Two films are playing in New York theaters that go straight for the jugular vein of capitalism. One is a French narrative film titled “The Measure of a Man” that opens tomorrow at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Metrograph (a new downtown theater committed to noncommercial film). The other is “Class Divide”, a documentary about gentrification in Chelsea that opened yesterday at the IFC Center. In addition to packing a powerful anti-capitalist message, they are fine art directed by directors with outstanding track records. So they come with the highest recommendation.
The man referred to in the title of Stéphane Brizé’s narrative film is Thierry Taugourdeau, a 51-year old machine operator who has not worked in 20 months after his boss moved his factory to a third world country where labor was cheaper. In essence, Thierry is an Everyman for the world we have been living in for the past 25 years or so. He is played by veteran French actor Vincent Lindon who is the only professional in the cast. Everybody he interacts with are nonprofessionals who have the same kind of job their characters have in the film. A young and attractive female banker who advises him to sell his apartment so he can pay off debts is a real banker. A job counselor at the unemployment office who is more sympathetic to his plight but is incapable of matching him to a job that his skills qualify him for since all the manufacturing plants seem to have grown wings and flown to south Asia, Mexico or Eastern Europe is a real unemployment counselor.
The film is structured as a series of encounters between Thierry and those who enforce the rules of bourgeois society. In one scene that rips away at your guts, he has a Skype interview with the boss of a company that needs someone to work on a machine that he has had experience with but not the latest version. When asked why he hasn’t studied the procedures for the latest machine, Thierry explains that he couldn’t afford the instruction manuals. Since the boss is a millionaire, this excuse hardly matters. Why can’t everybody take the same kind of initiatives he did in becoming rich? He can’t help resist telling Thierry that his resume needs work. It doesn’t really make clear who he was—as if someone desperate to begin working again on a factory floor needs to prepare a CV geared to a management job. The interview ends with Thierry being told that there is only a slim chance of getting the job.
Like most people without income, Thierry is behind the eight ball on anything involving money. His family always looked forward to weekends at a mobile home they own in a park near the ocean but now they are forced to sell it. In another gut-wrenching scene, he and his wife show it to potential customers who try to pressure them into selling it significantly beneath the market price. For all we know, they could be real estate vultures looking to resell it at a higher price. After being told by the prospective customers one time too many that he will breathe a sigh of relief once it is off his hands, he keeps a shred of dignity intact and refuses to sell.
Stéphane Brizé has never made a political film before. His last film was a family drama about a truckdriver and his mother who have a strained relationship, one that I did not see. Nor have I ever seen any of his other films. While not being known as a writer or director of political films, he has made one for the ages. The screenplay was co-written with Olivier Gorce, whose past body of work was also relatively apolitical. Apparently, the social and economic changes taking place in France in line with those that have precipitated the Sanders campaign in the USA have reached an intensity that men like Brizé and Gorce cannot ignore.
In an interview contained in the press notes, Brizé describes his goal in making such a film:
Q: Would you call this a political film?
A: Yes. “Political” in the sense of “organization of the polis,” or city. I looked at the life of a man who gave his body, his time, and his energy, to a company for 25 years before being left on the sidelines because his bosses decide to make the same product in another country with cheaper labor. This man is not kicked out because he didn’t do his job well. He’s kicked out because some people want to make more money. Thierry is the mechanical consequence of a few invisible shareholders whose bank accounts needed a boost. He is the face of the unemployment statistics we hear about everyday in the news. They might take up two lines in the paper, but behind them are human tragedies. On the other hand, there was never any question of using tear-jerking clichés either. Thierry is a normal man – even though the idea of a normal man has taken a beating these past years – in a brutal situation: he has been unemployed for 20 months since his factory shut down, and is now obliged to accept just about any job he can get. And when this job places the individual in a morally unacceptable situation, what can he do? Stay and be an accomplice of an unfair system, or leave and return to a precarious and unstable life? That is the heart of the film. A man’s place in a system.
A while back I had a beer with a member of Socialist Alternative in which I asked some questions about how they were organized (I was interested to see how it compared to Leninist groups I was more familiar with.) One of the questions was where they had headquarters. To my astonishment they had none in Manhattan. After seeing Marc Levin’s “Class Divide”, I understand why. Chelsea, which is basically the west 20s in Manhattan, was once a home to the Brecht Forum and CISPES. Such groups would not be able to afford a closet in an office building there now. It is amazing that Monthly Review is still there on West 29th street, not far from the action in “Class Divide”. Paul Sweezy must have signed a 200-year lease. If he were still alive, I wonder what he would make of the neighborhood that in the span of about ten years has become the most expensive in the city in what can only be called hypergentrification.
The neighborhood began to change when the High Line was finished. This was an elevated railroad track that wended its way through the industrial core of the neighborhood in the days when manufacturing rather than FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) dominated the NY economy. Abandoned for decades, it was turned into a park along tenth avenue in 2009. Clustered around the High Line are ultramodern high rises that are occupied by the superrich, 40 percent of whom are oligarchs from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and all the other usual venues. The film reveals that the latest and most luxurious apartments have their own swimming pools and attached garages that allow the residents to transport their Lamborghinis up and down in elevators to and from street level. It is as if the architects had been inspired by a Scrooge McDuck comic book from the 1950s.
Nestled within this one percent of the one percent neighborhood are the residents of a housing project called the Chelsea-Elliot Houses whose residents are interviewed throughout the film on what they make of their new neighbors, particularly the Avenues private high school that cost $45,000 per year and many of whose students live in the new Chelsea luxury buildings. Ironically, the students are acutely aware of the class contradictions including a 17-year old Turkish girl named Yasemin Smallens who was inspired to create a project called 115 Steps that attempted to bridge the gap between the students and the residents of the housing project who live right across the street from the school.
The principal of the school was Chris Whittle, who is interviewed throughout the film. He was partners with Benno Schmidt Jr. in setting up something called the Edison Schools that now serves 450,000 students around the world in schools like Avenues. When he was President of Yale University, Schmidt embarked on a program to reduce the size of the faculty. In a 2002 article for CounterPunch, Carol Norris reported on Edison’s modus operandi:
Take for example the 20 poorest schools in Philadelphia that were privatized–handed over to Edison Schools Inc., because the city had no clue what else to do with them. Then the stock market fell and Edison’s shares plummeted. So big trucks came and took the kids’ textbooks, lab supplies, computers and musical instruments. Edison was hard up for cash. Rotten break for the kids. But at least, as Edison’s founder Chris Whittle so cleverly and very seriously suggested, they weren’t forced to work in the school’s offices as free child labor. (In a school of 600, he cooed, this free child labor would be equal 75 adults on salary.) So, the kids, with no school equipment, might as well go home and watch a lot of TV and dream of the day when their Social Security gets privatized.
As you might have guessed, Whittle is a walking encyclopedia of progressive sounding platitudes. With his ever-present bowtie and unctuous self-regard, he reminds me of Bard College’s Leon Botstein.
The most attractive people in “Class Divide” are the residents of Elliot House who are acutely aware of the class divide indicated in the film’s title. The most captivating of them is an 8-year old girl named Rosa who has more personality than any human being should be entitled to. In one interview, she talks about how thrilled she would be to meet Beyonce. When she asks Marc Levin which singer he’d love to meet in person, he answers (reasonably) Billie Holliday. Rosa says, “Oh, I’ve never heard of him.”