Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bread and Roses

BREAD AND ROSES             B                     
Great Britain  Germany  Spain  France  Italy  (110 mi)  2000  d:  Ken Loach

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand million lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses;
For the people hear us singing: Bread & Roses, Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men
For they are women's children, and we mother them again
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses to

As we go marching, marching unumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too

As we go marching, marching we bring the greater days
The rising of the women means the rising of the race
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes
But a sharing of life's glories; Bread and Roses, bread and roses.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies, bread and roses, bread and roses!

Bread and Roses, by James Oppenheim from American Magazine, December, 1911, commonly associated with the textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts during January – March, 1912, often known as the “Bread and Roses strike,” uniting dozens of immigrant communities, led to a large extent by women, vocals and watercolors by Kate Vikstrom, Bread and Roses - YouTube  (3:19), also a simply ecstatic rendition by Joan Baez and her little sister Mimi Fariña, Joan Baez- Bread and roses - YouTube (2:40).

Women were fighting for fair wages, child labor laws, overtime pay, and fair working conditions, where part of their strike proclamation read:

We, the 20,000 textile workers of Lawrence, are out on strike for the right to live free from slavery and starvation; free from overwork and underpay; free from a state of affairs that had become so unbearable and beyond our control, that we were compelled to march out of the slave pens of Lawrence in united resistance against the wrongs and injustice of years and years of wage slavery.

To socialist director Ken Loach, one might say he’s an activist filmmaker, becoming in international cinema perhaps the lone voice of the left, an ardent believer that working people’s struggles are inherently dramatic, where he’s made a living striving for social realism, repeatedly championing the underdog by revealing the hardships and struggles of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, including Jury prize winner at Cannes, HIDDEN AGENDA (1990), an anti-Stalinest political thriller (when have you ever been able to make that claim?) about British repression in Northern Ireland, LAND AND FREEDOM (1995), the Cannes FIPRESCI award winner about the Spanish Civil War of the 30’s, or the Palme d’Or winning film at Cannes, THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006), about the Irish war of independence, a film that attempts to explore the extent that the Irish revolution was a social revolution as opposed to a nationalist revolution.  A huge believer that Margaret Thatcher destroyed a generation’s future with an economic structure that “consciously destroyed the workforces in places like the railways, for example, and the mines, and the steelworks … so that transition from adolescence to adulthood was destroyed, consciously, and knowingly.”  When Thatcher died in April 2013, in memory of her economic policies, Loach sarcastically called for her funeral to be privatized and handled by the lowest bidder.  To his credit, the man has remained surprisingly consistent as an artist through the years, maintaining a near documentary approach, shooting all his films in sequence, providing the cast with a page of script per day, hoping to create genuine interplay between the actors onscreen, allowing some improvisation to occur, with minimal use of music and the employment of natural lighting, with editing also kept to a minimum.  With a career approaching six decades, it’s fair to say he’s one of a kind, where his films offer an unpretentious honesty not seen anywhere else, and that his films, old and new, are always relevant.     

Coming on the heels of MY NAME IS JOE (1998), arguably Loach’s most critically praised film, this is the first (and only) time the director has ventured to America to make a film, focusing on the immigrant struggle to make a living, opening with a harrowing scene of a young woman making a risky border crossing into America from Mexico, where you’d think there would be relief once on the other side, but often the criminal element feeds off the insecurities of those most at risk, where their precarious position can lead to nightmarish experiences, where they can be subject to sexual predators, kidnappings, and slave labor.  But here thankfully, after a brief glimpse of how things could go terribly wrong, Pilar Padilla as Maya makes her circuitous way to her older sister’s house, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), in Los Angeles.  While it’s a happy reunion, where Rosa has been sending money all along to the family in Mexico, part of Maya’s interest now is in finding work, pressuring Rosa to help get her a job working with her as non-union janitors cleaning a swank high rise professional building filled with lawyers, financiers, and other high-priced clientele.  From the outset, Maya’s corrupt boss Perez, the malicious and irrepressibly ill-intentioned George Lopez, lays down the guidelines that he’ll only offer her the job if she’s willing to pay him her first two month’s wages.  On her first day of work, she meets a helpful friend, Ruben (Alonso Chavez), but also witnesses Adrien Brody as Sam, a union organizer, in the building attempting to evade her boss and a couple of security goons, comically resorting to silent comedy mischief, along with her help, to make his escape.  When Sam shows up at Rosa’s door to explain how wages remain stagnant literally over several decades without the power of a union, she gives him an impassioned speech about how anyone seen even talking to a union worker risks their job, how most workers are undocumented and have extended families back home to support, and how they could never risk deportation or survive without this job, deriding his talk as just talk, “We, we, when was the last time you got a cleaning job?,” quickly showing him the door.  While Rosa’s mind is buried in self-preservation, Maya is intrigued by the possibilities.       

Some of the better sequences show a behind-the-scenes look at workers talking among themselves about what the union has to offer, where most don’t trust Sam at first, maybe ever, as he is a college educated white guy that doesn’t share common values with them, and more importantly, has nothing at stake, while their lives are constantly at risk, something that is an everyday experience for these workers.  While there is clever use of ethnic music throughout, many of the hired extras were Latino immigrant cleaners, including several grassroots union activists as well, often blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, where realism can be indistinguishable from melodrama.  Berta (Maria Orellana) a loyal employee for seventeen years is offered the supervisor position, with a raise and health benefits for her family, provided she identify the names of those attending a union meeting, something she refuses to do, so she is ruthlessly fired on the spot by Perez, an act that stirs up the workers, but also brings Maya closer to Sam in what feels like an unnecessary romantic interlude.  This pits sister against sister in a search for moral responsibility, where their scenes together are powerful, plumbing the murkier depths of hard work and personal sacrifice, especially when everything goes to hell anyway, where key to the film are Rosa’s impassioned revelations expressed in an unforgettably gripping scene that grabs you by the throat, yet takes place around an ironing board, exasperated by the toll work has taken on her life, as she’s had to support everyone, no questions asked, no days off, having to work unpaid overtime routinely for years, where in a state of furious wrath she exclaims “I hate the whole fucking world!  I hate it!  I’ve put up with it all my fucking life.”  Loach is clear about an imperfect dynamic in play, where the choices are complex, and there are no glorified heroes, but he’s a believer that people working together can solve what are inevitably human problems.  Despite that, some of the best scenes in the film reveal the infighting, where the tensions of the underclass are already at a breaking point, but sheer desperation drives some to turn against one another.  What’s also interesting is how Loach goes against the grain of common organizing perceptions, where in a struggle for worker’s rights the tactic used by Sam is not to mobilize a strike, which would get the workers fired, but instead the class struggle is advanced by a smart aleck organizer using pranks to personally embarrass the powerful tenants in the building into shaming the cleaning company to pay the janitors a decent wage.  We never see workers deciding among themselves the best strategy, as it’s Sam who decides their every move, often contradicting his instructions from union higher ups.  It’s not the Eisensteinian ideal, but it’s movingly effective.  

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