Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sayles Watch: Matewan (1987)

Watched:  11/02/2019
Format:  Criterion BluRay
Viewing:  4th, I believe
Decade:  1980's

Back in the go-go 1990's, I stumbled across John Sayles, as one was want to do if in film school at the time.  People would name drop him as he had a rep as the same guy who wrote Piranha, Alligator, The Howling and other more mainstream flicks, but was basically funding his ability to also write and direct independent film.  It's something he still does (apparently), but given the number of times I've heard his name or seen it online or in print the past twenty years, he's fallen away from film-nerd discussion, I suppose - which makes me really wonder who else we've forgotten.

I've seen a pitiful small amount of his directorial work, which is bananas, because he directed two other films I genuinely love, Lone Star and Eight Men Out.  And back in my film school days, for whatever reason, I picked up Matewan (1987), watched it.  Then watched it a couple more times.

For decades I've looked for the movie in a non-VHS format, but the only DVD of the movie I found, I bought, and the sound quality on the disc was a nightmare, so I never watched it all the way through.  A while back Criterion took to the twitters and posed the question "what five movies would you like to see us tackle?" and among the five, two of mine have thus far showed up:  True Stories and now, Matewan.  Still hanging in there hoping for a War of the Worlds disc.

But this means it's been more than twenty years since I've seen Matewan, a movie I recalled as a favorite back in my school days - and while I largely remembered the movie accurately, the depth of the messaging in the movie is sharper than I'd recalled, maybe a bit stronger.

Thing I remembered about the movie:  Beautiful cinematography.  Thing I didn't remember:  Cinematogarapher?  Haskell Wexler, at this point a deeply veteran DP who had worked on films such as The Thomas Crown Affair and the Days of Heaven (one of the most gorgeous movies you're like to see). 

The movie takes place at the dawn of the 1920's in the wilds of West Virginia, with high hills and low mountains covered in lush foliage, a no-man's land surrounding the town aside from the rail extending through town.  Wexler's photography wonderfully captures the world of the West Virginia miners, the recent transplants - Italian immigrants and African Americans - and, without washing the movie with sepia, evokes an era and place but also retains an immediacy, lowering the barriers between 1920 and now (remarkable given the film is now 32 years old). 

The plot itself is about a real-life event, featuring real-life characters.  Matewan, W. Virginia saw the formation of a Union in retaliation for the poor working conditions and exploitative practices of a coal mining outfit that came to town, finagled property away from prior owners, and did the usual of the era - paying in company scrip, refusing safety precautions that led to the death of workers, and bringing in unskilled labor with the promise of jobs when the locals pushed back. 

Our focal character, Joseph Kenehan (played by a phenomenal Chris Cooper in his screen debut) arrives in town somewhat under cover to try to help form and organize the union, aware of the many factors at play - not the least of which is that as he arrives, so does a train load of African American workers brought in as replacement labor (and part of a strategy by the mines to keep different groups from organizing together). 

From the first meeting of Kenehan and the locals, the threat of violence bubbles over as the direct path is seen as the most efficient. 

As much as the film makes an argument for the justification of Unions, the core of the film really speaks to the gravitational forces of violence and how the escalation of conflict to violence and bloodshed is/ can be ultimately self-defeating.  And, spoiler alert for historical events that occurred 100 years ago, that when the smoke clears, that momentary gain earned from violence can ultimately lead to haunting, multi-generational disaster that, in 2019, has left parts of West Virginia financially devastated and hopeless. 

The script and direction come from John Sayles, but Sayles also assembled a terrific cast.  Above, we mentioned Chris Cooper, but the movie also stars Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham (yeah, Bonnie Prince Billy himself), a young and already brilliant David Straithairn, Josh Mostel, and, of course, James Earl Jones as Few Clothes - a no-bullshit would-be scab who understands the lousy position of all involved. 

I'm aware that feelings regarding labor and unions remain a deeply divisive topic.  I've mixed feelings on the current implementation myself, but understanding the 20th Century is to understand the labor movement and forces at work of the time, and an object lesson for ourselves over and over, from any point of view.  And, in a way, the morality of unions or even workers rights is less the point of the film as much as the way to discuss how things with good intentions fall apart when we don't strive for a better way.

What's curious about the film's finale and denouement is that, while the movie follows the pattern of the western or other film where our heroes must slug it out with the villains of the piece (and while the villains of the movie despicable - a quick glance at what actually happened in West Virginia in 1920 is accurate enough), the final gun battle is, at best, a temporary hold.  Rather than the point of victory where our heroes take out the bad guys, it opens the door to infinitely worse. 

There's infinitely more to write and discuss about Matewan, and maybe one day I will.  I'm just glad it's made it's way to BluRay via the loving Criterion treatment. 

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