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Class: Pivot Points

Class: Pivot Points

The Lacemaker, by Vermeer. 1671

Made in Dagenham is an inspirational film, based upon real events in England in 1968. It depicts the struggles of Labor in its quest to achieve decent, living wages and some modicum of respect and dignity. At the center of the story is the plight of female sewing machinists in a Ford factory, who had been classified as unskilled in order to keep corporate costs down. They bravely went on strike, and helped change the face of labor laws for all British women in the process.

Sally Hawkins plays Rita O’Grady, a working class woman who takes on a leadership role among the sewing machinists, and helps spearhead the strike and an eventual meeting with Secretary of State Barbara Castle, played by Miranda Richardson. The film centers on the difficult, complex dynamic between men and women within the Labor movement — a much stronger movement then than now — primarily through the story of Rita and her husband, played by Daniel Mays. They both work at the same plant, and tensions develop between them when Rita is away from home more often than the husband would like, in her new role as leader. This family dynamic is contrasted with a different kind of tension, between a powerful Ford executive, played by Rupert Graves, and his beautiful and brilliant wife, played by Rosamund Pike. Feeling trapped in her role as house wife, despite her advanced education, Lisa rebels, cautiously at first, enough to help Sally and her union, even though this goes directly against the corporate and class interests her husband represents. She realizes that her real betrayal would have been to ignore the discrimination and exploitation going on at the Ford plant. Barbara Castle, the third key woman in the story, must decide how much to buck the old boys’ network as well. The political and long-lasting effects of the sewing machinists’ strike rest ultimately with her.

One of the key takeaways from the film is the realization that backroom deals don’t always have to go against the interests of the vast majority, though they seldom do otherwise. There are moments that shape the potential for myriad shifts in the wind, and if those moments are seized, real change can occur. With persistence and perseverance, the right kind of pressure, the right amount of moral outrage and appeals to the moral compass of others, things can change — even when it looks like nothing on earth will move the entrenched forces of the status quo.


Made in Dagenham. Directed by Nigel Cole. 2010

We could all learn a great deal from those women of 1968 . . . In 2011, in the midst of one of the longest protracted periods of high unemployment in our history, and the highest level of wage and wealth inequality since 1929, our current ruling elite seem bound and determined to send us back into a Dickens novel. “Austerity” for the working class, and bailouts, subsidies, tax cuts and deregulation for the ruling class. Scrooge, before his midnight conversion, would be proud. So, what are we going to do about it?

Will discuss “Never Let Me Go” a bit more in the next post.


Class Act

Class Act

Three recent film viewings merge and amplify basic truths made visual in each. Three recent viewings of British films make clear an ironic dynamic: The British have long had a class-based society, but understood that and worked to reduce its effects. America has always had one as well, a class-based society for the wealthy, but has great difficulty admitting this, and will be forever trapped inside it if it does not see that trap for what it is.

Made in Dagenham, Gosford Park and Never Let me go make up the trinity in question. All three movies shine a light on the fundamental absurdity of our system. The accident of birth is paramount. Far more than any amount of “hard work” or “merit” or “virtue” or intelligence, it is the prime determinant of our social and economic status at the end of the day. Nothing is more essential in setting us on our present or future course or constructing our limits without our consent. Nothing comes close to shaping our destiny like the parents we can’t choose, or the parents they couldn’t select. We do not ask to be born at all, and we certainly do not get to pick the time, place or circumstances.

In Gosford Park, a murder-mystery set in a huge manor house in the early 1930s, we get an unusual look at both those “in service” and the people they serve. Unlike most films or books, there is a real attempt to make the lives and the doings and the work of “the help” every bit as important as the people who write our histories: generally, the winners of the birth lotteries. We get to go behind the scenes, into their quarters, into their work space to see their personal dramas and the back-breaking work they do. We also get to see how their hard work creates the space and time for the ruling class to concentrate on its leisure as they order “the help” about like dogs. There are secrets, lies and betrayals galore. Appearances are not just deceiving inside the manor. They are often shown up as purely ridiculous. What becomes obvious after a very short time is this: those in service are not some lesser species. They are human beings with the same exact cellular makeup as their bosses, and for some, the same DNA. They do what they do primarily because their parents weren’t born with the resources to set them on a different path. And the ruling class they serve? They were blessed with family circumstances that granted them their unearned privileges.

The director, Robert Altman, extends the lesson with subtle power via the casting of his mostly British actors. Several of the stars playing servants had previously played aristocrats, and one, Helen Mirren, would go on to play the queen of England. This interchangeability opens up a metaphor for the accident of life, the cards we’re dealt, and so on. Looking at the characters, thinking about the actors playing them, noting that they have often played across class lines, shuffles the deck yet again, and Altman’s democratic display of the lives of these characters deepens that observation. It’s not just the idea of actors playing in a drama about class privilege that seems so absurd. It’s the realization that the powers that be have successfully made class divisions appear normal and natural, even though there is no rational explanation for their presence. Art can help us see this, cut through the veil, because it forces us to isolate and abstract and dwell upon the compositions before us. Dwell upon the absurdity. Upon life, as in.

I’ll discuss the next two films in subsequent posts.


The Inelegance of Hierarchies

The Inelegance of Hierarchies

Head of a Peasant Girl, by Kazimir Malevich. 1913
Head of a Peasant Girl, by Kazimir Malevich. 1913

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, class and age play a big part. Hierarchies play a big part. Elitism and the stigma of the lower classes are dissected and become almost characters in the novel. Madame Michel, who suffers from a very poor background, feels obliged for many reasons to present to the wealthy tenants of Number 7, Rue de Grenelle, that which they already assume: her ignorance and her virtual insignificance. This is a tragedy that underlies other tragedies in the novel, and it works two ways at least. At the very least.

Madame Michel both loves and hates the fact that she must hide. There is perhaps a secret sense of joy that she has a secret life. This lifts her up to the degree that it remains hidden. But at the same time she realizes she is trapped by a stereotype, by the projection of that stereotype upon her day to day existence. She is buoyed by the trap, but still trapped.

The financial and cultural elite that inhabit the apartment building see her as they see most people of the lower classes. She feeds them this. They eat it and give it back to her. No one’s the wiser. No one really benefits from the illusion and the confirmation of those stereotypes. Paloma and Mr. Ozu, alone, perhaps, in the entire building, seek to break her out of that trap. They do this, of course, for themselves as much as for Madame Michel.

Is it easier for the very young to see through stereotypes? Is it easier for an immigrant to see through class and gender stereotypes in another culture? Paloma is 12. Mr. Ozu is Japanese. Will Paloma be as sharp in 10 years? Will she be as acute and incisive in her analysis and her ability to cut through the BS of the everyday? Did Mr. Ozu find diamonds in the rough in Japan with as much clarity and success?

Hierarchies. I often find them bizarre. I often find the contemplation of our ideas about deference especially bizarre. This novel made me think of so many things, some odd, some profound, which is in keeping with Paloma’s diary entries, which she entitled profound thoughts. Ironically, and not so ironically.

For instance: On the way home from work tonight, I imagined a nice restaurant in a big city. I imagined the people who work there — I have experience from that side of the table and bar. I thought about big shots getting special seating, jumping ahead of people who have waited far longer. And I wondered: Does the CEO (and his or her date) pay more per meal? Do they actually pay a higher price for the scampi that I might select, with my date? No. No. Not at all. We pay the same listed price from the menu. Then why would the management of that restaurant kiss the ring of the CEO and push others back in the queue?

Deference. If someone is not paying your salary, if someone doesn’t have any say over your livelihood, why go out of your way to let them go to the head of the queue, just because they’re rich?

(One could even question deference when it comes to the workplace, but at least that has the virtue of direct impact on your day to day life . . . )

My own bias, my own sense of hierachies, has never included the rich. I simply don’t care. I’m just not impressed. I really don’t think more of. A billionaire. A zillionaire. A master of the universe.

Now, if someone makes me laugh, has written a great novel, composed a brilliant piece of music, painted a beautiful composition . . . I can see myself granting a moment of deference, but just a moment. Because they have made my life sweeter, lighter, sublime. But what does the zillionaire do for me?

Nothing. Except, perhaps, corrupt the already shaky monetary system. Corrupt the already shaky system of government regulation. Corrupt the already shaky environmental picture. I owe them nothing.

Madame Michel doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t seem to be anything she contemplates. She does eventually reveal one of the major reasons why she puts on masks. She does reveal why Mr Ozu’s advances cause complex reactions. But she never really seems to sense the surreality of class, the whole machinery of deference and waiting, the insanity of giving up our place in the queue for people who have nothing to offer us, won’t offer us anything, but seem to expect special treatment all the same. Because of their wealth and To the Manor Born.

My guess is that Paloma will see this from the inside some day and rebel. She will see this from the point of view of the privileged and rebel. We need more Paloma’s, and we need more Madame Michel’s who realize they are not, are never, can never be considered inferior to others of arbitrary class distinctions.

That, of course, would be another novel. Muriel Barbery hints at this, plays with it, points to it, but doesn’t say it in so many words. I have, and I won’t go to the back of the queue because pompous zillionaires think I should. I won’t step aside to let the non-Japanese tea parties ascend.