Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Down and Out in Late Capitalist America

In case you didn't get the memo, the American dream is dead. It never really was, but what I think most approximates what people have in mind when they bandy about the phrase is the relative prosperity of the post-WWII decades. For the left looking back, it is a paradoxical time of an apparently ascendant working class gaining on the back of continued racism, imperialism, and cultural conformity. Stable employment at decent wages and a pension, affordable and relatively private housing (the white picket fence; Levittown), access to public higher education, law and order, increased standards of living for your children, a rich community and cultural milieu, a car in the driveway and chicken in the pot- this is the stuff of the American dream. What enabled parts or all of the dream for large segments of America was capitalism's state-sanctioned compromise with labor, backed by emerging American superpower status. Part Keynesian New Deal remnants, part militant labor demand (CIO, etc.) remnants, this compromise allowed for increasing real wages in exchange for peace and productivity in the workplace. The post-war global hegemony of the US ensured that this transformation to an affluent consumer society could take place on the backs of exploited nations and peoples. The ideology of American exceptionism and meritocracy seemed to be coming into focus with material reality for the white middle class and organized working classes.

Its a crude schema, for sure, but I present it because I do think there is something to "the American dream" beyond its ideological utility. There's a whiff of egalitarian possibility to it that can be deployed by both left (the Communist Party's "working class Americanism", the contemporary labor movement's rhetorical emphasis on middle class lifestyles) and right (the fable of a return to innocence via conservative morality). Needless to say, the material conditions for the dream have long since been destroyed in the neo-liberal turn (off-shoring American industry, destruction of organized labor, defunding social services, privatization.) This is another story, the very narrative we find ourselves in now, where the fumes of the dream evaporate into the sober tragedy of foreclosed subdivisions, historic unemployment, and the financial voodoo of Wall Street. Modern capitalism of steel and stuff is long gone in the U S of A. Now we stumble through a late capitalism of spectacle and speculation, awaiting the next crisis.

No one told Hollywood. New American Cinema's brief 70s afterglow made some room for bold explorations of the dream gone bust- Barbara Loden's recently rechampioned Wanda is my immediate association- only to fade into the banality of the 80s and 90s. This is not to say that socioeconomic reality is ignored by Hollywood, which has to make its requisite prestige pics and occasionally grasp for a sympathetic, verite gloss of the poor and downtrodden. Overwhelmingly, however, American society is schizophrenically portrayed either as a smooth, prosperous backdrop for various romantic foibles and heroics, or as a spectacularly dysfunctional country on the razor's edge of dystopia. Neither approach critically explores society. American cinema by and large has no incentive do so when the audience growth markets appear to be torture pics and postmodern quirk.

And so imagine my shock to have earlier this year viewed two contemporary American films in a single week that both attempt a critical, challenging portrait of late capitalist America. Its protagonists change their clothing in gas station bathrooms, and it is not sexy; submit themselves to humiliating acts of violence, and it is not funny. Indeed, the extreme sobriety of The Wrestler and Wendy and Lucy indicate what a grim task dissecting the decomposing corpse of the American dream must be for a serious filmmaker.

I'll examine the 2 films through their protagonists, using the scheme Wendy->adult experience in late capitalist America->Randy "The Ram". Kelly Reichart astutely casts Michelle Williams as a vaguely hipster-chic, scrappy, and attractive young Wendy who, although bearing an at times cynical attitude, is nonetheless fresh-faced and naive. Wendy and Lucy follows her through several days flat broke and busted somewhere in Oregon, en route to a supposed canning job in Alaska. Stylistically sparse, this is damn well not some sort of contemporary On the Road or Easy Rider. Wendy is not searching for herself, or for America, but for a paycheck. Neorealist allusions, especially to The Bicycle Thief abound. Like that film's unemployed protagonist whose stolen bicycle sets off a downward spiral of degradation, Wendy's bad luck dooms her within days to absolute penury, including the loss of her precious pet and only companion, her dog Lucy. Poverty and homelessness are mere missteps away from anyone, we are shown, even for the hip young things Hollywood pampers and adores. Pluck is not enough, and social ills can not be pathologized in inner city minorities. Wendy is a benchmark, a true hipster bum- not a slacker lost in a pot-clouded malaise a la Kevin Jackson or Richard Linklater, or an over-educated mumblecorer, but a victim of the cold, banal mechanations of the economy. The vagaries of capitalist society in crisis, corporate flights from existing communities and livelihoods, stimy her no matter her significant reserves of resolve.

Generally then, Wendy's experience is an anecdote contra the American dream. In its specifics, it portrays a very contemporary type of alienation- that of outwardly hip, intelligent, light-skinned young people from not only from personal fulfillment, but from the very means of subsistence. If we can chart the rising affluence of Italy in the evolution of its cinema from the material deprivation concerning the Neorealists to the spiritual alienation of Antonioni's characters, then we can likewise see in Wendy and Lucy the fall from relative affluence even seen in, say, the Singles of 16 years previous.

And perhaps the Singles/Wendy and Lucy example has more to it. The geography of Wendy and Lucy, although certainly originating in director Reichart's connection to the northwest, is significant for our analysis. Wendy has fled Indiana, which calls home reveal to be an unhappy place personally as well as economically. Indiana recalls visions of the heartland American dream, although its also part of the Rust Belt, its cities and towns convulsing from the death throes of the manufacturing economy. Significantly, she breaks down in Oregon, presumably near Portland, one of the capitals of the so-called "creative class", the heroes of a new post-modern, green economy. The cultural cache of Portland is well known. In addition to being a hipster haven, it is, like similarly touted places such as Austin, San Francisco, and Seattle, a hoped-for capital generator in an otherwise bleak national economic landscape. Yet Wendy finds it as inhospitable as anywhere else, bereft of opportunity and indifferent to her tough charm, perhaps not hip enough to find an outlet for commodification. It is, of course, a well-known reality that Oregon's economy sucks, and the state has long tried to persuade folks to visit, but not move there (echoes of the Joad family arriving in California?) Finally, Wendy heads north to the wilds of Alaska in a freight car, like the hobos of yore. Alaska in the popular imagination remains the last American frontier, a vast wilderness not entirely integrated into American capitalism, and perhaps for that reason appearing as a dim beacon of hope for the down and out of the lower 48. This myth, popularized by Jack London, has not diminished much; however, we can not help but dread as the credits role what miserable fate likely awaits Wendy there.

Wendy's America is one of no jobs and no opportunities, a physically ugly post-sprawl landscape of ubiquitous stand-alone drug stores and failing neighborhoods. Its people are worn, suspicious, yet generous in a pitch, as Wendy discovers in the saintly yet pathetic gestures of the elderly security guard she encounters. Unlike the guardian angels of old- those father figures, be it police officer or kindly stranger, who provide the crucial link that brings the struggling protagonist back into meritocratic society- Wally the guard's ultimate effort for Wendy is absolutely impotent (a fistful of crumpled small bills), for he too is just a paycheck away from destitution. But in a film as bleak and unsentimental as Wendy and Lucy, a little of the milk of human kindness goes a long way.

The levelling of the late capitalist American landscape moves us seamlessly from Wendy's anonymous streets to the same worn storefronts and broken concrete parking lots of Randy the Ram's New Jersey. For all its razzle dazzle veneer, The Wrestler's tone is remarkably similar to that of Wendy and Lucy. If Wendy is the still beautiful naif yet to feel the full grind of the machine, Mickey Rourke's Randy is the mangled lump of flesh that it has spit out. Wendy's ordeal still unfolds on the tension between the atmosphere of possibility (beautifully enhanced by the film's simple and haunting hummed theme) and the slog of bureaucratic indifference. Randy's struggle is dramatized on the body itself, where not even the occasional snatches of northwestern beauty afforded to Wendy can adorn.

It remains unclear in the narrative what drove Randy to the ring, but over several decades The Ram- the professional showman wrestler- has subsumed any previous identity. What Randy and his peers understand, but the fans don't, is that wrestling is a job like any other in capitalist society, with its hierarchies, potential rewards, and probable insecurity. While everyone knows pro wrestling is fake, Aronofsky's effort to absolutely strip it of spectacle is admirable. Of course, the director's over-reliance on conventional narrative devices, especially the redemption theme played out alternately with his estranged daughter and stripper love interest, builds up another form of spectacle. Fortunately we can leave The Wrestler's faults aside for this analysis.

In Randy the Ram we see an exaggerated account of the role of work and the worker. The slog of the punch clock might be replaced by the ultraviolence of the squared circle, but the exploitation, alienation, and harm to the person are amply on display. Fortunately, many of us do not have to undergo being stapled or thrown onto shards of glass at the office, but these are apt metaphors for the absolute sacrificing of personal autonomy we surrender. Indeed, as the Ram's personal confusion and pain dramatizes, our very sense of self and identity is fractured in capitalist society; divided between the alienated time we sell our labor power, the time we have remaining to pursue alienated pleasures, and the potential, tantalizing possiblity that hovers above all of finally uniting the interests of self and society beyond waged exploitation. The late capitalist twist of The Wrestler's portrayal of work is what Randy does outside the ring. There is the second job at a supermarket, as well as petty self-promotion and flea marketing of the fragments of his fame. Indeed, the trend from the single-paycheck American dream to today is one of holding more and more lower waged jobs, and in the off-time speculating in small time entrepreurship on EBay or the interstate flea market. Randy and his damaged peers selling dvds and personal photos at a VFW Hall reminds one of nothing so much as the dismal yard sales dotting state highways in the rural south on saturday mornings- families trying to sell off worthless junk for grocery money. Wrestlers don't earn pensions, but then again, who does these days?

Aronofsky sharply dramatizes this fractured identity and the violence of even the most mundane workplace in the crucial scene in which Randy has quit the ring to work at a supermarket deli counter. To the imagined cheering of fans he emerges- through sheets of filthy plastic and to work behind the counter, serving not pain unto his opponents, but potato salad to elderly penny pinchers. Following a quick montage in which it seems Randy has found his rhythm shovelling salad and slicing meat, a customer recognizes him. He denies he's the Ram, but the question of identity broached, he slams a fist into the slicer, effectively ending his brief grocery vocation and forcing him back to the ring. Although his outburst is extreme in its bloodiness, the humiliations and occupational dangers of this type of service job are very real. From the mundane to the extreme, the deli counter to the spectacular entertainment sector, the postmodern worker has not escaped from the dangers of the industrial workplace, but has been stripped of the benefits and job security won there. It should be added that Randy's only emotional connection is made to a worker in a similarly precarious, body-oriented line, over which the threat of violence hangs- the stripper Cassidy.

Wendy and Randy, then, despite their differences, both find themselves on the precarious shit end of late capitalism. Petty hustling and theft, extreme risk-taking, marginalized roles in consumption and production- these are not exceptions to their existence, but absolutely necessary for survival. Reichart's approach is more naturalistic and sparse then Aronofsky's, but both owe something to the dour humanism of the Neorealists. As Wendy abandons Lucy to hop a lonely train North, one is reminded of the memorable ending to Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D., also involving a desperate title character, their dog and a train. Whereas De Sica's classic protagonist is a discarded old man whose sole canine companion saves him in a moment of grace from suicide by train, Wendy is separated from Lucy with no clear resolution. Without even the consolation of a long life well lived, she sets off, alone, a youth whose potential stands to be wasted in a cold place far away from home.

Wendy and Lucy

Umberto and Flick