Select Page

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.

Use the contact form below to email me.

9 + 1 =

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.

13 + 7 =

The Magic Scene: Nebraska

The Magic Scene: Nebraska

July 12, 2022  |  630 words  |  Drama, Movies

It sort of goes without saying every good movie is made up of a series of enjoyable, engaging scenes.  But the really good movies, the ones that stick with you, have what I would call a magic scene.  Or maybe even more than one.  

Often the magic will hit you right away, as its unfolding.  But sometimes it’s only on the second or third viewing that the jewel – a bit of dialogue, a camera angle, a facial expression – jumps out at you.

I was watching Nebraska again today, mainly because there was nothing else available that interested me.  It’s a low-key family drama/road trip movie that first came out in 2013.  And let me warn you – it starts off slowly.   The actor Bruce Dern is very believable as grouchy old coot Woody Grant who is starting to lose his marbles.  The actress Jane Squibb is also very convincing as his equally grouchy wife, Kate.  These early scenes are not that much fun to watch.  I came pretty close to giving up and turning it off.

But then we start to learn a little of the main character’s back story.  And his long-suffering wife is also given some context.  And before you know it, this quiet little black-and-white film had me at full attention.  The screenwriter manages to put a good bit of nuance into this simple story of a nondescript old married couple.  And the director does a good job of bringing all that nuance to life.

There is plenty of good dialogue along the way, but for me the proverbial magic scene happened in the second half of the movie.  The plot involves Woody’s son, David, driving his father from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim a bogus magazine sweepstakes prize Woody is convinced he won.

They make a pit stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska, to spend a few days with relatives, bumping into a few of Woody’s old friends, and visiting the now-deserted family homestead.  Kate takes the bus down from Billings to join them.  At one point David ventures into town on his own and wanders into the storefront that houses the town’s newspaper.  It’s run by a widow we learn was one of Woody’s long-ago high school girlfriends.

She tells David a key fact about his father’s past he was previously unaware of.  This prompts her to slowly pull out an oversized book filled with old clippings.  That’s the magic scene.  And it kind of snuck up on me.  This small wisp of a woman as the quite keeper of everyone’s life story.  The way the camera follows her from behind as she pulls the book off a shelf and moves to a counter to open it up, is a beautiful thing to behold.

By now the movie has hit its stride and I’m on the edge of my seat.  When some greedy relatives are telling David how they lent his father money years ago, and they now want to be repaid out of his phantom lottery winnings, Kate steps in.  “I kept records,” she barks at the in-laws.  Turns out Woody was a soft touch who gave away far too much free gasoline and auto repair work at the service station he once owned in Hawthorne.  

In one short burst of a speech Kate defends her husband and his easily-exploited good nature, while telling the in-laws to go pound sand.  Oh, how I loved this woman in that moment.

And speaking of love, by the end of the movie the viewer has fallen completely in love with this cantankerous old pair.  And it’s obvious that David, their gown son, has come to a much deeper appreciation of both his parents.  What a fine little film this is.  Hats off to all involved.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

July 12, 2022

Use the contact form below to email me.

11 + 6 =