At the dawn of the twentieth century Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel that told the story of exploited immigrants in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The novel, though fiction, forced a nation to confront the human costs of a capitalistic society and precipitated, among other things, the birth of the Food and Drug Administration. Jack London called it the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.”
The stories we tell matter. They shape how we see the world. There is perhaps no better time to highlight some of the best films that portray the cause of the 99 percent – the cause for which Bernie Sanders fights.
More than an angsty, bloody parody of advertising or notions of masculinity, Fight Club strikes at the heart of capitalism’s contractions. David Fincher’s film cuts deeper than Wanted’s adolescent middle finger or Office Space’s slacker daydream (both films that deal with the same problem in different ways). Fight Club reminds us that being good employees/consumers destroys our humanity, spoils our souls, shatters the gleaming cities we’ve built as monuments to endless growth – and suggests that escape could demand something radical.
There’s little that’s subtle about Snowpiercer: the remnants of humanity are on a globe-spanning train in a new ice age waging a revolution against the privileged classes. The metaphors barrel upon us only to be helpfully explained with increasing fury. Nevertheless, the action is brutal and the performances are stellar. Tilda Swinton, as Minister Mason, delivers a particularly spell-binding spiel to the oppressed tail-enders:
Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe.
With Captain America (Chris Evans) himself as our protagonist (who utters the unfortunate “I’m not a leader” a few minutes in), Snowpiercer is a blunt instrument of a film that thrills as much as it provokes.
Two Days, One Night is a French film that tells of Sandra, whose job at a small solar-panel factory is in peril. The management has put Sandra’s fate in the hands of her 16 co-workers, who must vote to either take a €1,000 bonus if they agree to fire her – or lose the bonus if they choose otherwise. She has two days, and one night, to persuade her co-workers, one by one, to vote in her favor. No surprises: they all need the money. Two Days, One Night boasts a powerful performance from Marion Cotillard as Sandra, whose dogged fight to keep her job one conversation at a time is a slow burn, but yields an unexpectedly moving finale. The film is a still, small voice that thunders in the night for the diminished humanity of the working class.
Rich Hill is a documentary that follows the impoverished lives of three young boys – Andrew, Harley and Appachey – in Rich Hill, Missouri. The film shows us an unflinching portrait of poverty in America, and how it undermines everything from family relationships to school attendance to employment. The boys come across as surprisingly honest and overwhelmingly human as they share their struggles and hopes. Conservative tenets of faith in things like “self-reliance” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” ring hollow, leaving a sense of the enormity of the problem facing our society today. Rich Hill is, if nothing else, a deeply compassionate call to action in the face of crushing inequality.
Filmed with the faux documentary sensibility in the tradition of comedies like The Office and Parks and Recreation, Teacher of the Year centers on Mitch Carter, who wins the California Teacher of the Year award at Truman High school. The cast is reliably wacky – Keegan-Michael Key steals the show as principal Ronald Douche, Jamie Kaler as the robotics teacher Steven Queeg who thinks “English is a dead language” – and the high school gags are savvy enough to squeeze real laughs from well-worn tropes. Yet the film takes an unexpected turn when Mitch Carter is tempted to leave his job for a better offer, bringing to the forefront when we least expect it the predicament of underpaid public school teachers. Teacher of the Year accomplishes the tricky feat of sending up a profession it genuinely cares about, whilst being genuinely funny.
David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross has stood the test of time as one of the finest plays, and films, about the rigged economy. Four real estate salesmen are told they have two days to climb up the sales board. The man on top wins a car. The man on the bottom loses his job. The script snaps and crackles with anguish (“a man’s his job!” one of the characters cries at one point), and peels back the repulsive idea that we can equate human dignity with monetary value, that only stupid or lazy people don’t get jobs. Glengary Glen Ross is nonetheless not a manifesto, but a searing, heartfelt indictment.
Art, as Picasso put it, is a lie that tells the truth. And so, it must be said, the movies we watch matter – because some of them Bern brighter than others.