Paul (Joseph) Schrader

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Andrew Sarris

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[In Blue Collar Schrader] seems to have been influenced by both Godard and Antonioni—the former in the deadening ritual of the assembly line itself, and the latter in the chromatic utilization of industrial artifacts as art objects in their own right. The movie has an interesting look to it as Schrader tries to make a painterly comment on the pathetic bleakness of low-level industrial landscapes.

But the pacing is something else again, as much of Blue Collar turns out to be stylistically and thematically indecisive, inarticulate, and incoherent. At first the movie seems to be striving for a comically absurdist tone on the order of Rene Clair's A Nous la Liberte and Charles Chaplin's Modern Times…. [We] are slowly made to understand that something more serious is afoot. Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey are propelled with minimal preparation into a robbery of the union treasury. But the model for this caper is less [John Huston's] The Asphalt Jungle than Big Deal on Madonna Street. Unfortunately, Schrader seems very wary of any possibility of laughter in the audience, and he throws away some very promising gags arising from the cliches of synchronizing watches and wearing masks (with dangling eyeballs yet!).

Somehow the bunglers succeed in spiriting away the union safe, only to discover that they have made off with a few hundred bucks in petty cash. But the safe also yields up an accounting ledger with records of incriminating payoffs to racketeers. The burglars are thus transformed into blackmailers, with very mixed results for the three: One receives a major promotion; one dies in a car-painting room from a choking blizzard of blue paint, as if to express in Antoniesque terms the blue collar blues; and one turns informer for the FBI in the manner of Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in [Elia Kazan's] On the Waterfront.

In a voice-over commenting on the final freeze frame of the two surviving buddies about to come to blows, we hear the dead Smokey's Brechtian words about "Them" in the Establishment pitting black against white, young against old, and whatever against whatever as a way of keeping the masses in line. Consequently the characters are taken off the hook for any of their actions because they have been merely puppets of the class struggle…. (pp. 32-3)

This Brechtian voice-over alone may account for the judgment of some highbrow observers that Blue Collar is the first American Marxist film in the classical tradition of cinema since Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil back in the late '40s. A French intellectual of my acquaintance has argued to the contrary that Blue Collar is actually a Fascist film because of its inclination to resolve all its problems violently, and its mistrust of all collective effort. My own view is that Schrader is promoting a radical individualism in line with his own romantic impulses.

In Blue Collar he seems to be fantasizing about what he would feel and do if he himself were trapped on an assembly line. Unlike most workers, however, Schrader has a very short fuse, and thus he tends to mix his genres. The patience required to live ordinary, average life is not part of his aesthetic, and so all the tacky details of working-class life take on a furtive, fleeting quality on the way to a bloody confrontation with personal destiny.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Schrader hits all these tacky details so hard that they strike false notes…. [People] who are actually living out the delusions of the American Dream do not make self-mocking speeches about it, at least not in so...

(This entire section contains 753 words.)

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many words. For that matter, the so-called Oreo cookie gang never convinces us that they have achieved genuine rapport between the races. And if they had, the Brechtian voice-over at the end would have been discredited from the beginning.

There is, of course, much truth to the notion that management encourages dissension among its workers to keep them docile, but bigotry and xenophobia have never needed too much help from capitalists. To argue otherwise is to succumb to the most sentimentally Stalinist aesthetics of yesteryear. Still, Schrader only confuses the issue further when he resolves the lives of his characters in the context of the supposed omnipotence of organized crime, and its omnipresence throughout all social institutions. (p. 33)

Andrew Sarris, "Off the Assembly Line: One Lemon, One Authentic Model" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIII, No. 9, February 27, 1978, pp. 32-3.∗

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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.