Finishing Blindspot 2016 #8: Harlan County USA
Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
The place is southeastern Kentucky, bordering Virginia. The time is the early ’70s, an era when there was turmoil to spare in the United States. The story is simultaneously specific and one that has been told time and time again. Since there was wealth to be had and labor to take advantage of it, the rich have exploited the poor. In Harlan County, USA, the poor are coal miners hoping to unionize, while the executives of the mining company they work for are willing to resort to increasingly brazen violence to stop them.
Barbara Kopple was just 27 years old when she lead her camera crew to Kentucky to cover the strike by miners at Brookside Mine, who were hoping for better wages, safer conditions, and benefits. They sign a contract to join the United Mine Workers of America. The Duke Power Company, which owns the mine, nixes the contract, triggering the strike.
Simply as an account of the chaotic events of the strike, Harlan County, USA is electric. Some of the footage Kopple gets is astonishing. The cameras sometimes pick up shouted threats from armed mercenaries and police, ordering her to stop filming. The methods used by strikebreakers, hired by Duke to manhandle the picketers and shuttle scab workers into the mines, grow increasingly violent. Kopple doesn’t provide a lot of names, but we grow accustomed to and even attached to a lot of faces. The wives and mothers of the miners are the primary force of the picket lines, defiantly standing up to guards who start by dragging them out of the lines and into jail cells into the dark, escalating to gunfire.
Kopple makes no attempt to remain detached. This is full-throated activist filmmaking, but unlike the work of Michael Moore, which can often turn into overwrought and didactic, Kopple keeps the cameras swiveling around, documenting whatever they can. One remarkable shot captures an infamous strikebreaker pointing his gun at the crowd. The shot ends up being evidence that forces the county sheriff to arrest the man, something he clearly has no desire to do.
Harlan County, USA is a reminder that progress has only ever been achieved through relentless effort, often in the face of seemingly overwhelming force and institutions uninterested in holding the powerful accountable. At one point, a miner at a demonstration in New York City (where they hope to tank Duke Power Company’s stock value) has a conversation with a cop, who is aghast at the conditions the miners face. The cop’s basic benefits and wages are modest, basic but compared to the miner, it sounds like a bounty.
The films ends with a mix of sadness, hope, and ambiguity. The miners get a contract, but only after one of the strikers is murdered on the picket line. They’re pleased, but one of the older miners point out that it doesn’t help those whose careers don’t have much time left to reap the benefits. And within a year, another conflict arises, putting the contract in jeopardy. The fight continues on, as it always has, as it always will.
Blindspot 2016 #1: Smiles of a Summer Night
I admit that writing about movies hasn’t been at my mind’s forefront recently, but I’ve decided to push through that. My grandmother would want me to keep up my writing.
Last week I watched the first film on my Blindspot list: Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 romantic comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night.
What’s that, you say? Romantic comedy? Bergman?
Yes, indeed, that is what we have here. And it is wonderful.
Smiles of a Summer Night is warm but not sentimental, insightful but not cynical. The warmth is delivers stems from Bergman’s deep understanding of these characters and his willingness to let them interact and talk like real people. Much is said in this film, most of it deeply felt, most of it only partially understood by those listening.
The film feels alive like a good play does*. When a play opens you always feel like you’re walking into someone’s life. In Smiles of a Summer Night, the life we intrude upon is that of Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand), a middle-aged lawyer with a grown son and a young wife about his son’s age. He had been married for a long time. His wife died, and he spent some time coping by bedding as many pretty women as he could. One, a beautiful thirty-something actress named Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), he actually had feelings for. However, he called it off with her and instead married Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), who is not yet 20 when the film begins. They haven’t yet consummated their marriage, and he has no desire to pressure her to do so. He still fantasizes about Desiree, and visits her. Not for sex, but for emotional intimacy and understanding. “You are my only friend, the only person to whom I can show myself”, he says in a moment of vulnerability.
*This story did end up on Broadway; Stephen Sondheim adapted it into his 1973 musical “A Little Night Music”.
Certainly his son is incapable of providing any emotional support. Young Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) is studying to be a clergyman, and pontificates about morality, most likely because he is terrified of women. Fredrik’s maid, Petra (Harriet Andersson), plays him like a fiddle and lures him to bed. Petra is extremely close with Anne and tries to offer advice for when the time comes for her to lose her virginity. We sense that the two are more earnestly attracted to one another than to anyone else in the movie.
One reason Desiree and Fredrik’s relationship is now platonic is that Desiree’s current paramour, a soldier named Magnus (Jarl Kulle), is both absurdly jealous and willing to duel at a moment’s notice. A scene where Magnus finds Fredrik alone with Desiree is both very tense and very funny. Magnus is married to Anne’s friend Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), and the two converse quite openly about their affairs. Neither is all that happy about the others’ infidelity. Their affairs have become a sport that neither can win.
For no apparent reason other than “this will be fun for the movie to do”, all the characters assemble for dinner at the home of Desiree’s mother, Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wifstrand). The old woman knows full well what she’s getting into inviting all these desperately concupiscent people under one roof, on the longest day of the year. The characters celebrate the solstice by staying up all night, talking, brooding, plotting, dreaming, about sex, romance, and fidelity. Amid the chatter there is barely any time for them to act on what they talk about.
There is such richness to this film’s dialogue. Most scenes consist simply of one on one conversations. These conversations don’t simply move the plot along. Every one is rich and revealing. Fredrik confides his anxieties about his marriage to Desiree as she undresses after she performs a play; their mutual comfort effortlessly conveys their familiarity. Anne and Petra talk frankly about sex; Anne is full of questions for Petra, who is happy to share her insights. Magnus tells Desiree that he doesn’t mind if Charlotte cheats on him. He then tells Charlotte the same, only about Desiree. There’s little doubt he minds very much in both cases. Fredrik toils in the background, desperately reading scripture amid the ribaldry.
When they all arrive and Mrs. Arnfeldt’s house, she sits back over the proceedings almost contentedly. She presides over their dinner table conversation like a referee, guiding the action but showing no desire to dictate any terms. The topic of choice? Charlotte’s bet with her husband that she can seduce Fredrik in fifteen minutes. He takes the bet and they all take a drink of wine. It’s going to be that kind of night.
Amid the conniving and bickering, Andersson gives my favorite performance in the film. Her Petra is the film’s heartbeat, radiating joy and a lust for life. While everyone else is slowly working themselves to a boil inside Mrs. Armfeldt’s manor, Petra is getting hers with Frid (Åke Fridell), a portly servant whose jolly hedonism matches Petra’s.
Who ends up happy and who doesn’t isn’t really the point of this film. Bergman’s far too perceptive a filmmaker to fixate on happy endings. He crafts a terrific ensemble of characters and traps them under one roof together. So much of the film’s sense of fun is simply seeing a new pairing of characters talking on screen. Their conversations are so alive. We have no idea where they’ll go. At one point Anne and Petra suddenly burst into giggles during a chat and throw themselves onto a bed, rolling in delight. It’s such a spontaneously delightful moment. In another scene, Anne is discussing marriage with Charlotte, who suddenly delivers a monologue about her troubles with her husband and with men in general. It’s a burst of despair, and Margit Calqvit’s eyes are focused just barely off the camera. She’s not talking to us; we’re right there and she can’t see us, and the effect is alarming.
Smiles of a Summer Night doesn’t shrink from its characters’ sadness, but its overarching tone is warm and, surprisingly, optimistic. Some characters remain paired with the person they began the film with, others run off on whims, and still others don’t seem to give a damn so long as they get a roll in the hay before the sunrise. The shortest night of the summer works its spell on everyone. They don’t all true love, but that’s a lot to ask for in one night. Sometimes, understanding yourself and everyone around you a bit better will do just fine.
My 2016 Blindspot Films
No matter how one tries, there are always more movies to see, an ever-growing backlog of classics that you haven’t gotten around to yet. I learned of one great way of tackling this list from Anna of Film Grimoire (please go follow her blog if you don’t already).
The idea is simple: at the start of the year, give yourself 12 films you will finally get to. Once a month, you watch and review a film on your list. I look forward to participating in it for the first time this year.
Without further ado, here are my Blindspot 2016 films: