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Julia Reichert, R.I.P.

Julia Reichert, R.I.P.

March 6, 2023 | 691 words | Movies, Economics, Philosophy

When Julia Reichert died a few months ago at the age of 76, she was eulogized as a “Documentarian of the Working Class.”  I knew of her only through the 2019 Academy award-winning “American Factory,” about the Chinese take-over of a shuttered automobile plant in Dayton, Ohio, which she directed with her second husband, Steven Bognar.

By reading her obituary I learned about Ms. Reichert’s extensive career, as both a filmmaker and educator.  A longtime professor of motion pictures at Wright State University in Dayton, Ms. Reichert “was in the forefront of a new generation of social documentarians who came out of the New Left and feminist movements of the early 1970s with a belief in film as an organizing tool with a social mission.”

“Although Ms. Reichert addressed a variety of social issues in the documentaries she directed and produced, her enduring interests were labor history and the lives of working women.”

Reichert’s resume as a filmmaker starts in 1971.  As an undergraduate at Antioch College in Ohio she made a pioneering feminist documentary, “Growing Up Female,” with a male classmate by the name of James Klein, who became a frequent collaborator and her first husband.  In 2011 “Growing Up Female” was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  

Other stellar early works completed with Mr. Klein include “Union Maids” (1976), and “Seeing Red” (1983).  The critic Vincent Canby considered the latter “a fine, tough companion piece to ‘Union Maids.’”  Rather than trading in dogma, he told us, her subject was “American Idealism.”  

A few years ago the writer Barbara Ehrenreich (who herself died this past September) recalled how Ms. Reichert “defied every stereotype I’d had of independent filmmakers…  She wasn’t rich, and she wasn’t arrogant or egotistical.  The daughter of a butcher and a house cleaner turned registered nurse, she dressed and spoke plainly, usually beaming with enthusiasm, and never abandoned her Midwestern roots.”

It is her enthusiasm that really comes across in the interview she and Mr. Bognar did with Barack and Michelle Obama about the making of “American Factory.”  (Netflix released the film in conjunction with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions.)  This interview is packaged as a companion piece to the film, both of which are available for streaming.

What makes “American Factory” so engaging is the way it is “suffused in ambivalence.”  The New York Times called it “complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present, and possible future of American labor.”  It centers on a Chinese billionaire who purchases a shuttered GM truck factory, and re-opens it as an automobile glass factory.  He is welcomed by the Ohio community as a hero who promises to restore lost jobs, only to become a villain by “confounding American workers with a new set of attitudes.”  And by chopping their previous wage and benefit package by more than half. 

Surprisingly that billionaire, Cao Dewang, is not portrayed as a one-dimensional scoundrel straight out of central casting, as one might expect from a Documentarian of the Working Class.  In many ways he is actually the film’s protagonist.

Though everybody in this documentary eventually gets their say.  We hear from union people, anti-union people, and an array of workers.  Both the native Americans and the exuberant Chinese who are brought in to show the sometimes-recalcitrant locals how to be more efficient and productive.

“Hearing from” is an accurate description of how this and Reichert’s other films typically unfold.  She avoids voice-over narration in favor of interviews with her mostly rank-and-file subjects who are allowed to speak for themselves on camera.  This lets us make up our own minds about what we are watching.

The obituary closes by describing Julia Reichert as a committed artist who was more interested in people than in ideology.  She “wore her politics so lightly that almost no one seemed to notice when she concluded her Oscar acceptance speech for ‘American Factory’ by cheerfully citing the best-known phrase from Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels’s ‘Communist Manifesto.’”

“We believe that things will get better,” she said, “when the workers of the world unite.”  And so do I.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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An Aversion to Action Films

An Aversion to Action Films

February 24, 2023 | 444 words  |  Movies

It’s late on Friday afternoon and a few co-workers are letting their hair down before heading out for the weekend.  I can hear bits and pieces of conversation through an open door.  Someone mentions not having seen the blockbuster hit “Top Gun: Maverick,” a thrill ride of a movie about an old Navy test pilot who trains young aviators for a dangerous, behind-the-lines special assignment.  It was all the rage last summer in theaters.  Someone else says oh you’ve got to see it, the jet fighter scenes are incredible, and the story line is solid.

Well, to each their own.  I went and saw “Top Gun: Maverick” along with everybody else, but remember it as being little more than a live-action video game, dripping in machismo.  And Tom Cruise, bless his soul, was unable to conjure a real emotion until the final scene of the movie.  Jennifer Connelly, as Cruise’s love interest, did come across as a real live human being throughout, though the script didn’t give her much to work with.

“Empire of Light,” on the other hand, is more my kind of movie.  Released just this past December, it is set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, and is described as “a compelling and poignant drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times.”  Every scene in this film worked for me, every situation portrayed resonated deeply.  Not a false note in the entire movie.  Though many critics have complained it is a bit on the slow side, and confusing in the way in weaves different themes into the narrative.  Some also found the love interest that develops between two main characters unconvincing.  But the slow pace suited me just fine, the various story lines were deftly interwoven, and the love affair rang true.

This film packs a powerful emotional punch, as do all my favorite movies.  Recent examples would include “Land” (2021), “Four Good Days” (2020),  “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019), “A Hidden Life” (2019), “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (2019), “Puzzle” (2018), “The Wife” (2017), “Nebraska” (2013), and “The Descendants” (2011).  No doubt there are other noteworthy titles that belong on this list.  They just don’t immediately spring to mind.  

I am looking forward to taking in “Empire of Light” a second time.  Though I’m still savoring and reflecting upon the first viewing.

Final Note:  “Top Gun: Maverick” has grossed a whopping 1.5 billion dollars.  That billions with a “b.”  Whereas the beautiful little “Empire of Light” has taken in a meager $1.2 million.  This is par for the course when it comes to movies I really, really like:  nobody else seems to like them.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

Use the contact form below to email me.

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