social class, "working class" is defined and used in many different ways. The term typically incorporates references to education, occupation, culture, and income. When used non-academically, it typically refers to a section of society dependent on physical labor, especially when compensated with an hourly wage.
Casual and geographical usage of "working class" differs widely. It is usually contrasted with the upper class and middle class in terms of access to economic resources, education and cultural interests. Its usage as a description can be derogatory, but many people self-identify as working class and experience a sense of pride similar to a national identity. Working classes are mainly found in industrialized economies and in urban areas of non-industrialized economies.
The variation between different socio-political definitions makes the term controversial in social usage, and its use in academic discourse as a concept, and as a subject of study itself, is contentious, especially following the decline of manual labor in postindustrial societies. Some academics (sociologists, historians, political theorists, etc.) question the usefulness of the concept of a working class, while others use some version of the concept.

And here is a clip about Middle Class:

The middle class are the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socioeconomically between the working class and upper class. This socioeconomic class encompasses the sub-classes of lower middle, middle middle, and upper middle, and includes professionals, highly skilled workers, and management. As in all socioeconomic classes, the middle class is associated with a shared and complex set of cultural values.
The middle class are also any social group in history who are neither the class of common labouring people, nor the ruling class. Historically this group has included freed slaves and plebians in slave societies; and urban dwelling freemen in feudal societies.

Beej said...

I think I felt the same way Gardenia did, that the two classes are the ame. However, if I were thinking in terms of, say, England, I would immediately recognize the difference! Isn't that odd?

Candy Minx said...

Beej, this is a difficult subject. Gardenia and I have talked about this before and one thing I think that is specific...and since I'm from Canada...this is tricky for me to understand in U.S. I was of the impression that the U.S. had rejected "class" as a concept and as an ideal. So I'm kind of going in blind here. It's a discussion that is explored as I grew up being aware and knwowing of, at the least, that there is "class" segregation or differences in Canada. So bear with me Gardenia and Beej.

Here is what Wiki says...

There is considerable controversy regarding social class in the United States, and it remains a concept with many competing definitions. Many Americans believe in a simple three-class model that includes the "rich", the "middle class", and the "poor." More complex models that have been proposed describe as many as a dozen class levels; while still others deny the very existence, in the strict sense, of "social class" in American society. Most definitions of class structure group people according to wealth, income, education, type of occupation, and membership in a specific subculture or social network.

Dennis Gilbert, William Thompson, Joseph Hickey, and James Henslin have proposed class systems with six distinct social classes. These class models feature an upper or capitalist class consisting of the rich and powerful, an upper middle class consisting of highly educated and well-paid professionals, a lower middle class consisting of college-educated professional sales and office assistants, a working class constituted by clerical and blue collar workers whose work is highly routinized, and a lower class divided between the working poor and underclass.

I'd be interested in knowing how the links and definitions of working class felt/sounded to both of you...I feel that this is a very delicate and "unspeakable" topic in U.S. So...I am afraid to be putting my foot in my mouth. Ya know? Is there class in U.S.? Working class to my mind is a combination of yearly income with labour focused a quick generalization.

Beej said...

Candy, first of all, don't worry about putting your foot in your mouth with me; you always make me consider stuff I would not otherwise consider if you hadn't brought it up.

Yes, there are different classes in the U.S. but I think we are raised to consider everyone equal so we sort of shove any kind of marked social status into some little corner of our psyche where we can pretend it doesn't exist. But maybe the way we are different is that we all have at least a chance to change whatever class we are born into. Take my best friend Cynthia, who is a gorgeous and gracious Black woman; Cynthia was raised in the ghetto. She grew up wondering why he father was called 'boy' by all the white men. (Perhaps there is another class all its own, one of racial demarcation.) Anyway, her family was dirt poor. Do you know what cynthia is doing today? She, who has a double BA as well as two Masters degrees, is a doctoral condidate and is slated to receive her PhD in February. She is a high achool English teacher whose class is comprised of probably a good 80% black kids (who, btw, for the most part are living in the same subsidized projects where Cynthia grew up.) Cynthia is determined to teach them the perils of speaking 'Ebonics.' She is doing this as a first step in helping them break through the rut of class distinction.

So, yes, I would say there are different classes in the USA but also, it is possible for people to change which class they are a part of.

I hope this makes sense; it's only 5am as I write this and my brain is not fully functional yet.

Bloggerboy FFM said...

Are you familiar with the Preston Sturges Film Sullivan's Travels? A friend of mine gave me the film as a birthday present, and it handles some of the themes you are discussing here. Thanks for the film list. Gotta update my "to see list".

Candy Minx said...

Beej, yes very much appreciate your comments. I believe that narrative arc: that anyone can change their financial circumstances in the U.S. is the basic tenet of "The American Dream" as I understand it...and I admit that that I probably only understand the concept intellectually and idealistically rather than as part of a national identity. Oprah Winfrey with her tv program represents the idea that this transformative journey could also be a spiritual rather than just a financial change in circumstance. Her popularity is partly because without money (although she has so many materialistic based programs...we'll leave those aside for a minute) people can change their mental and spiritual attitudes or circumstances.

Bloggerboy, Were your ears burning last night? A few of us were volunteering inn the kitchen at Octoberfest party last night. As for Preston Sturges, I am a big fan. I love "Sullivan's Travels" and have seen many times, even in a movie theatre back when there used to be those "repertoire" style movie houses. Were you surprised when his socially relevant film was going to be titled 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?' Yep, the Coen Brothers suggest that their movie of that title followed the film-within-the-film concept of "Sullivan's Travels". They suggest that is what his movie would have been like if he had been a real director!

"Sullivan's Travel's" is fascinating how it seems so lightweight but then goes into a very serious toned story. It's just a terrific all round movie though and all the cast is so delightful.

So in a way...I think what director Arnold was trying to say was that she took the narrative of someone who is living a life...through their world straight on. It is a much more emotional and character building narrative than the kind of movie where the dreamer/dancer gets a "big break" and gets rich.

One of the reasons I think of the three films "Frozen River, "Fish Tank" and "Wendy and Lucy" as interesting to compare is because although money is one of the conflicts of the isn't exactly the resolution or area of transformation. Any potential transformative arc is occurring inside emotionally with the characters...not by them accomplishing a materialistic lifestyle change. These are genre-busing films and characters not only by being low-budget independent films by writer/directors but also by content, mise en scene, soundtracks, dialogue and by rejecting formulaic options.

Which reminds me...great news. Sundance has a new category of film. No budget! Low or no-budget films are being accepted for consideration in upcoming festivals with their own category and showing titled "Next".

Thee Mike Brown said...

caddy shack has a class subtext that people often overlook.

Candy Minx said...

Well, "Caddy Shack" is one of the world's greatest movies. Ever. Period. I almost liked golf because of that movie. I've also meant to go to the Murray brothers "world golf village" in Florida to eat some dindin...but not made it yet. Maybe in 2010. Did you know "Caddy Sachk" made it into the top 100 funniest AFI movies?


* (asterisk) said...

I agree that the notion of class has been lost or discarded in the US. In the UK it's alive and well, thanks. Until quite recently I considered myself working class, even though (bizarrely) my dad considered himself middle class. (I didn't, but that's by the by!)

As background, I left school at 16 and went straight into work as a shoe repairer.

Of course, years passed by and I ended up working in publishing. There was an assumption there that I was "educated" or I wouldn't be there. Later still, your education is surpassed by your time on the job. After years working in publishing I guess I became a "professional" of some type, working in a middle-class vocation. A career, no less. So I guess I had become middle class!

Conversely, the working class here has dwindled, and instead there is a rise in the non-working class: those who do not wish to work and rather to "earn" their money from the dole, welfare, and the like.

On the topic of the movie, I really enjoyed Arnold's Red Road -- although it is quite grim :)