Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Matewan (1987, US, John Sayles)

John Sayles is a very unique film maker, operating both within and outside the Hollywood system. By working as a script doctor on large budget films such as 'The Spiderwick Chronicles' or sole script writer on many early Joe Dante films, he's been able to quietly pursue a directorial career with a distinctive left-wing agenda. 'Matewan' is one such film, a celebration of organised labour in the 1920s in the face of hostile big business. The miners of the small town of Matewan want to become unionised, which is strongly opposed by their employers. These employers use force, introduce black and Italian workers into the community to create tensions between these different ethnicities and nationalities - a divide and rule policy if you like. Naturally it works as the miners consider each other enemies rather than their exploitative management.

Then Joe (Chris Cooper) arrives in town, looking for work. Giving an impassioned speech at a union meeting, he explains how management divides their workers, creating conflict and tensions to ensure they don't organise and mobilise. Joe seeks to unite the different sets of workers, introducing the black and Italian workers into the union and the community. Naturally as his methods succeed, the employers exert more pressure - infiltrating the union, attempting to evict families, labelling Joe a Communist (which he accepts with pride) and using violence indiscriminately. Note how the church, an integral part of the community, seeks to uphold the status quo (to protect their own interests). A preacher played by Sayles proclaims socialism to be the new form of the Devil, though this contrasts with the preaching of the young miner Danny (a wonderful Will Oldham - now more widely known as the singer/songwriter Bonnie Prince Billy) which calls for unity and integration. Of course as the management and labour become more steadfast in their positions, a tragic and violent climax is inevitable.

Sayles' film is impassioned and optimistic, if completely biased in its tone and characterisation. That's fine; he has his agenda and it's a welcome contrast to the times during which he made the film - Reagan's America where organised labour and socialism were dirty words. I was constantly reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood' when I saw 'Matewan' - I wonder if Anderson has ever cited it as an influence upon his own film. The dark, dirty and claustrophobic conditions in which coal was retrieved mirror those in which Daniel Day Lewis's character struck oil in the opening scenes of TWBB. There's the use of religion in both films with child preachers becoming increasingly influential over a community, and also how religion is entwined with the current consensus of opinion or indeed instigates it. These are intriguing parallels, and though I think Anderson's film is a much richer and ambitious piece of work; far more morally ambiguous as well, 'Matewan' makes a worthy accompanying piece and makes the most of its modest origins with stunning performances and cinematography (from an Oscar nominated Haskell Wexler) as well as Sayles tight script. 3.5/5

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